St Bride's: Sermons


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Some of you, like me, will be old enough to remember the 'three day week' introduced by the Heath government during the early 1970s.  For the benefit of you bright young things who are far too young to have lived through that particular era, in the face of major industrial action the Heath government imposed a three day working week, in an attempt to cut energy use and conserve dwindling fuel supplies.  And so there were power cuts.  Many of them.  Lengthy power cuts.  Day after day after day.

I was at secondary school at the time, and after the initial excitement of being plunged into total darkness by the first of the cuts, I have to say the novelty soon wore off.  I have vivid recollections of evenings spent struggling to do very ordinary things by candlelight - with the additional inconveniences of no heating, no hot food, and worst of all, no television.  One swiftly learned that one could not even use the power cuts as an excuse for failing to produce one's homework on time.  I only tried that one once, and was met with the most withering and unsympathetic of responses from my Maths teacher: "Get a torch!"

But, goodness me, we certainly learned some important lessons during that time about the value of things that our own culture normally takes so readily for granted that we don't even notice them.  We don't even think about them.  Above all the value of light. 

Advent is the season of the Christian year in which we explore darkness.  It is a time when we are invited to face some dark realities: spiritual darkness; the darkness of a world that is so desperately in need of God's love of grace. 

And we do so for a very important reason: namely, if you really want to understand at a deep level why light matters, and why it matters profoundly - the best way to do so is to try living without it for a while.  And so, during Advent we explore darkness as a means of preparing for the coming of the light of Christ into the world at Christmas.  So that we can know what it really is that we are celebrating.

As I discovered during my teenage years in the early 1970s, most of the time darkness really isn't much fun.  Darkness is disorientating (try finding your way around even a familiar building when, suddenly and unexpectedly, all the lights go out); darkness conceals things from us, leaving us disempowered; darkness makes the simple tasks of ordinary life a struggle, leaving us feeling disabled; and underneath all of that, darkness can at times be quite frightening: you can never be entirely sure what is there waiting for us - which is why for many of us, darkness is synonymous with fear.

But there is another side to all of this as well.  Thinking back to my experience of the three day week, I realized even then that there are a whole host of different ways in which one can choose to respond to darkness.  One of which is, of course, to do nothing: you can just sit there in the cold and dark and complain about how awful it is, and get increasingly bored and frustrated in the process - or simply give up and go to bed early, and write off the rest of the day.  Alternatively, you can recognize that, although the darkness is an uncomfortable reality that is not of your choosing, for a while at least you are just going to have to learn to do things rather differently until the light eventually dawns.  Which is, of course, also true of Advent.

But the really interesting thing is that Advent offers us much more than that as well.  Because during Advent, not only are we invited to explore darkness so that we can understand the true value of light; but we can also discover that, in its own strange and mysterious way, darkness offers its own gifts.  In darkness we can learn new and important things about ourselves; about one another; about our world; and about God - because during Advent we are invited to experience these things differently; and in the process, we can grow.

During Advent we can learn about patience, because Advent is about waiting; we can learn about attentiveness, because Advent is about watching; we can learn about uncovering the hidden gifts of God, because Advent is about hoping; and we can learn to have confidence in the love and the grace of God in Christ, because Advent is about trusting.  And our lives will be much the deeper and the richer because of that.  In a society that seems so obsessed with instant results and instant gratification, sometimes it is good to have to wait.   Indeed, sometimes, as the poet R.S. Thomas so eloquently put it, 'The meaning is in the waiting'.

When Fiona first ask me whether it might be possible for her and Richard to renew their marriage vows here on 29th November, I must admit that my immediate reaction was hesitant: Advent Sunday marks the start of a season of penitence so it would not normally be an occasion for that kind of celebration.  But the more I thought about it, and about their particular story, the more convinced I became that, in fact, there could be no more appropriate day for them to renew their vows togethr than this one.

Because Fiona and Richard, who were married here at St Bride's ten years ago, know more than most of us about darkness - both during the course of their own, very challenging professional lives; but also, in a very different way, as a result of Richard's devastating brain haemorrhage two years ago, which he was never expected to survive. 

And, as a result, they also know all about the kinds of qualities that Advent draws out of us: they have had to learn to wait, patiently, as Richard, against all the odds, has slowly recovered some of the movement and capacity that he had lost - it is little short of miraculous that today, with a bit of assistance, he is able to stand and to walk.  They have had to learn to watch: to look out for the smallest signs of his progress.  They have had to learn to hope: to remain optimistic in what had initially seemed an utterly hopeless situation.  And they have had to learn to trust: hope always has to compete with the temptation to despair, but beyond our tears there is always the healing love of God. 

And so as we celebrate with Richard and Fiona the remarkable journey they have made together over the past two years, we also see before us in them a living witness to the Advent hope.  And as a sign of that witness and that hope, they will be lighting a special nuptial candle from our own Advent light.

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