Yesterday Churches Together in Central Peterborough organized an excellent reflection day for Advent at the Cathedral. It was led by Canon Mark Oakley from St Paul’s Cathedral and his theme was ‘Poetry and Faith’. One of his word images was about thinking of churches, worship and faith as being like ‘stepping into a poem’. God is the cause of our wonder, and so the language of faith is poetic. He contrasted this with what he called having ‘newsroom ears’ or going into St Google’s, where facts are on tap. This basic difference of approach, of ways of listening and thinking is why many struggle with the language of faith. If you come into a church with ‘newsroom ears’ and then hear all the poetry, it will jar with what your brain is expecting to hear and process, and may strike you as being thoroughly ridiculous. The Bible is full of poetry and poetic allusions, our hymns and psalms are nothing but poetry. As we sing them, read them, hear them, we know that metaphor has been let loose to play and pray.
If that is true generally of faith and worship, Advent and Christmas have this with flashing lights. They are seasons of the poetic and the wonder of allusion and resonance. Our first reading (Isaiah 11:1-10) was not really talking about a tree or vine, with roots and shoots, branches and stems. It is an image to conjure up the sense that there is a thread that will come to fulfillment. The image goes back to the house of David, and his father Jesse, and so draws on all of the allusions of a Kingdom established and secure, a time of prosperity and liberation. Jerusalem shall be established, and that is the holy city, where God dwells among us. Again the poetic is employed. The temple is not where God lives, but is the focus for all that their faith means, where it has a special place for them to connect and reconnect with it. It is the place where the name of God is honoured in a special way and that becomes identity forming.
When we ‘step into a poem’, words have profound meaning but cannot be tied down. This is not the preserve of lawyers and constitutional experts, for whom the fine detail is everything in defining with precision and limiting so as to be specific and unambiguous. This is the preserve of the visionaries and those who expand imaginations to dare to dream, dare to risk, dare to embrace with love. Poetry is the language of love and so we should not be surprised if what comes through sacred texts is love: love of God, love of neighbour and love of ourselves. Mark Oakley gave us the image of looking at sacred texts as if they are a letter from a dearest friend. As we read or hear it, we will find love between the lines. To fully understand it we have to find the love in the allusions, in the phrases, in the spaces between the words and phrases and allusions. If we can’t find the love then something is either very wrong with the text or with how we are reading it.
This ‘stepping into the poem’ is particularly important when we find ourselves surrounded by shining lights and glitter, when nativity plays enact gospel passages as if news reports. Enacting the story is a good way of learning it, but we have to move beyond the literal to discover the truth being conveyed, explored and reflected. A child’s wonder will do this naturally, but as we grow we find the literal interpretation of the story wanting I suspect because we have stopped understanding the poetic in an intuitive way. Children have a way of doing this. The imaginative, the playful and the symbolic are their world. The knocks of life, the hard realities of adult responsibility can lead us to forget this and lose our grasp on it. Perhaps this is one of the meanings behind Jesus placing a child in front of the group and telling them that to enter the Kingdom of God they have to become like little children (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16). They need to rediscover the poetic, the metaphor and step into these.
And so John the Baptist enters onto the stage of our gospel reading, having raided the Old Testament allusion dressing up box (Matthew 3:1-12). He stops short of wearing a label marked Elijah, but a camel hair suit, leather belt and a snack of locusts and wild honey, is just as good to a people used to hearing the stories and recognizing the description (cf 2 Kings 1:8). He is a walking poetic allusion. The Book of Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, ends with a reference to Elijah making a return before the Lord comes to bring all things to completion and fulfillment (Malachi 4:5ff), and Matthew later has Jesus explicitly refer to John as having been Elijah and they did not recognize him (17:12). So John is the warm-up act for the Lord’s coming and clearly this means Jesus. In Jesus all the hopes of the years, all the promises will come together and be fulfilled. He is the one they are looking for and hoping for. In Jesus, God’s mask is removed and we see what he is really like. He calls us to follow him, to live for him and trust him. He calls us love as he loves, with self-giving passion and in the light of the eternal. His is no passing kingdom of earthly rulers and those whose end is to be encased in fine tombs. His is a Kingdom that breaks open tombs and will not be contained.
The poetic allusions continue because having referred to the tree and the root of Jessie, now there is axe ready to chop it down. This refers to the tradition represented by the Sadducees and Pharisees. Just standing in the line of ancestors is not enough. If they do not bear fruit, then they do not embrace what lies at the heart of the baptism John has brought. This is to be ready for the Kingdom of God, to be open to it and want to live in its light, its peace and its justice. Stones can be turned into offspring of Abraham; God can make new followers out of the most unlikely places and the justification comes in how they respond and live. The Sadducees and Pharisees as representatives of the cultic and rabbinic traditions are exposed; for all their learning and devotion they have failed to live the poetry of that faith. If they had they would have recognized the truth in front of them, the sign of God’s presence and true holiness embodied. So the fulfillment which comes to the tree, to the stock of Jessie, does not just flow by entitlement but comes with a difference, with a demand that those who are grafted into it bear fruit, live its peace, love in its hope.
Advent and Christmas are seasons of deep poetic allusion. We step into their poetry and so find the language of faith deepened and excited. We are glimpsing something far greater than we can grasp or contain. When we gaze through the candlelight that light enables us to see the profound in the shadows and hinted at understandings more than we would if we tried to define it with facts on tap. God is a wonder to be adored and not a neatly defined object. It is because of our limited comprehension that poetry is a fuller understanding than systematized formula. Advent and Christmas are seasons when this is at its most intuitive and important.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 2 – Sunday 4th December 2016