Be born in us today

Sermon by Rev David Walsh at Midnight Eucharist, 24th December 2016

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14.

Well we’re not going to forget 2016 in a hurry.

As we look forward to 2017 and beyond we know that the world is changing.  But we don’t know, can’t be sure, what the changes will look like.  Nobody knows.

Our society and our world are clearly deeply divided.

Can we hold together despite our differences?  Can we live together despite our differences?  These are key questions for our society, for our nation, even for our community here in Kettering.

One disturbing feature looking back at 2016 has been the growing lack of respect, of genuine conversation, between people who disagree.

Stable societies find ways for people who disagree nevertheless to live alongside each other.    Ways of agreeing to disagree.  Once we lose this, we have a serious problem.

As we look forward into 2017 and beyond, in a world that is clearly changing, the fear is of change so unpredictable that few understand what is really happening and even fewer work out how best to respond.

‘History doesn’t repeat itself.  But it does rhyme.’ as Mark Twain reputedly said.

As we try to understand our own times, our hope has to be that the apparent parallels between our own decade and the 1930s turn out to be false and that events fail to take the ugly turn they did back then.

In the meantime, it’s not surprising if people are wary and anxious about the future.

Our first reading this evening from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is set in a culture, in a city, not anticipating the threat of calamity, but on the other side of it, after it’s already happened.

The disaster has actually struck.  And in the circumstances the message is a little jarring:

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Jerusalem.’

It’s hard for us to get a handle on just how inappropriate these words must have sounded.  Because Jerusalem was indeed in ruins, destroyed in 587 BC by the Babylonians, modern-day Iraq.

What might open our eyes is the fate of another great ancient city, just 400 miles north of Jerusalem.  A city even more ancient than Jerusalem itself.

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, a city whose wealth once made it the second city of the Ottoman Empire.  A city mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.   But now lying in ruins.

I’m talking about Aleppo.

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Jerusalem.’

Perhaps one way to imagine the original impact of these words is to recall the images on our TV screens in recent weeks.   And imagine anyone saying

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Aleppo.’

This is the desperate backdrop to some of the most inspiring literature ever written, the prophecies of Isaiah, a few lines of which we heard in our first reading.  These writings are one of the glories of Hebrew literature and speak to us today, 2,500 years later with such freshness, with such creative and vivid use of imagery and metaphor that the words at times simply leap off the page.  And what is their message?  One of hope.  One of liberation and transformation.  Of new life.

The lesson appears to be that if it’s visions of hope we want, it’s best not to go looking in comfortable, complacent times.  Our most profound and transforming visions appear to emerge in times of uncertainty, of anxiety and even distress.

The visionary writings written when Jerusalem lay ruined were inspired by another group of prophecies written 200 years earlier, prophecies which appear towards the beginning of the Book of Isaiah.

Those earlier prophecies also foresaw a new start, one very specifically related to a birth:

‘The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

Hopes for the future are here crystallised in the hope surrounding a birth.  That’s not so unusual.  But these hopes eventually come to fruition in the birth of Christ.

This need not be the end of the story.   The hope that something new might be born and be a sign of God’s presence is one we can continue to nurture and cherish.

As 2016 draws to a close, many of us are understandably anxious about an uncertain future.  But uncertain times, times of transition and change, can be moments of opportunity as well as threat.

Perhaps, in a time of crisis, a new poetic vision will transform our expectations about the world

Perhaps something new is waiting to be born in our world. If so, how will we recognise it?  And how will we respond?

Do we believe that something new could be born here in Kettering?  And that we could be part of it?

Do we believe something new could be born in this church and this parish?

Do we believe something new could be born in our hearts?

That which is born is new and unpredictable.  But it is also familiar.  It draws on what is already there, isn’t something imposed from outside, something alien.  And yet it is new.

If something new is to be born in Kettering, the raw material, the seeds,  are almost certainly already here.

If something new is to be born in this church, in this parish, for it to be genuine and authentic, it needs to grow out of what is already here.

If something new is to be born in our lives, the change, the miracle, needs to happen within us.

The prayer at the heart of our Christmas celebrations was summed up in the last carol we sang:

O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.

‘Be born in us today’.

Or, to borrow the language of our gospel reading, we pray that in some new way the Word might take flesh and live among us.   That we might see glory and that we might know God’s grace and truth amongst us.