Event Name Sermon given at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Christmas 2017
Start Date 1st Jan 2017 3:00pm

The Right Reverend Jonathan Goodall, Bishop of Ebbsfleet

Looking back and looking forward, as we must do today, the first day of a new calendar year, it’s hard to remember many years like 2016. So much of it was newsworthy: in culture and sport, in science, and not least in politics. Much of it brought real joy, not least The Queen’s big birthday and its affirmation of all the gifts of old age. But the violence, oppression and war, the refugees, and the newly impoverished, we still have with us. And the politics of 2016 have added a sense of anxiety about the world’s inequity and unpredictability, and a widespread desire for clarity and control.

In this short term, there is a good deal to cause concern. But in a place like this—on a feast like this, some nine hundred and fifty Christmases since William the Conqueror was crowned here on Christmas day 1066—the Church invites us to take the long view, and ask what can the Christmas story teach us? how can it equip us to face an uncertain future? And I want to propose two replies, both of them suggested by the story itself, and also by the readings we’ve heard this afternoon.

The first is that change will come from the edge. That’s clear from our first reading [Isaiah 49.7—13]

Thus says the Lord, to One deeply despised by the nations … Kings shall stand up, princes shall prostrate themselves, because the Lord, who is faithful, has chosen you!

I have given you as a promise to those who are in darkness. Say to them, “Show yourselves! You will no longer hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike you down, for he who has pity on you will lead you, he will turn mountains into a road for you.” For the Lord has comforted his people, had compassion on his suffering ones.

So much of that is also clear in the Christmas story, which is all about families and individuals who are far from the levers of control and influence, people whose lives are at risk.

St Luke tells us about a traumatic unwanted journey to a government registration point. St Matthew tells us about people fleeing from a village massacre. A family on the run. A new mother waiting in a queue trying not to remember the sounds and sights of slaughtered children while soldiers point weapons. These are all painfully familiar situations in today’s world.

But the Christmas story is not only about how appalling human experience can be. It announces that within such extreme moments something else comes to birth that will change everything, something like what the angels announced: ‘The sign that God is acting will be this – look for a young mother and her new-born laid in a cattle trough.’ Mother and child: an image unknown to the ancient world but which has been the very definition of the lasting change brought by the Christian centuries since.

God doesn’t bring change to the world by making himself the centre of events, planning and ordering from outside, pressuring or menacing a resentful population. As our reading from Isaiah reveals, God takes the worst darkness that we can think of and shows that that is the place where some deep possibility is brought to life because of God’s own deep and unbroken commitment to the world. Stand back from Christmas’s cosy fire-side; stand back from our usual ideas about how power works; and the strangeness—the shock—of being asked as the shepherds were to recognize God in a young mother and her new-born laid in a cattle trough will hit home.

Standing nervously on the brink of 2017 Christmas reminds us first, then, that we usually look in the wrong place for trustworthy hope or radical change. Change comes from the edges, from the people who are habitually thought of helpless or unimportant, because they know the pointlessness of struggling for advantage and status, they have put down roots in virtues and visions very different from those things that cause other human beings to be anxious and to seek power.

And that’s where my second reply comes in. Trustworthy hope and radical change cannot come without that extraordinary virtue that we call humility. That’s clear from our second reading [Philippians 2.1—11].

The Lord did not exploit his equality with God. He emptied himself out. He was born, like a slave-child; and then he humbled himself further, to the point of death on a cross. And that’s why God raised his name and power above all others.

So much of that also is clear in the Christmas story, which is about God taking not just human flesh (powerful, toned, well-dressed, air-brushed human flesh); but the human flesh of a pure, poor and powerless virgin mother. Was she, I wonder, in his mind years later, she who had been his role-model during his upbringing, when he described God’s people, those individuals who were blessed with abiding joy, as ‘poor in spirit’, ‘those who mourn, who seek justice, who make peace’, ‘whose spirits are pure’? Surely, at some point, she had told him candidly how she had replied to the angel: ‘Let it happen to me as you have said.’ Was he not, as we have just sung in the old hymn, ‘gentle child of gentle mother’?

Like mother like son. Without their humility—both hers and his—the incarnation would not have been possible. God’s lasting change would not have been possible. And without it lasting change is not possible in our lives either. Humility is our deepest capacity for freedom: ‘the mother, the root, the nurse, and the foundation of all other virtues’, says St John Chrysostom. The apostles are always urging it on the early Christians.

In a few days we shall remember the celebrated visit to Bethlehem of some other—and rather more complicated—characters. (Perhaps, we might think, people a bit more like ourselves.) You might expect the scenes of such radiant humility as we celebrate on Christmas Day itself would have no room for the wise men in their massive foolishness. But, as Evelyn Waugh’s character Empress Helena says of the wise men,

Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass. [ch.11, Helena, 1950]

Whatever the wise men expected to see when they first set out, when they eventually arrived, and saw the poor child of Bethlehem, they found the humility to look carefully, to recognize in him God’s freedom to give love, and our freedom both to receive love and to give it to others. They’re not called wise because they interpreted signs in the heavens; they’re wise because the saw the sign that the angels had announced to the shepherds, and understood enough to return to their lives ‘another way’ than the one by which they had sought him.

I want to end with words from St Paul which capture both these points—change coming from where you least expect, and the importance of humility as an approach to understanding reality. ‘You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; rich though he was, he made himself poor for your sake, in order to make you rich by his poverty’ (2 Cor.8,9). This is the foundation on which we may build our hopes and our actions for 2017. May God through Christ build us afresh, with all God’s faithful in the world, upon this foundation alone.

Isaiah was not talking about turning the clock back, but a new manifestation of an old promise. The convenant that God made with Abraham and his seed for ever, because it is God’s covenant, will not be frustrated by even such a fundamental catastrophe—not by the felling of the most illustrious tree, not even if that tree is then hacked into a rough cross and used to despatch God himself. The covenant will not be destroyed—it will be made new.

The appeal of returning to an imagined status quo ante, taking back control, making America great again—however it is couched—this appeal is considerable, and those who long for what might have been if recent elections had gone a different way are no less susceptible. But a major theme of Advent, the theme of the Baptist in the gospel today, is to repent—to let our minds be changed, whoever we are—wherever we stand.

John called the people to be baptised and to confess their sins. The sin of racism must be acknowledged, confessed, in all of us, but so too must the sin of neglect towards those communities that has created such a rich soil for angry scapegoating—communities that were least well-resourced for the kind of influx they have experienced—least well-equipped for the challenges presented by industrious and sometimes better-educated foreigners.

Repentance is for all of us, and calls for a change of mind, to have a mind more in tune with the prophet whose confidence in God gave him a vision not just of taking back what had been lost, of making great again, as if greatness lay in the past, but of a future in God that is greater than anything formerly imagined.

Again, the prophet turns to creation, to the natural world for his imagery, but not the natural world as we know it.

The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

This is a creation that has moved on—moved beyond survival of the fittest (with the greatest of respect to Mr Darwin, lying in the north nave aisle—creation that has evolved out of its old mechanisms of competition whether between, for example, native and American crayfish, or between British and Polish electricians.

Similarly we are called to move on, to repent, to change our minds about one another; to hopefully imagine a world where we do not consume one another; where the stranger, the foreigner is not to be feared or rejected; where communities are not branded, ignored, or taken for granted. This doesn’t mean that it will all magically happen, but it keeps us heading in the right direction—reaching-out, hopefully, beyond what our efforts can actually achieve day by day.

If we still struggle to have confidence that the roots of our civilisation, our political institutions, are deep and extensive enough to survive the heavy pruning of recent months, then the prophet encourages us to dig even deeper—to the foundations of creation, from which the purposes of God never cease to send out green shoots; the God whose covenant constantly re-emerges even in the face of greatest devastation—the covenant that was made forever new in the shedding of Christ’s blood—in whom we are invited today to renew our confidence in the receiving of bread and wine.

Even so: Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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