December 3, 2017
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Luke 12: 35-48 at Evensong on Sunday 3rd December 2018, Advent Sunday.
To listen to this anthem (sung by the King’s Singers) please follow this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZ_WIZ29yys
Exploring the family tree and hearing stories of relatives from years ago can be a fascinating pastime at family gatherings. I recently heard the sad story of the young priest who died on a mountain, the exciting story of the Derby clockmakers who invented the grandfather clock and the frustrating story of a marriage which might take our tree back to 1010, only the paperwork cannot be found because the Home Guard decided to use the Dilthorne church hall safe to store ammunition in, throwing out the marriage records in the process. Then on a chilly night following up this action on a chilly night by using the discarded “scrap paper” as fuel in the stove.
A short form of the family tree of Jesus often appears in Jesse tree windows. We have a short, but beautiful one of these in our Ladychapel, with King David placed prominently in the centre playing his harp. These trees always spring from the loins or belly of Jesse, the father of King David, who is always placed at the foot of the window, then branches curl upwards, showing those curious kings of Judah, some good and some bad. Some windows show more kings, some less. The virgin and Jesus are always placed at the top of the tree, and Mary is normally depicted with a crown upon her head, as a daughter of kings and a mother of a King. Biblically the image is inspired by the two geneologies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke’s gospel (although mainly following Matthew) and also the prophesy in Isaiah “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots”. The Latin text of this helped inspire the artists too. A stem from the root of Jesse is “Virga de radice Iesse” in Latin, and there is word play here , reminding us of the word Virgo, virgin. ie Mary. The Vulgate Latin bible also translated branch as flos, which is Latin for flower: A flower springing from a tender root.
Which conveniently brings us to today’s anthem. “Es ist ein ros ensprungen”. This German text dates from the 15th Century and the earliest version of it was found in a Carthusian monastery in Trier, Germany.
A rose has sprung up,
from a tender root, As the old ones sang to us,
Its strain came from Jesse And it has brought forth a floweret
In the middle of the cold winter The little rose that I mean,
Of which Isaiah told Is Mary, the pure,
Who brought us the floweret. At God’s eternal counsel
She has borne a child And remained a pure maid.
The floweret, so small. With its bright gleam It dispels the darkness.
True man and true God,
It helps us from all trouble, Saves us from sin and death.
And so, finally, with that bright gleam mentioned in the anthem, I get to the today’s text from the gospel of Luke. ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.”
We are commanded to have our lamps lit whilst we await the coming of the master. I wonder to myself if we really understand light in this day and age, and the terror of darkness. Our towns are so full of light, that we hardly ever wait in the dark. Even at the Advent procession when we switch all the cathedral lights off, there is still a glow from the lights outside in the city.
Yet in biblical times, when it was dark, it really was dark. There was the light of the moon and of the stars, but if you required a lamp to see your way, then you would have to fire up a spark, or obtain that flame from someone else, and tend that light yourself, making sure that there was enough oil to keep the flame burning, that the wick was trimmed, that it was sheltered from the breeze.
So what is that light that Jesus is telling us to keep burning and to tend carefully. It is the lamp of faith, a light which illuminates the mysteries of this world and the deep questions in life.
You may recall the story told by St Bede, of King Edwin of Northumbria, when he asks his counsellors whether they should convert to Christianity. One man replies. “The present life seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house where you sit at supper in winter while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
Without the lamp of faith, the darkness of what happens after this human life is just as dark and terrifying as it was in Saxon times.
The darkness is the unknown, and the lamp is one which can be fanned into ever brighter flame by these very stories we are reading of the one born of a virgin who came to tell what the kingdom of heaven was like and to save us, not just from death, but from the fear of death too.
And how is this lamp kindled? Faith is a gift, and it can be asked for. It is kindled by prayer and it is both kindled and tended by the faith and support of others, just as a burning log is ignited by the ones next to it in a stove.
But we must never take this burning flame for granted. It is not like an electric light that stays lit once the switch is flipped, it needs refilling, and sheltering from the cold breezes. We too need to shelter ourselves from the cold breezes of cynicism and cruelty. We need to stoke the flames of faith with good fuel of prayer, reading and experiences which give us inspiration and hope.
And so as this Advent begins, I encourage you to think of something that might bring warmth and light to your soul, to bring a little more hope into your life, to bring a little more comfort to those around you, and then prayerfully and joyfully do that thing, stepping back for just a moment from the busy and hectic life we normally lead. And may a rose bloom in your life this December too, bringing a bright gleam that dispels the darkness. Amen.