A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 98, Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20, Luke 21: 29 – 36

In its collective wisdom the church takes us through November with readings that lurch between the unthinkable horrors of utter desolation and destruction, and the unimaginable joys of a future described as a new world. We find something of this contrast in tonight’s readings. The few verses from Luke 21 come at the end of a chapter containing dire warnings about the future which Jesus gave to his disciples. He depicts a future of apocalyptic catastrophe when the known world will end in upheaval of all that we hold dear. In the same breath, certainly the same service, we are offered the beautiful poetry of the prophet Zephaniah offering hope and vision and light in the darkness. The same was true of the readings this morning with the particularly beautiful words of Isaiah 65: 17-25 read.

Luke 21 has Jesus speak of catastrophic conditions – wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famine and plagues accompanied by dreadful portents and great signs in heaven. The disciples themselves are entering a time when there will be arrests and persecution, imprisonment and betrayal, even by family members. But the worst, it seems, will be when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies and a picture of utter horror such as only a marauding invading army can unleash is painted. Scholarly opinion suggests that this could be a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by a Rome grown weary of the petty squabbling and constant undermining of authority by its inhabitants. We know this did indeed happen in 70 AD and forced a scattering of people as refugees fled to safer places.

Even a quick glance at the news this week could be seen as the fulfilment of many of the apocalyptic references found in Luke 21 and elsewhere in similar biblical writings. The images of the awful and terrifying, property and life-destroying bushfires in Queensland and New South Wales loom large as we prepare for 40 degree plus heat later this week – with the accompanying catastrophic fire warnings. Who could have imagined the scenes of students stock-piling petrol bombs and building walls across their campuses as the democracy protests continue month after month in Hong Kong? When we lived there our teenage children roamed freely and unaccompanied by adults on the superb public transport system – one of the safest places in the world. In recent days I have been brought up short by the dismissive comment of a twenty-five year old MP brushing aside an interjection on her climate change speech with just two words, “OK Boomer”. As one solidly in the middle of the so-called boomer generation, has all that I have done in my life, my passion, my commitment, to make this world a better place really come to that? A dismissive wave of the hand and two words? My thirty something daughter, herself already a generation away from the thinking of the Greta Thunbergs of this world, uses the mantra “refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle” as a guide in her efforts to save the planet.

It would be very easy simply to give up, shrug our shoulders and say, What can I do? Does the one plastic bag or coffee cup or  over-packaged parcel of supermarket meat really make that much difference? Look at history and see the cycles of boom and bust, of war and peace, of flood and drought, famine and feast. It’s just the way it is. I am only one person – there is nothing I can do.

Yes, I am frequently guilty of that sort of thinking.

And then I read Zephaniah and Isaiah and listen to the passionate conversations of people who have not given up, who do see a vision of something better, who care enough to refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle. And, as a good Anglican who follows the Lectionary and believes we can learn from the saints we commemorate over the year, I find encouragement in the example of people who have lived before me and, through their individual actions, have made a difference in their worlds.

One such person is Margaret, Queen of Scotland, who was remembered yesterday. An English woman of the 11th century she was caught up in the turmoil of ‘1066 and all that’. Having sought refuge in Denmark and then Scotland she married Malcolm III of Scotland. She is remembered as a particularly devout woman whose commitment to Christ and the love of neighbour so impressed her her husband the king that he not only allowed, but encouraged, her to actively care for the poor. Her example of care and her ability to move freely among those of a very different class to her, founding schools, hospitals and orphanages in her life time, while bringing up her own large family, continues to inspire. Among the people she inspired were a group of 19th century English women who formed the Order of the Community of the Sisters of the Church. These Anglican nuns began their work in the slums of Victorian England. Bolstered by a disciplined life of prayer, study and worship, they worked among the poorest of the poor. It was not long before some set sail for far distant lands – among them South Australia and Adelaide. St Peter’s Girls School owes its origins to these intrepid and faithful women – themselves drawing on the example of Margaret of Scotland.

On Tuesday we will remember Elizabeth of Hungary, who lived a century after Margaret and in very different circumstances. Married at the age of 15 she and her husband Louis had three children. When Louis died of plague on his way to fight in the Crusades Elizabeth found herself an outcast with three very young children. Nothing daunted she came under the influence of the new order known as the Franciscans and devoted the rest of her short life (she died aged 24) to helping the sick and the poor. She is particularly remembered for her generosity to others.

One other person, also a woman, whom we remember at this time is Cecilia, patron saint of music. Little is known of her life and death though legends abound. Most people accept that she and her husband were martyred in Rome some time in the 3rd century. Legend has it that she sang at her wedding to a pagan man; an act which led to his conversion. It is this story that likely inspired her patronage of musicians and she is usually depicted playing a viola or organ. Next Sunday evening we will give thanks for St Cecilia and, after Evensong, drink a toast to her outside the Cathedral standing under the St Cecilia window. One of the most beautiful windows we have in the Cathedral, it was given by the citizens of Adelaide in memory of Lady Edith Ferguson, wife of the Governor who laid the foundation stone of this cathedral. Hidden by the organ for nearly ninety years it is now backlit and shines out over the city every night.

Let me use St Cecilia to bring us back to tonight’s readings – not this time to Zephaniah’s glorious vision of a new earth and new heaven, nor the dire threats of Luke’s apocalyptic writing, but tonight’s Psalm – number 98. It’s a psalm of profound trust in God – despite the roaring of the sea and the floods that threatened to destroy. The psalmist invites the praise and worship of God – ‘to sing a new song, for he has done marvellous things.’ There is the joyful celebration that comes from faith and trust in God, the singing of praises and making of a joyful noise – but it’s the last verse of tonight’s psalm that brings me down to earth. ‘(God) will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.’

Here it seems is the key to our Christian life, a life focused on God – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and a life where all get a fair go, where all are equal, where there is place and space for all – Love your neighbour as yourself.

Until it was changed shortly before the service, tonight’s anthem (as printed) invites us to share the vision of Isaiah for Jerusalem – a place that shines in the darkness, offering inspiration and hope in the darkness of the world. The words may be Latin – Surge, illuminare, Jerusalem – but the sentiment is true in any language: Arise, shine O Jerusalem, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. (Isaiah 60: 1)

As you have gathered, the Choir is not singing the printed anthem, but an early 17th century text by Thomas Campion, set to music by Charles Wood – View me, Lord, a work of thine.