Sermon by Fr Neil Traynor, United Benefice of Holland Park, Sunday 19 November 2017, 2nd Sunday before Advent

Sermon by Fr Neil Traynor, United Benefice of Holland Park, Sunday 19 November 2017, 2nd Sunday before Advent

In the winter of 1651 George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, found himself newly released from prison near Lichfield.  On his way to the city he had a vision that he had to enter the city barefoot, giving his shoes to somewhat surprised shepherds, and when he got there he preached barefoot in the market place.  This was the occasion of his famous vision of seeing rivers of blood of the martyrs of Domitian flowing down the streets of the city.

There are various different interpretations of what was going on here, ranging from publicity stunt, to genuine vision, to ergot poisoning – all of which may have some truth in them.  However, George Fox could not help but be influenced by what was happening around him.  There must be some part in which the bloody battles of the English Civil War had an effect on him.  He was speaking in a particular context, in which it was entirely possible that cities like Lichfield would experience being sacked and the population slaughtered.

It struck me, as I was looking at this morning’s readings, that they, too, are written very much in particular contexts, and speak very much to particular circumstances.  We don’t often get readings from the prophet Zephaniah, and perhaps this reading goes a little way to explaining why.  Zephaniah is very concerned with warning about the consequences of turning away from God.

In some ways, his vision is not that far away from George Fox’s.  Both would have been familiar with what happened to defeated cities or towns.  Once one had fallen to a conquering king without surrender the prophecy of Zephaniah would very much come to pass.
Our epistle, likewise, begins with a vision of disaster, when the conquering Lord comes and sweeps all before him.  In this context, the Gospel reading of the parable of the talents, with a Lord coming to punish the unworthy, and with the power of life and death, is not so far away from what might be a reality.

I have a feeling, too, that each of these shares a little more with George Fox than we might like at first wish to acknowledge.  Each of our writers is speaking in and through a particular context – none of them particularly comforting – but they also each want to say something about what they understand about God.
Something that is all too easy to forget is the fact that we only know as much of God as God has revealed to us.  To quote another piece of St Paul, it is as though we see through a glass darkly.  There is always more to know of God than we can imagine, and our view of God will necessarily be coloured by our experiences, our context and ourselves. 

For some, the image of God is one who punishes and cleanses.  Who casts a slave, who has been given little, into outer darkness for preserving what little he had.  This is an image of a just king, who comes with righteousness, but little mercy.  A God who will come and purify with fire and sword until the worthy are lost.  There are some who would like to see only the pure having a place in God’s kingdom.  A vision we might think of in mediaeval doom paintings, with the righteous being saved, and the rest condemned to eternal damnation.

It’s not a million miles away from our readings this morning.

There is, though, hope, faith and love.  We have the assurance of salvation – as our Eucharistic prayer will reaffirm – and we are children of day, not those who inhabit the night, as Paul tells us.  For the light of Christ reaches into the darkest places, and brings light and life. 

It’s nearly impossible to escape the encroaching lights of Christmas at the moment.  Almost every shop and high street is succumbing.  Everywhere we look there is the hope, and promise of the coming of Christmas.  We might grumble at the increasing commercialisation of Christmas; we might think that people have lost the real meaning; we might think that this is much too early.  And yet, in all of this, light still shines out, breaks through the darkness and reaches throughout the whole world.
As I mentioned earlier, we only know of God what has been revealed to us.  The corollary of this this is that there is always more to know than we do know.  We can’t know whether the Christmas lights we see around us encourage only spending, or give people pause to think on the reason why Christmas is there.  Even in all of this jollity, there will be many who are dreading the coming Christmas.  Whether they have difficult family relationships; are struggling financially; or feel isolated when all around seem to have so much.  For many, the coming Christmas season can feel rather like the vision of Zephaniah, or under pressure like the slaves in our Gospel to perform well. 

Perhaps what we might focus on instead is the fact that, no matter how difficult things are; how much pressure we’re under, we do have the assurance of Christ, the light of the world, and the knowledge that his kingdom is one of real justice and truth; peace and light.

We are, currently, in the Kingdom season.  However easy death and destruction are easy to prophecy, that’s not what we know of the coming kingdom; a reign of justice, peace and love, is what we are promised and for which we long.  Advent is round the corner, and Christmas not far behind, so rejoice in the coming light; just remember that it’s the light of Christ, not money, that’s the real Lord and king.
Holland Park Benefice