Sermon preached at Burnham Abbey Midnight Service 24 December 2016
52v7-10; Heb 1v1-4; Jn 1v1-14
into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem’.
Isaiah’s words seem wonderfully apposite this year in this Chapel, as
the Community celebrates the centenary of the restoration of the Religious Life
here at Burnham Abbey. A year of rejoicing, thankfulness and renewal, in
remembering the arrival of the Society of the Precious Blood in 1916 at what had
already been an Augustinian Abbey in its foundation 750 years ago
– ‘a doubly rich inheritance of place and practice’, as highlighted in
the Centenary Eucharist by Richard Giles.
It takes only a casual
observation of international affairs to recognise how important is this calling
today - to keep watch, to fulfil the community’s motto, based on St Paul’s
concern for the Church in Corinth: ‘I
will most gladly spend and be spent…’
(2 Cor 12v15). In a world of political and
social uncertainty, where so many do not know where they have come from, what
they stand for and therefore where they are heading, how critical it is for the
Church to proclaim God’s salvation: ‘How
beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news…Listen, your watchmen lift
up their voices and shout for joy! The
Lord has comforted… he has redeemed -
he will lay bare his holy arm, and the ends of the earth will see the salvation
Let us reflect on this joy to
which Isaiah refers. Most importantly, it
is a joy that celebrates a transformational solution to a fundamental
problem. If we’d needed simply a
message, God might have sent an e-mail or a tweet from heaven; similarly he did
not send a statesman, an economist, a lawyer or a psychologist. No, the
transformation from darkness to light required more than an appeal to our better
nature - so ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. Because of who Jesus is
and what he has achieved, it is
also a joy that stands the test of time. The
coming of Jesus outlasts passing political circumstance because it fundamentally
alters the course of history - through him the world is created, redeemed and
sustained, as the writer to the Hebrews explains.
We can thus rejoice that all false assumptions about status and power are turned
upside down, for in this vulnerable child is an authority that is unlimited
by time or space. ‘He brings down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble’.
Furthermore, it is a joy that
extends to all people. Through
the fragility of his birth, being born into serious poverty, in a land under
military occupation, becoming a refugee from terror - severe circumstances that
are familiar to literally millions in the world today - we can thank God for
proof that no situation so dark that he cannot penetrate it with his light.
‘The Lord has (indeed) comforted
each of us pause tonight to receive this joy afresh,
which brings transformation, stands the test of time, establishes true values
and extends to all. Jesus came to bring
comfort and redemption for the world but also for you and me.
He who flung stars into space wants us to know him more as saviour,
master, friend. We are not overcome by the
changes and chances of life; instead we follow a saviour who is present with us
and promises to guide with grace and truth. So
in the stillness of tonight, let us open our hearts and souls for him to be
present with us.
we do that, let us also answer his call to be present in his name for others.
For ‘we have seen his Glory, the
glory of the only Son of the Father…full of grace and truth’. Being
present may show itself in practical service, for companion or stranger.
It is also revealed in a hospitality
of the spirit’, where we listen deeply and accompany others in their joys
and sorrows. These responses are the outworking of faith, the profound offer of
unlimited love and of shelter for body and spirit.
And finally let us thank God that this joy sustains wounded hearts, as
we fulfil our watchkeeper duties for the needs of the world.
We live in a world of great beauty - as anyone would appreciate who had
watched David Attenborough’s Planet Earth recently, enjoying amazing glimpses
into the hidden wonders of the natural world. Yet
we also witness profound suffering, as with the images of Aleppo - but you could
add the poverty and brutality of South Sudan, the despair felt by migrants
crossing of an ocean in a flimsy craft in the hope of a better life, the
targeted persecution of Christians in North Africa, or the fear of women
subjected to violence through a man’s love of power. In
our prayer for others, let us draw deeply from our joy, for as the Archbishop of
Canterbury said in his sermon for the Queen’s 90th Birthday service:
“The one who turns
fear to wonder is Jesus. The story of Jesus shows us that God enters into the
most fearful places imaginable in our lives -
of sin, betrayal, violence, rejection, even death and turns each one of them
from horror into glory...Nothing is outside God’s understanding. Nothing is
beyond God’s grace. Nothing is to broken for God’s transformation” . That
is why we rejoice tonight, why we let the Christmas readings soak into our
minds, why we celebrate our communion with Christ in the Eucharist and why we
continue to hold a broken world before him in prayer.
The Ven Jonathan Chaffey,
Chaplain-in-Chief and Head of the Royal Air Force Chaplains Branch.