Sermon at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2019
Where we have come from and where we belong now?
The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 22nd December 2019 at 3.00 PM
As we stand on the brink of Christmas, many of us here in England are becoming worried and pre-occupied about the weather.
Not so much about the possibility of a white Christmas, but increasing concern over flooding and travel; will we be able to travel and be with loved ones, or will they be able to travel and be with us.
This festive season is for many people a time of re-connecting, with all the ambivalent thoughts and feelings that this may invoke.
We might even be led to think of all the changes that have taken place since this time last year.
But we also need to remember that for people without families there may be a feeling of disconnection, a sense of where do I belong?
All these things give us an opportunity to reflect for a moment on our own identity, where we have come from and where we belong now.
We may ask the same question of Jesus. Where did he come from, from whom and where did he gain a sense of belonging?
For the Early Church these were very prominent questions. One of the answers was that Jesus was a descendant of David, called to redeem his people Israel.
He is a Jew born of Jews and if we can think of him belonging to a human community, it is (in the first instance) to the nation and tribe of Israel.
St Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage right back to Adam; the first man from whom Jesus has come.
Amongst his family tree we find all the eminent patriarchs of the Israelite people, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph. But along with these establishment figures there are also some rather dodgy characters;
Interestingly he traces Jesus’ lineage not only through the male line but through the female line as well; there are women (some of whom are foreign such as Ruth) and some of whom are of dubious moral character, like the prostitute Rahab.
So within Jesus’ lineage are people who very definitely don’t belong according to the established Israelite categories yet they are part of Jesus’ family background.
In this way two of the most important categories in Israelite culture and identity that of ethnicity and patriarchy, become irrelevant; what it means to belong becomes radically redefined.
The Gospels tell us that in being asked to take Mary as his wife, Joseph is being asked to go against the existing law;
if she had become pregnant by another man it would, of course, have been a source of great shame for Joseph to marry Mary.
So by taking her as his wife he risks loosening his connection with his own community.
His faith means he has to risk not belonging. Add to this the fact that he and Mary will have to leave their home, that she will give birth far away and then they will have to travel even further to Egypt, then we can see that the story of ‘not belonging’ is multiplied for this holy family.
Interestingly Joseph is instructed to name the son born to Mary; the angel says to him ‘you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’.
In naming Jesus, Joseph is in effect saying ‘this child belongs to me’. He is taking a critical role in ensuring the safety and well-being of the infant Jesus.
And this is another thing about relationships of belonging; unless it involves an oppressive claim on someone else, belonging to a family, a community, a church, involves contributing something of who we are to that person or group of people.
So it tends to be the case that the more I give of myself, the more connected I will be to that community; the more I gain my sense of identity from them.
And here we come to a critical point: Jesus gave all of who he was to humankind; he threw his lot in with the human race.
Some commentators argue that a more true rendering of the Hebrew word ‘Emmanuel’ is ‘God is in common with us people’.
Put another way God allowed himself to belong to us and in so doing changed both what it means to be human and what it means to belong.
The earliest Christians were trying to understand who Jesus was and how they might live as a community of his followers.
It was evident from Jesus’ life and ministry that membership in the new community was not determined by the old categories such as descent through the father’s biological or ethnic line.
Jesus is a descendent of David through God’s intervention, not through physical genes. Jesus came to redeem all of humanity, not just the Israelite community.
The mission of the disciples very quickly extended beyond the Jewish people as they realised that all people belong to Jesus.
It is our common vocation to belong to Jesus Christ and to base our lives on his radical sense of inclusion and belonging.
He gave himself to humanity and calls all people to belong to him.
Of course, this is something the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, finds hard; struggling with such questions can prevent us from looking outwards to those who have little sense of belonging to anyone or anything; people for whom the church and society, can somehow feel very far away and meaningless.
Its to such people that Jesus related with a special intensity who found in their relationships with him a new sense of belonging.
At different times in our lives, we have probably all struggled with belonging. It may have been a personal relationship, or a corporate relationship, or even a family relationship.
It is through learning from such experiences that we can flourish both as individuals and as a church community.
Its this that enables us to incorporate new and diverse people who perhaps struggle to belong anywhere.
In any human group there can be people who gravitate towards the centre and those who gravitate towards the margins; in a Christian community both are necessary, both belong and one is not more privileged than the other.
We should never forget that our Abbey community is not just our congregations but also all at St Margaret’s Church, all our hundreds of volunteers, all our pilgrims, all our musicians, all our duty chaplains, indeed all who are homeless at our doorstep.
This is one of the things that differentiates us from other communities. It means we are called to care for and embrace all; that at Christmas we together participate in the story of ‘God with us’.
So wherever we find ourselves this Christmas, and whoever we are with, let us pray that we experience this mystery with a renewed sense of belonging to Christ and to one another.