Sermon preached on Advent Sunday (27 November 2016) by Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
On Advent Sunday, the Precentor challenges each of us to 'Know Thyself'.
In Ancient Greece, in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, was inscribed the Greek aphorism, ‘Know thyself’.
And, inevitably, down the ages, philosophers have debated what this great saying means and have suggested several very attractive interpretations: do not let your boasts exceed what you are; the better you know yourself, the better you can understand other people; pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude.
The Advent season of judgement which begins today, set against the backdrop of a contemporary culture of blame, may be a good time to inscribe that aphorism over the doors of this house of God.
The gentle warning that lies behind those ancient words, ‘Know thyself’, would be a timely antidote to the strident tone of accusation that has become increasingly voluble from armchair critics and tabloid headlines. Nothing is ever our fault: it’s always someone else’s fault. For example, until I am clear about my own responsibility for the current economic crisis, I have no right to blame anyone else for it. Know thyself.
And, unless one lives in the eye of a storm, the storm provides no valid material for the sermons of armchair pontiffs. Know thyself.
The season of Advent, whose liturgy and music is striking, emotive, rich, and resonant, somehow manages to survive the early onslaught of Christmas but that early onslaught is the principal reason why the focus of Advent is almost entirely lost in the popular imagination.
We know that Advent is, on the one hand, a countdown to Christmas – and there’s nothing wrong with that. We are indeed preparing to welcome Christ in his ‘first coming’ among us as the child born in a stable in Bethlehem: that glorious moment when God became more like us so that we could become more like God.
But Advent is also about our death – about that moment when we will stand in the presence of God, under judgement – about the ‘second coming’, as it’s sometimes described. But never mind the language and the imagery, the bottom line is that Advent is about death, our death. And, of course, we don’t like talking about that, do we? Any more than we like examining our own souls. Any more than we like finding out the truth about ourselves. Know thyself.
I suppose that’s why the contemporary culture of blame thrives. The more we blame others for the perceived ills of society, the more we excuse ourselves; and the more we excuse ourselves, the more we avoid responsibility; and the more we avoid responsibility, the more we require others to sort the mess out for us. At least Pontius Pilate had the grace to admit that he found no fault in his antagonist.
But it is this spiral of negligence and denial, this failure to take responsibility for our actions, which was also the catalyst to events in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. When the Messiah failed to produce ‘jam today’, he was demonised by the crowd and done away with as a lost cause and a waste of a good palm branch.
Now Jesus, on the cross, was supposed to be the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. And, if we believe that to be true, as we said a few moments ago in the Creed that we did, we have to stop looking for new scapegoats – bankers and politicians spring to mind for example.
You see, when I die, it will be me standing before God, not you. And, when you die, it will be you standing before God, not your neighbour. So, the focus of Advent must be about you and God and not about anyone else and God.
Which means, if you think about it, that Advent works against a culture of blame and how refreshing that is? Perhaps we might say that Advent encourages a sense of shared responsibility because, if each of us examines ourselves and admits that we do have a share in responsibility for the world’s woes, we may find ourselves looking at each other not only with a sense of shared responsibility but also with that adage in our head that ‘a trouble shared is a trouble halved’ because we can then set about rebuilding what is broken together and making up the deficit (in various senses of that word) together.
Advent is indeed about judgement but it’s about God’s judgement and not the opinion of the multitude. Nor is it a judgement of which to be afraid. The cross draws a line in the sand in relation to judgement. The easy yoke and light burden of God’s judgement merely asks the question: do you judge yourself or do you judge others?
In Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, Isabella pleads for her brother’s life as he awaits the death penalty for sexual impropriety. She urges her cause with Angelo who has sentenced him and, in words which draw on Christian doctrine more than anything else in the whole canon of Shakespeare, she challenges him: ‘Go to your bosom, knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know that’s like my brother’s fault.’ Jesus said, ‘Judge not that you be not judged.’
The challenge, this Advent, is to exercise judgement over ourselves and not over others, to prepare ourselves for our death, when we still stand – alone – before the presence of God. The culture of blame is alien to the Gospel of Christ. Know thyself.