This sermon comes from reflection on the texts but also on a poem by Abp. Rowan Williams with which we concluded a four-part study.
I felt convinced and convicted that I must allow “a loyal and divine opposition” to challenge me – my attitudes, decisions, lifestyle.
Hegelian Dialectic might be old-fashioned but its process is crucial to healthy debate in personal, family, ecclesiastical and political arena.
The ‘basic’ text is below the sermon audio. Winston Churchill appeared in the audio (with some other extras) not included in the text!
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday December 10 2017
The Reverend Alan Neale; “His Divine Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”
With apology again, adapted words of the erstwhile Newport resident Clement Clarke Moore
Twas the season ere Christmas, they called it Advent
Despite cries and laments, Rector would not relent –
No carols, no holly, no jingles, no wreaths
All in the hope that we’d observe Advent… pleaths!
This merry jingle camouflages much distress and tension between clergy and people, especially when the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve! I remember, with some pain, the vigorous debate that took place between me as Rector and the Director of the Flower Committee as regards the timing of the Christmas flower installation; made all the more vigorous as the Director then was Mrs. Neale.
However the debate takes place, whatever compromise and resolution is achieved; it is good – very good – that the debate occurs. It is a reminder that Advent is the season of opposition – opposition to a culture consumed by consumption, distracted by the transient.
Our man of the day, John Baptist, was a man of opposition. By the clothes he wore, the diet he consumed, the venue of his ministry and the sharpness of his message – John was indeed, to use a British parliamentary phrase, “His divine majesty’s loyal opposition.”
John, the season of Advent, challenges me (I hope you) to accept the role of “a loyal opposition.” And yet we find ourselves in a society in which to offer “opposition” is often dismissed as disloyal. I know there are good and long friendships that have been frayed, troubled by a reluctance to speak candidly, calmly, convincingly of political subjects that may enjoin “opposing views.” Surely this cannot be right.
John, the season of Advent, reminds me (I hope you) that my nation, my church, my community, myself are all in need of a “loyal opposition” to make me reflect, review and sometimes even revise positions.
Think for a few minutes of the nature of John’s “loyal opposition” – its company, its context and its compulsion… “Behold the voice of one crying in the wilderness; prepare the way of the Lord.”
The company of loyal opposition. There has long been scholarly debate as to whether John Baptist belonged to a community of Essenes that found a home in desert places. True or not, it is clear that John is seen as an individual, an ecclesiastical and prophetic lone ranger. And yet John was not ever alone. He had company, close company, with the Lord who called him; his sense of vocation provided him with a sense of community. His very message joined him to earlier prophets and their own communities.
Maybe there are times when we hesitate to offer contrary views because we fear we are alone or will become isolated. Isolation is never an option for the Lord has promised, “I am with you always even to the end of time”, alienation cannot occur as we are promised “that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The context of loyal opposition. It requires boldness and courage to offer contrary views when around us there is deafening silence or a debilitating threat. “Loyal opposition” is often found in wilderness places where there is naught to save but God alone, where the comfort of platitude is disdained and where the diet of “peace at all costs” is pushed aside. Appeasement does not have about it a Gospel ring.
The compulsion of loyal opposition. The voice of loyal opposition is no whisper, no half-hearted effort to communicate but a “cry” – a cry from the heart and, we pray, a cry from the very heart of God. The voice of loyal opposition is not uttered by a dilettante, a wit – someone seeking to amuse and be amused; no this voice of loyal opposition is marked by an inordinate and compelling desire to seek the truth.
In a comment on Rowan Williams’ poetry, Tim Vivien writes this, “Restored vision… requires sacred opposition. We live amid principalities and powers that resist the gospel: we participate, willingly or willy-nilly or oppositionally in derelictions and malversations.”
Friends, I am not so stupid nor so simple as to assume that opposition is always divine but I believe John and Advent argue, compel us to include “a loyal opposition” in the way we make our decisions as indivduals, as families, as churches, as nations. The icon of the story of John Baptist story is not only the prophet but also the one, or the many, who processed John’s words with care and openness.
Recently the Church of England published a book on Evangelism; it isn’t a big book (of course) but it is an honest and challenging book. At one point, the writer urges Christians to be ready to speak of their faith. He asks that we think up an occasion to say to our friends, “Er, you did know that we were Christians, didn’t you?”. Now this isn’t quite the stuff of John Baptist… but it offers a “loyal opposition”, it suggests the obvious value of a contrary view.
Advent is traditionally a season of reflecting upon the great, eternal and inevitable verities of our lives and our deaths. We occupy a place in history when global/cosmic annihilation is possible; at such a time how can we dare ignore, even worse seek to muffle, voices of “loyal opposition” that call us to reflect, review and even revise our lives?
In December 2007 the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, removed his clerical collar and said he would not wear it again until Robert Mugabe relinquished his hold on Zimbabwe. For ten years the Archbishop served without clerical collar, this past week he donned a collar… loyal opposition requires steadfast hope, a renewal of brave optimism.
This week I want to be ready to offer and to hear “loyal opposition” so that my life may better conform to what Jesus has in store for me. Amen