Thoughts for Christmas 2016

hqdefault“Fear not!”[1]  That, according to Luke, was the first word of the angel’s Christmas message to the shepherds. And as we listen to Luke’s story, following the decree of Caesar Augustus and all those other high imperial goings-on, it is also the first word of the Christmas message for us. “Fear not!”

But who is afraid at Christmas? And especially who among us, who are among the well-fed and well-housed people of the world, and are free to worship as we choose?[2]

Christmas for us is a time of celebration: a time for family and for children, a time for those who’ve been scattered to come together. And there’s surely nothing wrong with that. But what has fear to do with it?

What of those whose celebration of Christmas 2016 is not very different in spirit from the Yule celebrations of our pagan forebears, coming together for good cheer in the coldest and darkest days of the year to remind themselves that Winter would not last for ever and in time it would be Spring again? What of those for whom Christmas is simply about parties and eating and drinking and kisses under the mistletoe and having fun? Surely there is nothing wrong with that either. Why shouldn’t people give each other what comfort they may? But again, what has fear to do with it?

What of those like us, who gather in churches and listen to the Christmas story? Surely we are the most fearless and comfortable of all? We are those who know the stories and say the prayers. We listen to the words of the angel aware that the narrative is beautiful and it is part of our tradition. And again, there is surely nothing wrong with that. Why shouldn’t we enjoy a beautiful story? But again, what has fear to do with it?

One answer to all these questions is I suppose that we all carry our fears around with us, whether we admit it or not, or even know it or not. Deep fears, inescapable fears, fears from which not even our celebrations and our parties and our church assemblies can deliver us, though they may help us to evade or forget them for a time. We fear getting old and lonely. We fear losing our health and wits. Several people have told me lately how they fear for the future of our society and where those who lead it will take us. Worse still, we fear the secret darkness inside ourselves that no one but us knows about, and what that darkness might lead us to do. We fear the grave, which none of us will escape. In short we are, like the shepherds near Bethlehem, surrounded by darkness.

Is that, then, what the angelic “Fear not!” addresses? Is it the darkness and uncertainty of life that surrounded the shepherds and surrounds us?

Actually, it isn’t.

As St. Luke tells the story, it is precisely the opposite. Certainly he begins with the shepherds in darkness, “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” But in that situation they seem quite comfortable, even tranquil. Luke’s Greek, which might perhaps better be translated, “keeping the night watches” suggests ordinary folk working together, going about their business with quiet efficiency. (Various commentators suggest that Luke’s choice of phrase—φυλάσσοντες φυλακὰς—implies that the shepherds work in shifts to look after their flocks.)

But then!—“lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them”—and it is in that moment, that moment not of darkness but of light, not of emptiness but of glory, not of alienation and meaninglessness but of divine Presence, it is in that moment, the evangelist tells us, that they “fear with a great fear.” And that is the fear that the angel addresses—not their fear of this thing or that, within them or without, not their fear of the night or their fear of darkness, but their fear of God.

Fear of God is, say the Scriptures, the beginning of wisdom. Fear of God is the fear in comparison with which all other fears become trivial or meaningless. “If you know the right thing to fear,” the Chasidic rabbi told his student, “there is no need to fear anything else.” Or as Nicholas Tate and Nahum Brady put it in their hymn,

Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then / Have nothing else to fear.

So when the shepherds were filled with fear at the sight of God’s glory, they were not wrong in their reaction. On the contrary, they were right. They were awake. They were in health. For theirs was the fear, the one true fear, which is no sooner embraced than it is done away.

And that is exactly what happened.  “Fear not!” the angel said, and continued: “For see, I am bringing you good news of great joy: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” And in that word they could rejoice, and did rejoice, and forgot their fear, and went to Bethlehem to see the Christ.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And the end and completion of wisdom, as the shepherds experienced it, is joy, when that fear is itself cast out by confrontation with the perfect love and eternal mercy of God.

The gospel invites us to celebrate Christmas, as did those shepherds, in the fear of God, and in so doing, to be freed from fear: from that fear, and also from all those other fears, fear of life and fear of death, that we know only too well.

In the fear of God then, let us confess our faith, as the church has taught us:

We believe in One God…

[1] The seed for this little reflection came from my reading of Karl Barth, “’Be not Afraid’” in Barth, Christmas, Bernhard Citron, transl. (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959 [1957]) 29-34. Originally published in 1929, it is one of a series of Christmas mediations by Barth that appeared in German newspapers from 1926-1933. “These articles,” as the translator Bernhard Citron points out in his preface, “are not timeless, for they have a definite ‘Sitz im Leben’ of the German nation during a period when the country went from the apparent prosperity and comparative peace of the mid-twenties rapidly through a period of depression, unemployment and threatening civil war to its surrender before Nazi dictatorship. However the message conveyed here is for all times and all nations, the message of true Christmas over against disbelief, wavering and sheer sentimentality” (op. cit. 5). I agree, and I commend this little volume to any among my friends and colleagues who occasionally find themselves wondering how to preach at Christmas.

[2] Even as I read through this on St. Stephen’s Day—the day of the first martyr—I can’t ignore the fact that I have just read on the BBC website of the present sufferings of Christians in North Korea (go to:, where simply professing Christianity, let alone preaching it, will bring you prison and hard labour if not execution; and I realize once again how lucky we are who live in societies where we are still permitted to to profess our faith without penalty.

Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 2016.

This morning’s gospel passage is from the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. If you know your Bible you’ll know it’s preceded by what Matthew calls “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah”—or, as the old KJV translated it, “the book of the generation of Jesus Christ” (Matt. 1:1-17). We don’t ever read it in church these days, because it seems unreadable. Look at it and I think you’ll see why! It traces Joseph’s family tree all the way back to Abraham, hundreds of years, and consists mostly of Matthew saying, “so-and-so was the father of so-and-so,” and so on through what he claims are forty two generations. Actually, when you count them it rather seems as though he’s only managed forty-one, which leads us to an old joke among seminarians: that Our Lord probably called Matthew to stop being a tax collector because Matthew couldn’t count! Being merely a disciple you didn’t need to be able to count!

What is really strange about this genealogy, however, is that although it is very carefully arranged with this monotonous list of fathers and sons—just as you’d expect in that patriarchal age—on four occasions it actually mentions someone’s mother: namely, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and a woman whom Matthew calls “the wife of Uriah.” And what’s odd about these mentions is that they all involve something scandalous. Tamar deceived Judah to get him to have sex with her. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a foreigner, a member of the despised Moabite race. And “the wife of Uriah” was Bathsheba, who was seduced into committing adultery by King David, who then tried to cover up his adultery by having her husband murdered. Not a pretty story!

And yet, Matthew claims—and of course, he has the whole of the Old Testament to back him up—through all these oddities and scandals and disgraces, God was working God’s purposes out.

At the end of Matthew’s genealogy the evangelist says, “Joseph was the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Christ,” or “the Messiah” (Matt. 1:16). And that brings him, and us, to the passage we heard for this morning’s gospel: “the birth of Jesus the Messiah,” in which Matthew proceeds to tell us the story of yet another scandalous oddity: to be precise, how Mary was found to be pregnant before she had had sexual relations with Joseph, to whom she was engaged.

Joseph, not unnaturally, is taken aback. He is minded to “put her away,” as was his right, and some might even have argued his duty, under Jewish law. Mary could, if the matter had been pursuedth rigorously, have been stoned as an adulteress, since that was still technically the penalty for adultery. But then Joseph receives the message of an angel:“do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

And this perhaps is the first thing to say about this morning’s gospel, the passage of Scripture with which we mark this final Sunday in Advent. For us, after two thousand years of Christian history and reflection, the nativity of Our Lord from the Blessed Virgin Mary is a beautiful story of maiden piety and faithfulness, rewarded by a grace that shall henceforth make Mary “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42). But who on earth would have believed such a story at the time? Would you? Would I? For us had we been there at the time it would surely have been a matter of shame and disgrace, and possibly of Mary’s being stoned to death for adultery.

And yet, Matthew tells us, through this particular scandal, as through all those earlier scandals, God was still working. Indeed, through this particular scandal God was working to bring about a supreme miracle, greater than creation itself: the miracle of Christmas, the miracle of the incarnation, wherein, as St John would put it later, “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

In other words, God is not afraid of scandals and oddities and upsetting of the normal order of things, and even works in and through them. God is not neat and tidy. Even when things seem to us to have gone utterly wrong, it will be a mistake to despair–just as it would have been a mistake to despair in those terrible hours on Calvary, on the first Good Friday, when Our Lord died as a condemned felon, and all surely seemed to be lost.

Two more things we are reminded of by today’s gospel.

First, the angel tells Joseph that he is to name the child whom Mary shall bear “Jesus”—that is, in Hebrew, “Yeshua,” which name means, “God saves” or “God delivers” or “God sets us free”. Sets us free from what? Surely from many things! We all have our sins, our failures, our addictions and weaknesses, all those things in the light of which we may well ask ourselves, how can we dare hope to be accepted by God Who is holy and pure and good? Will we not be struck down at once? The name of Jesus reminds us that God in Christ came to us, binding the divine glory to our sinfulness, precisely so that our sinfulness might thereby be bound to God’s glory: so that we might indeed be set free from what oppresses us. Jesus came for the forgiveness of our sins. Or again, as St. John would put it a few years later, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Second, the angel says to Joseph that the young child shall be called “Immanuel, which means, God with us.” It is—and I seem to have been quoting this story rather a lot lately, but it is certainly not unsuitable for Advent—it is, as the writer to the Hebrews said, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But it is also, as famous British biblical scholar used to say, a good deal less fearful than the alternative. However fearful may be the prospect of God’s judgment, the prospect of a universe without judgment, and therefore of a universe without meaning and without hope is surely a good deal worse. Here then is the final Advent message, the final promise on this the last Sunday of Advent: that the God who comes to us in judgment, the dread king whom we must face upon the throne, has a human face, a face of compassion and mercy, the same compassion and mercy that he showed to sinners two thousand years ago: and it is the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus is God with us, our Immanuel. Even so, Matthew will record Christ’s promise in the final words of the gospel where, triumphant over death and the grave, Jesus tells his followers, “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20).





Thoughts for the Third Sunday in Advent, 2016: the Sermon that was NOT preached at Epiphany, Sherwood because I thought the congregation looked too cold to be able to listen!

Gospel: Matthew 11:1-13

Are you the one that is to come?” John the Baptist asks Jesus from prison. And so John reveals that even he—rough, gruff, uncompromising John the Baptist—has his moments of doubt and uncertainty. Some find that shocking. I don’t know why they should. It merely shows that like all the saints John the Baptist was human. What makes him a Saint—with a capital “S”—is of course that despite his doubts and uncertainty he hung in there.

You’ll notice our Lord doesn’t answer the Baptist’s question with arguments or proofs. He simply points to what is going on, to what he is doing, to his life, and to the life of those round him. “Go and tell John what you see and hear,” he says. Works of mercy, works of grace, works of deliverance, good news to the poor, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, life out of death: these are the signs of God’s presence, these are the marks of the Advent of the true Messiah—as the prophet Isaiah said they would be (Isa. 35:1-10). They were the marks of Jesus’ First Advent, and they will be the marks of his Second, his coming in glory.

And what of us? When the saints write or talk about their experience of God, they generally speak of it as gracious, sustaining, freeing and life giving. And they speak the truth as they have found it. When atheists write or talk they don’t, by definition, speak of their experience of God since they don’t believe God exists. They speak of their experience of religion, which they find graceless, oppressive, imprisoning and deathly. And I fear that they, too, often speak the truth, for only too often religion is all these things. That is why I think God must both love the church and hate it. God must love it because it hands on the stories and the traditions and says the prayers. God must hate it because it so often puts people off the very things it is handing on.

So what shall we do? One of Groucho Marx’s all time great wisecracks was, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Combining this with our Lord’s answer to a troubled and confused John the Baptist, we have perhaps a clue as to the nature of the Christian life and witness to which we should strive. It is not that, when our faith is challenged or when someone else is in doubt, we are to produce arguments or slogans, still less threats of damnation! It is rather that we are to point to a life—the life of Christ that is graceful, sustaining, freeing, and life giving, and to a community that is imbued with that life.

But can the church be such a community? It can by God’s grace and sometimes even is. And we can do our little bit to help it become that by endeavoring ourselves live that life, perhaps taking as our daily commitment the attitude that St Francis’ prayer envisages:

O divine Master,

Grant that I may seek not so much

To be consoled, as to console,

To be understood, as to understand,

To be loved, as to love.[1]

So doing, we will be helping to form the character of a club that is indeed willing to have anyone as a member, and to which one might, nonetheless, still want to belong!

[1] For some reason Episcopalians are rather snooty about this beautiful prayer. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is because Saint Francis probably didn’t write it. Personally, I couldn’t care less who wrote it. It’s entirely Franciscan in spirit, and I’m quite sure Saint Francis approves of it. Let me, incidentally, commend it to you in its traditional form (which I quoted above) and not in the form given in our Book of Common Prayer. The traditional form is:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me bring love.

Where there is injury, let me bring pardon.

Where there is discord, let me bring union.

Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.

Where there is error, let me bring truth.

Where there is despair, let me bring hope.

Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.

Where there is darkness, let me bring light.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

In pardoning that we are pardoned,

And in dying that we are born to eternal life.


Quite why the drafters of our BCP version felt free to omit “where there is error, let me bring truth” is a mystery to me. Although the omission may not be unconnected to another phenomenon that I notice lately—that so many in public life appear not to be overly concerned with “truth.” Anything goes, just so long as it makes an effective sound bite!

Thoughts for the Second Sunday in Advent, 2016. Text of a Sermon preached in All Saints’ Chapel, Sewanee, Tennessee, four days after the United States’ election

For the gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

“Repent,” said the Baptist, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

And it seems that they did. Many came to be baptized, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan”—in other words, all the parts of the ancient kingdom of Israel—“and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

Among those who came were “many Pharisees and Sadducees.” This we should expect. The Pharisees don’t get a very good press in the New Testament, but they were in many ways Israel’s heroes. They’d stood courageously for her laws and traditions when others were willing to abandon them at the hands of foreign oppressors. Their almsgiving, fasting, and prayer life would put most of us here, certainly me, to shame. The Sadducees were, of course, Israel’s official ruling class: the high priest was invariably a Sadducee, and so were most of the Sanhedrin. They don’t get a very good press in either the New Testament or the rabbinic writings. Nevertheless, more conservative and limited in their views than the Pharisees though they were, they too in their own way upheld Israel’s national and religious traditions, and especially the glory of her Temple.

So it was only proper that such people should be part of a national repentance.

But then something shocking happens, something scarcely credible: John the Baptist turns on these national leaders!

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

In God’s name what is he talking about? Why does he address the leaders of Israel in this way?

Fortunately for us, he answers these questions.

“Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” he says—and then specifies how: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’”

“We have Abraham as our father!”

Pride of nation, pride of race, pride of religion, “us-and-no-others”: these good men’s weaknesses are the flip side of their strengths. False pride was the very danger inherent in that ardent upholding of Israel’s Law that was their glory. It is, alas all too easy—and God knows we Christians have done it often enough—to slip from “we have been chosen by God to be God’s witness to the world”—which is what the prophet Isaiah told Israel (e.g. Isa. 49.6)—to “we have been chosen by God because we are great and mighty and special and wonderful and awfully important.”

Against which folly, if the Baptist had been in the mood, he could have quoted Moses: “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you…!” (Deut. 7.7).

Or, as St Paul would later say to the Corinthians, “What do you have that you didn’t receive? And if you received it, why boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 7.7)

As it is, the Baptist simply says with biting sarcasm, “I tell you, God can raise up from these stones children to Abraham!” There is no one in God’s eyes who is irreplaceable. There are no exceptional nations. There is only what God creates and chooses out of God’s free grace: and that, according to the Scriptures, is “all that God had made,” all that God named in the beginning and saw that it was “very good” (Gen. 1.31), the “all” that our Lord promises he will through his cross draw to himself (John 12.32).

Why does this issue matter to the evangelist? Why does he tell us about it? No doubt because he was writing fifteen or so years after the disastrous Jewish war against Rome of AD 70, the war that had brought about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the devastation of Israel, and untold suffering for the Jewish people, as well as the deaths of many foreigners caught up in it. Fifteen years meant time to reflect, and Matthew could now see that this meaningless and unnecessary war — see Martin Goodman’s magisterial Rome and Jerusalem[1] if you want the details — this “give me liberty or give me death” war which had been started, so the zealots claimed, in the name of God and God’s honour because the children of Abraham were too special to be part of any pagan empire — though God knows and the Scriptures tell us, they had in their history been part of several such empires, not always unhappily, and it was in fact, pagan, Persian money that had gone to build the second Jerusalem Temple – this revolutionary war was what the great teacher Yochanan ben Zakkai—known to Jews who know their history as “father of wisdom and the father of generations,” because he ensured the continuation of Jewish faith and hope and learning after Jerusalem fell—this war was what ben Zakkai said it was: “sinful and foolish.[2]

So it is, as foreseeing the horror that will be caused by this xenophobia and national arrogance, that Matthew completes the Baptist’s words of warning: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” As of course our Lord also foresaw when he was invited to admire the magnificence and beauty of the Temple. “You see these great buildings,” he said, “There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).

What we have here then is an ancient story of folly and arrogance and xenophobia leading to chaos and destruction: a story of tragic dimensions, worthy a Homer or an Aeschylus or a Shakespeare. Is it then only an ancient story? No indeed. Greatness of any kind—moral, intellectual, political, military—always brings its danger: pride and arrogance.

Rudyard Kipling saw this quite well when he wrote his poem The Recessional, at the height of British imperial and world power:

God of our fathers, known of old,

   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold

   Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!


The tumult and the shouting dies;

   The Captains and the Kings depart:

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

   An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

And what happens when nations do forget?

Far-called, our navies melt away;

   On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

And that of course has happened to at least one great nation, one world power, within the memory of some here.

One advantage I have in being able to remember World War II and the London Blitz is that I have vivid recollections, even as a five-year-old, of the transformation of a society that seemed ordinary and comfortable into one on which all Hell broke loose every night. And I saw from my childhood those pictures of refugees—my parents tried to shield me from them, but of course they could not—grimy black and white photographs of men and women who looked just like my mum and dad, with children clutching teddy bears just like mine, being machine-gunned by Messerschmitt 109s. So I have had some notion from the beginning of my life of how the fabric of civil society is fragile, much more fragile, I believe, than those of us who have always had the privilege of living our lives in such societies realize.

Britain did not collapse. Whether that was because, as Winston Churchill claimed, it was our finest hour, or whether less romantically, in the words of a Ministry of Defence poster that has now become iconic, it was merely because we kept calm and carried on, I don’t know. Perhaps it was a bit of each. But at any rate we muddled through, and emerged at the end at least in some measure recognizably what we had been at the beginning.

The society that did collapse, and that had already collapsed when World War II started, was of course Germany.  Were the Germans a civilized nation? Of course they were—civilized and deeply Christian. Yet somehow, in the bitter aftermath of World War I there was a decay of rational hope and conversation, and permission given to the arrogant and narcissistic to rule. Those things broke the bonds of true community. I commend to you Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45.[3] Mayer tells first hand of the gradual erosion of civil liberties that followed the election of Chancellor Hitler. He writes,

To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

He concludes,

How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now.

Personally, I think that Martin cannot see a sure way of avoiding this decay because there is none. “There was,” as the compilers of our first Book of Common Prayer pointed out, “never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in the continuance of time hath not been corrupted.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how good something may be, there’s always someone who’ll come along and find a way to screw it up. And that surely applies as much to constitutions and systems of law as it does to liturgies.

But of course that does not mean that one gives up—either on devising liturgies or on trying to create rational and civil societies in which to live. God himself gave laws to Israel, and even, in time, a king. John the Baptist’s abrupt and arresting address to the political and religious leaders of his nation is as valuable to us as it might have been to them had they listened, because it reminds us of the seriousness of the decisions we make. The things we choose actually matter.

From the viewpoint of my poor wit—being, incidentally, myself an immigrant to this country—there are two things that seem to me especially important for us to choose, as we endeavour here and now to be a humane and civil society at this point in history.

First, as Albany puts it at the end of King Lear—a drama that shows us what happens to a society when humane and civil values are abandoned if ever one did—we must always try to, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” What I mean is, we must be very fierce about what the ancient Greeks called parēssia[4]: the right of free citizens to speak their mind. This was the right that the founders of the United States—many of whom were of course classicists, consciously endeavouring to enshrine in their new republic what they saw as the best insights and aspirations of fourth century Athens and the ancient Roman Republic—this was the right that they placed first of all in their reflections on the constitution they had drawn up: freedom of opinion, freedom to argue, freedom to criticize the government, the right of the press and the media to ask awkward questions, even silly questions, the right to protest peaceably and the right openly to disagree with what our governments say or do. These are the marks of all free and open societies. Once a society gives up those, it is only a step to the knock on the door at two in the morning, the unexplained disappearances of dissidents and reformers, the bodies in unmarked graves, all that we associate with tyranny and dictatorship.

Second: Moses and the prophets repeatedly challenged Israel as to how it treated “the widows, the strangers”—that is, the aliens in its midst, the immigrants—“and the orphans.” Winston Churchill famously said, “I judge whether a country is or is not civilized by how it runs its prisons.” They are all, I think, making essentially the same point: that it is how a society treats its weakest and most vulnerable members—those who have no rights or have forfeited their rights or aren’t like us in some way—that tells us what kind of society it is. The Jewish American poet, Emma Lazarus, in her sonnet The New Colossus (which is slightly misquoted on the base of the statue of Liberty in New York Harbour) offered a vision of the United States as a nation gracious to the vulnerable:

                         Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

        The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…!

Of course a society where people can say and think what they like and are different from each other in all sorts of ways is also a messy society, an untidy society, a disorderly society. And we love order. But beware of order without true law. Order is another of those good things that if made into a god becomes a demon. The Fascists and the Nazis brought order. They got the trains to run on time. And they did it while accustoming their people to mass murder. Actually, if you think about it, there is nothing more orderly than death. What could be more orderly than a row of coffins? But if you want life, think of a puppy: squirming, bouncing, tail-wagging, pooping, peeing, licking—totally messy. But how alive!

All that said, all that remembered, as Christians we do of course look beyond all these things to our final, Advent hope—to which the Baptist points us in this morning’s gospel. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” Thank God for that! Advent reminds us that at the end of all things we will fall into the hands of the living God, which is, as the writer to the Hebrews said, “a fearful thing”; but which is also, as famous British biblical scholar used to say, a good deal less fearful than the alternative.

Let us, nonetheless, be clear. God is not mocked. Our Advent hope can sustain us amid whatever perils and judgments we may bring upon ourselves in the present age, but it cannot deliver us from them. What will happen in history, we do not know. We never know. For the moment we can only, mutatis mutandis, take for our own the words of President Lincoln at a great crisis in this nation’s history: “fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray” that all may be well for this country and for the world over these coming years. But whatever happens, “as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

[1] Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (London: Penguin, 2007).

[2] See e.g. Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 32.

[3] Martin Mayer, They Thought They Were Free (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1955, 1966). For an excerpt, including the portion quoted above, go to

[4] παρρησία: “outspokenness, frankness, freedom of speech, claimed by the Athenians as their privilege” (Liddell and Scott, Greek English Lexicon in loc.); cf. “a use of speech that conceals nothing and passes over nothing, outspokenness, frankness, plainness (Demosth. 6, 31)” (BDAG in loc.).