Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Advent 2016
Start Date 4th Dec 2016 11:15am

The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Chaplain

Would that we had the confidence of Isaiah or the psalmist.

A king will arise from the stock of Jesse, says Isaiah, from the line of David; a political leader with true insight, inspired with divine wisdom, who will be good news for the poor and for the meek of the earth.

Likewise the psalmist has hope that the emerging leader will judge God’s people righteously, and will ensure justice for the poor.

If we did have that kind of confidence, recent political upheavals may well have shaken it. The liberal political establishment, across the western world, is facing angry criticism for its perceived failures towards certain sectors of society, and for favouring, so the story goes, any number of minority groups, including, of course, immigrants.

The Brexit campaigners hit upon a rich seam of discontent with the language of ‘wanting our country back’, ‘taking back control’, and whilst Brussels bureaucrats were one target of fury, a great deal of anger was also towards a political establishment much closer to home – a political establishment that, I suspect, is feeling under a certain degree of existential threat. If Brexit is not delivered (which seems almost exclusively to be about preventing the free movement of EU citizens), if this is not delivered speedily and decisively, then, it seems, no amount of warm appeals to those ‘Just About Managing’ will save their political hides.

The scapegoating of immigrants, whilst perhaps understandable, has to be decried and has to be resisted, although pandering to it seems to be the only currently tenable political position, in Europe and across the Pond. This scapegoating has to be resisted partly on the basis of the gospel, because we are taught, as by St Paul this morning to, ‘Welcome one another …just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’ If St Paul felt he could instruct Jews and Gentiles to welcome one another, (two more polarised groups you couldn’t imagine) I’m quite sure he would expect no less of Brits and Poles, Americans and Mexicans. But also this scapegoating must be resisted because it is a distraction from the far more serious malaise of deeply-felt political and economic disenfranchisement among certain groups; communities who feel they should have a greater entitlement to this country’s goods.

St John the Baptist talked ominously this morning about the axe already lying at the root of the trees, well, these disenfranchised groups, prompted by their unlikely, highly-entitled, and rather over-enfranchised leaders, have taken some almighty swipes, with the bluntest of axes, at a number of political trees. It seems that Europe may not have seen the last one fall. There could be any number of ragged political tree-stumps, like that stump or stock of Jesse that Isaiah referred to, after the political establishment of Israel, was unceremoniously lopped-off in 587BC by the Babylonians.

To the Jewish exiles, one of the things that struck them about the Babylonians, who had decapitated Jerusalem and its political system, was their language, which appeared to the Jews to be a bewildering babble. For many of us, I imagine, this post-truth world, where lies are acceptable if they are entertaining enough, or if they chime with enough peoples’ grievances and prejudices, this is all pretty incomprehensible and bewildering—a babble drowning-out the voice of quiet reason, experience or wisdom.

But, the prophet assured the exiles;
‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse.’

Beneath the most finely cultivated of trees, is an extensive and durable root-stock; a deep, invisible system of anchoring, nutrient- and water-absorbing roots on which the tree and its fruitfulness depend. Chop off the tree and the stock remains. As any arborealist will tell you, a root-stock has more than enough life in it to send out a shoot, which can become a branch, which can become a whole new tree, every bit as glorious as the former.

As so often in the scriptures, in the prophets, in the teaching of Jesus himself, an image from nature is employed to convey the message; the creation itself hinting at the greater purposes of God—and the message here is ‘Don’t lose hope.’ Have confidence in the stock; in the deep, invisible roots.

Only time will tell whether there is enough durable wisdom, deep experience, enduring reasonableness in our political system, in western liberal democracy, for it to re-emerge after these shocks, and whatever may yet be to come—but there is surely grounds for some hope.

But the prophet says more than this. Not only is a whole new tree entirely possible, a new political system, a restored Davidic monarchy, but the prophet foresees something far greater—nothing less than a new Paradise, a new Eden.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Is this just a prophetic flight of fancy, the idle dream of a prototype hippie; or is it a reminder that if we only hope for a restoration of something in the past—whether that is a return to the world before June 23rd, or a return to an apparently simpler age before significant immigration—if this is all we hope for then we are selling ourselves far too short. Hope, as the Sub-Dean reminded us last week, (and as you can check-out on the Abbey website) has the potential, gives us the capacity to reach much, much further.

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.

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