A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 8 December 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
The modern lectionary – that’s the list of readings prescribed for every day of the year – rather messes up the themes of the four Sundays in Advent, symbolised in the Advent Wreath by a blue candle for the patriarchs (that was last week), for the prophets (today), for John the Baptist (next Sunday) and then a pink candle for the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Sunday before Christmas. The patriarchs, from the earliest books of the Old Testament, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary each in their own way prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ, and call us to prepare the Way of the Lord also. But John the Baptist is the central character in today’s Gospel reading as well as being very much part of next Sunday’s. To my mind he has muscled in too soon.
So I want to reflect instead on that wonderful passage from Isaiah which we heard read earlier. [11.1-10]. It’s a vision of how the world – the whole of creation – could be if we all came, in humility and faithfulness, to that ‘shoot from the stock of Jesse’ and fashioned our lives after the pattern of his life.
Christians have always identified that ‘shoot’ as being a reference to Jesus. Sadly, though, we too often forget that fashioning our lives on the pattern of his life is not about obeying all sorts of laws and injunctions, but about allowing ourselves to be changed, remodelled, refashioned, by Jesus. In a wise paper published after his death in 2001, Father Herbert McCabe, a Dominican friar and great moral theologian, complained that those who teach tend to talk about moral laws, rules, codes or standards in the abstract, and when they are also religious moralising moralists they always want to invest those laws, rules, codes or standards with some sort of divine authority. Then they go on to say, or at least to imply, that we little people with our often confused and muddled little lives really have no choice but to try to conform those lives to these great and absolute abstracts. And the tragedy is that if we do that and apparently succeed, it can break our hearts (and others’) and even break our minds, because it is hard for human beings to live in the rarefied atmosphere of moral purity, for we are all weak, flawed and fallen human beings.
But this, insists McCabe, is because we have misunderstood morality. Morality should not be abstract. Morality is practical. As he put it,
When you learn about morals you are learning not some theoretical truths but how to do something. So learning morality is more like learning music or carpentry than it is like learning astronomy or physics.
To which I would add that Christians are doubly prone to misunderstanding morality because we fail to put the teaching of Jesus as we receive it in the Gospels into the perspective of God’s time and God’s way. Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and in particular that the Kingdom of God had dawned in his, Jesus’, coming. So what is sometimes called his moral teaching is really his description of the way in which people will live when the Kingdom of God has fully come. Then everyone will turn the other cheek, go the second mile and sell all that they have and give to the poor. And that is also when the whole created order will live as God intended. As Isaiah saw, then and only then shall:
the wolf also dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and the little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. [Isaiah 11: 6-9]
But until then, we live in the overlap of the ages. We live in the ‘now’ as well as the ‘not yet’. Jesus points down the road to the Kingdom, and bids us travel that road together. He promises, through his Spirit, to be with us to help, encourage and strengthen us (that’s where grace comes in) but if in the meantime we fail, fall, wander off the path and get lost he will not use some moral law to punish us but will – like the Good Shepherd he is – set out to find us and lead or carry us back home,
So, for McCabe, morality is about ‘acting well in the field of endeavouring to be a human being’. Isaiah sees our endeavouring to be a human being as the response of heart and soul and mind to the ‘signal’ the root of Jesse gives us. John the Baptist sees it as preparing the way of the Lord and making his paths straight. It is about engaging with Christ in order to be changed by him.
The name that the first Christians gave to their faith was not ‘Christianity’ but ‘The Way’. They saw that it was a road – had not Jesus himself said ‘I am the way’? – and that discipleship is about discerning the right path and following it. It’s also about stumbling, falling and getting lost, and the Shepherd finding us, forgiving us and helping us back onto the right path – which leads ultimately, as St John the Divine saw, to the ‘holy city, new Jerusalem’, where ‘God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.’ [Rev. 21:4]
The word ‘standards’ can apply to units of measurement like the Royal Standard Yard, a medieval metal bar kept in the West Gate Museum at Winchester. It expressed exactly what the mathematical concept of a yard looked like, and those who dealt in yards, such as cloth merchants, had to make sure that their own measures matched it – or else. But standards are also flags, as in the Royal Standard which flies above Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle whenever the Queen is at home. Metal bars can become weapons to hurt people and break them. Flags lift our eyes upwards and give us a signal – something to which to aspire. Always, always, we should seek to follow the Royal Standard of Jesus Christ as we travel along the Way – but always, always, if we stumble and fall or lose the Way, he will be there to pick us up, dust us down and lead us back to the right path. And for that, thanks be to God.