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Hope in the Darkness

The Rev Dr Simon Jones, chaplain of Merton College Oxford, and the Rev Prof Alister McGrath explore the spirituality of JRR Tolkien, one of Merton's most famous dons.

The Revd Dr Simon Jones, Chaplain of Merton College Oxford, and the Revd Professor Alister McGrath explore the life and spirituality of J R R Tolkien, one of Merton's most famous dons, in the light of his experience in the First World War. With Merton College Choir directed by Benjamin Nicholas and accompanied by Charlie Warren and Peter Shepherd. Producer: Stephen Shipley.

38 minutes

Sunday Worship: 26th October 2014

Please note: This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.

It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events

Radio 4 Opening Announcement:  It's ten past eight - time to go live to the chapel of Merton College Oxford for today's Sunday Worship, which is a reflection on the spirituality of the writer JRR Tolkien - 'Hope in the darkness.'  The service is led by the Chaplain of Merton, the Revd Dr Simon Jones, with the Revd Professor Alister McGrath, and it begins with the hymn 'Who would true valour see.'

Hymn: Who would true valour see (Monk’s Gate)
Who would true valour see,
let him come hither;
one here will constant be,
come wind, come weather;
there's no discouragement
shall make him once relent
his first avowed intent
to be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
with dismal stories,
do but themselves confound;
his strength the more is,
No lion can him fright;
he'll with a giant fight,
but he will have a right
to be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
can daunt his spirit;
he knows he at the end
shall life inherit.
Then, fancies, fly away;
he'll not fear what men say;
he'll labour night and day
to be a pilgrim.

Simon Jones:
Welcome to Merton College.  The thirteenth century Chapel in which we gather this morning stands at the heart of one of the oldest Colleges in the University of Oxford.  This year Merton celebrates its 750th anniversary.  As we give thanks for our long history, for the many generations who have studied here, and for the ways in which God continues to bless and shape this community, the theme of our service is hope: hope founded on the triumph of goodness over evil, of light over darkness, which we see in the resurrection of the crucified Christ.  This hope is offered to us now, even in the most uncertain and troubled times of our lives and in the life of our world; a hope which helps us to live in the present, and look towards the future.  In John Bunyan’s words from our first hymn, to labour ‘night and day to be a pilgrim’.
 
Later in the service, Professor Alister McGrath, who was himself a student here at Merton, will help us to explore the Christian understanding of hope in and through the writings of a great 20th century Mertonian, the Lord of the Rings novelist, JRR Tolkien.  But now let us keep a moment of silence, and confess to God and one another the times when we have preferred to live in darkness rather than reflect the light of Christ.
 
Music: Kyrie eleison - Lord have mercy upon us (Howells, Collegium Regale)
 
 Luke Hopkins:
Jesus, light of the world,
we have lived by the light of our own eyes,
as faithless and unbelieving.
In your mercy, forgive us.
Hear us, and help us.
 

Jesus, light of the world,
we have lived by our own strength,
and not by the power of your resurrection.
In your mercy, forgive us.
Hear us, and help us.
 
Jesus, light of the world,
we have lived for this world alone
and doubted our homeland in heaven.
In your mercy, forgive us.
Hear us, and help us.
 
Simon Jones:
May almighty God have mercy on us,
forgive us our sins,
and lead us from darkness to light,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.
 
Knowing that we are forgiven in Christ, we can have confidence in calling ourselves citizens of heaven.  Hubert Parry’s setting of words of the seventeenth century poet, Henry Vaughan, speaks of this hope and encourages us to put our trust in ‘one who never changes, thy God, thy life, thy cure’.
 

 


Music: My soul there is a country (Parry)
My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged sentry
All skilful in the wars:
 
There, above noise and danger
Sweet Peace sits crowned with smiles
And One, born in a manger
Commands the beauteous files.

He is thy gracious friend
And, O my soul, awake!
Did in pure love descend
To die here for thy sake.

If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flow'r of Peace,
The Rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress and thy ease.

Leave then thy foolish ranges,
For none can thee secure
But One who never changes,
Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

 

Simon Jones:
The hope of heaven gives us a new perspective on life, but it doesn’t lift us out of the often painful and frustrating reality of day-to-day living.  The prophet Isaiah knew this, as we hear now in a passage read by Liz Milne, an undergraduate at Merton.  In these verses, and in the hymn which follows, God offers words of comfort to his people in exile.
 
Liz Milne:
A reading from the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 40.
 
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
 
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’
 

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.

Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
 


Hymn:  Awake, our souls; away our fears (St Petersburg)
Awake, our souls; away, our fears,
Let every trembling thought be gone;
Awake, and run the heavenly race,
And put a cheerful courage on.
 
True, ’tis a strait and thorny road,
And mortal spirits tire and faint;
But they forget the mighty God,
That feeds the strength of every saint.
 
Thee, mighty God! whose matchless power
Is ever new, and ever young;
And firm endures, while endless years
Their everlasting circles run.
 
From Thee, the overflowing spring,
Our souls shall drink a fresh supply;
While such as trust their native strength
Shall melt away, and droop, and die.
 
Swift as an eagle cuts the air,
We’ll mount aloft to Thine abode;
On wings of love our souls shall fly,
Nor tire amidst the heav’nly road.

 

Alister McGrath:
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s always good to mark special occasions, and think more deeply about the importance of these events. Merton College was founded 750 years ago. That’s certainly something to celebrate! But it also invites us to reflect on deeper issues. In its long and distinguished history, this college has been through times of light and darkness. This year also marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, an event which called into question the all-too-easy assumption that human beings were essentially rational and good. Those four years of brutal conflict were a dark time for this college, as they were for our nation. How, many asked, can we keep going in such dark times? What hope is there, that we can hold on to?
 
That need for hope remains important to all of us. We see it in our reading from the prophet Isaiah. The people of Jerusalem were in exile in Babylon, far from their homeland. Would they ever return home? Those were dark times. And in the midst of that darkness, Isaiah spoke words of comfort and hope. God had not forgotten his people. They would return home! That hope sustained them as they waited for their liberation. Yes, they were still in exile. But they had hope for the future.
 
We need hope – not a naive and shallow optimism, but a robust and secure confidence that there is something good – there is someone good – who will triumph over despair and hopelessness. Many felt the need for that during the First World War – including a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, who took part in the Battle of the Somme, and went on to become a fellow of this college in 1945. His name was J. R. R. Tolkien. His epic work The Lord of the Rings was written and published during his time as Merton Professor of English, here at this college.

The Lord of the Rings is now widely regarded as one of the great works of English literature. One of its most distinctive themes is the reality of evil. Tolkien names evil, thus giving us permission to challenge the bland and inadequate moral outlook of our age, which insists we respect everything. Like his close friend C. S. Lewis, Tolkien was convinced that we had lost the moral vocabulary that enabled us to speak of evil, and thus to fight it.

But that is not the only theme we find so powerfully explored in Tolkien’s epic work. It speaks of the role of the weak and powerless in changing the world for the better. That’s why Hobbits – such as Frodo Baggins, and his sidekick Sam – are so important. They are the little people, and in the end they are the ones who make the difference. But Tolkien also affirmed the reality of hope in the midst of despair and seeming helplessness. Listen to this passage, towards the end of the Lord of the Rings, when the victory of the forces of darkness seems assured:
 
Julia Walworth:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
 
Alister McGrath:
That’s the kind of hope that kept the people of Jerusalem going during their time of exile. Their God was beyond the reach of human tyranny and oppression, and one day things would change. That’s the hope that keeps many of us going as well – the thought that there is something beyond this world of suffering and pain, which we will one day enter and embrace.
It’s a theme we find so powerfully expressed in the New Testament’s vision of the New Jerusalem, a world in which God has made everything anew, and there is no more sorrow, pain, or death.
 
But there’s another theme in The Lord of the Rings that speaks powerfully to us. As the work nears its end, the victory of evil seems inevitable. A dark mood settles over the narrative. And then everything changes. An unexpected event enables the ring to be destroyed, breaking the power of evil. Tolkien called this a eucatastrophe – a dramatic, unexpected event, which disrupts a narrative of despair, and redirects it towards the good.
 
For Tolkien, the best and greatest example of this radical upheaval of a story of hopelessness is the resurrection of Christ – a dramatic event that brought first astonishment, and then hope – a real hope, grounded in something and someone trustworthy. That is the hope that is to be seized and acted upon, which keeps us going and keeps us growing even in the darkest of times. The Christian hope of heaven raises our horizons and elevates our expectations – inviting us to behave on earth in the light of this greater reality. The true believer is not someone who disengages with this world in order to focus on heaven, but someone who tries to make this world more like heaven.

Our reading today affirms the role of hope in a faithful God in sustaining us and inspiring us. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever”. That hope in God, like Sam’s vision of “light and high beauty”, can never be taken away from us. It is right to celebrate that Merton College is 750 years old, its vision of the transforming and enriching role of education as important today as it ever was. But the world around us has changed. Many of us feel that the optimism of an earlier generation has now receded. We are facing hard questions, difficult times, and uncertainties about the future. But we must not despair. “The word of our God will stand forever” – and we will stand with it.  In the name of that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Music:  And I saw a new heaven (Bainton)

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

Simon Jones:
Edgar Bainton’s setting of words from the Revelation to John: ‘God himself shall be with them . . . and shall wipe away all tears from their eyes’.  As we give thanks that in Christ God is with us at times of joy and sorrow, and in every moment of our lives, let us now turn to him in prayer, placing our whole trust in his power to bring light out of darkness.
 
Mary Boyle:
Father, your Christ is the light of the world.  Help Christian people everywhere to reflect the light of Christ as they seek to live as his disciples.  Give us grace to turn away from the darkness of sin, that our eyes may be opened to his presence in the world, and that we may live hopefully as servants of the Risen One.
God of love
hear our prayer.
 

Charles Graham:
Father, your Christ is the light to lighten the nations.  May his death and resurrection bring hope to those who strive for peace and reconciliation in our world today.  We pray particularly for the peoples of Iraq and Syria, for victims of conflict and acts of violence, the injured, all who live as refugees, those who have been taken hostage, all who have lost loved ones, and those who have died.
God of love
hear our prayer.
 
Mary Boyle:
Father, your Christ is the light of the minds that know him.  Bless this College and all places of education and research, in this city and throughout the world, that in them true religion and sound learning may for ever flourish and abound.  As we give thanks for those who have studied in this place over 750 years, we remember with gratitude JRR Tolkien, and pray that his life and writings may encourage us to work hopefully for the coming of your kingdom on earth.
God of love
hear our prayer.
 
Charles Graham:
Father, the light of Christ brings joy and hope to your saints in heaven and on earth.  As we rejoice in our fellowship with the Blessed Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, our patrons, and all who lift their voices to you in praise and adoration, hear us now as we pray for the people and situations on our hearts this morning.

 


Simon Jones:
Eternal light, shine into our hearts,
eternal goodness, deliver us from evil,
eternal power, be our support,
eternal wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance,
eternal pity, have mercy upon us;
that with all our heart and mind and soul and strength
we may seek your face and be brought by your infinite mercy
to your holy presence;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.
 
In hope and trust, let us pray as Jesus taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Amen.

Simon Jones:
Our final hymn proclaims a confident and joyful hope in the heavenly city which God has prepared for his people, ‘Jerusalem the Golden’.
 
Hymn: Jerusalem the golden (Ewing)
Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest,
Beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, O I know not, what joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare.

They stand, those halls of Zion, all jubilant with song,
And bright with many an angel, and all the martyr throng;
The Prince is ever in them, the daylight is serene.
The pastures of the blessèd are decked in glorious sheen.

There is the throne of David, and there, from care released,
The shout of them that triumph, the song of them that feast;
And they, who with their Leader, have conquered in the fight,
Forever and forever are clad in robes of white.

O sweet and blessèd country, the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessèd country, that eager hearts expect!
Jesus, in mercy bring us to that dear land of rest,
Who art, with God the Father, and Spirit, ever blessed.

 


Simon Jones:
May Christ whose glory fills the sky
enlighten your hearts and minds
that you may journey with him through the darkness of this world
until you come to rejoice in his presence for ever;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
rest upon you, and remain with you always.
Amen.

Voluntary: Organ Sonata in A - first movement (Mendelssohn)

Radio 4 Closing Announcement: The first movement of Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata in A brings to a close today’s Sunday Worship which came live from the chapel of Merton College, Oxford.  It was led by the Revd Dr Simon Jones with the Revd Professor Alister McGrath.  The choir was directed by Benjamin Nicholas and accompanied by Charlie Warren and Peter Shepherd.  The producer was Stephen Shipley.  Next week’s Sunday Worship for All Saints comes live from Llanyrafon Methodist Church, Cwmbran .

 

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