Voice in the Wilderness: Canon Ward, Sunday 4 December 2022

“A voice crying aloud in the wilderness”.

            If you take a drive down the road out of Jerusalem, diving well below the sea level, and heading towards Jericho, you come to a T junction. You stare out across a bleached desert landscape towards the hills along the Jordanian border. If you go left, we enter the acres of green date palms and lush orange groves that skirt Jericho. But we’re going right, south, on into the wilderness that flanks the Dead Sea, driving along the road to Eilat, that passes Ein Gedi, Massada, and the flattened ruins of a small compound that housed the Essenes. This was a first century Jewish sect to which, it is thought, John the Baptist and even Jesus of Nazareth may have belonged. Travelling further, we take a right turn into the Negev at a sign for ‘Ancient Copper Mines’. Winding through a steep sides of a wadi, we enter a part of that arid land where the rocky outcrops of the wilderness have been warped and contoured by the wind. Strange stone shapes loom above the sandy floor of the wadi. You can clamber among these isolated, scoured and scalloped forms. It looks as though the ears of ancient Rock Giants were strewn across the landscape in battles that have gone unrecorded. The silence is intense, almost painful, and then as dusk falls a wind picks up.  Currents of air whistle, sigh, and moan through crevices and apertures. Funnels of sand drift through the wadi beneath piercing stars. And in the wind, all these whorls and pedestals of rock begin to sing. This is the voice of the wilderness, sounding notes below sea-level only some of which the human ear can detect.

            Why begin a sermon on the advent of Christ, proclaimed by John the Baptist, here – in this place of far into the nowhere of the wilderness? Because it reminds us that the world is silent until the ears hear, and the ears hear not because the sound is out there but because silent and unseen vibrations pass through the tympanic membrane, enter the tympanic cavity and are processed neurologically in one of the oldest parts of the reptilian brain. There’s no sound in the world. The sound is in us. That’s the point. It penetrates our bodies and we not only feel its reverberations, we participate in them. Our ears compose them. The sound ripples through us as much the twilight wind ripples across the Negev, being picked up in the whorls of rock that time has sculptured. Only then is there a voice in the wilderness. Only then can John’s proclamation about the coming of Christ be heard.

            Advent is a time of waiting. Waiting is the preparation. What do we do when we wait in this way? We listen out. We don’t know what we’re listening for exactly. Who is this Christ, anyway? And what does the gospel of salvation actually mean? When I poet writes, when a musician composes, their heads are full of cacophony and polyphony: words they have read, rhythms that have heard, phrases, images, tonal colourings, some half-remembered and all of them fragmentary. And they know that to create something new, the give true voice, they have to wait. They have to rid themselves of everything they have read and heard, even what is half-remembered. Because if they don’t their poetry, their music, will only re-produce, rearranging what others have written. They have to wait, let the emptiness enter them, allow everything to fall silent within them. Only when that has happened can the listening out begin, the attentive waiting begin - when something might come. In earlier times this was known as attending to the music of the spheres, the musica universalis. Sometimes these artists have to wait a long time. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins began to hear a new music in the English language, but he had to wait seven years before he began to write in what he called ‘sprung rhythm’ – which was, to him, the rhythm of grace, gift and spiritual renewal. And then, in a moment so profoundly prepared for and yet coming upon them often as an utter surprise, something arrives: a word, maybe, a note, a timbre, a tone. And from working on that one sound, that one image, like an ember of wood, they gently have to blow it into flame. To one sound another attaches itself, an image, a colour, a shape, a rhythm, the phrase an opening bar opens. In August 1829, Felix Mendelssohn scribbled down six bars in a hasty letter sent to his elder sister, Fanny. It was written from an inn at Tobermory on the night before embarking on a boat to visit Fingal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa. Herself a composer, Fanny made no comment on it. But in 1832 Mendelssohn completed the score to his satisfaction – and the Hebrides overture has haunted some of us ever since. When the voice comes through the silence, when it is heard and given a human voice, it’s transformative. It calls for transformation because, as I said, to hear is to share and compose inwardly, bodily, all the unseen reverberations of those air waves.

What does the voice say? Pouring water over the heads for those who flock to him, John the Baptist calls out ‘Repent’. For the voice from the wilderness is only the opening note of a far greater orchestration to follow. What is it to repent? Well, it can mean sack-clothe and ashes, the tearing of garments, tears and the pulling of hair. It can involve a racking remorse as guilts and shame surface. But actually, at base, repent means something very, very simple because the voice from the wilderness says one thing. It speaks the music of the universe God created, the barely heard music of the spheres, a cosmos filled with the knowledge of the presence of God. And what it announces, so prophetically, is captured in the last phrase of a poem by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Inspired by an archaic torso of Apollo “bursting with starlight”, a voice cries to him, in him, through him. Listen, for this is the voice of the wilderness: “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.” You must change your life.