Sermon preached by the Provost on Advent Sunday (December 3rd 2017)

The gradual hymn we have just sung was composed by the Korean composer Geon-yong Lee, in 1988 when he was attending a workshop of the World Council of Churches. It expresses the longing that lies at the heart of Advent – Come now, O Prince of Peace, reconcile your people, set us free, reconcile all nations. Such sentiments to Geon-yong Lee are not just pious clichés, they are the heartfelt cry of a man born in what is now North Korea, just before the war that tore his country apart in the early 1950s and has enshrined that division ever since. A war that forced his family to flee, so that he now lives in South Korea, exiled from his family home. And that tragic division increasingly imperils us all: Come now, O Prince of Peace. The longing to reconcile all nations feels ever more urgent.

 

And that same longing and urgency is expressed in our readings this morning:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” says Isaiah, “…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”

 

This is how we begin Advent, the start of the new church year, to our preparations for Christmas – with Isaiah in full lament. For that is how longing is often expressed, and we may well feel looking at our world that lament is an appropriate response. But that lament is not often given voice in our worship – we think God wants our thanks and joy – and no doubt God does. But the biblical record suggests lament to God has a place too.

 

So what might we lament and long for today, in this season of Advent?

 

Perhaps, being British you might lament the weather, as the dampness and coldness begins to attack our bones, and the nights draw in and it’s dark, dark. And even as we lament, we wonder, if it’s the same as last year; is the weather becoming more extreme? Will the floods return, or heavy snow? Our lament begins to meditate upon climate change, and its implications for us all, and we ponder our powerlessness and wonder what needs to be done.

 

Or perhaps you feel moved to lament our social and political landscape, bemoaning the lack of politicians of sufficient mettle and vision to command our respect, stir our souls. We feel the fragmentation of community, the increasing divisions, we wonder what future our city has in an era of budget cuts, and we lament the pain and distress of the most vulnerable who bear the burden. Vision seems in short supply, replaced by squabbling. And we wonder if politics will ever be healed, even as we know that that is a question that involves us all.

 

Or perhaps your lament would focus on the excesses of Black Friday recently passed, and you lament the irony that Advent starts as the shopping spree goes ballistic; the capitalist sell that we are what we consume becomes deafening, and we contemplate our own ventures into the desert of shopping with foreboding. And so we fear that Christmas overpowers the Christ-child, the birth is lost in the cacophony of commercialism and hype; and yet we feel the call of Advent to make space to celebrate; we feel the insistent tug of joy to rejoice.

 

Or perhaps, you feel moved to join Isaiah and lament to God, about God: why don’t you just sort it out. As you did of old, tear open the heavens and come down. For we are impatient and weary and the world is sick and suffering. Sort it out God – that’s what religion is about, is it not – faith that God will sort it out. Why are you hiding, God?

 

And yet, even as we cry out, we know, just like Isaiah, that that’s too simple – the problem lies not just in the elusiveness of God, but in our complicity in all that is wrong – We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. All our laments lead eventually back to this – the mystery of God’s hiddenness, and the recognition of our part in it all. Advent is the season of longing, but of judgement too. God is not going to tear open the heavens, for that is not how God comes. The hiddenness of God embodies God’s judgement on our fantasies about the one who will sort it all out, make it right, but leave us, me, untouched. The lament moves its focus from the absent God, to question us.

 

And this is the Advent moment; the space of longing and judgement that we wait in. How will God come to us? Not in shows of power and domination, for that is not how God is, but in the vulnerable path of non-coercive love and suffering service. For we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. This advent, don’t simply lament; be awake, be alert, to the fashioning that God is doing in your life, my life: We are all your people, O God, Come O Prince of Peace, reconcile your people. Amen.