Preacher Revd Neil Summers
On the third Sunday of Advent, we focus on John the Baptist, the prophet whose role was to prepare the way for Jesus. Prophets are often credited with forecasting the future, but that is a rather narrow interpretation. There is a broader understanding of prophecy which speaks of the reality of the present situation, and offering the chance to respond to current conditions in a new way. St. Paul urges Christian communities to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances? Is it really possible to rejoice and give thanks, when the political climate is as uncertain as it is now, when we feel overwhelmed by the scale of human suffering in the world, when the gap between rich and poor becomes ever wider, when relationships go awry, or illness strikes, or the trials of old age set in? There are, of course, brands of Christianity which demand that you are relentlessly cheerful, whatever the circumstances, and that every word uttered should be positive and upbeat. Frankly, I find this approach exhausting and sometimes guilt-inducing, because we know life isn’t always like that and we don’t always feel that way. Nonetheless, we are left wondering: can we take St Paul at this word, and rejoice and give thanks, even in difficult times, when even basic coping is problematic? Well, it may be hard sometimes, but we might be able to find things to give thanks for, even in trying circumstances – for example, the support of those who help to share our burdens, which can mitigate, even if just a little, situations of darkness, desperation, or the feeling that God has abandoned us to our fate. Even so, on an individual level, it doesn’t seem realistic to be giving thanks every minute of the day.
The church, as a body, on the other hand, is always giving thanks in its daily round of worship. This morning’s psalm is just one example of this, with its refrain: ‘The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.’ Like the passage we heard earlier from Isaiah, today’s psalm reflects Israel’s faith in hard times of destruction and exile. It celebrates what God has done for them in the past, but it also looks through the reality of present difficulties to a deeply rooted trust in God and to a new hope for the future.
The Book of Psalms (Jesus’s hymn book), is also the first song book of the church, both in terms of date and in continuing significance. In the worship of the Church of England, we read from the psalms every day in the offices of morning and evening prayer. But the psalms are not all about praise: they come in many different moods, so that psalms of rejoicing or triumph appear alongside psalms of desolation, lament and penitence. As a now defunct Sunday tabloid newspaper used to boast, ‘all human life is there’. The psalms contain not only exalted devotion, but also human grumbling and the deepest and most difficult thoughts and feelings we harbour. The psalms, paradoxically, show a way to ‘rejoice always’ which does not evade the reality of the way things are, or the way people feel.
It is easy to rejoice when life is going smoothly and God seems to be for us. You might (cynically?) consider this could only be the worship of the comfortable and well-off; those who can say with the psalmist, ‘the lot has fallen in a fair ground’. But, of course, we know life is not always like that. If the only songs the church sings are ‘happy songs’, ‘feel-good music’, there is a danger that it retreats into unreality. In fact, some of the psalms speak also to those going through the mill, or the valley of the shadow of death; those for whom life is a trial, who think God has deserted them or is oblivious to their prayers, who wish only retribution on their enemies, who experience daily life as continuing chaos and hopelessness. They cling on to a belief in the triumph of God’s ultimate justice and righteousness only by their fingertips, because everything around them seems to contradict that vision.
One of the things I really appreciate about the Book of Common Prayer is that it takes us relentlessly all the way through the psalms, refusing to miss out those that are more awkward or unsettling. Using all the psalms gives us things to say which we do not always like, but this is surely preferable to focusing only on those psalms which are up-beat, positive and easy to recite. It is tempting to sideline psalms expressing lament, darkness, or disaster, or those which express hatred of others, loss of faith, or God’s absence. But isn’t it an act of bold faith to insist that all such experiences of disaster and disorder are a proper subject to talk to God about? Nothing is out of bounds or inappropriate; they are all part of the authenticity of what it means to be human. It is important that we sing such songs in an age of denial and cover-up. They provide a healing honesty.
These psalms speak of a God who is present in, participating in, attentive to, the darkness, weakness and displacement of life. Isn’t this the kind of God whose coming we will celebrate at Christmas – weak, vulnerable, fragile, at risk, facing danger and uncertainty? One of the things we can surely say about the Book of Psalms is also one of the things we can say about the Christian religion: life is not all praise and alleluia. Some of it is, of course, and we rightly give thanks for those mountain top, life-enhancing moments. But life is equally a pilgrimage through the various darknesses that are also part of our human condition.
One reason why we light candles in Advent is to recognise that the light is powerful only because of the depths of the darkness which surround it. It is through the darkness that we begin to glimpse the light. The candlelight may be fragile and vulnerable, subject to the draughts which blow it this way and that, but it refuses to be extinguished. And more than that, the light is growing insistently stronger week by week, until the light that enlightens everyone shines upon the morning skies. Even in our most profound adversity, we are inspired not to concede to the darkness, because that flickering flame will not be defeated. To extend Isaiah’s image, the ruins and devastations of our world, and those in our own lives, have the potential to be raised up, for nothing is beyond the scope of the light which is coming into the world, for whom John the Baptist prepared the way. That, surely, is sufficient to make real the sound of rejoicing and the voice of praise. Thanks be to God!