Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Advent (17 December 2017) by Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain
On Gaudete Sunday, the Chaplain tells us to 'rejoice in knowing that the Lord is near' and that Christ is within us, 'waiting to be enabled by us'.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
He confessed and did not deny it but confessed…
A witness, a testimony, a confession
You’d be forgiven for thinking that you had stumbled into a courtroom drama - because you’d be right, this is exactly the scene that John the Gospeller is setting. Unlike the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke where Jesus addresses great crowds, John’s Gospel focuses in on Jesus’ interaction with a series of individuals:
John the Baptist whom we meet in today’s gospel, Nicodemus who seeks Jesus out secretly, the Samaritan Woman who meets Jesus at the well, the royal official, Mary Magdalen and others. We hear accounts of their experience of Jesus and the impact that these encounters have on their lives. Then finally we are told that these things have been written that we might believe and in believing have life.
The Gospel presents us with evidence and then invites us to give our verdict. Will this be a life changing encounter for us, and how are we to respond to it?
We sing ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ and ‘Come Thou Long Expected Jesus’, we talk about waiting expectantly through Advent but are we ready, are we ready? What would being ready look like for you and me?
Over lunch the other day a friend was telling me about Henry Marsh, a retired Neurosurgeon who earlier this year published a second memoir. Marsh has written and spoken candidly about what he calls the catastrophic effects of some of his operations that have either gone wrong or not as well as he might have hoped, leaving patients with appalling disability.
Musing on what that must be like, I thanked God that I wasn’t a brain surgeon. Can you imagine living with that sense of responsibility?
From time to time we all know what it feels like to have made a mistake. The horror of that moment of realisation, a sickness in your guts, maybe breaking out in a sweat, palpitations, heart-stopping crippling fear or anxiety of the consequences of our actions
But rarely do we experience a sense of regret on the scale that a neurosurgeon must, when things don’t go to plan and the effects are, as Marsh says catastrophic.
But then I thought perhaps we should, because that sick feeling, that heart-stopping moment is only the moment of realisation, of recognition and the awful truth is that I have made far more mistakes that I will ever realise, and the impact of them may be no less catastrophic, for the crippling or disabling effect these mistakes will have had on another.
An ill-judged comment or my silence when I might have chosen to speak to challenge, or console, or support.
The psychological and emotional wounds which we all carry around with us, that disable us, are hardly ever the result of thoughtful deliberate cruelty but rather they are the cumulative and amplified effects of carelessness, thoughtlessness and bad luck and so, perhaps you and I should take the roles we play (mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, colleague, friend, neighbour) just as seriously as a brain surgeon approaches an operation, because our power to inflict pain, or to bring healing is profound, and it is very, very real.
But unlike brain surgery, being a decent human being doesn’t take years of training and a very steady hand, it just takes a moment, a moment in which we refocus on what we are involved in, pay attention to how important it is and to the impact we are having.
A silly example, and I can only tell this because the choristers are out this morning and so I know the story won’t be used against the person at the centre of it, who does know I am telling it before you think me awful. My niece is just eighteen and getting used to being an adult with responsibilities which, outside her role as a gap year student at the Cathedral School, aren’t exactly onerous, they amount to contributing to the housework by hoovering. Well last week, approaching the end of term she was rather tired, aren’t we all, and a black cloud descended over a corner of Amen Court and there was huffing and puffing and harrumphing like you wouldn’t believe. The atmosphere in the house took a nose dive as she crashed the hoover around. I pulled the plug and gave her the option, carry on like that and continue to make us all miserable, or put a smile on your face and get on with it. Thankfully she saw the funny side and the sun shone once more. A silly example, as I say, but it doesn’t take much for us to carelessly make other people’s lives a misery, not to mention our own.
But how do we find the energy to make the right choices, especially when we are tired, when we are worn down by life, by bad luck, by the carelessness of others, and why should we put the effort in when it seems to us that others don’t?
We need to look to the examples that we have before us for inspiration.
Through these weeks of Advent we meet first the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith, then the prophets, then this week focus in on John the Baptist and next week on Mary - all ordinary folk who through faith and grace and focus prepared and made ready the way for Jesus for whom we watch and wait.
They weren’t noteworthy in terms of worldly achievement, but in terms of the part they each played in the divine economy. They enabled rather than disabled and that is our job too. They did so through the grace of God which they came to know and trust was that which upheld them, and animated them. It strengthened them, and gave them courage and boldness and peace.
Today, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, is known as Gaudete Sunday from the words of the introit to the mass in the old rite, words from our patron Paul’s letter to the Philippians; ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice, let your gentleness be know to everyone, the Lord is near.’
We rejoice in knowing that the Lord is near, nearer than we are often too busy to notice, walking beside us, sitting beside us, next to us now. We have no need of waiting because Christ is within us, each other, our worship, this Eucharist, woven through every fibre of creation - but waiting to be enabled by us.
If we wait, it is not because God is not here, it is because we are not ready to recognise the presence of the Divine and when we do it may well come upon us as a sickening awareness of our blindness and stupidity but thank God for the grace and mercy that is extended to us and for the comprehension of the Divine of our frail humanity through the incarnation which we prepare to celebrate.
Witness, testimony, confession. John the Baptist recognised Christ, behold the Lamb of God. Will we?