St Stephen's Sunday 24 December 1995 Advent IV


In the early hours of Monday morning, 11th December, a large section of the roadway in Maze Hill, where we live, collapsed into a 20-foot deep hole.

Mercifully, nobody was driving over it at the time, and the road was duly closed to traffic whilst the damage was investigated.

What that inspection revealed was that the hole in the ground extended over a much wider area than the place where the hole had appeared on the surface might have led one to think. This means that for goodness knows how long, drivers, including Anne and myself have been driving over what was in fact a 20-foot void, and our cars have only been supported by a couple of inches of tarmac!

These two facts, firstly that the hole was so much deeper and more extensive than it first looked to be; and secondly that it had been there for a long time, waiting to collapse, so to speak, without anyone knowing it, are a parable of the state of society today and of the church's condition within society in particular.

In the light of Advent let us look more closely at these two facts.

The hole had been there for ages and nobody knew anything about it.

We just assumed that the ground was solid and firm every time we drove over it. But we were wrong.

We all base our lives on a series of such assumptions. We assume that when we turn the tap on, water and not ink will come out; we assume that when we go to the doctor he will try to make us better and not worse; we assume that when we drive or walk on the Queen's highway the ground is strong enough to support us.

Without assumptions like these, normal life is impossible: we have to take some things on trust; people who refuse to take anything on trust have nervous breakdowns and end up in mental hospitals to have their confidence restored.

However all these things we take for granted are assumptions: and every so often, like the roadway in Maze Hill, they are shown up for what they are: false assumptions.

What happens? "The bottom falls out of our world", we call it. Literally in the case of the road; figuratively speaking when someone we know dies unexpectedly, or our house is burgled, or we have an accident or discover that we have some malignant disease.

The truth is that all these things were either "tragedies waiting to happen" or else conditions, like the cancer or the hole in the road, which had been in place for a long time, but which only come to our notice long afterwards.

Recently we have experienced a similar collapse of a number of assumptions about everyday life. These collapses or implosions have affected every level of society. Gaping holes have appeared where everyone assumed that the ground was solid and firm.

If you want some examples think of the Royal Family, the Church of England, the Job-market, and what is called "Family Values"; by Family Values I mean not only belief in the Family itself as the basic unit of society, but all those moral principles like honesty, consideration, respect, faithfulness, self-discipline and godliness which we learn, in the first place from living in a family with parents, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts who instil them into us.

Today people are asking why all these things have gone wrong at once - after all it's not so long ago that the Church and the Royal Family and Family Life and job prospects seemed to be in a reasonable state.

But then so did the road outside our house. The truth is that it wasn't in a good state at all - it just looked as though it was.

And if you really want to know why so many things seemed to have collapsed on us so suddenly, there's a very simple one-word answer: godlessness. God has been systematically removed from one area after another in the nation's mind. That process of God-removal has been going on, unperceived, underground so to speak, for 50 or more years.

"National Apostasy" is the technical term for it. Apostasy means "turning your back on something" and national apostasy is what happens when a nation turns away from God and stops looking him in the face.

It's nothing new. It's all happened before. What we learn from history is that the consequences of apostasy, whether by individuals or nations, what the Bible calls the "wrath" or "judgement" of God, follow such apostasy as inevitably as night follows day; except that in the case of the wrath of God it's often a number of years before the bottom falls out of things as a result.

That "time delay" leads people to assume that all is really well and that when holes do open up they suppose them to be one-off, standalone "problems" which can be resolved by some straightforward standalone "solution": throwing more money at them, getting more people involved, better education or passing some new laws to make something illegal.

It doesn't work:and to understand why, let us look at the other fact about the hole in the ground: it was much deeper and wider than it looked on the surface.

The fact is that godlessness (or national apostasy) like the hole in the road extends in all directions, not just to the hole which you can see. A more careful inspection will reveal that, so far from its being an isolated fault, the hole which has appeared is part of a massive structural defect, extending over many areas of life.

This being so, things may well get a great deal worse before they get better. The existing holes in the moral ground are going to get bigger and be found to be linked to a whole lot of other holes, areas of confidence which turn out to be resting upon false assumptions.

But whether things get worse or not is of secondary importance. Things are quite bad enough as we see them at the moment, and anyway, the remedial action which needs to be taken over one hole is the same as that which needs to be taken over a hundred-and-one holes.

God's remedy for the faults or holes in this world, whether they are the faults of individuals like you and me, or of human society at large, is remarkably like man's remedy for holes in the road.

The cure begins with "Inspection" - that is, looking carefully at the damage to see how extensive it really is. Another word for this is of course "self-examination".

It's not an easy task, whether we're talking about a hole in the road or a hole in the soul, to discover just how extensive the fault is. What appears to us to be a one-off fault in ourselves may in fact be linked to a whole series of other faults or holes which we know nothing about.

That's why some of us go to an expert, a spiritual director, to ask for help in "making the connection" between two apparently unconnected things.

For example, the fact that someone has become careless about turning up punctually for church may also be linked to the fact that they have become less considerate than they used to be about, say, helping people on and off buses. or else after another in the national consciousness

At first sight there doesn't seem any connection. In truth they may both stem from the fact that they have got out of the habit of asking themselves "How would I feel if I were in the other person's position?" whether the other person is a mother struggling with a push chair and two children or a fellow worshipper trying to listen to what God is saying to them in spite of the distraction which our late arrival at church causes them.

The next stage in soul repair is called "Repentance".

Nowadays repentance is thought of as a feeling - feeling sorry for what we have done wrong. Of course it includes that, but it is only part of the process. Much more important today is the whole business of "taking responsibility" for one's actions, particularly one's faults.

How often today do people like us try and lay the blame somewhere else! - or make excuses (which adds up to the same thing). How seldom, by contrast do we hear anyone say "It was my fault. I take full responsibility for my actions and I expect others, especially my children, to do the same"

"What is wrong with me" is first and last my responsibility. There may be a hundred and one reasons why my parents, my brother, my workfellows have made things more difficult for me; there may even, once in a blue moon, be a genuine excuses for what we have done.

But excuses, and reasons why are really beside the point. A hole is a hole is a hole, whether it's a hole in the ground or a hole in the soul and whose fault it is is God's business, not ours. The responsibility for getting it mended is yours and mine.

Which brings us to the third and critical stage of soul-hole-mending.. Critical because only God can provide the proper "infill" for mending the holes in the lives of individuals and society and making sure that they don't happen again. "It is by grace that we are saved through faith - and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God" wrote St Paul to the Ephesian Christians. He would say the same thing to us.

You must wait till tomorrow morning if you want to hear more from me about the "infilling process" - how the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ (which is what Christmas is all about) fits into the scheme of things, for that will be the subject of my sermon at the 10 o'clock Christmas mass.

But whether you hear about God's remedy from me or someone else, please try and carry away with you this morning one conviction: that without Christ there is no hope. The holes will get bigger and more dangerous, and eventually if we do nothing about them the ground will collapse under our feet and the bottom will fall out of our lives.

Social scientists, politicians, journalists, social workers, even clergymen may try and tell you a different story. They will say that if only we were more caring, less greedy, more unselfish, less prejudiced, more integrated, or spent more of other people's money on these problems, then the problems would just go away and life would be ever so much better.

No doubt it would. But the problems would remain to return at another time. Without a turning back to god, and a turning away from all the false gods which man has chosen to worship instead, there will be no security. The holes beneath the surface will continue to grow, unperceived and the final collapse of the whole fabric will be the more dramatic and disastrous; and by that stage no amount of money, education, caring or anything else will make the slightest difference.

Now is the accepted time. Today, whilst it is called today, is the day of salvation!

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