Advent: "Words matter"

The Reverend Margaret Legg

Father, all those words which come from thee will thou bless and make fruitful, and all those words which come not from thee but from our own vanity will thou forgive. Amen.

That prayer is the way the Bishop of London always starts his sermons. He is well aware of importance of words and their source: from God or from our own vanity.

Advent voices resound during these weeks leading up to Christmas and today we hear in our readings the words of the prophets, people who listen to God and then tell the people what God has said. The true prophets (and there were lots of false ones around) the true prophets speak words which come from God and not from their own vanity.

Words matter, our words matter. In Advent, one way to prepare for the arrival of another voice, that of the Word made flesh, is to pay attention to our words. From which part of us do they spring. From our own vanity, by which I mean more than pride. It includes fear, shame, resentment, emotions that spring from our own egos. Or from God, from that divine spark deep within us, our God centres.

Isaiah, in today's Old Testament reading, is the earliest of the major prophets, not because he was super important, though he was, but because, along with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and others, his books are big.

In fact the Book of Isaiah is so big that experts believe at least 3 different prophets contributed to it, over 200 years. We heard this morning from the First Isaiah, writing in the 700’s BC, when Israel was breathing a sigh of relief because the menace of the Assyrians, who had conquered neighbouring Samaria and Syria, destroying Damascus, had retreated, sparing Jerusalem.

But can we really trust the prophets’ words? Isaiah speaks words of hope, yet nearly 2 millennia later Syria is once again being destroyed, the site of a bitter and long conflict; the lion still hunts and eats its prey. If you’re watching Planet Earth 2 you will have seen fab footage of the hunting and killing that is nature in the raw. Remember the lioness, desperate to feed her cubs, chasing the giraffe? But a well placed kick from the giraffe, with the full force of its 1 ton weight, can kill a predator. I won’t say what happens, in case you’ve not seen it yet, but as I overheard one lady said to another in a café last week; ‘Don’t watch it while you’re having your tea’!!

God’s time is not our time though – in fact God doesn’t worry about the ticking of the clock. There is no ticking clock in the heavenly parlour. Jesus did come, a descendant of Jesse, Jesse being King David’s father. But it was 700 years or so after Isaiah’s prophecy. And Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God here on earth, the beginning of the new paradise. 

Our job is to continue where he left off. One way to do it, this Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the Word made flesh at Christmas, is through our words. Are they from God? We know if they are because then they will be life giving, healing, encouraging and hopeful. When they come from our own vanity they tend to be words of malice, bitterness - wounding and destroying people’s hopes and aspirations. It is so easy to say something we later regret; words can scar for a long time, perhaps for life.  That’s not to say that we should shy away from saying the hard things, from saying ‘no’ when appropriate, chastising when necessary, but always for good. John the Baptist wasn't restrained when he called the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers. Speaking truth, though, especially to those in power, is not for the fainthearted. The prophet Elijah so incensed King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel that he had to flee for his life, absolutely terrified. John the Baptist was beheaded for criticising King Herod over his marital arrangements. 

So one tip this Advent is to pause before fire off that email. Check the text before you press send. It may be that you do need to speak truth to power and say it as it is, or it may be that you are responding in anger, fear, or pique. And maybe before you fall asleep reflect for a couple of minutes on the day’s encounters and what you’ve said. Not to judge but to raise awareness: did your words come from God or from your own vanity.

Words can shape people’s attitudes and views and should be used with care. They are powerful. Politicians and those in public life have to be particularly careful. Teresa May, in 2015, when Home Secretary, described Donald Trump as ‘divisive, unhelpful and wrong’ in relation to his demand for a ban on Muslims entering the US. She has since written to congratulate him on his victory and is 'looking forward to the next chapter’.

Trump has selected James ’Mad Dog’ Mattis to serve as his Defence Secretary. The veteran general who fought in the 2003 Iraq war may have to rethink his rhetoric when he takes office. Continuing to make remarks which include phrases like ‘It’s fun to shoot people’ and ‘have a plan to kill everybody you meet’, often quoted in the Press in snippets and out of context, are perhaps unlikely to engender harmony within communities.

And words can be really important in shaping communities. Think of Churchill’s speeches in WW2, which stiffened the backbone of the whole country. We may not be in a position to shape a nation, but our words still make a difference.

In the lift last week at a major department store near Oxford Circus, I experienced the power of words to shape the dozen or so people using it. We had waited quite a while up on the 5th floor for the lift. When it finally arrived there was a palpable, collective sigh of relief and we all piled in, silently but contentedly. Then a ‘wolf’ arrived, with her cub: a young mum with a very long buggy. ‘Give me more room’ she snapped as she pushed the buggy in. The man to whom the buggy was coming moved back into the corner. Still the mother couldn’t get the buggy in properly. ‘Move your foot’n, she said, looking at the man squeezed into the corner. By now we were all watching intently. Tension mounted. What would the man do? Snap back, meekly cower, like a sacrificial lamb and look at the floor? He opened his mouth. ‘Please’ he said. ‘There are escalators’ retorted the wolf. We waited for his response. None came. In fact none was needed. He had made his point with that one word. But the comfortable atmosphere had changed into one of alertness and tension. When the mother got out at Children’s Wear and the doors closed, a collective sigh of relief could be felt. A passenger broke the silence by commenting on how restrained the man had been. ‘Hear, hear’ and murmurs of approval sounded. Such is the power of words to shape communities, even in just a minute or two, even in a lift. Words matter.  So do take that extra moment this Advent and pause before you send that email or text and reflect.

Father, all those words which come from thee will thou bless and make fruitful, and all those words which come not from thee but from our own vanity will thou forgive.’           Amen