Voices in the wilderness
7 December 2020
Advent is a significant penitential period in the life of the church. It allows us to reflect on the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, which is crucial to understanding the significance of the stories of the birth of Jesus at Christmastide. Some may wish to celebrate Christmas before it comes but it really is worth the wait!
It was a dark and stormy night.
And the rain came down in torrents,
And the king said unto Antonio,
Antonio, tell us a tale.
And Antonio began as follows:
It was a dark and stormy night
And the rain came down in torrents,
And the king said unto Antonio,
Antonio, tell us a tale.
It’s an endless tale – a story that you cannot finish. That just goes on and on in perpetual motion.
We are in that season of the church when we are telling a tale. Advent is a story which concludes with the beginning of another story.
For me, Advent is a very special season of the year.
I had a complaint at my last church that we had not sung any Christmas Carols that year. That despite having had an evening carol service on the Sunday before Christmas and having sung carols on that Sunday morning and on Christmas Day.
At first I was confused by the complaint. Then I realised that the person thought that we should have been singing carols from the beginning of December and not just when Christmas itself was close.
To me it is wrong to do that. The season of waiting and expectation loses all meaning if the main event has already started.
I feel a certain annoyance when I see Christmas lights and Christmas trees in houses so early.
I have probably offended half the congregation at this point. But I can assure you that I am not being a Scrooge.
For by telling the story of the nativity before we tell the story of what brought it about makes it harder to understand the story.
You have the feast after the fasting not during.
Advent is a story in its own right.
Once Upon a Time
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Once upon a time.
Before there was time,
Before there were clocks and watches, even before there was day and night, time began.
It began with a breath, a spirit, a wind moving over a formless void.
How is that for the start of my story?
We are transported to somewhere mysterious, to a place which is beyond our imagination and yet it stretches our fancy into a world before and maybe after our world and the reality of time.
It is a world for storytellers and poets, for dreamers and creators.
So the opening scene has been set. A formless space out of which emerges a world, a universe, sun, moon, stars, earth, oceans, forest, birds, animals and human beings.
This is the story of beginnings – of fresh starts – of the handiwork of a creator who is both behind the scenes, and beyond.
In this precious story, there is a name you need to remember.
Source of life, energy, origin of matter and form.
This is a story which is cinematic in its proportions. It could be made into something for the big screen with millions of pounds being paid to the computer graphics department.
But they could never do it justice.
It is impossible for us to grasp the importance of this.
Our narrative moves through time, but it is still a tale of wonder and excitement.
To help us with the next part of the story, we can pay a visit to the BBC’s nature broadcasting department.
They are incredible at producing films which take us into the intricacies of the natural world. From mammoth whales to the tiniest insect.
We can still hold open our jaws with amazement at the sight of a mountain range, or the unexpectedly intelligent behaviour of a pet.
For the universe itself is now the stage for the advent story – and it fills us with hope and confidence for we know that all that is and all that will be is safe in the palm of God’s hand.
We are in this story already.
Let me turn a page for you.
Now we find ourselves in a garden. It is a paradise. There are shrubs, trees and flowers, an abundance of food, gold and precious jewels and a river. In this garden are the first two characters who seem very familiar - A man and a mother. Human beings like us – maybe they are us.
This chapter gives us permission to look into a fantastic world, where creation is in harmony with itself and humanity at peace with the world it inhabits.
What a dream!
It would be good to settle ourselves in the pages of this picture book. Put a marker in the page because we might want to visit it again.
Maybe we need to close our eyes as the story is told, because we live in dystopian parallel to the pen portrait of the primeval garden.
The pantomime season is on us (oh yes it is!) and we are reminded of the wicked stepmother, the evil Abanazar, Captain Hook. Our story needs a baddie.
And we can easily find one in the form of a serpent who induces us away from our appreciation of goodness and beauty to a knowledge which is ugly and destructive. Arrogance, greed, pollution replace our paradise.
And the serpent is still hissing at us.
Open your newspapers, and read about deforestation, plastic in the oceans, corruption in politics and the increasing poverty while the God-given planet is still rich in resources, enough for all and for all species.
Our forebears foolishly rejected paradise.
They are banished to wander the earth without purpose or intent.
Time after time, chapter after chapter they return not to paradise but the wilderness.
If you go onto our website, you will see a discussion about the African country of Namibia which gained its independence 30 years ago this week. During the bitter struggle against apartheid South Africa’s occupation of the country, the churches and individual Christians were extraordinarily brave. But one of the speakers in our webinar bemoaned that churches were no longer engaged.
They organise massive prayer meetings to pray for rain but say nothing about the deforestation that is taking place in the country.
They turn to God to give us Paradise again – but without the cost – without the work – without the struggle which is needed to take us back.
Once the Namibian church bravely cried – let my people go - in the name of the God who once heard his people’s pleading in slavery! Now they are plaintiffs to a capricious God who responds only at a whim.
Now our story moves on through one dramatic scene after another.
There were forty dark and stormy nights. There is a flood which practically wipes out the entire human race apart from just a few survivors.
It is a story which would challenge even the biggest Hollywood budget.
Come back! Come back! Repent! Turn around!
Creation begins again – fresh, clean with the smell of spring and the haze of the sun after rain. Time begins again.
The heroes of our story faced calamity after calamity. In their hearts they knew that they had been created out of goodness and yet their behaviour pointed in a different direction.
We are looking into a story of a people who are lost.
If we played our cards right we could make a TV series with that title. Telling the story of people banished from a garden and then wandering from one place to the other. From Mesopotamia to Israel to Egypt to a wandering in the Sinai desert.
Names are given to the characters in the story – Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Moses, Miriam, Joshua.
The wanderers then are protagonists, advocates, liberators.
But nothing stems the tide of anguish and destruction which selfishness and greed bring about.
So there are new voices in our drama.
On the main stage, are powerful forces, pharaohs, emperors, kings, armies, elites.
In the back streets, the barrios, the refugee settlements, the diasporas, the rural outposts are the excluded, the forgotten, the ones who do the work, who till the soil, who mine the mines.
But in our story they are at the centre.
A New Voice
We need to understand that the Advent story is a story of outsiders who are looking for a better way. The prophets of Israel were constantly challenging the powers that be. Their attacks on them and the waywardness of the people highlighted the injustices of the market and the court.
They lived under the threat of military defeat and finally were carried off into exile. Like every other diaspora community, they had their faith and their music. They were taken to Babylon, modern day Iraq.
There they sat and wept remembering their homeland.
They might have stayed there for ever and as the generations passed their identity merging with the majority. Their story, which we enshrine in our holy book, only remembered by a surname or a street name.
But God – I asked you to remember that name – God had other plans.
Creation was to begin again. A new time was to come into being. A new era of the sacred story of the people of God.
There is a new voice – a voice crying in the wilderness.
Prophets announcing the way.
A highway – not for themselves but for God. They would walk on it. All the way from Babylon to Jerusalem. But it was God who was leading.
In their distress God had brought comfort.
In spite of everything the prophet was able to declare that God would feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
There is such power in those words and in this story.
Any good story captures our attention because in some way we find ourselves in it.
I once saw the play Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre. It was a long time ago, but I still remember it. It was an incredibly powerful production starring Warren Mitchell (the older members will remember him as Alf Garnett). Toward the end of the play there was a prolonged silence. You could literally hear the audience crying. The drama had touched something very deeply inside us all. It was more than the story. The play, the acting had told us about a man struggling with the relevance of his life and his relationship with his children. But it had touched us all – our relationships with fathers, sons and brothers, with our relevance and purpose in life. And so we cried.
There was a good few minutes of snuffles and ruffling of paper tissues.
But that is what a good story does. And that is what the Bible does. That is what the prophets do for us.
They are not an archaic record of an ancient people.
They are an archaic record of people like us. And the message of the prophets to the people is a message we need to hear.
Let my people go!
Comfort, comfort my people!
Return to the Lord your God!
Let justice roll like a river and righteousness like an everlasting stream.
The Bible only makes sense if we find ourselves inside it. If we find ourselves wanting the earth to be restored, renewed, refreshed. It only makes sense if we want and need the story of our time to be about bringing fairness, inclusion, healing. It only makes sense if God’s desire to comfort his people touches our need to be touched and comforted.
This is our story. It is our identity. It defines our purpose in life. It gives meaning to our relationships.
We need creation to begin again.
So our advent story takes us to a new beginning.
We read today the first verses of the Gospel of Mark.
We are turning yet another page – a new chapter.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”.
The story is renewed. We begin again.
There is a road for us to travel and it is a road already marked out by the God who promises comfort.
These are blighted days. Our anticipation of Christmas this year is muted and surrounded more by anxiety than excitement. There is a sadness in the air.
The story we tell at Advent is a never-ending story which has great impact, power and meaning. In times of plenty – it is drowned out by sentimentality, indulgence, excess.
But in times like this it is a blessing, a hope, a prophetic word, a light –
In a dark and stormy night as the rain comes down in torrents……