The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      2nd December 2018
Wake, O Wake
Jeremy Fletcher

Today's Communion Service included movements from the bach Cantata Wachet Auf

It is a time of confrontation between nations. Within the country there are profound disagreements about the fundamentals of faith. New technology has transformed social, theological and political discourse, with communication of ideas now available to everybody. The atmosphere is uncertain, and tensions are high. In addition there are fears about epidemics, with immense far about diseases brought from abroad or caught from livestock. People are dying. It is devastating

This is 1597, and we are in Westphalia. Lutherans and Calvinists are at each other’s throats. There is massive tension in Northern Europe, and the Spanish are coming from the south. Communication of ideas has been revolutionised by printing, the social media of its day. And the plague is rife. In all of this a brilliant intellectual and faithful Lutheran, Philip Nicolai, is in the early years of his pastorate in Unna. In 1597 1,300 of the inhabitants of this small town died, 170 in a single week. How on earth do you respond?

Nicolai set himself to reflect on eternal life; on death, judgement, heaven and hell. These are the classic themes of Advent. In 1597 it must have felt that you were living in the epicentre of the Last Things. Devastation, doubt, destruction were all around. I will conduct 3 funerals next week. Most clergy would say that’s a lot, and it certainly is for here. Nicolai had hundreds. Death was all around, and Nicolai wondered if his death would be next. He said this: 

"Day by day I wrote out my meditations, found myself, thank God! wonderfully well, comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content; gave to my manuscript the name and title of a Mirror of Joy, and took this so composed Frewden-Spiegel to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as the token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare me in health) to comfort other sufferers whom He should also visit with the pestilence ...."

Attached to this meditation and offering were two hymns. You’ll have to wait until Epiphany before you hear one of them: How brightly shines the Morning Star. The other is threaded through this service: Sleepers wake! Or Wake O wake! Nicolai wrote the tune too. It’s an immense gift. It could be that keeping a good Advent means stepping away from the chaos and busy-ness and devastation and relentlessness of day to day life in order to fix on the eternal love and life of God, the still point of the turning world. It could be that setting ourselves to gaze on heaven means we block out all thoughts of earth.

Not so. Nicolai reminds us that the hope of heaven is forged in the white heat of a complex world. His hope in eternal life, of the love of God from before birth to after death, of the Christian’s assurance that nothing in heaven and earth can separate us from the love of God, of God’s lasting and unbreakable commitment to us in Jesus Christ…all of this is the fruit of a ministry which had faced as much challenge and pressure and sheer awfulness as it’s possible to imagine. This isn’t hyper piety or spiritual luxury. It’s the only thing that he can hold on to. It is rock solid for him. These are the words of eternal life. This is the wedding song of the Lamb.

In 1731 there were 27 Sundays after Trinity. This only happens when Easter is early, and it only happened twice when J S Bach was composing his music for Sunday worship. It being so close to Advent, when the church concentrates on death, judgment, heaven and hell, on being prepared for the Second Coming of Christ, the readings chosen included one of the ‘waiting’ parables: that of the ten virgins, waiting for the bridegroom. Five had enough oil for their lamps. Bach did what liturgical composers do: he raided the hymn book, and found Nicolai’s words and tune from a century before. In the middle of devastation and death and the complexity of earthly life, the eternal truth is that the Bridegroom will come. Whatever life throws at you, be ready.  

Bach had his theme. But Nicolai’s hymn was only three verses, and Bach needed more material. From somewhere came a poem about the deep longing of the soul for God, modelled on the poetry of the Song of Songs. These Bach inserted in between the verses of the hymn. It’s an amazing combination: the transcendent hope, often despite everything, of the coming of the one who will make wars cease and draw nations together and unite every tribe and tongue and nation in the song of the Lamb; and the deep intimacy and love of the individual soul for God, sung in operatic and passionate form. 

From 1597 and 1731 to 2018. The world is complex. Communication is rapid. Religious people profoundly disagree. The nations are in conflict, some of it military and all of it to be feared. This city walks with the effects of violence, as 43 conversations last week at coffee brought home – they’ll feed in to Bishop Rob’s Commission on Safety. People among us are grieving, especially for those who have died of sudden illness. How do we respond? 

To point people to an eternal hope is not to be otherworldly or pious. It is to treat life as seriously as did Nicolai, and Bach. It is to look conflict and violence and dying and death in the eye, to feel their devastation and overwhelming and to say: yes, and none of these can separate us from the love of God. It is to say to this world that there is a hope which is beyond feeling good or being anaesthetised from the effects of pain. It is to say that the Christ who will come again is the one who suffered and died and was raised. It is to say that the hungry will eat the banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And it is to say to the church that this hope must be held out as we sit in the darkness with the devastated, as we eat with the hungry and share our building with the homeless, as we give a home to the displaced, as we get furious about the effects of a hostile environment and the slashing of benefits, as we shout against injustice, as we rejoice in the new life of the young, as we walk with them in the way of faith and light a candle in the darkness with them later in this service. It is to say that this faith is all we have, and demands all we have. It is to say to ourselves, and to the world: Wake Up! There is light to share. 

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