Advent Sunday - Darkness and Light

A sermon preached at St John's Holland Road by Fr James Heard on 1 December 2013

We have recently heard in the national media a particularly salacious story, one involving sex, drugs and… well, if not quite rock and roll … a banking Methodist minister. It has all the ingredients of a story that the media love latching on to. New phrase coined – ‘Crystal Methodist’. It’s an account of something that you imagine goes with a rockin roll lifestyle rather than a minister of religion.

I shall spare you hearing again all of the sordid details. It’s a story that still has plenty of life to sell many more newspapers. The media attention has included plenty of moral indignation. Its outrageous, disgusting… and from a minister of religion. The general feeling is that such behaviour might be expected in a rock star; such behavior is shocking in a layperson; but it is magnified in a supposed man of God who advertises his credentials by wearing a clerical collar and regularly climbing into a pulpit to address the faithful.

Whenever I hear such moral indignation the issue that comes to mind is one that has been previously raised by Rene Girard, the French historian and philosopher of social science. He calls this so of thing scapegoating. It’s when an individual or group are singled out for unmerited negative treatment or blame.

So, what was the cause of the problems in society in Germany in 1930s-40s – it was perceived that the Jews were the problem. And we know what violence ensued. Closer to home, what is the cause of the ills in our society particularly since the financial crisis – one answer was (and is) that it was the fault of all of those horrible corrupt bankers. They’ve created this mess and now the ordinary person has to pay for it. Another answer by the English Defense League is that our financial predicament is because of all these foreigners coming in to our country and taking our jobs. The problem is not ours – we deceive ourselves that it has nothing to do with our consumptive debt-fueled lifestyles – the problem is out there.  

Pope Francis has described our current situation like this: "Today's economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric."

Back to Paul Flowers – the danger we face is that to avoid looking at ourselves, the darkness within our own lives, we scapegoat. We love scapegoats because it pushes problems away from ourselves, to someone else, a group, or to an impersonal institution. Scapegoating a way for us to avoid owning the problem and being challenged or confronted. Which is what we are invited to do in this season of Advent.

The theme that’s expressed throughout the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany is the use of darkness and light. The theological thinking here is that light seeps through into the world and explodes into the night’s darkest moments. Darkness can be very soothing, and romantic as well, one thinks of candle-lit dinners or a candle-lit scented bath! However, darkness can also be very frightening. We lose our way in the dark; we bump into things; we cannot perceive what or who might threaten our safety. In our vulnerability, we instinctively reach for the light switch. With light we are able to find our way; we can perceive rightly; we feel more secure.

Paul writes to the Roman Christians, living at the heart of a pagan empire: ‘the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light…live honorably.’ Our collect today puts it even more forcefully: ‘cast away the works of darkness… put on the armour of light…’.

The trouble is, as we have seen with Paul Flowers, we tend to prefer darkness rather than light. We heard in our God Enquiry course a couple of weeks ago, from Brendan McCarthy, the sad story of a lady who had mental health issues and who kept her dog in a shed, with no windows. The dog was never let out. Brenden’s father started to help the lady with a bit of gardening – and he soon discovered the dog. So he opened the door to the shed and put out some food for the dog. What happen? The dog didn’t leave the shed – it had become so used to the dark. Over the next few months, Brendan’s father gently coaxed the dog out from the church and it wasn’t long before it was running around the garden in this whole new and beautiful world. 

We can become so used to the darkness that we don’t notice it. But instead of scapegoating, we must be willing to face unwelcome truths about ourselves. We need to recognize that none of us is perfectly righteous and none of us are wholly godless. We’re a mixture. Solzhenitsyn is someone who knew of the horrors of torture that humans inflicted on other humans in the gulag.

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, [or we might add between religions] but right through every human heart.
But what happens when light enters our often desperately dark world? Isaiah tells us this. When we walk in the way of the Lord, swords are beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning-hooks, peace arrives between nations, tribes, religions.

Various artists have been inspired by such a vision and have literally turned guns into art – Tate Modern guns themselves are used and twisted into huge fantastic sculptures. In LA, artists have worked alongside former gang members using guns used by street gangs - melt down and made into sculptures of angels. Things of violence and war are transformed into great works of art. And it is this vision of transformation - a vision of the Kingdom of God - where all wars will end and peace will prevail. It is to this vision that we work and we pray.

This is what happens when we turn from darkness to light - this is the preparation to which we are invited to engage with in Advent – a time of reflection and preparation. God is coming to set things right. We get this sense of urgency from the Gospel reading.

In the context of Advent, we are encouraged to examine our hearts in preparation for the Lord’s coming. We are reminded that our central preparation is to make our hearts ready, that our true worship is based on living a compassionate and just life. The Lord is coming as a refining fire… get ready, be prepared.
Holland Park Benefice