3rd Sunday of Advent, 16th December 2018
Old Testament: Zephaniah 3.14-20
New Testament: Phil.4.4-7
Gospel: Luke 3.7-18
The Lord is near. [Phil.4]
And the crowds asked [John]…’What then should we do?’ [Luke 3]
Today is a day for joy. Its traditional name is ‘Gaudete Sunday’, which you could translate as ‘Rejoice Sunday’. It gets its name from the first line of the New Testament reading: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say ‘Rejoice!’’ That is Paul’s instruction to the people of Philippi; that is what he enjoins them to do in every waking moment. Rejoice! In the watching and waiting of Advent, today points urgently towards the joy which comes towards us. ‘The Lord is near’. He is close now. Before long he will be with us, in our company; before long we will know, just as we are fully known, face to face with our redeemer and judge, Jesus Christ. Rejoice!
Oh, but hang on a moment, you’re thinking. Isn’t today the day we get some preaching about hell? Don’t duck out of it; we hardly ever get any preaching about hell these days, and we were quite curious about what you felt able to say. Is it real; is it not real? Is anyone bound for it, or are we all redeemed whatever we do, think, feel or say? Have we any time or place for hell in our polite, restrained and studiedly incurious Church of England? And what has hell to do with rejoicing?
When I was a very small child, I was walking with my mother by the sea, and I asked her whether hell was real. It was a cold, grey day: we were on a pier somewhere, sharing a paper cone full of tiny shrimps, which tasted surprising; delicious. She paused a long time, and then said, cautiously, ‘Some people say that the hells we experience happen before we die’. She didn’t say anything else. But I thought about that for a long time, I am still thinking about it half a century later, because… it turned things upside down, somehow, if this world was the world with the real horrors in it; and the world to come – whatever else it might contain – was to be a place mercifully free of man’s inhumanity to man.
Put aside the pictures in your mind of the medieval place of punishment; the strange, toothy stick-insect torturers of Hieronymus Bosch, the half-comic prancing devils with their pitchforks, and the patient, agonised, mutilated bodies of the lost. These are human nightmares: they imagine the ways in which God might be cruel in a peculiarly human way. It is true that the ingenuity and passion we expend upon hurting each other participate in the nature of hell. Each time we see another person as less than fully human – a thing to be used or discarded – we draw nearer to its gates. Yet it is not true that ‘hell is other people’. Hell is where we are when other people vanish from our affections, hell is not a hot place but the place where love grows cold; hell comes near when we lose our capacity for sympathetic imagination; when we look around the world we are in and see nothing but endless reflections of our own hungry, lonely selves.
Last week Canon Johnson, pondering the nature of God’s judgement, talked about the experience of being brought up into the light, the place where the secrets of all hearts are revealed. I want to think about that. About what it might be if every part of you were discovered, shone upon: the secrets, the forgotten things, shames and struggles and failed attempts at goodness; resentments and hatreds and griefs; pride and contempt; cruelties of thought, hidden actions, furtive transgressions; and those stark moments of self-knowledge which are too hard to bear and have to be shoved under a muffling cushion of distractions, busy-ness, business, discontent, wandering, or sleepiness. There it sits, this jumble of half-remembered nastiness and misery, telling you at intervals: no one knows how unpleasant you really are; no one’s love could survive what you know of yourself; trust nobody.
But in the steady, bright gaze of this light, the whole lot comes out, tumbling out any old how, tawdry and battered and small. And you are still loved.
And you look at it, and it’s a painful kind of relief, sharp and searing, like grief or the way it feels to sob and sob and let it all go, the way it feels to stop maintaining it all day after day after day, and you think, ‘What now?’’
‘What then shall we do?’
Because you’ve been carrying hell, and it was a dreadful thing, and now it’s all over the floor.
And this is when the Lord does something unbearable. He hands it back to you. He gives you a choice.
He says, ‘What shall I do?
‘I won’t take it away if you want to keep it. It can go as soon and as fast as you choose, washed away in the deep waters of baptism, dissolved by innocent blood, broken like a dying body. But if you are attached to it, if you can’t find it in yourself to give it away, it’s still yours. This is judgement; that you have to be ready to give yourself away, even the bits you clung to as being absolutely your own, the nasty bits you didn’t ever have to or want to share. Mercy is on the other side of your pride, your self-respect, your contempt, your greed, your familiarity with your own sins, those sins which know you better than anyone in the whole waking world. Are you ready to give yourself away like that?’
And you say, ‘What do you mean by giving myself away?’
And he says, ‘By being ready to be as small as everyone else. As small as the person you despise most, the person you think barely is a person. By learning to love in places where you have so far barely managed even to take notice. By giving up being afraid that people will find you out. By looking outwards, and discovering what you are being asked to give by discovering what someone else might need.’
And at that point, you really can choose. God never rushes anyone. You can keep your hell, and bolt yourself into it; but the bolts are on the inside. Right up to the last moment of choice, conscious or unconscious, the Lord is near, the one who turns the shadow of death into the morning, his hands ready to take the bundle of nastiness from you and leave you light and clear, winged, transparent, emptied; yet still held and filled, solid and real, rejoicing and strong.
Freedom is always at your right hand, every day. Rejoice! The Lord is near. He is coming, he is close. He will make your heart free. The choice is yours. It is always yours. If what you want is hell, you will not be denied it. After all, you made it yourself. But the light is always waiting beside you, just in case you are ready to turn, and to be rescued, and to consent not just to know, but to be fully known.