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In Season and Out of Season: Crafting sermons for all occasions – Jeremy Davies

March 14, 2017

isoosThe author is one of the most gifted preachers I have ever heard (along with another of my preaching heroes, whom he mentions, Ken Leech).

When I told him that I can still remember his sermon at the Glastonbury Pilgrimage of about 1979 and suggested that he ought to write a book, he modestly didn’t mention that he already had – this one.

Many of the sermons are topical; often they are evocative but perhaps too long for the average parish church. They make me think that I wish I’d had such and such idea.

Niggles: Pentecost is NOT the church’s birthday; to talk of Jesus having a Bar Mitzvah is anachronistic.

Quotations:

Nothing is more tightening of the bile in the stomach than coming, after a long five minutes of waiting, to the end of the queue; and then the telephone rings, and the clerk or the assistant at the desk or counter imme­diately, but immediately, jumps to attend to its peremptory demands. I’m not in the best of humours when the assistant eventually turns to me with a winning smile and says, ‘Can I help you?’

the Kingdom is jumped into by those who know they don’t deserve citizenship in heaven, and who precisely for that reason are pre­ferred by the King before those who are so blasé about their place at the King’s banquet that they can afford to turn down his invitation.

We often describe well-known stories in the New Testament by a short encapsulating phrase: `the parable of the prodigal son’ or ‘the good Samaritan’, or ‘the healing of the paralytic’. In so doing we limit beforehand other possible perspectives and interpreta­tions and other ways of looking at the significance of Jesus’ actions and teaching.

the scriptures as inspired but not definitive; that takes the Bible seri­ously as a source of grace, not as a blueprint for living.

Jesus Christ has turned to us, Jesus Christ has submitted to us, Jesus Christ has come to us.

But this story is not primarily about a wedding. It is about life. About what happens when human resources run out, as inevitably they do. The bride and bridegroom are not the focus of attention in this story — indeed they don’t appear: all eyes are on Jesus. He sees the poverty of human lives, when men and women are in need, at their wits’ end, desperate. He takes empty vessels and pours into them something quite ordinary, but something pure, clean, refreshing and abundant, which transforms human lives. That gener­ous, superabundance, so freely given, we call ‘grace’

The theological point that undergirds this ambivalence of Jesus towards his family, his home, his co-religionists, the elders of his people, is that the essence of Jesus’ gospel is one of inclusion and inclusiveness. True, he has gleaned the heart of God from within his own tradition. His mother and his family, the rabbis and the elders of Israel, the Torah he learned to say by heart as a i2-year-old, have all shaped his sense of God, have moulded his spiritual sensibility and pointed him in the direction of his quest. But his quest is not for a local form of godliness, however profound and beautiful and uplifting and courageous and ancient it may be. His quest is for the God who speaks beyond the natural and the cultural and the tribal and the familiar — even though he may be known and is known within those limitations of our human being. That is why Jesus was born a Jew in first-century Palestine, to show us that God can be known and is known in the particular, in the local, in the bread and wine of daily life. But never — and this is St Luke’s great theological insistence — never confuse your local culture-bound, white, middle-class sense of God with the God who preaches good news to the poor, who proclaims release to captives and recovering of sight to the blind and liberty to those who are oppressed. `OK!’ says St Luke. ‘Find God in your tradition, in your class, in your race, for God is there. But don’t blaspheme him by restricting him to the ghetto of your imagination and your cultural limitations.’ Luke’s Christ tore away from the stranglehold of the local idol who had replaced the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by whom all the nations of the world were to be blessed. He initiated a movement that we know as Christianity in which the great God, holy and unknown, would be known through his power to save, by all men and woman who yearned for him and knew their needth of him.

the new The question of St Luke and his bar mitzvah boy on e eve of  year is whether Christ’s movement we know as Christianity and of which we are a part is going to sink into the cultural desert of lour and aspirations or become the vision of the Kingdom to which the gospel points us.

Simeon, cradling the child Jesus, has been preparing for this moment for a long while.

And then Simeon looks a second time at the bundle of flesh and blood cradled in his arms. And he sees in the tiny and already perfectly formed little hands, clenching and unclenching, the truth of the human condition. The fist, the hand opening to receive, is an icon of human loving and hat­ing. Simeon sees that God’s salvation when it comes, and as it comes in this child, will not free humankind from the implications of being human. He looks into the face of Jesus and he sees quite clearly ‘the cruel nails and crown of thorns and Jesus crucified for me’. He knows that a spear will go through the heart of the mother also; that this child is destined to be rejected, and that through him the secret hearts of many will be laid bare. This is not simply a snapshot of the old man and the child for Mary’s family album. In these few brushstrokes of St Luke’s account, we have, as it were, distilled three hours’ worth of King Lear. The storm that Lear endures as he is flung out of doors by his daughters is the storm of man’s inhumanity to man and of the gods’ judgement upon that inhuman­ity. When Lear screams, ‘in such a night to shut one out. Pour on, I will endure: in such a night as this’, his plight and the plight of all ‘poor naked wretches whereso’er you are that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm’ were foreseen ages past by an old man in the Temple as he looked into the face of a baby.

Simeon looks a third time at the bundle of flesh and blood cradled in his arms and he sees in the tiny and perfectly formed little hands, clenching and unclenching, the hope of the human condition.

Yes, he sees the baby granting him ease to let go of life.

Yes, he sees the human sin that will close in and destroy even such an innocent life.

But, more than that, he sees that the clenched fist of the babe in his arms also opens in love and trust to receive and to give. And though he sees ahead of time that nails will one day force those hands open, he also sees that this baby’s hands and arms and heart will not need nails to keep them open. ‘I have seen with my own eyes the deliverance which thou hast made ready in full view of all the nations. A light that will be a revela­tion to the heathen and glory to thy people Israel.’ How that revelation unfolds, how the baby grows to manhood, how the open hand confounds the clenched fist, and how the costliness of that openness is endured is the burden of our proclamation from Candlemas to Easter. We are simply left with a glimmer of hope in our dark world: the icon of the old man and the child. Not a piece of sentiment or nostalgia, but an affirmation that God’s redeeming purpose is cradled here, frail, vulnerable and puckering, but within our grasp and able to transform our world (if we will ourselves cradle it) from a madhouse to a paradise.

Lear envisaged a paradise with Cordelia; an old man’s musings not,alas, to be realized.

Lear No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison; We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down, And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too, Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out; And take upon us the mystery of things As if we were God’s spies.

Simeon foresees a paradise of peace.

And we, young and old, what are we promised as we turn from Christ­mas towards Easter and all that lies between? A piece of bread, a shared cup, each other, and the promise of the Kingdom where hands are ever open to receive us even though they are marked with blood.

When you receive a fragment of his bread today — which far from being eternal will soon pass into your body and out of it again — when you receive a fragment of Christ’s bread on the palm of your hand, don’t look at it and say ‘There’s God in the palm of my hand, made in my image, thank God.’ Say instead —

`Thank God, the God I hardly know, knows me.’

`Thank God, the God I scarcely love, loves me.’

`Thank God, the God I hold, holds me.’

 

A hard saying

Pentecost 14

Mark io.1-16

Preached in Salisbury Cathedral, io September 1995

The tables of GCSE and A-level results have been published in The Times this last week. And the secondary schools of our city — especially the girls’ schools — have scored particularly well, to the satisfaction, I’m sure, of the candidates themselves, their parents and their teachers.

But education is not primarily about league tables. Of course league tables are seized on by the press as a yardstick of the quality of education in schools. But important as academic results may be for a school, there is more to education, more things that matter, than merely academic results. The training of the mind in the broadest sense, the disciplining of the imagination, the extending of creative skills and resources, the stretching of the human capacity for beauty and complexity, passion and compassion, kindness and love. Education is as much a spiritual, moral, imaginative and physical process as it is an intellectual one. Education is the cultivation of what it is to be human.

I want to take that important distinction and apply it to that aspect of lifelong education that we call ethics. It is into that area of moral discernment and decision-making that today’s Gospel invites us. I was tempted on this first Sunday of the academic year to flick through the readings set for today, to Year z, where St Luke provides us with a marvellous text for such a Sunday with a new school year beginning: ‘Ask and it will be given you: seek and you will find: knock and the door will be opened to you.’

But, sadly, you must come back this time next year to hear that text expounded.

Instead we are stuck with one of the hard sayings of Jesus; one of his strenuous commands. Jesus is asked his view on divorce and he gives it:

`What God has joined together humans must not separate.’ End of discus­sion. An unequivocal view of marriage made even more uncompromis­ing when Jesus is questioned_privately by his disciples. ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; so too if she divorces her husband and marries another she commits adultery.’

The disciples — especially the married men — must have wished they hadn’t asked: so seemingly inflexible is the demand of the Lord. Obviously he has never had to endure the stresses and strains of the married state! Silenced and disconcerted, the disciples turned to the children whom people are bringing to Jesus. There being no cat to kick, they wallop the kids.

However, by the time Matthew came to write his Gospel this particular text has subtly changed. Let’s assume (as New Testament scholars gen­erally do) that Matthew wrote his Gospel after Mark (from whom this morning’s Gospel was taken) and that Matthew knew what Mark had written. In Matthew 19, verses 3-9 we get this. The same testing ques­tion is put to Jesus on the question of divorce. He replies similarly: ‘What God has joined together humans must not separate.’ But, the lawyers say, Moses did give permission for a man to divorce his wife. ‘Only because your minds were so closed,’ says Jesus, ‘did Moses bow to your frailty.’ And then Jesus says — in Matthew — ‘if a man divorces his wife, for any other cause than unchastity and marries another, he commits adultery’ (author’s italics).

Now that phrase — ‘for any other cause than unchastity’ — appears in Matthew, but it does not appear in Mark. We may regard it as Matthew’s amendment of the text (the famous Matthean exception), which softens the extreme views that we heard in Mark, where Jesus allows no excep­tion to the Law.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that we are likely to be closer to the ipsissima verba — that is, the very words of Jesus — if we stay with the angular, less congenial saying of Jesus that if a man or woman divorces and remarries then they commit adultery, with no exceptions or mitigat­ing circumstances.

Well, let’s be a bit Matthean with that uncompromising Marcan text, not necessarily to ameliorate the challenge of it but to discover why Jesus needed to out-Moses Moses; to be more legalistic than the lawyers and more Pharisaic than the Pharisees.

I have a theory about Jesus’ tough stance on law and order and it relates to contemporary theories of education. Those who build a theory of edu­cation simply on a league table of results in public examinations are like those in Jesus’ day who built a theory of salvation on the precise keeping of the letter of the law: never mind the spirit of it. Jesus, as we know, stood against such narrow-minded, narrow-spirited legalists. He stood for a larger, more inclusive, more glorious, more human and, in the end, a more godly regime — and he called it the Kingdom of Heaven.

How come, then, that he who stood against entrenched legalism could be so seemingly intransigent himself?

Well, the answer is this: Jesus dealt with those of small vision, the law­yers and the Pharisees, by beating them at their own game. One of the lawyers asks him — not a trick question but a testing question — about the issue of divorce and remarriage, very likely a live issue in Jesus’ time as it still is in ours. And Jesus replies in their terms. He knows the law on mar­riage; he knows the exception that Moses made to soften the impact of the Law. But he goes behind Moses and restates the Law in its original concise form: he quotes the very first chapter of Genesis: ‘Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.’

There is no exception, and when in private with his friends they hope perhaps to get a less severe opinion, Jesus again goes beyond the bounds of the Law and says that those who do remarry after divorce, as the Law of Moses allows, in fact commit adultery.

Jesus pushes the Law to its logical and terrible conclusion, making of it an almost intolerable burden. And this from the man who said the Law was made for humankind, not humankind for the Law.

What is at issue here?

I need to take you on a biblical excursion to two other moments in the biblical narrative when Jesus is exercised over the question of divorce and adultery and sexual conduct. One is right at the heart of Jesus’ ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5.27-28) when again Jesus takes one of the Ten Commandments — in this case ‘Thou shalt not com­mit adultery’ — and then adds the corollary, ‘What I tell you is this: if a man looks on a woman with a lustful glance, he has already committed adultery with her!’ Never mind the deed; a lustful thought or glance is taint enough. Again Jesus pushes the Law to its limits and beyond, making the Law not a covenant of holiness with God but a yoke of bondage too much for men and women to bear.

Then take another moment in Jesus’ story in Luke 2.1 when a woman is brought to Jesus by the lawyers and Pharisees. She has been caught cbmmitting adultery. The Mosaic Law requires that she should be stoned. What is Jesus’ verdict? Jesus does not reply: he does not look up. He reflects and writes on the ground. They press their question and Jesus replies, ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. And he writes on the ground again, and when he looks up he finds that the accusers are gone. Gone, of course, because when Jesus said ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’ he was not simply talking about sin in general, but about this par­ticular sin of adultery. They were gone, because they remembered Jesus’ teaching that whoever looks upon a woman with a lustful glance commits adultery with her. The lawyers left because they had been outlawed by their own law. ‘They have been caught’, as the psalmist says ‘in the noose they had prepared for another.’ They hear and receive this judgement on themselves, and the lawyers slink away — cowards.

Sadly they do not stay for the moment of grace which is lavished on the accused woman. ‘Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.’ For as the Law is pushed to the extremities of its own coherence it crumbles beneath the pressure of such moral scrutiny. Jesus is making the point that however important law is in the construction of your lives, it can never be life itself, the goal, the pearl of great price. You are wasting your time if you think heaven can be entered on the basis of the grades you’ve got in keeping the Law. The Law is not a ladder to heaven nor the keeping of it a guarantee of heaven, nor are its guardians always the best models of heavenly life. Heaven is larger, more inclusive, more spacious than the Law allows. In fact very often when the Law is broken and men and women and child­ren face themselves – often their worst selves – then grace abounds. The possibility of heaven is very close indeed for those who recognize their poverty, who are sorry for their misdeeds, who are ashamed of their greed or lust or callousness; who repent of their sins, as the service of initiation has it.

Jesus spent his time with such people – though they weren’t well up in the moral league table – because in them the Kingdom of Heaven was being born.

And so it was that when he had finished talking law with the lawyers, he turned to those who were not even on the bottom rung of any ladder and said, ‘Do not forbid them: for of such childlike beings, the Kingdom of God is fashioned.’

Commentary on ‘A hard saying’

The approach to scripture in this sermon is rather different from that adopted in the previous one. On rereading and on reflection it may have been hard going for a sermon for a whole school of some 600 girls on the first Sunday of a new academic year. But to judge by the comeback and the discussions that I had afterwards with senior girls and members of staff, it wasn’t an entire disaster! Nevertheless a preacher needs always to be asking, ‘Who is my target audience?’ and Will what I have to say get across to them?’ Perhaps I should have tried a simpler angle into a difficult subject and borne in mind that a week before most of these girls had been lolling on a lilo somewhere warm.

Jesus on adultery? Welcome back!

That important matter of presentation and audience sensitivity apart, I was keen not to duck the issue that the Alternative Service Book (ASB) lec‑

tionary had so inconveniently provided. As I say in the text, ‘We are stuck with one of the hard sayings of Jesus — “What God has joined together humans must not separate”.’

As usual I try to get to the meat of the issue not by a head-on analysis of the text, but by congratulating the girls on their excellent examination results recently advertised in the press. I wanted to use later in the sermon the league tables in which their achievements had been recorded as an illustration of a theological tension between law and grace. But having referred to the league tables and their limitations as an educational measure, I temporarily dropped the illustration and plunged back into the gospel reading.

Despite my attempts at humour, I’m really trying to engage the congrega­tion in the issue of textual discrepancy (in this case between the Matthean and Marcan accounts of the same story). For many in the congregation, this kind of textual exploration will be old hat. But for many others, espe­cially the young, the idea that the gospel accounts might diverge or even contradict each other may be new.

And furthermore I wanted to take seriously the strenuousness of Jesus’ strenuous command as expressed in Mark. I don’t want to duck the fact that despite having a perfectly good let-out clause in Moses’ gloss on the matter (which you would_have thought was authoritative enough for any­one) Jesus opts for the more demanding alternative. Why? Why did the one we cast in the role of the sinners’ friend become in this instance so intransigent?

It’s that fascinating question I set out to answer in this sermon. And the answer I came up with here — whether or not it convinces anyone else — has increasingly become important to me in my attempts to create for myself at least a theology that does justice to the Bible; that responds to the scriptures as inspired but not definitive; that takes the Bible seri­ously as a source of grace, not as a blueprint for living. The conclusion I come to, by using additional,-related biblical examples to buttress my case, is that in order to outlaw the Law, in order to reflect the Law’s limitations, and the absurdity of living as though law were life, Jesus takes the Law to its own logical absurdity, where ‘pushed to the extremity of its own coherence it crumbles’. This is really a sermon about grace — God’s undeserved but ever-constant outpouring of love towards his creation, particularly those whose lack of resource or status makes them worthy recipients. In them grace abounds.

So much for law and grace. I hoped my (at the time) topical allusion to educational league tables may have helped to reinforce the point I was making. This gospel reading from Mark ends with Jesus blessing children as though to underscore the wider point his particular teaching on divorce was intended to convey. To enter the Kingdom of Heaven you must take on the status of those who have no status, and whose entry into the King­dom is assured by gift, not by law-keeping (or league tables).

Notes

  1. Kavanagh, Elements of Rite, New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1982, p. 17. z J. Bowker, A Year to Live, London: SPCK, 1991.

3 E. Best, From Text to Sermon, London: Continuum, 1988.

4 E. Best, From Text to Sermon, p. 113.

5 C. F. Alexander, from her hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’ (New English Hymnal, 264).

The Annunciation: what if she’d said ‘No’?

Advent 4

Preached in Salisbury Cathedral, r8 December 1994

The Annunciation

The angel and the girl are met. Earth was the only meeting place. For the embodied never yet

Travelled beyond the shore of space. The eternal spirits in freedom go.

See, they have come together, see,

While the destroying minutes flow,

Each reflects the other’s face

Till heaven in hers and earth in his

Shine steady there. He’s come to her

From far beyond the farthest star,

Feathered through time. Immediacy

Of strangest strangeness is the bliss

That from their limbs all movement takes.

Yet the increasing rapture brings

So great a wonder that it makes

Each feather tremble on his wings.

Outside the window footsteps fall Into the ordinary day

And with the sun along the wall Pursue their unreturning way. Sound’s perpetual roundabout Rolls its numbered octaves out And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak not’ movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.

What if she’d been too busy, or too conventional, or too afraid? There were a hundred ways of getting out of it: ‘It’s market day’, ‘I’m not that sort of girl’, ‘It’s the wrong time of the month’.

For a fleeting moment the consequences of saying ‘Yes’ ran past her; the stranger saw the fear and panic in her eyes and hastened to reassure her. `Do not be afraid: you have found favour with God.’

Well! God’s favour was one thing: an important thing I’m sure, and thank you very much, but I’ve got to go on living in this community, with these particular neighbours, in this particular tight-knit, traditional, hard­working peasant village. I’m not sure that saying ‘Yes’ to you will find favour with them.

And the shape that God’s favour would take? To be the mother of God’s son. The joy of every Jewish woman’s heart, to be a mother: to put off the shame of virginity or sterility and join the matriarchal throng; responsible for the continuation and nurturing of the covenant people of God. But what a sour joy — to be an unmarried mother in a Jewish village; more degraded and ostracized than simply being an unmarried virgin.

What if she’d said ‘No’?

No one would have blamed her: in her position we would have done the same. Indeed, although Christian iconography has persuaded us that this particular woman was God’s only choice, it is possible that the stranger had knocked on several doors before this one; like some Dandini in the Christmas panto seeing if the slipper, as it were, would fit. After all God’s plans had been thwarted by women and men — even highly favoured ones — saying ‘No’ before. Maybe, in Mary, the barrel was being scraped and God was truly exalting the humble from their low estate.

What if she’d said ‘No’?

All heaven held its breath as God’s mighty plan for the redemption of the world hung upon the ‘Yes’ or the ‘No’ of a slip of a girl from Nazareth. That perhaps is the most remarkable thing about the whole episode: that all the divine eggs were put into one highly vulnerable basket. I suppose there might have been a contingency plan. After all, you could read the Old Testament as God’s great contingency plan. Not so much the story of God’s constant initiative of love and judgement in human affairs: but God react­ing, trying to find another way round human intransigence; coping with our God-given capacity to say ‘No’. There might have been a contingency plan, if yet again this maid, true to her human kind, had opted for convention, for safety, for obscurity. But nothing in any contingency plan could change the fact that the almighty God had tethered himself and his good purposes once and for all to the ‘Yes’ or the ‘No’ of the beautiful but wilful crea­tures he had made in his own image and likeness. Their co-operation, their , their freely given ‘Yes’ to him was a crucial and indispensable ingredient in whatever redemptive plans the great God might have. There were no short cuts: there are no short cuts. God has put himself entirely in the hands of a Jewish girl; because only from this acceptance, this God-given capacity to say ‘Yes’, could God’s original creative purpose come to fruition. Which is why Edwin Muir, in his poem ‘The Annunciation’ sees the encounter between Mary and the stranger (who is none other than God himself) as a meeting between lovers.

See, they have come together, see,

While the destroying minutes flow,

Each reflects the other’s face

Till heaven in hers and earth in his

Shine steady there. He’s come to her

From far beyond the farthest star,

Feathered through time. Immediacy

Of strangest strangeness is the bliss

That from their limbs all movement takes.

Yet the increasing rapture brings

So great a wonder that it makes

Each feather tremble on his wings.

There’s a suggestion of sexual encounter in the ‘increasing rapture’ and the ‘trembling feather’, but, much more than that, this is a meeting of mutual self-giving in which both the maid and the stranger are reaching out to each other in mutual esteem: both saying ‘Yes’ to the other. As they look into each other’s eyes they see not only their own faces reflected in the other, they see heaven and earth joined together. Of course this is a love poem — pure and simple (if either love or poetry could ever be so simply and purely described), but it’s a love poem that sees the gospel truth that God’s disclosure of himself arises, and can only arise, within that relationship of mutuality, and self-offering to another, and saying yes, that we call love.

What if she’d said ‘No’?

She had no choice. At one level she had all the choice in the world; she could have said ‘No’, or ‘Wait’, or ‘Perhaps’. She saw the consequences ­or some of the social consequences at least of saying ‘Yes’. But when the angel and the girl are met, when the moment comes, there is no possibility of saying ‘No’ for either of them.

Muir’s poem continues: while this secret love-making is going on, life goes on outside the window; as though to remind us that the Annunciation did not take place in some rarefied atmosphere of sanctity — but on the main concourse, in the midst of the traffic.

Outside the window footsteps fall Into the ordinary day

And with the sun along the wall Pursue their unreturning way. Sound’s perpetual roundabout Rolls its numbered octaves out And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

Which moves us from sacred story to ordinary day: to the places we inhabit; where we buy our lottery tickets; where we worry about money; where we grieve and feel guilty over the relative who has had to go into a home; where we overindulge; where we do our shameful things, as well as the things that surprise us by their generosity. I’m talking about Monday morning: with Sunday and its story a half-forgotten memory. As we hurry into town, the leisure of Mary’s love tryst will be the very last thing on our list: turkeys, cards, wrapping paper, presents for forgotten friends who just happen to be passing on Christmas Eve; as we hear the hurdy-gurdy organ in the Market Square churning out comfort and joy we may press a hurried r op into the begging hand of a wayfarer or the rattling boxes of a local charity. Over a quick cup of tea before getting the children from school we may turn on the radio and hear the point-missing syncopation of a John Rutter carol. We may even be seduced by his saccharine view of Christmas, with shepherd boys piping, and angels manger-hovering like demented midwives. But if we are persuaded by that sentimental view, then I fear what we celebrate today and what we shall be celebrating on Christmas Day will be little more than a fairy story. For the story of the Annunciation is not simply a z,000-year-old fable that it pleases us to embellish and gaze at like some Old Master we can wonder at and turn away from. The Annunciation is the most relevant New Testament story for us today: just the other side of the window where our footsteps Jail, just the other side of the ordinary day, just at the end of this road to the market square, an angel waits: God waits. The question is not `What if she’d said “No”?’ (An idle speculation: we know she didn’t.) The question is ‘What if we say “No”?’

Or more importantly: ‘What if we say “Yes”?’ For the Annunciation, like the sacrifice of Calvary, is something that happened once for all, and can never be repeated; and yet, annunciations like crucifixions take place every ordinary day as God encounters us, addresses us, discloses his love to us and longs for us to answer ‘Yes, Amen, Be it unto me according to your Word.’ The consequences of saying ‘Yes’ may run before our eyes; the excuses — the understandable excuses — will form upon our lips; but if we can get past John Rutter we may find in the business and busyness of this week that God, having put a wafer in our hands as a token of his presence today, is staring into our eyes tomorrow, yearning for us to say `Yes’ to him and to cradle his new life with all its terrible demands, and transforming joy.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.

Commentary on The Annunciation: what if she’d said “No”?’

This sermon, which celebrates the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent when in both the Revised Common Lectionary and the old Alternative Service Book this famous story provides the appropriate backdrop for the celebration of Christmas just a few days away. I include it here-partly because it was the sermon that triggered my inadvertent entry into the first Times Preacher of the Year competition in 1995. The competition does not continue, for it was mired in controversy when, in addition to Christian preachers, preachers from other faith traditions were invited to participate, which resulted in the withdrawal of the College of Preachers from their involve­ment as co-sponsors of the competition.

My ambivalence about the Preacher of the Year competition was well known, and I have a lot of sympathy with the excoriating remarks of Canon Eric James in the press and in the pulpit when he said:

The very idea is excruciating — literally. Indeed it borders on blasphemy. And let us recall that on one occasion ‘there arose a reasoning among the disciples which of them should be greatest’. It is hardly stretching the point to call a competition ‘a reasoning which should be greatest’, but a competition with a monetary reward clearly comes more from an age and ethos of the market than of the years of our Lord . . . I cannot conceal from you my deep dismay and misgiving at all that has sur­rounded and has been involved in this competition.2

As it happens, I thought my inclusion in the competition was a hoax, per­petrated by one of my more mischievous friends, since I had not submitted a sermon of mine for consideration by the judging panel. However, this particular sermon had been independently submitted by two members of the Salisbury Cathedral congregation without my knowledge and subse­quently found itself in print in The Times Best Sermon of the Year 1995.

Although sermons simply should not be subjected to this kind of com­petitive scrutiny, for all the reasons I’ve tried to advance in this book, a competition of this kind might just have the effect of raising the profile of preaching and also the expectations of those who preach and those who listen to them.

I have included in full the poem on which this sermon is based. Again, there are all the problems (as well as the possibilities) of using poetry in a sermon which I have addressed elsewhere. In this case I felt that the Edwin is preached.

One other feature of this sermon that caused some controversy is the reference to the work of the celebrated British composer John Rutter. I was taken angrily to task by a friend of mine who is also a composer for daring to criticize Rutter so dismissively. I’ve already referred to the danger of naming names in sermons. In John Rutter’s case, though, I was dismayed that such an intelligent and sympathetic composer, who has written much that I admire, can so obviously sell the Christian message short by colluding with the popular but superficial view of Christmas. It is not that Rutter isn’t a Christian believer — plenty of composers and other artists have created amazing works of spiritual depth despite their own unbelief. It’s more an unease I have about the way serious composers make sentimental and commercial capital out of a serious narrative that challenges both sentimentality and commercialism.

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