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Tender Mercy Dawning (sermon)

November 17, 2010

Text: Luke 1:68-79

Last week in Café church we talked about what hope means for us… what makes for hope. In our discussion three things were suggested as signs of ‘the life of the world to come’. First we talked about ‘vegetarianism’ as a potential sign of the future, the end of violence, then we talked about ‘having children’ as a sign of hope, and we also talked about the confidence of Christians who ‘don’t need to defend themselves’ in times of danger.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke sets the scene for the birth of John the Baptist, really as a kind of dramatic entry to the birth of Christ. And Zechariah in the temple speaks like the Prophets of Old. His speech has come to be called the Benedictus (after the first word in the Latin Translation meaning ‘blessed’). And when he speaks he gives us a kind of summary of the way Jews of Jesus day thought about hope.

As Zechariah paints the picture we are led to expect the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. Zechariah says, ‘God has raised up a horn of salvation’. This is a very Jewish way of talking about God’s power. One translation captures it like this:

“He set the power of salvation in the center of our lives, and in the very house of David his servant”.

Luke is winding up the hype, you might say, for a grand entrance. All the promises of Israel’s memory and hope are coming to fruition. This child, John the Baptiser, will prepare God’s people for knowledge of salvation by means of the forgiveness of sins.

Which is quite surprising, since if Israel thought that the problem was out there, in the form of its enemies, in the form of an oppressive Roman Empire the hope that Zechariah sees addresses a very different problem, a problem as much inside Israel as outside. The salvation which will change Israel and the world forever comes by means of the forgiveness of sins, not through armies or revolution. If it’s a revolution it’s a quiet one.

The last part of Zechariah’s prophecy I find sublimely beautiful… an image of the subversive and tender revolution that will change the world forever – and is, in the end, for Luke, nothing less than the coming of Christ:

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

To give light to those who sit in darkness

and in the shadow of death

To guide our feet into the way of peace

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend about what the coming of Christ and of the kingdom means. My wise friend said that he imagined it would be an unpleasant experience, because we are so familiar with the world as it is that the world as it will be will be profoundly uncomfortable. He said, we might have to learn to live again in a whole new way. Even if the first coming of Christ is the crucial preparation, he speculated that we would struggle to find our feet in the new heavens and the new earth. I have this image of people staggering like the walking dead awoken from their sleep, blinded by light, hardly knowing how to move forward in the paths of peace.

Shortly after this conversation I happened upon a brilliant poem by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams which I want to share today. It’s not an easy poem, so I want to introduce and try and explain it a little, so we can find our way through it

It is called Great Sabbath, which suggests not just any Sabbath morning, but the final Sabbath, the time of hope, the kingdom….

But it begins with an image of a couple waking up in bed… outside the new day is dawning. That’s the beginning. It really has a beginning, a middle, and an end (as I read it)

The middle section speaks from their point of view. It captures their ordered world of practical atheism which has no place for Christ or God. But it is still haunted by the memory of Christ. Christ has become a threat to their world. A lot of this section is about the threat of Christ in the half-consciousness of morning.

The final section, as I see it, is about the invasion of the Great Sabbath, the breaking in of God’s kingdom. It has this image of the sea breaking down the dikes and flooding the fens.

As I read I will indicate the transitions

Great Sabbath

Rowan Williams

Unwatched the seventh dawn spreads,

Light smoothing out the sky, firm hands

Smearing a damp clay horizon-wide.

They wake, then lie unsurely side by side,

Knowing the ache and pull of novel bands,

The night’s new memories grinding in their heads,


Not understood, their bodies newly strange.

Outside, the new light soaks the ground;

They chill, turn in towards each other’s heat,

Then roll apart to test uncertain feet

On unknown earth. The dripping dawn around

Confirms the unformed fear. The world can change.


[transition one]

Outside an absence. While they learned and slept,

It had drawn off behind the sky’s stone face.

The world between their bodies and their palms

Is left to turn. The silence calms.

The morning’s news is plain; the center space

Is empty. Under the tress where he once stepped


It is for you to go. Under the gaping sky

You wake, he sleeps, you make, he lies at rest.

He will not come again; last night you made

A future he will not invade.

Today the sun is buried, unexpressed;

You shall shape how to live and how to die.


You shall make change. He leaves no room

For his own hand; you shall be history,

You shall build heaven, you shall quarry hell.

No one shall say you have (or not) made well.

And bored and pious, talk of mystery,

When weeds are choking up his tomb.


We make, he sleeps. Only his bloody dreams

Tell him the works of freedom on the earth.

Your liberty his flight, your future and his death.

He dreams your hell for you to draw your breath,

Out of his emptiness he lets your birth,

It is his silence echoes back the screams.


For they have not forgotten everything;

They wake and lie unsurely side by side

And listen to a laboured, steady breath,

Insistent, unconsoled, remembered death.

A small-hours passing on the turning tide,

Alone and never taught what key to sing.


He will not come again, not in the form

He walked on your first earth. But will you know

Him when he slips, a dosser, through the door?

Oh yes. Who else will touch the raw

Salt, unhealed memory of worlds ago,

Whispering, once you knew, once you were warm.


Listen for promises, fantasize for care,

And you will fill the neutral sky with lead,

Make chains to stop the quiet flow of chance,

Sell all your working for a stripper’s dance.

He chose his death; why can he not be dead,

And leave the bloody dreams at home elsewhere?


Drink up your tears; you can no longer need

The luxury of an old, cheap compassion.

To bury him may be heavy cost,

But buys our future when today is lost,

Buys the clean stone from which we can refashion

Our image sorted by his remembered greed.


[transition 2]


He asks his present back; the clay-daubed hands

Are picking at the dyke. Weep and you will unmix

The mortar, and the salt black sea will run

And catch and trip and drown us, one by one.

For walls are weaker than their strongest bricks.

Behind our stone, the moon-fed tide expands


To flood our fens. We walk with desperate care,

The locks are fragile and the wind is swelling,

Windows will rattle us awake, eyes wide,

To stare, lying unsurely side by side,

Quiet and fearful; there is no telling

What dreams will flesh out of the noisy air.


The stones had fallen down. We woke too late.

He has unlatched the house, smashed through the pains,

And take back his gross siegneurial right

While we slept out our sixth and darkest night,

Today he swills the cultivated plains,

Salting our clay; reclaiming our estate.


from The Poems of Rowan Williams (2002, Eerdmans), pp. 42-44.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sue permalink
    November 19, 2010 4:36 am

    Speaking of vegetarianism as a necessary sign of the future please check out these two references.

    Which is interesting because with rare exceptions there is no tradition of vegetarianism within the Christian church altogether.
    Vegetarians are sandal-wearing kooks – right!

  2. November 19, 2010 9:39 am

    Thanks Sue. I usually do not allow advertising links just comments, but just this once seeing it seems pertinent to your point. However, I must stress that I never mentioned a ‘necessary’ sign of the future, just a potential sign. What was suggested was not an obligation akin to a moral obligation, just a possibility for witness. Perhaps the case could be stronger. Perhaps you have an argument. I certainly agree that there is a lot of prejudice around about vegetarianism.

  3. Plessey permalink
    November 28, 2010 5:53 pm

    Thank you for the explanation about the poem. I love taking in his writing but his poetry is just too difficult. It would be really wonderful if you could do the same for more of his poetry.

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