“And did those feet in ancient time?”
My text is a question mark. Not any old question mark, but specifically the question mark from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem. Billy Bragg once said that when you sing that hymn you have to sing the question marks, they make a difference.
Hubert Parry set the words of Blake’s poem to music to support a 1918 rally campaigning for Votes for Women. He recognized in Blake’s words a vision of England, not as it is, but as it might be. When you include the question marks Jerusalem become aspirational - it is about what might be, if we have the will and the determination to make it so.
Aspirations do not come cheap, the metaphorical Jerusalem comes at a price. Blake writes of weapons, the bow of burning gold, the chariot of fire, the sword that will not sleep. And of courageous resilience, the mental fight with which this new land is forged.
1918 was of course a time when the nations had been put through the furnace, and what had emerged was still being shaped. The future was being written - and we are still living through the consequences of those days. We also write the future. It is said that the final cost of the economic meltdown presented by Covid will be paid for by our children, and quite possibly by our grandchildren.
New lands, new visions, are built by people. To change our land, and our future, begins by changing ourselves. The unknown 14th century writer of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “It is not what you are or what you have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.”
Not what you are or what you have been…., but what you desire to be.”
John the Baptist stands at the heart of our Advent journey. When Luke speaks of him he begins with those who held power at the time, Tiberius, Pilate, Herod and Philip, Annas and Caiaphas. Between them they embodied political, military, economic, social and religious authority. They were the big players, the movers and shakers, they made policy and they wrote the rules. The future surely lay in their hands.
Yet when change came it came not through them, but by John son of Zechariah, living in the wilderness. And his message was of repentance.
It’s not a word we use too much today. People associate repentance with guilt, repentance means religious people telling everyone else how to live, repentance implies accusation. But if that’s how we think about repentance then it’s like singing Jerusalem without the question marks. We get it wrong, because the meaning is something else entirely.
To repent means quite literally “to go beyond the mind you have.” To enlarge the scope of what you think possible. To believe more of yourself, and of others, and for others. Repentance is aspirational, because it dares to believe things might be better.
The powerful often think far too small. Their power makes them fearful. They have too much to lose to hope for better things. And of course, as history shows, and shows time and time again, by their power they have lost everything.
But not John - John who had nothing to lose gained everything, and his message endures - and what a message.
I cannot help but come back to his burning passion for the words of Isaiah - Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill laid low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”
Blake and John would get on well together. Because John’s proclamation has a fiery message if you read between the lines. His world was dominated by the Roman roads. Straight, smooth and level they pointed to Rome, seat of imperial might. They were symbolic, and more - because the roads enabled troops to swiftly descend on anyone who stepped out of line.
The roads were a sign - the Romans couldn’t control so vast an empire with the limited troops they had, so they built their roads. The roads spoke of who was in charge, and where power was held and what would happen to anyone who dared to think differently. So when John quoted Isaiah you can almost hear him saying - it is God who holds authority, and the Lord who wields power, and not the Emperor, and not Pilate and not Herod. And the future is in God’s hands, not theirs.
Repentance is about being set free, free to think beyond, free to think better, free to hope more.
Now this week - it may not be the best idea to go into work tomorrow and invite everyone to repent. It’s not a line which will appeal to many down the pub. We may be wiser to begin with ourselves, and ask - as do Blake’s question marks - what stands in the way of my best aspirations,
what makes me doubt God’s best hopes for me;
what prevents me from seeing myself as God sees me, not as I am, nor as what I have been, but as what I desire to be.
If repentance is about going beyond the mind that we have, to enlarge our hopes, to believe more of ourselves and others, then John’s message is just as relevant today as it was then. It is, as David Adams prays, to dare to stand before God, and to catch a glimpse of glory.
Holy God, we look for you, we long for you.
Let us see that you are come among us;
make us aware of your presence
and grant us a glimpse of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/L9h1sZmvYbo