Birth of John the Baptist - 9am & Choral Eucharist

  • Preacher

    Canon Chancellor - Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford

  • Readings

    Isaiah 40.1-11

Just down the road at the Oxo Gallery is an exhibition of photographs of the Windrush Generation, the African Caribbeans who arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1971.

Among them is a photograph of Alford Garnder, now 92, who arrived in Tilbury Docks on 22 June 1948 on the Empire Windrush.  Alford had served in the RAF during the war and he found work in Leeds in a commercial engineering firm.

He told Jim Grover, the photographer, 

“I’ve lived a brilliant life here,”

“It was supposed to be tough, but I never really had tough times.”

I was delighted to see that Alford was at the service of celebration at Westminster Abbey yesterday.  Coming from Jamaica, Alford held a Commonwealth Passport, stamped “UK – right of abode”. He had grown up British and came to Britain as a citizen not an exile.  In many ways thought of himself as British, he worshipped in an Anglican church, had been taught Shakespeare and Dickens at school, played cricket.

But, in truth, he came from a country which had been colonised by foreigners, by the British in the 17th Century, looking for spices and sugar cane.  For two hundred years the British colonised vast swathes of Africa and Asia, bringing with them their religion, their laws and their games.

Isaiah was the prophet who spoke to a people who had once been a great nation, a nation created by colonising neighbouring tribes.  The Israelites had entered the promised land and defeated its existing inhabitants.  By the 8th Century they had built great cities, palaces and temples, and imposed their religion and their law on the people they had conquered.

The narratives of nations grow, and quickly become distorted.  Over time the Israelites spoke less about the way in which God had freed them from slavery in Egypt, and more about their wise kings, David and Solomon, and their beautiful temple on the mount of Jerusalem. They enjoyed their culture and their power, and took the credit for themselves and their rulers.

By the 19th Century, Britons had a pretty similar attitude, convinced of the superiority of their education system, their engineers and judiciary, under the rule of the Queen Empress Victoria.  The superiority of the Israelites was overthrown in a series of wars with their neighbours, culminating in defeat by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians who took many of the wealthier and more powerful Israelites into captivity in exile. This was a time of reflection and repentance for the people of a once proud nation, who were forced to acknowledge afresh their dependence on God, in the midst of their diminished power, distress, and displacement.

I think that Britain has experienced a similar crisis in the post war period, much of which has been brought about not by defeat, but by facing up to the realities of Empire.  In the years since the second world war, our sisters and brothers from the West Indies, from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, from Kenya and Zimbabwe, from Hong Kong, have shaken up the sense of what it means to be British.

We know that many migrants did not receive a warm welcome, we know to our shame that they experienced racism and discrimination.  As Britain divested itself of its colonies and gave them their independence, we began to acknowledge that the Empire was just that – the conquering of foreign countries and peoples without their consent.

The mess that has been created in recent years by the government’s attempts to reform the immigration law has resulted in some of those who arrived as the children of parents who held British passports (as everyone who lived in a British colony did prior to 1971), has been well documented in recent weeks.  It has left men and women feeling like exiles in the country they have lived and worked in for seventy years. It begs the question, where is home?

The people of Israel, to whom Isaiah was writing, felt something very similar.  A significant number had been living in exile in Babylon for more than three generations.  Some had assimilated, married local partners, made a life for themselves.  Others yearned to return to Jerusalem, to go home.  But Jerusalem was no longer home, as those who had remained could tell them, it was a multi-cultural city with Babylonian soldiers guarding the walls and merchants from Syria, Egypt and Greece trading in their markets.

To people who need to rework their understanding of their identity and nationhood, Isaiah cries out his prophecy.  He reveals how God is working through their experience in a threefold message.

The first demands a word of comfort for Jerusalem, for the people of Israel and their homeland.  And so the Lord speaks tenderly to the people, not only assuring them that they have paid the price for their former sins of pride and rebellion, but that they have been blessed by their exile. God has seen a change, the people have begun to think differently about themselves.

The second call, the one which will in the future be echoed by John the Baptist, is an invitation to re-live the Exodus experience.  To set out in faith, knowing that they have already been saved by God. The new journey will take them home, but this is not the triumphal return to Empire, or a nostalgic recreation of former glory, it is a more profound invitation to inhabit the Kingdom of God.

The prophet, uncertain now of the promised future, asks, “What shall I call?” He sees the fragility of the people, their inconstancy and weakness. He sees how they have been beaten down by the experience of colonisation and exile.  God does not deny the reality of experience, but points beyond it, to a greater reality, more than plain sight can reveal, the reality which is shaped by the eternal transforming Word of God.

If we make the connection to the proclamation of John the Baptist, we know that this Word is Jesus himself, and that transforms once and for all what it means to be a people and to have a nation or a Kingdom. It points to an identity in baptism, as brothers and sisters in Christ. It points to an identity beyond nationality, as people of the Kingdom of God.

The power of prophecy, as Isaiah cries out, and John will cry again in the wilderness, is that the speaking of the word of comfort transforms the reality of the experience.  It plants hope in the heart and strengthens the weak hand to act for justice.

One of the great gifts to us, as a community, from our Caribbean friends, has been the gift of hope experienced by a people who are descended from slaves. They have inherited a lively awareness of injustice and the power and the capacity to speak against it in word, song and prophetic action.  They have been among us the people in exile who prayed for the wellbeing of the city, and we have not always been the people who welcomed the stranger or the alien into our hearts.

There must be repentance, the people of Israel learned that and put away their pride and false sense of superiority. From a place of humility they heard the message of the prophet, the message of comfort, of hope and of homecoming.

This was not a spiritualised message of hope for heaven when we die, but a promise of God’s presence coming to be with us in a way that brings freedom and life. Now, as then, there is still sin in the world, there is injustice and discrimination and rejection, but the new age has come, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, Christ launched God’s reign of hope and healing.

This is what we proclaim today:

Here is your God!

He is here in the body of Christ,

He is here in the Eucharist,

He is here in love and welcome,

He is here in the peace we share.

Sisters and Brothers, Here is your God!