Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Advent: Sunday 6 December 2009
6 December 2009 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Malachi 3: 1-4; Philippians 1: 3-11; Luke 3: 1-6
If, when you read the weekend newspapers, you look out for quotes of the week, you are likely recently to have come across words used by a former chief of the defence staff giving evidence to the Chilcott enquiry. He said that someone in government had put him under pressure to curb his internal criticisms in the run-up to the conflict. "I was taken aside from time to time and asked to make more of a 'glass half full' rather than 'half empty' assessment.” We are familiar with the distinction between people who tend to see their glass half empty and those who tend to see it half full: the pessimists and the optimists. In practice no doubt there are times when each of us veers from having a half full to a half empty point of view or vice versa. Those hoping for a dramatic and definitive outcome from the Copenhagen summit will probably have been veering strongly from one to the other point of view all week.
Besides optimism and pessimism, I am aware of another possible distinction in the point of view each of us tends to take, and that is between the tendency to dwell on the past and the tendency to look to the future. It may be that this varies, a little at least, according to our age. The very young have little in the past to remember. That is no doubt the reason for the phenomenon at this time of year amongst small children, one probably many of us remember perfectly well, that of the eager longing, straining forward, as we wait for Christmas, and Christmas seeming to be a terribly long way off, coming oh so slowly. I have to confess that nowadays it seems to come round all too often and its approach seems to happen all too quickly. Perhaps I am spending too much time in the past.
You will readily understand, though, that an association with Westminster Abbey makes it almost inevitable that you should think a great deal about the past. We are surrounded here all the time by the visible history of the Abbey, of our Church and Nation, and indeed of that great portion of the world’s people, one in three, who live in the 54 countries now associated through the Commonwealth family. Nor is there anything wrong with thinking a great deal about the past. Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. The Archbishop of Canterbury, ended his sermon at the service we held here this year at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, by saying, “The generation that has passed walked forward with vision and bravery and held together the bonds of our society, our continent, our Commonwealth through a terrible century. May we learn the lessons they learned; and God save us from learning them in the way they had to.” Remembering our past helps us prepare for a better future. We look forward with neither optimism nor pessimism but with a dogged and determined realism. We know of what horrors mankind is capable and we commit ourselves to avoiding them as far as we possibly can.
For Christians, much of the Church’s year requires us to think of the past. At Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago. In Holy Week and at Easter we remember the events of the last week of Jesus’ life and focus afresh on the meaning and power of his resurrection to new life. Even the great feast of Pentecost begins with a reflection on the events of that first Pentecost Sunday and the gifts of the Holy Spirit being poured out on Jesus’ apostles. The regular feasts of the saints throughout the Church’s year also make us look back, to be inspired by the stories of their lives and encouraged to commit ourselves to following Christ as they did.
But there is one season of the Church’s Year, this season, Advent, with an undeniable and forceful future reference, when we look forward and are encouraged to look forward with eager anticipation. During Advent of course we look forward to the celebration of Christmas and to remembering the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem all those years ago. But the predominant point of view is to the future. We were reminded powerfully last Sunday that we need to see ourselves as under the judgement of Jesus in our daily lives: that he comes to us day by day as Saviour and friend but also that we should learn to recognise him when he comes to us in many ways as judge. So there is a present reference about this season. Even so we are encouraged above all to look to the future, to prepare.
In today’s gospel we hear the voice of St John the Baptist calling us to prepare. St Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah: ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’ There is an overwhelming image here. Why should the valleys be filled and the mountains and hills made low? Surely the metaphor is of preparing a highway or a landing strip: a preparation for war. Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s built the first motorways in Europe not so that the people of Germany and Italy should be able to drive as fast as they could around the country but so that they could move troops quickly and efficiently sometimes through otherwise un-navigable terrain. But the preparation of which the bible speaks is paradoxical: the valleys are filled and the mountains and hills made low for the arrival not of the weapons of war but of the prince of peace.
So we prepare. We do not simply sit back and wait for things to turn out right. Nor do we expect that God will as it were wave a magic wand and reverse climate change or turn swords into plough shares and spears into pruning hooks. Preparation engages us in action, calls us into alliance with the Spirit of God, looks positively for signs of God’s working and moves us to collaborate with God. We do not need to be optimistic or pessimistic, glass half-full or glass half-empty people; we certainly should not be paralysed by fear.
But we can and must look to the future with hope: hope that the crooked will be straightened; hope that the rough ways will be smoothed; hope that all flesh, everyone, will see and know God’s salvation. Advent is a time of confident hope.