Sermon Marlborough College Chapel, 2nd December 2018
First Sunday of Advent: Luke 21.25-36
Admittedly, it is a slightly obscure reading this morning. Unusual for the writer of this Gospel, as normally he is a great storyteller. It is through Luke that we hear about the Shepherds at Jesus’ birth. He is also the one who included the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Lost Son, both well-known and well-loved by many. But not so in today’s reading, where Jesus is talking about the future. He is talking to his disciples, just before he enters the last week of his life, just before Judas sets out to betray him, with everything that follows. So why this reading today? Surely, there must be better choices in this season of Advent, as we are approaching Christmas?
Advent is all about waiting; today particularly, it is about ‘being ready’. The story at the heart of this passage is the parable of the fig tree. We know that when the trees begin to blossom in the spring, the summer is on its way – something that at this point in the year seems far away. The first point of this story, I think, is this: that there are things we know, intuitively, which we don’t always realise we know. I think that most of us have the instinct and intuition to know when someone isn’t feeling great. When you come into your dorm, and the person with whom you are sharing is a bit down. When you come to Norwood, and the person standing next to you in the queue has had a rough morning: somehow, often you know. We all have this intuition, I believe, to pick up on these things.
And that goes even further than just individual encounters. I think most of us also feel when the atmosphere in a place ‘has something wrong with it’, whether that’s a classroom, a boarding house or anywhere else. You pick up when there are factions within a year group, in a house or in a sports team. It is an unpleasant feeling, and it does not only affect those immediately involved, but also the wider community: all of us.
The question that comes with this observation is: what do we do with this feeling, that feeling that there’s something wrong? One thing, I’m afraid, a lot of people do, is to ignore it, to look the other way. And the best way to do that is to only think about yourself. If you get so preoccupied by your own business, you can quite easily stop noticing others.
Maybe you think that is a perfectly fine way to get through life: just worrying about yourself, your own business, and your own well-being. But I don’t think that is good enough. Not for others, but also not for ourselves. We can think that by being selfish, we are better off, but, when you think about it, I would say, of course we are not.
Unlike some philosophers, I think that we can only be fully ourselves if we share our lives with others; if we are open to the needs and gifts of those around us. For example, is one thing to imagine a Christmas without getting any gifts. But, isn’t it far worse to imagine a Christmas without anyone to give anything to? Who can imagine singing carols around the Christmas tree alone? Or having a roast dinner all by yourself? So, yes, I do think our lives are better together, and this College is a very good example of this, with so many opportunities to share together, to live together and to celebrate together.
However, there is one more thing to be said, and that is that living together comes with a responsibility as well. We need to be alert to our surroundings, so that we can respond to them appropriately. Again, the words in the reading today may sound vague, but they contain a very simple and concrete message. A message that is not irrelevant for any of us. They are a warning, a call to be alert and to be ready to respond.
It is the responsibility of each of us to stand up against injustice. To stand alongside those who are more vulnerable, those who are being bullied and intimidated. Looking away is not good enough. In Martin Luther King’s famous words “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.
So, yes, living together is great, a privilege in a place like Marlborough. It is the only way to truly flourish, and to be who we are meant to be. But it comes with that uncomfortable warning, that we have to be ready to stand up for what it right and true. We need to keep our eyes open, not just think about ourselves, but about others too. And we need to have the courage to speak out when we see injustice: we need to be ready to do the right thing.