Hurstpierpoint College Senior Chapel Address
Friday 11th December: Advent 3, John 1.6–8,19–28
Although we’re not quite there yet, it is fair to say that we are nearing the end of term, and nearing the Christmas holidays. There are still two-and-a half days of lessons left, and for some of you some last tests for which to revise. Yet, the Christmas trees have been decorated, Secret Santa gifts have been bought – or will have been by Monday – and the list of things to do before Christmas is slowly getting shorter.
In this time between preparation and celebration, I would like to take the opportunity today to take stock. Not so much looking at what we have done or achieved, as there will be plenty of time for that next week. But I do like to reflect on the past few months using the question we hear asked to John in our reading this afternoon: Who are you? What do you say about yourself? Those are questions we all encounter at some point, and it is good to give them some thought.
John the Baptist’s answer that we hear in our reading this afternoon is that he is the voice crying out in the wilderness. He is the one who is proclaiming what is to come after him: Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour. Those words ‘a voice crying out in the wilderness’ seem to indicate a loneliness, yet there is certainly also a sense of purpose with John. He knows who he is, and that is why he does what he does.
What is also remarkable about John the Baptist’s answer is that he knows very well who he is not. He is not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not the prophet. Although people are hoping he might be one of these, he knows that he is not. Indeed, we hear a few verses earlier that he himself was not the light, but came to testify to the light. I would like to unpack those two aspects a little bit further: knowing who you are not, and a sense of purpose, both in relation to who you are.
I have certainly had times in my life when people, not so much told me who I should be, but certainly what I should do. Maybe not one of the most significant moments, but certainly a memorable one, was when I was at school. The person looking after our timetables approached me one day and told me he thought I should think about studying Astronomy in Amsterdam.
I was rather baffled by this statement, as at the time I did not have any idea yet what I would study. I gave it quite a lot of thought, but decided it was not for me. Later I found out that his brother was a faculty member at the Astronomy Department in Amsterdam, hence his enthusiasm.
Reflecting on this anecdote much later, I realised that the well-meant suggestion that day, said as much, or maybe even more, about the person who said it, than it said about me. Often well-meaningly given advice about who you should be or what you should do, says something about the hopes and dreams of the person who gave it. That is not to say that following advice is necessarily wrong of course, but you have to ask yourself when someone says something: is it me, or is it not?
That brings us to a sense of purpose. Purpose has to do with asking yourself the question: why do I want to do this? That of course has everything to do with the question who you are and who you want to be. The question, why do I want to do this, is useful when we’re making day-to-day decisions on what we are saying and doing. Are we saying something to feel better at someone else’s expense, or are we genuinely trying to open up a conversation?
All these small decisions contribute to our bigger sense of who we are. Are we the person seeking confrontation to challenge what we think is unfair? Or are we the person who seeks to reconcile different points of view? Are we the person who stands in the spotlight, or are we the person trying to support others in getting to that point?
One of the things that always strikes me about the Christmas story is the many different roles people have within it. John the Baptist announcing the coming of Jesus, Mary being his mother, Joseph being the faithful husband, the wise men bringing their gifts and the shepherds coming to see what has happened. Each of them has a different, but equally important role to play.
We may sometimes think that one part is more important than the other, but anyone who has been in a play or participates in a team sport knows that everyone is important. When you’re the attacker on the hockey pitch, you’re more likely to score a goal than the defenders. Yet those defenders are equally important in winning the match. So it is in life: we all have a different role to play, but we all matter.
Although we are all different, and we will each have to find our own answer to the question who we are, there is one general principle on which I would like to finish. That is that it is given to each of us to be a light in the darkness. Over the past few weeks almost all of you have been to Chapel to add your own light to this place, realising that all our individual lights can become part of something bigger. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep all your candles, but to symbolise all the lights that you have lit over these past few weeks, we will now come to the blessing and lighting of the tree.