A Sermon from Sherborne

Dance and rejoice even in Advent

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 16th December 2018 by the Revd Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar


May I speak in the name of the One who was, is, and will come again. Amen.

I wonder if you learnt how to do the ’floss’ this summer. It was a dance which began on YouTube in the US and became a worldwide phenomenon very quickly. It requires a great deal of coordination and I confess it was something I could never quite master. It seemed to me that you had to be under 12 really to be able to do the floss so I am sure many of our choirboys could give you a demonstration later. No ‘floss’ in sight last night though on ‘Strictly’. Did you pick the winner? I confess that the pair I voted for won so much rejoicing in our home.

Why all this talk of dancing? Well, in today’s Old Testament reading we are told that the Lord dances.   Dancing has several mentions in the Bible and it is usually vigorous, energetic, reaching out to include people in its rhythms and often doing so because, quite simply, when you dance you are joyful, happy that the Lord is with you. As the prophet Zephaniah says, the Lord God is dancing and doing so ‘with shouts of joy for you.’ (Zeph. 3) Why is he joyful? It is surely because the gap, the distance between God and us is narrowing, getting shorter; and the prophet Zephaniah goes on to say, the day is coming when the Lord will be in your midst. In these days of Advent we draw closer to the coming of Christ in history and we anticipate too his second coming at the end of time.

If we had read today’s epistle from the Letter to the Philippians, we would have heard St Paul calling on us as Christians to do a bit more rejoicing; to be a bit more positive and joyful. I spoke about this at some length earlier in the year when I delivered the last of the Compline addresses. It was at a time when I found it quite hard to rejoice, but with reflection I discovered that even in the darkest of days I could rejoice because underpinning my Christian life was the great sense that ‘all would be well’, to quote Julian of Norwich. It was the deepest of joys, not frivolous or jolly, but rather a complete contentment regardless of pain and suffering. Paul as able to write this epistle to the Philippians in this vein from prison, so even in those conditions he was able to rejoice. Joy or rejoicing in the Lord enables us to rise above our present situation, whatever it may be, and is a constant through all the changes and challenges of life and with that joy comes the peace which passes all understanding.

Dancing and rejoicing is certainly not something we usually associate with Advent and it is against all this rejoicing that John the Baptist’s words hit us like a blast of cold air from the Artic – like the Beast from the East. Calling people a ‘brood of vipers’ is not the way to be welcomed warmly into a group of people. Whatever the message of John was, it was not good news; it was news of terror.

John’s experience living in the wilderness had no doubt made him familiar with the world of vipers especially if there was a scrub fire and the snakes and vipers came out of their holes to escape the terror around them. John certainly felt the need to confront ‘the vipers’ where he saw them in the people, especially those Jews who believed that because in history they had been God’s chosen people there was almost a “favoured nation” clause in their relationship with God. They believed God would judge all nations on earth with one standard and the Jewish nation with a standard of its own. They were at the point of believing that a man was safe from judgement simply by virtue of the fact that he was a Jew. A son of Abraham was exempt from judgement, they thought. John had to tell them that actually racial privilege meant nothing; that how you lived your life meant more than your ancestry. So when John was asked about salvation he proposed three quite practical ideas.

It began by John demanding that we should share with one another; for John the example is to share from our surplus. He who has two coats should give one to the person who has no coat. The same with food; give away your surplus. John is practical; he does not want to make you destitute by giving away all you have, because he wants you to continue to be able to help the poor. To go on giving, to care for your neighbour not exploit them. Christianity has always had a practical, social, caring side to its teaching because it is such an effective way of demonstrating God’s love. John believed we can never seek God’s forgiveness if we who have much do not give to those who have little.

Tax-collectors who no-one liked because they worked in the main for the Roman authorities and because no-one likes paying taxes, were told by John to take only what was due and no more; in other words don’t put some in your own pocket as you put money in the coffers of the authorities.

To soldiers he said to be content with their pay and not to use their power and position to take advantage of the weak and powerless. They had to be honest and fair, not aggressive and self-seeking.

Those who heard this may not have made any connection to rejoicing. It all sounded rather stern and severe, unless they had grasped that in following John’s words they would find that ‘The Lord is near, rejoicing over you. Renewing you in his love’

Our Christian life is about balance, as we try to hold together the idea of the coming of Jesus and the ethical demands made on our lives. We should not have our heads so absorbed with theology that we fail to notice the needs of those around us, nor so absorbed in practical works that we miss the signs of God’s coming. We should remember that praise and rejoicing mark Christians out as people of hope and joy. Our world needs signs of hope and joy as does our country in these difficult days. As we wait in Advent time it should not be a passive waiting, but rather we should be actively preparing the world to receive the Messiah by setting an example in how we treat others, and this planet, by being satisfied with what we have and by seeking a fairer way for all to live. If this could even partly be achieved, there would be dancing indeed for the Lord would be here!

Amen: Come Lord Jesus

Reverend Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar 16/12/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne