Sermon: Advent 1

Picture of Winter in Northumberland, England by photographer Ian Britton. (Photograph from

My sermon from this morning:

Winter Martyrium
I don’t like these short, dark winter days. By 4:00 pm the skies are darkening and the street lights across the country switch on like some consenting, creeping blanket of light. And I feel the desire to curl up and hibernate until the spring, to escape the darkness.

And yet there is something of a tension within me. Because it is within the stillness of the darkness, within the isolation and hiddenness of the dark that I encounter God. It is when I am painfully honest about the darkness within me that I am able to approach the light of God and ask for his warmth, protection and company.

In winter dusk and early evening appear to me to be busier than the same time during the other seasons. The darkness focuses our attention on the light that is around about, Like the black line drawn around an illustration, it gives the light focus. On the main roads car lights and lorry lights; the orange “For Hire” lights on taxis; bright window displays, and illuminated shop logos; street lights and traffic lights; Christmas lights across streets and on Christmas trees. Flashing, busy, business, attracting our attention, our custom. Retailers know that light has the power to attract us, like giant moths to a candle. With such a competition for our attention it’s a surprise that we have time for the Light of the World at Christmas.

Funny how we feel more drawn to the light, for warmth, for security, for company. Without electricity or gas few of us can possibily imagine what life must have been light without instant-on light. When we relied very much on the natural ebb and flow of the seasons, until technology (flint, candles, matches, electric torches) helped us out.

We are reliant on light for our well-being, our health. We rely on light for security. Even the faintest glow from a bedside clock is enough to dispel our fear of the dark.

We are drawn to the light for warmth and company. I have fond memories of being huddled around a camp fire on a dark night, on a rocky hillside, the night before we got our final school exam results. The fire was our focus, as we sat enjoying one another’s company.

Or of a big bonfire built in the field of a church member. It was easy to get lost in the darkness, in the vast blackness you could find space. But it was a cold space and sooner or later, one by one we were all drawn back to stand around the fire. Watching the flames leap and dance, firing columns of sparks into the air. That bonfire also attracted the local fire-brigade, I recall.

Advent Longing
I long for the days to lengthen, for the evenings to begin later. I long for the sun to return and fill the earth with its light and warmth and reassurance.

That is what Advent is about: our waiting for God’s light to pierce the darkness; to fill the darkness with His light, even if at first it is only the spark of life that is the infant Christ child; to fill our emptiness with His presence.

I struggle in the winter, with the darkness. So, I find myself tidying up and rearranging things, to help distract me. (It’s my number one anxiousness displacement activity!)

This week I tidied and cleared out my bookcases. I don’t know about you, but whenever I tidy away books I spend about half my time reading books or articles that I’d forgotten I had.

R.S. Thomas
I found an article about the Welsh, Christian poet and priest R.S. Thomas which also spoke to me of this Advent tension between the light and dark, but for Thomas it was about absence and presence.

“The tension between absence and presence is central to R.S. Thomas’s poetry;” writes Richard Griffiths, “the apparent absence of God, and the moments when there is a realization of the presence within that absence …”

“Faith does not come easily to Thomas. Only too often, his search for God seems to lead to nothingness. God is silent. There is a recurrent image, at all stages of his poetic career, of a priest praying in an empty church, unanswered. Though it is a constant theme, the message varies. At times the vision of the cross breaks through the silence of God, as the praying man comes to see the love of God:

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.
(“In a Country Church”, by R.S. Thomas)

“But, only too often, there is emptiness there, too, The priest ‘tests his faith on emptiness’, nailing his questions to an ‘untenanted cross’:

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waiting like this
Since the stones grouped themselves around it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
(“In Church”, by R.S. Thomas)”

(Richard Griffiths, “R.S. Thomas and the Role of Poetry”, Theology, Vol. C (July/August 1997) No. 796, p275f.)

No-one knows the time
Is God there or not? If God is there, perhaps the essence of God lies in His inaccessibility, as much as in his accessibility.
The tension between the absence and presence of God in R.S. Thomas’s poetry is more a simple than just those glimpsed moments when we catch sight of God in our moments of enlightenment. God is as equally present in our (perhaps) longer moments of darkness.

That is part of the tension of Advent; part of the tension of waiting with expectation. Waiting to discern the faint outline of God in the darkness; waiting for the light to come among us, as one of us.

“Beware, keep alert; for your do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13: 33)

Come, Lord, come down, come in, come among us.
Enter into our darkness with your light.
Come fill our emptiness with your presence.
Dispel the clouds and reveal your glory.
Come refresh, renew, restore us.
Come Lord, come down, come in, come among us.

(Prayer from Traces of Glory by David Adam (SPCK, 1999) ISBN: 0-281-05199-2.)

Cellardyke house damage worse than we’d feared

Exhibit A: Gareth and Dave Gibbs examine a broken chair in the kitchen. This photo was taken as we were about to leave, around 23:15, when we had calmed down a little.

We’re just back from Cellardyke where we’ve spent the evening clearing up some of the damage that a group of six Polish visitors (3 couples) caused to our holiday cottage in Cellardyke, Fife. I’m so glad that we didn’t have guests going in there this afternoon, because we’d have had to turn them away. Words escape me about the destruction that they caused to our house. I can’t imagine why anyone would do that to someone’s house!

Here’s the damage we found:

  1. Kitchen chair broken (see photo above).
  2. Washing machine powder tray snapped.
  3. Microwave left in a disgusting state. I have no idea what they burned in there. (See Exhibit B, below.)
  4. Letter box flap dented.
  5. All the carpets are blackened, especially the stairs and smaller bedroom. We’ll need to get professional carpet cleaners in to clean them. Vanish Carpet Mousse got to work on some of the stains.
  6. Coke or coffee stains all over the small bedroom floor.
  7. Cigarette and tea light burn marks on 3 carpets (bedroom, stairs and living room). (See Exhibit F, below.)
  8. Door from hallway to living room has been kicked in, big holes in the door and the hinges are broken. This door will need replaced. (See Exhibit E, below.)
  9. Child-safety gate at the top of the stairs has been kicked in. You can see the foot marks on the gate. (See Exhibit C, below.)
  10. Toothpaste all over one sofa cushion.
  11. Rubbish, half-eaten food and empty cigarette packets hidden behind the books in the living room.
  12. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring VHS video stolen.
  13. Scrabble and Trival Pursuit games boxes have been ripped apart, as have a couple of books.
  14. Ladder to loft broken.
  15. The walls in most of the rooms will need repainting as there are shoe marks all over them.
  16. The lock on the bathroom door was forced so that part of the door frame has broken. (See Exhibit D, below.)
  17. And the place reeks of cigarette smoke, and was more disgusting than the day we got the keys and started ripping up carpets.
  18. An electric heater was left switched on behind the sofa!!! We were so fortunate that the whole house didn’t go up in flames.

I am utterly disgusted at these acts of wanton destruction. What they did wasn’t an accident. It was wickedness. I would go so far as saying that what they did was evil. Here are some more photographs:

Exhibit B: The most disgusting microwave oven in Scotland™.

Our friend, and my former homeless hostel Deputy Manager Dave Gibbs valiantly cleaned this for us.

Exhibit C: Broken child gate.

The gap at the top left should have the safety catch, which we found on the mantlepiece in the kitchen. Beside the screw which used to hold one of the wall brackets! You can clearly see the black foot mark from where it was kicked.

Exhibit D: Damaged bathroom door frame.

As you can see the lock used to push into a hole in the door frame. It took quite some considerable force to break that.

Exhibit E: One of the holes in the living room door.

And this is part of the living door that was kicked in. We can’t close the door now, the hinges are so buckled. There are at least two holes that go right through the door.

Exhibit F: Burn marks on the small bedroom carpet.

This is the largest burn mark in the centre of the small bedroom carpet. It looks like it was caused by a tea light left burning on the carpet.

I’m left quite speechless, hurt and very angry. In fact, interestingly, I was coping with it alright until I discovered the books that had been ripped, and the games boxes that had been destroyed, and that’s when I began to feel really angry.

I know that we run the risk of some damage to the house from visitors from time to time. But this, in the words of Marjorie Dawes, is “SOMETHING ELSE!” What they did was malicious and evil. As I said to Jane it was more spit and less polish!

The house now smells a combination of Co-op’s own brand anti-tobacco air-freshner, Flash with bleach and Vanish Powershot!

We’ll need to plan carefully what we need to take over to clean the place more thoroughly, redecorate and replace the damaged items (chair, door, safety gate, etc.).

(p.s. It’s taken me all my effort not to swear in this blog post, and say words like “*&£$%!” and “evil @#&^ing *£$!@#{s”.)