Advent II 2020. Sermon.
A Meditation on Milton’s Hymn, “The Lord Will Come and not be Slow.” (NEH 15)
Our Hymn today has a wonderful pedigree! It has been quarried from 3 psalms in the Old Testament by none other than the great English poet John Milton who wrote lots of poetry at a difficult time in our history. He lived during the Civil War in this country. Milton found himself on the side of the Roundheads, fighting for the government against the monarchy in the 17th century. Much of his poetry was created in a period of personal distress for he went blind and dictated his poetry to helpers, including his daughters.
The psalms too were created at various times of agony during the history of the Jews – often looking back in lament to their exile on the one hand and on the other, looking forward to a time when the Messiah will come and banish their problems and reward their faithfulness.
As we find ourselves at the end of a most difficult, painful and challenging year, this hymn speaks to our condition: of sadness and loss coupled with a yearning for a different future when a vaccine is distributed to help us be more human. Let’s examine Milton’s verses.
Verse 1 immediately introduces us to the main theme of advent: the coming of the Lord. This hope is created as we look back on our salvation history expressed in both old and new testaments. The Lord has acted and will act again. Some will say that his arrival has been too slow to save their nearest and dearest from the effects of COVID but that would not take account of the resurrection of Christ on which the quality of life both now and in the future rests.
Righteousness – zedek, uprightness – will accompany God’s appearance. This puts us in mind of our gospel this morning which features the fearless John the Baptist who was quite defiant in standing up to King Herod’s immoral life-style. Through John’s ministry we get a hint of the justice which Christ demands.
In Verse 2 Milton turns to the natural world to find encouragement. The rhythms of nature and their dependability augment our hope – a gift from God the Creator whose force lies behind the arrival of spring blossom. But there is more. Nature offers us a baseline of truth. It is incontrovertible and brings with it a sense of natural justice by which we are so often judged in our meddling and abuse of nature. We might think of the wet markets of China or the current proposals for addressing excessive agricultural practices in our own land. That justice, which looks down on mortal men, judges us and finds us wanting. Our hope is to re-direct our lives towards God during this period of Advent. In my experience, this re-direction needs to be done on a regular basis but the atmosphere of Advent, working from darkness to light, is an encouragement to me.
Verse 3 reminds us that God is the judge of the whole world. Psalm 82 sets God on his royal throne high above his creatures. It is a favourite subject in Christian art, painted or carved above Cathedral and abbey doorways in both east and west: the Pantocrator, God Almighty. His concern in the psalm is specifically for the poor, the weak and the needy. Our foodbanks receive good support in this benefice and many of us will give to local or national charities as part of our Advent preparation.
But I wonder if you feel that Milton gets his balance wrong in this verse. Do we inhabit a wicked world – the world which the writer of Genesis says was ‘very good’? Yes, it is marred by our sin and selfish pursuits but is it that bad? I fear that this is Milton’s Puritanism coming out! He rails against bishops, calling them ‘Egyptian taskmasters’. I find amusing but is the world really that evil? Even during this pandemic, we have had real glimpses of amazing neighbourly love, climatic improvements, scientific co-operation.
Life has suddenly become simpler for many. John the Baptist’s humble lifestyle – simple dress and frugal diet – presents a challenge to the town-dweller and still speaks to our fussy and over-regulated world today.
Verses 4 and 5 again looks towards the Pantocrator: God’s authority extending over every nation and every creature under heaven. These verses summarize Psalm 86 which expresses a yearning for God’s care for the poor and needy.
But how will God’s care be shown today in Rutland for the poor and needy if it is not through us and other like-minded souls who have hope in their hearts not just for Christmas but for a better tomorrow? When did you last reach out and touch the soul of a leper? We don’t have many of those in our villages but you know what I mean. When did we bring comfort to the lonely? We have many of those in touching distance! The wardens’ are trying to put together a telephone cascade to ensure that no one is overlooked in our villages but there is significant resistance to such a project. Are we scared to reach beyond our comfort zones?
The final two lines of the hymn suggest that God is remote. Maybe once upon a time in the old dispensation. Now, through Christ, God is among us, surging, even through the networks of the C of E with his Holy Spirit, to reach out and touch those in need.
As we stand at the threshold of a new way of life after COVID and as we draw near to the celebration of God’s ‘earthing’ at the Incarnation, the words of St. Therea of Avila may not be amiss:
No other hands but your hands to do his work today;
No other feet but your feet to guide men on his way;
No other lips but your lips to tell men why he died;
No other love but your love to win men to his side”. Amen.