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Christmas Eve sermon: Baggage and Light

Durham Cathedral

Monday 24th December 2012

Bishop Justin Welby delivered the following sermon in Durham Cathedral on Christmas Eve, speaking on the theme of 'Baggage and Light'.

Baggage and Light

Durham Cathedral,
Christmas Eve 2012

We think in circles and rhythms, but very often God thinks in straight lines. We come round to Christmas every year, He did it once. We go through life accumulating baggage, God is the one who brings extraordinary fresh starts, baggage free journeys with Him through life.

Travelling light is necessity for the very poor, the asylum seeker and refugee and a luxury for the very wealthy. They have tons of luggage. Last September my parents took Caroline and I to Venice to celebrate a grand birthday. It was a treat to cherish. Beauty everywhere, a hotel looking up the Grand canal. We had hand luggage, and felt very insignificant at check in as our Marks and Spencer cases sat next to piles of Louis Vuitton. I muttered about “how do they carry it?” and it was pointed out that “they” don’t , they have people who do that.

In the days I was in business you could see the importance of the executives coming to try to get something from us by the thinness of their briefcases. The more important they were the less they carried. But what we see people carrying, or being carried for them, is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is the real baggage, the stuff that weighs us down.

And that brings us into the world of Isaiah 9, the first reading, page 6 of the service sheet. Isaiah has spent the larger part of eight chapters on the issues of inequality, of materialism, of ignoring God, justice and the poor, of corruption and decadence. It is a world with which we are familiar, and the denunciation is made more powerful by the power of unrivalled poetic imagination. We recognise all that he is saying, but like the bits in films that are not for the squeamish close our eyes when he sets out the consequences. They are hideous. Injustice in the time of Isaiah would bring its own consequences, God’s judgement was to give them what they chose. And God does not change. The consequences of self- obsession are self-destruction. For them it was defeat by the new Imperial power, Assyria, exile, not holidays, serfdom not possession of slaves, starvation not luxury.

And into those ringing denunciations breaks chapter 9. The darkness of the first sentence was not hopelessness , it was God forgetting. But although we can forget God, either through luxury or poverty, arrogance or despair, He cannot forget us. And so the light breaks in, entirely unexpected. One writer about this passage says: “the theological point is Yahweh’s capacity and resolve for a newness that is completely fresh and without extrapolation from anything that has gone before[1]”. Or in simple terms, “good news, fresh start, no conditions”.

And what a fresh start! Isaiah lived in a world of war and of unstable harvest. The two great celebrations were of victory over enemies and food security. Think back to the pictures of VE day in 1945, of soldiers returning from Afghanistan. It is all joy. The enemy is defeated. And even today we celebrate harvest, because we know that is the most basic gift of all.

But Isaiah does not stop there, his message is not cheap tabloid triumphalism, nor mere shallow optimism. The light is not an event that fades with memory, but a person. He was thinking of a new King, in the fullness of time Christians understood the deeper meaning of this prophecy to be about Jesus. His rule is all that we could ever hope for, just and wise, protecting the poor, full of love, ensuring peaceful lives at every level. His is an authority that grows as we learn to trust Him. And the certainty of it rests not on us but on God. The last sentence is the promise, “the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this”. Zeal is another word for commitment to God ensuring that His people do right. He will make His will happen because His name is on the tin.

But how? New starts are wonderful, God designed new starts are perfect. But so few of us feel that we are in the place where God does that for us, for me. The baggage weighs us down, baggage of memories and fears or baggage of wealth and worry. A memorable article in the FT this last week end spoke of the paranoia of the ultra-rich (those with more than £35 million personal wealth), obsessed with the yet greater wealth of others, and the fear of taxation. It quoted a billionaire in the USA talking of the Obama proposal to tax incomes over $1 million p.a. slightly more, “it’s like the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939”. It takes a lot of baggage to lead to such absurdities.

So whether it is one sort of baggage or another, whether it is luxury or loss, arrogance or agony, how does the light break on me? How do I become one of that number with joy and celebration that is the light of Christ, of the baby in the manger?

A friend wrote yesterday from Switzerland[2], “Jesus comes in through our wounds, and changes our lives. That is how God’s love works”. It is our very failures that make it possible for God to find ways into our lives, through the gaps, the breaches, the insecurities, the failures and the wrongs. New starts come entirely freely and unexpectedly, with no link to what has gone before, and they are made possible simply by us recognising we need them.

With him all is new[3], when like the shepherds, we accept that we have baggage, come to the manger and leave it there, taking what He gives us we find that through that baby God takes on all the good and bad of our lives, the beauty of well lived love, and our share of shadows and twilight, of pain and hope disappointed. We come to the rail and leave our baggage, receive communion or a blessing, and ask for a new start.

And because this baby is God, and God does not forget us, all will be new.

© Justin Welby 2012


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, WJK 1998, ISBN 978-0-664-25524-4, page 82

[2]« Jésus entre par ces portes, par ces brèches ouvertes et transfigure nos vies. C'est ainsi que travaille la grâce! » Père Nicolas Buttet, personal email of 23 December 2012

[3] Dieu assume nos histoires personnelles lumineuses, belles dans l'amour vécu, mais aussi avec leur part de ténèbres et d'ombres, de douleurs et de d'attentes non satisfaites. idem

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