Sermon preached at Burnham Abbey Midnight Service 24 December 2016

Is 52v7-10; Heb 1v1-4; Jn 1v1-14  

Burst 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 of God!      

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 his people’.  

Let 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.  

As 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.