Sermon 30 November 2014

First Sunday in Advent

Back in 2010 I received for the auction the first edition of a soldier’s diary published in 1861. It is the record of the short life of Hedley Vicars, a young officer killed during the Crimean War. At seventeen, Vicars was an ordinary pleasant young man from a privileged but not exceedingly rich background. He was strong and athletic and wild without being wicked. He went with the Army to the Ionian Islands and then to Malta and Jamaica. In Jamaica he underwent a conversion experience and remained an Evangelical Christian for the last three years of his life.

From now on we see him marked by that seriousness typical of a Victorian Evangelical. He sometimes uses the language of a piety which, quite frankly, I do not understand but his service to God and to his fellow creatures is humble, generous and self-sacrificing. We find him in the houses of the poor and by the bedside of sick and dying soldiers. It takes courage to be a Christian in the army and he seems initially to have suffered for his faith but his happy, popular character when wedded to his service to others gained him acceptance and approval among officers and men alike. When Britain went to war with Russia, Hedley’s regiment was sent to the Crimea. Here we find him amidst danger and disease, upheld by a fervent love of the Lord Jesus. He gives comfort and encouragement to his men and he labours among the wounded and the cholera victims, giving physical comfort and reading the Bible and praying with them.

In 1855 he died defending his men and so war once again brought a beautiful young life to a premature end. He was a man who brought hope to a place where light and joy had vanished. Many CR Fathers went with the armed forces to bring the light of the Gospel to men on the battlefields of WWI. Charles Fitzgerald wrote in the CR Quarterly of Michaelmas1915 ‘One thing about these men is the way that they love their chaplains’. I believe that love was not because the chaplains were amusing or jolly good chaps but because they brought news of ‘another kingdom’ and gave hope that things didn’t have to be as they are.

The same war that took away his life drew Florence Nightingale away from a comfortable home and family to serve those who were wounded and broken, bloodied and terrified. We have been reading in the lessons of Morning Prayer this week how a woman brought hope to the Israelites beleaguered by the Assyrians but where Judith wielded the sword, Florence carried a lamp. At least that is how she is now remembered – the Lady with the Lamp. Of course she and her ladies – laywomen, Religious Sisters and Salvation Army Sisters – washed, bandaged, caressed and soothed, administered medicine and did all that would later be taken on by the medical corps but the lamp symbolised more than any material comfort that they could bring.

War is hell and the Crimea was an ugly brutal war with men dying from the ravages of battle but also in their thousands from cholera. To wounded, frightened men surrounded in a ward by other wounded and dying men, there was very little to hope for. To such, the sight of a nurse in crisp clean clothing, bearing a light in the darkened ward, the sound of a female voice confident and caring, the tenderness of a hand bandaging or bathing a wound – all of this must have acted like some sort of promise that ‘hell cannot last forever’. One is reminded of Samwise in the dark land of Mordor where all his hope of survival had been withered up nevertheless:

' The re, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach'.

Nightingale may not have been able to reverse the inevitable in a dying man but because of her and those like her, some of them would go with the vision of a love stronger than death. The y would go with hope, maybe even certainty, that the darkness was only a small and passing thing. That is what this first Sunday of Advent is about. It is the prophet’s message that evil and oppression, brutality and greed are under the judgement of a God, who loves his creation and will not allow it to be destroyed.

'In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. The n they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory'.

Too often we think of the judgement of an angry God but actually we have the wrong focus: he is angry because he loves. This is our hope – because God loves us we will see the Son of Man. St Peter uses the symbol of the lamp to bring hope to Christians under persecution:

We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.

It is so easy to be overwhelmed with headlines about the Islamic State or Ukraine or any of the many other horrible things which happen in the world, that we forget the splendour and the wonder of creation, the beauty of the earth, the magnitude of the universe and the mystery of love. The end point of Advent is a baby and a Gospel which says ‘In the beginning was the Word’.

In whatever way God brought all things to be, he put his self into it. St John says that in the beginning was the Logos – the Word, the Meaning, the Reason that lies behind all things. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus was born and Jesus died to show that God’s Word for us, God’s meaning and his Reason in creating us is love. He doesn’t coerce; he comes into his creation, he suffers with it; he suffers for it as Timothy Rees another WWI chaplain from the Community puts it in a well-known hymn:

'When human hearts are breaking under sorrow's iron rod, the re they find the self-same aching, deep within the heart of God'.

So what of us? Where do we fit in.

Well, each of us needs that lamp, that star, that light in a dark place. Each of us has our share of pain grief and sadness. Each of us has our fears and sometimes despair seems not far off. The Father’s Word and beloved Son says ‘don’t be anxious, don’t be afraid, look I am always with you.

Each of us is that lamp, that star, that light in a dark place. Each of us has the light of God within us. Someone needs you, someone needs me to light the way to bear hope that there is a King who whose name is Love.

John Gribben CR