Once upon a time I was the youngest campanologist in the county. We had three bells in All Saints Church, Minstead, but there’s not much that you can do with three – the mathematical patterns that make up a peel of bells, are a little on the short side with three. Five is a much more interesting number, and research showed that we could fit five in the bell frame without the tower itself being shaken to pieces. So two new bells were commissioned, the old ones removed to be retuned, then all five re-hung – all done with one expert and parish people power, including a nine year old ‘doing as she was told, and staying out the way for the dangerous bits’!
As part of all this activity I had the opportunity to watch bells being cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. It was a hot summer’s day, but I was clothed in good 1970s tweed trousers for protection and stood in the corner of the foundry floor as the metal was heated, and the impurities scrapped off the top so that the hot copper alloy could be poured into a hand-crafted bell mould. It was amazing to watch, and a privilege to ring the precisely tuned finished articles; the bells proclaiming peace and thanksgiving in worship, a community rejoicing in fine craftsmanship and singing out a song of praise to God.
“Rejoice”, in Latin “Gaudete”, the opening word of our reading from Philippians, a connection to this week’s lightening of the Advent mood of preparation, our rose candle and our robes. “Rejoice”, in modern parlance is about a sense of joy welling up inside people, fairly private except for the smile to the face; the sort of blooming look that comes with news of a long awaited pregnancy. In St. Paul’s day, “rejoice” was a word used to describe a public celebration, exuberance tempered with the need to be gentle and gracious toward less extrovert souls – more like change ringing when the pattern of notes moves only on command, rather than with every beat of a full peal.
There is a tension here that sits well with this mid-point in our preparations to celebrate the birth of Christ, sat here as we are, surrounded by scenes of his nativity in our Crib Festival. At the time of John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry that we focus on through today’s Gospel, devout Jews were waiting for a “new word from God”, and eager to place their hope in the presence of a fiery young prophet going about the Galilean villages! Might he be the long awaited Messiah?
But John was only tolling a single bell, proclaiming the steady sound of justice and the need for repentance, a wake-up call for those who would go on to hear the message of his cousin Jesus, the thongs of whose sandals he felt unworthy to untie. John would have grown up with the story of his cousin’s nativity just like we have, but as perfectly-tuned to God’s message for his people as any Old Testament prophet, he was well aware that when the Messiah’s mission on earth was made fully known, it would come with the sound of the axe felling the trees that bore no fruit, burning the resulting timber as waste.
John offered on the banks of the Jordon, the baptism of repentance, God’s power like water washing people clean. Yet, here he is proclaiming the baptism of burning fire that the Messiah would bring, drawing out through the power of the Holy Spirit, the impurities hidden within people’s lives. We may struggle to understand the difference, but if we consider for a moment, we’ll recognise that there is a vast difference between wanting to change the destructive habits of our lives and, dare I say it, make sensible New Year’s resolutions, and actually being changed inside of ourselves, so that it is impossible to return to old habits. It is a painful process.
The image of the bell foundry can help us understand what God wants to do here. As the copper and tin is melted in the furnace to temperatures resembling that to be found in a volcano, the impurities known as ‘slag’ rise to the surface – blackened waste material that is scrapped away, the last remnants of which are held back as the bell is cast. Here is a picture of the process of fire and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives that should be as much a part of the work of Christ in our lives as is the baby in the manger. If we are to ring true to his Gospel in our own lives, there will be ‘slag’ in each of us that needs burning to the surface and scraping away. Our hope of a Saviour for the world must come with the realistic expectation that we ourselves may need to be radically changed into what God wants us to be.
Zephaniah’s prophetic psalm of salvation that is this morning’s Old Testament reading [and I do encourage you to read it], is summoning God’s people to sing, shout and joyfully exult because of God’s presence in the midst of them, rejoicing like the clarion call of bells. It was the sort of prophesy that led to the expectation of a heroic Saviour from oppression and suffering. Yet its’ fulfilment came as the baby we now place in our crib scenes, the saving power of whom would be the refiners fire of judgement and justice, drawing us into a greater awareness of his presence, a sense of the calling to what we call holiness.
Church bells gather God’s people into the holiness of our worship of him, whether that is in the form of a peal of bells, the tempered rejoicing of a slowly changing pattern of life, or a single tolled clarion call to hasten into our place before him. They only do so after the refining process of the furnace has removed the impurities so that their call can be clear and true to the tuned pitch required by the master craftsman. God is our master craftsman. If we are to ring out a tuneful call for others to share in our rejoicing this Christmas and on into the future, we must first come into his presence in humility, seeking to understand what it is in our lives that needs to be burnt away.