On Friday we remembered St Nicholas, the original Santa, usually noted for being nice to children and rescuing girls from exploitation. All very contemporary concerns. Far from the flying reindeer and benign smiling, he has a passion in his story that has bite for the issues we face today. He was also present at the Council of Nicea, when the Roman Emperor Constantine wanted to sort out a dispute between different branches of the Christian church over what we believe about God – how we hold together different persons of the Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Creed, the Nicean Creed, has its origins in one which emerged from the end of this council and if you sometimes wonder how it came to be so important that it is recited during our services, remember that it is an agreed statement, setting out the results of deliberations and settling a dispute. The one we use is actually a later draft from a subsequent council (Chalcedon in AD 451). At Nicea, with all the bishops gathered together in the year AD 325, Nicholas, as bishop of Myra in Southern Turkey, had a particular concern for truth, for Jesus being seen as fully God and fully human, what we express as
“God from God, Light from Light, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father…”
Things got heated and rather like in a recent episode from the BBC adaptation of ‘The Name of the Rose’, also set around a council to settle a dispute, there was a punch up. Nicholas crossed the floor to his opponent and slapped Arius on the face. Remember, he knows if you’ve been bad or good! He was censured for this and had to repent of his behaviour. Passionate, strong and no bland affability, Nicholas was a force to be reckoned with.
Another character, not exactly remembered for being affable and calm, is John the Baptist. In our Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12) he had some very choice words for those who wanted him to make them feel better by dipping them in the river. His was a baptism for repentance, to prepare for God’s kingdom about to dawn in Jesus Christ. He looks at the Pharisees and Sadducees, the leaders of the faith, who have also gathered for this purifying, ‘count me in’ ritual and he decides they are hypocrites. He calls them a “brood of vipers” and if they didn’t quite catch that, he tells them that an axe is lying next to the tree to chop it down. And, to spell it out further, they are the tree. If they don’t bear good fruit, this tree is to be cut down and burnt. They are not bearing good fruit, so, ipso facto, they are for the chop.
These are two uncompromising men. They don’t mess about; they say exactly what they think, with no edit button at all, and most of us would not find them at all comfortable. There would be complaints, shouts that they are alienating people, driving division and not at all the kind of people we expect clergy to be today. This Santa would be a bad Santa! But a theme of Advent is the call to wake-up, to pay attention and get a grip. When we are in a doze something dramatic may be needed to get through our inertia.
Speaking out, when we feel we have to do so, is partly a matter of working out how we will be heard. And thinking how something will land is well worth a moment’s pause before that late night tweet or email. At least Nicholas had the humility to apologise for his behaviour even though he stood by the stance he took. He had a night in the cells to thank for that cooling off and reflection. His target was a concern for truth, just like John the Baptist was trying to wake up his hearers to take spirituality seriously. It is something that requires a response from us, not just a warm feeling. It requires us to pick it up and live it, to put it into practice, but above all to give our hearts to it. Right faith goes with right practice. We are to do as we believe, to live it. To issue the necessary challenge calls for courage to speak, especially when the hearers may prefer not to be disturbed. So just because someone gets a bit annoyed does not negate the issuing of the challenge.
Something I reflect on from time to time is what it means to speak into the public square. This can be a tricky challenge. It is not always an easy judgement call to decide when to take a stand and when to keep neutral. When we are benign santa, everyone loves us – well, at least they don’t get annoyed at us. When we get a bit uppity, even if we don’t slap anyone physically, sharp words are not usually wanted. There are times to be neutral, recognising that there are people of good will in all political parties. But there are times when being neutral is to take a side and the environment is one of those areas. We are facing such a serious challenge that unless we all change our ways we will sink. What is more, some of the poorest people on the planet will sink first because they live in low lying areas, though living in an area of the country largely made up of reclaimed bog land, and the 18th century drainage programme caused the ground level to drop, if sea levels rise we are in trouble. I saw a map recently which showed that if this happens the Cathedral Precincts will become the beach. The new university site and the development on Fletton Quays will be under water.
Yesterday we hosted a stand on behalf of Peterborough Eco-Faith Network to draw attention to the climate crisis. It is still there if you would like to add your message or get creative over coffee. It is timed to coincide with the United Nations COP25 Climate Change Summit taking place in Madrid. In the Old Testament book of Genesis human beings are set as stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). We are failing in our duty of care. It is time to wake-up, to change how we live and reduce our impact on the planet before it is too late, to live more sustainably and achieve a position where we have net zero emissions.
On Tuesday at the Hustings here for the General Election, none of the candidates really picked up on the radical timescale needed for achieving this net zero emissions. Paul Bristow mentioned the Conservative target for carbon neutrality, but the others didn’t pick up on this even though I fed them the line. Each of the parties has a different target date for reaching net zero carbon emissions:
- Green Party, not surprisingly, sets the most ambitious target at 2030 – 10 years time.
- Labour had been aiming for 2030 but have changed that to something more nuanced at ‘setting a path towards net zero emissions’ by 2030. Not quite the same thing.
- Lib Dems, along with the SNP believe that is not realistic, so have gone for 2045 – 25 years time, a quarter of a century.
- The Conservative party goes for 2050 – 30 years time, a generation away.
The Environment Agency considers 2030 to be the stark diagnosis for standing a chance of averting the crisis, but even then some think that is too late. Whatever date is taken and acted on, the moment to change our ways is actually now and that means each of us reducing by at least 7.6% a year. If you take this seriously, what changes will you make to how you live when thinking about your New Year resolutions?
Insults don’t tend to get people to change their ways, so we live in very different times to John the Baptist, and a violent slap, as with Nicholas, is very much not encouraged either. But telling truth to power has been a noble aspect of Christian witness, since the days of John the Baptist and the long prophetic tradition in which he stood. His key prophetic call was to take faith seriously, to live it. One of the ways we do this is to be faithful stewards of the earth, to exercise the duty of care that we have for the planet and all its inhabitants. Advent is a time to wake from our sleep, to pay attention, to get a grip and to change our ways. Just as it applies to the spiritual, to make it real, that faith is to be lived out, not least in our stewardship of the earth for the sake of all God’s creatures, great and small.
Sermon for Advent 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th December 2019