Signs of the Times: Sermon for Advent Sunday, Ely Cathedral 2015

Close-up of a first lit advent candel : Free Stock Photo

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’

Yesterday evening, a Lebanese professor arrived back in Beirut after participating in a seminar at Durham, where I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting him. He has just been awarded a prestigious prize for his work on the history of Arabic science and philosophy and reminds us in his person that there is a little-known but massive tradition of Islamic learning that has been the equal of anything in the West.

But the Syrian border is only 30 miles away from his Univeristy, and while full-scale armed incursions are prevented, lone suicide bombers can all too easily walk in. And they have little time for learning and moderation. With barely suppressed emotion this mild-mannered scholar told me of how another academic, the director of antiquties at the historic Palmyra Temple site, had been beheaded. So he is indeed full of distress, and of fear and foreboding, and my and I hope your prayers will be with him and so many like him at this most challenging of times.

I do not stand with those who see these times as literally the fulfilment of the prophecies of the apocalypse. Although we are told to watch for the signs, we are also told that when the end comes it will come unexpectedly as a thief in the night, and is beyond our calculation, and should certainly be beyond our provocation. So the point of the watching is our spiritual preparedness, our own commitment to the kingdom of God’s justice and righteousness and peace, and our own calling to live in the hope and faith that it will prevail.

This is not of course a recipe for quietism, for doing nothing more than saying our prayers. When, this side of the end, evil wreaks such havoc, compassion demands that we act to relieve need and stand in love and solidarity alongside those affected. And when we do that we are probably inevitably caught up in the physical conflict, and there is a careful Christian theology of just war and necessary force that we can draw on to help us make the best decisions we can in such circumstances – and I say that as someone who is at heart a pacifist.

But to accept the inevitability of armed struggle is to be under no illusion that this is likely to put everything right. The danger of perpetuating the cycle of violence is all too apparent, and anyone with an eye to history or human psychology will see that wrong action by one party to a conflict so often leads to mirroring wrong action by the other. In terms of our Bible readings, what we are called to resist is any sense of hubris and false confidence and to remember that is only the One that Isaiah calls “the righteous Branch” who can bring true righteousness and justice to the land. We are not God, and we can and will get these things wrong.

I should also add that though the terrorists clearly are driven by a sort of faith (and those who disallow this for understandable reasons, such as resisting a general negative response to all Muslims, will misunderstand their motivation) this present conflict must surely not be seen as a one between Islam and Christianity per se, but between a fanaticism that can erupt in any religion, any philosophy, and political persuasion, and a good will that equally is part of our common inheritance. Islam may have given rise to ISIS but it also gave us most of Aristotle which reached us not from Greece but through the Muslim world. Christianity may have given us Mother Teresa, but it was also claimed by the Ku Klux Klan. And if Socialism gave us the NHS and the Co-op, it also gave us Stalin.

All of this is though is massively general, the business of governments and politicians, generals and parliament. How does it touch us? What might local action involve? Let me take you now not to the Lebanon but to Norway, and the mountain village to which another seminar participant has just returned, a young scholar who now divides his time between helping care for his family and editing the scientific treatises of a mediaeval bishop which are our shared subject of study.

In his small village he as a Catholic and his Lutheran wife bring up their children with respect for both traditions, but the village has also welcomed, small as it is, a good number of refugees from the Middle East who had brought Orthodox and Coptic Christians and more into the mix. The professor had told me of how in Lebanon despite its troubled history it was not uncommon for all the different faiths to share sacred space, without sacrificing their distinctiveness and identity; and in Norway too there are experiments in such hospitality.

Perhaps alongside the prayerfulness of Advent, we should as the scriptures say be practising hospitality, and not just throwing parties but taking steps to prepare ourselves to welcome new members of our community who come to us in great need. There is as yet little public discussion in Cambridgeshire about what welcoming refugees might mean for us, and I hope the opportunity for it will grow soon; but practical calls have gone out for those with rental property to register it for potential refugee use – that, rather than spare rooms seems to be the need – and also for families to consider putting themselves forward as potential foster parents, since a number of refugees are expected to be unaccompanied youngsters, and there is already a shortage of foster homes for them.

And I seem to remember that, when I did the voice-over for our new diocesan animation of the Christmas story, there was something about a landlord finding accommodation for a family far from home, a family which was fostering the most special child of all.

First Advent and first candle is lit” by Per Ola Wiberg is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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