A Sermon from Sherborne

Why are you here?

The Abbey’s Carol Service just three days ago, on Sunday afternoon, was a packed house. Chairs in the south quire aisle; people in the Lady Chapel; many brave souls standing at the back. And seated in my great stall beside the High Altar, I wondered why they had all come. I wonder the same this evening: why have you come?

[Soprano voice:]          I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

                                    How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die

                                    For poor on’ry people like you and like I…

                                    I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Why are you here? That sounds terribly rude, doesn’t it, but I ask again: why are you here? Surely everything you want – what you ‘really, really want’ – is out there: out there in the ‘real world’, not here in what the atheists would call the world of make-believe? What can you possibly hope to obtain in here that you can’t get out there?

[Tenor voice:]              I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

                                    How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die

                                    For poor on’ry people like you and like I…

                                    I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Is that it? Is it that, as you wander through the journey of life, you have begun to wonder, too? My friends, be very careful. Wondering is dangerous. Wondering can make you think. Wondering can make you dissatisfied. Wondering can cause you to ask what your life is all about. Wondering can lead you to some very strange places.

[Soprano voice:]          When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall,

                                    With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.

                                    But high from God’s heaven a star’s light did fall,

                                    And the promise of ages it then did recall.

We are here tonight to wonder. But wonder is an unsettling commodity. It raises more questions than it answers. It asks of the baby in the cow’s stall, who is this? It asks of the baby, what have you to do with me? And it asks of you, yet again, why are you here?

Why are you here? Could part of it be a longing to escape for a moment from all the stresses and tensions of your everyday life, to lose yourself for a moment as you hear again the familiar Christmas story and sing again the old, old carols? That would be understandable, believe me: so understandable.

But the problem is, it won’t work. Christianity isn’t about escape, let alone escapism. It isn’t about swapping the uncertainties of life for a set of cast-iron religious certainties. We see all around us what happens when people do that. If when you closed the door tonight you left behind a story of hurt or heartbreak, of guilt or regret, of anxiety or uncertainty, you will find no bolt-hole here. All I can offer you is wonder – but in that wonder is our hope.

Tonight we celebrate God’s taking the initiative in coming into history, into your story and into my story. St John, a semi-literate fisherman from Palestine, searched for a way to express it and in atrocious Greek declared that the Word had become flesh and dwelt among us, and that everything depends on whether or not you can understand the significance of that life-changing event. Another John, in the last book of the Bible, said that what had happened was that Christ now stands at the door of your home and your heart, and longs to be invited in – to be invited in, not as a temporary guest but to live forever with you and in you, as friend and brother and as Saviour.

I have been your parish priest for over a quarter of a century. Soon I must retire. From the Sherborne rumour mill I have heard so many dates for that retirement, and predictions of our retirement destination. I do love it, my dear friends, that what you don’t know, you make up! Time will tell. But what I do know is that it has been, and continues to be, a massive privilege to be part of your glad times and your sad times. And of one thing I am sure: it doesn’t matter into what muddles you get yourselves, how untidy and chaotic your lives have become, how many times your relationships have been fractured or your hearts broken: tonight you have come to the place of healing.

What I am not offering you is cheap grace or an easy solution to life’s problems. But I am promising you that here, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the hearts to understand, you will find Christ, and his love, his forgiveness, and his healing. It was a remarkable woman of the 14th century, known to history as the Lady Julian of Norwich, who reminded us that Christ comes ‘to the lowest part of our need.’ It is there, when you are at your lowest, when you are feeling furthest from God and most in need, that you are likely to discover him, waiting for you. And then in him you will find your burdens shared, your sorrows understood. Your regrets and your failures can be left – left here, in his church – for once and forever, and you can go out of this place forgiven and free. If you make a gift of yourself to Christ, he will make the gift of himself to you, and that is his promise. Draw near to him, and he will draw near to you.

Have a wonderful – yes, a wonderful – Christmas.

Canon Eric Woods 24/12/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne