Sermon preached at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent (9 December 2018) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Canon Pastor

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12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent (9 December 2018) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Canon Pastor

The Canon Pastor encourages us to embrace silence and listen for the voice of God in the expectant weeks of Advent. 

An acoustic anechoic chamber is a room designed to be free of reverberation. This space is exceptionally quiet. Without the usual sound cues, people find the experience of being in an anechoic chamber very disorienting and often lose their balance. 

Composer John Cage described his experience of one:

“In that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low. Afterward I asked the engineer why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds… He said, ‘The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.’”

Afterwards, Cage composed his Avant guard work entitled 4’33”, consisting solely of silence, intended to encourage the audience to focus on the ambient sounds in the listening environment.

Our scripture readings this second Sunday of Advent point us to speech and to silence.

We encounter an array of messengers:

A prophetic voice – crying out into the wide open wilderness and across the ages

An angelic messenger of the divine - coming to a faithful but unfulfilled priest

And John the Baptist, whose birth we heard being foretold.

John is a prophet of Advent – his place unique. When this child grows, his message calling people to turn once more to God will evoke comparison with the prophets of old.

And then will come the day when this herald of good tidings, this child of Zechariah and Elizabeth, will declare ‘Here is your God!’. 
Of his kinsman Jesus, John will proclaim ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’

A crying out in the desert, an angel messenger and the child who will prepare the way – voices of Advent. 

And then there is the silence.

Those of us who enjoy art, those who are immersed in the scriptures will be familiar with the annunciation, the coming of the angel to Mary, soon to be the mother of Jesus.

Today though, we hear of another annunciation; the annunciation of the same angel to Zechariah. 

This takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem – the traditional place of meeting and of reconciliation between the people and God. 

We are told that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have been holding fast to two desires: the first for God to come to his people again after the long silence of ages and the second, a longing for a child of their own.

Has God heard, they and we wonder, in the long pause during which God seems to be keeping Gods own counsel? 

We come to understand that this is one of the two periods a year when Zechariah the priest will serve in the Temple. The people are outside, praying, waiting whilst he enters the sanctuary and places incense on the altar.

At that moment, as the incense begins to fill the space, the angel speaks.

Zechariah asks for a sign and himself becomes the sign. The angel in effect tells him ‘be quiet and watch God work.’

Meanwhile the people outside are waiting and wondering why he has not emerged.

And are amazed that when he does, he is speechless.

Sometimes before the things of God only silence will do.

When in nine or so months’ time Zechariah’s silence is broken, his first words will be to name their son John – the one who will speak, whose voice will cry out.

But it will be costly.

John would encounter the distain of the powerful when his message of repentance held a mirror to their lives.

When John’s kinsman Jesus raised his voice, people followed him, clamoured to hear him in huge crowds, in intimate face to face conversations. There was something compelling about him - he spoke with such authority and what kind of message was this: ’Love your enemies? Forgive those who hate you?’ Know that those in power now aren’t the final arbiters of how things will be?

His was – and is - a message of hope and yet it’s also a challenging message – How am I to forgive? What will God’s concern for the vulnerable and the outsider mean for how I am to live? Dare I believe that I am God’s own beloved – how will that change how I see myself, how I see you?

No wonder some people thought that Jesus, just like John, should be silenced.

And later, before his accusers, he the divine Word would choose to be silent. Yet he would still choose speak - words of love, forgiveness and hope from the cross; to his mother, to a thief crucified beside him, in body-wracking prayer.

Comfort, O comfort my people – cry out to her that her penalty is paid. 

Behold here is your God!

In a few more days we will remember how an infant’s first cry would change everything as we celebrate his nativity – this Jesus, divine Word, the one for whom Elizabeth and Zechariah longed, the one to whom John pointed.

In his 1961 book ‘Silence,’ composer John Cage expanded on the implications of his experience in the anechoic chamber. “Try as we might to make silence, we cannot… Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death”

In this time of Advent might we begin by braving the silence, listening for the voice of God even when the questions we hold may seem to remain unanswered. During these expectant weeks of Advent may the Spirit of God expand the range and courage of our listening and our speaking.

O God you exceed all the words which we can express.

Come again to your people we pray in the speech and silence of this Advent.