A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 1 January 2017 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21)
This is a strange Sunday. A few hours ago a large proportion of the population was out and about celebrating the sloughing off of the old year, and the beginning of the new. And now here we find ourselves back with the shepherds as they say 'Let us go now to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place', gathered for worship around this crib scene, and hearing a reading I've heard many times in recent weeks. In a kind of Groundhog Day, this morning we seem to be right back where we were a week ago, unable to escape the cycle of Christmas.
The turn of the year as January 1st comes is a pretty significant point in modern society; apparently significant enough for somebody still to be letting fireworks off here at 7.40 this morning. But the date is actually rather arbitrary. So, for example, while the Christian church has celebrated Christmas over several days which begin on the 25th December for most of its history, during those centuries the date of the calendar New Year in this country has shifted to and from the 1st January and the 25th March. Note also that we all have several New Years every twelve months - this one, the financial year in April, the academic year in September, and the church year with Advent Sunday - so it's fair to ask why we make a big fuss over this particular one on January 1st. If I were being cynical I might say that the pointlessly repetitive experience of Groundhog Day could stand as a symbol of many people's experience of new year's resolutions: they mean to do differently in the coming year, but then find themselves behaving pretty much as they always have done - but just with the added factor of feeling a bit more guilty about it.
Serious people down the ages have exemplified this use of the turn of the year to take stock, and resolve to amend their lives in some way. Dr Samuel Johnson is a case in point: year after year he reviewed his life, set himself a new course (which in his case was often the old course, freshly adopted - things like getting up early, keeping his books in order, drinking less), and sometimes wrote prayers about it. Not much seems to have changed for him year by year.
But please note that in this service, today is not entirely Groundhog Day. In the narrative of the nativity of our Lord things have moved forward by a sentence or two today: we didn't just hear the account of the shepherds and so on; we also heard the account what happened a week later - the circumcision and naming of Jesus. And we here share a name; the name John Bunyan gave to his Pilgrim on his progress from this world to the next, that of Christian.
And there is something profoundly Christian about this new year process of reflection, self-examination, and fresh decision, irrespective of whether it succeeds in changing behaviour or, like Samuel Johnson's efforts, largely fails. According to Mark's gospel the first thing Jesus said was the proclamation that we should 'repent, and believe the good news'. To turn and move on from the old, becoming new, being born again, dying and rising to new life - these are the basic currency of Christian living and self-conception.
St Paul in our first reading conceives our lives under God in terms of adoption; a way to escape what he experienced as the fruitless repetition of attempts to live up to God's standards as expressed in what he calls the Law. Instead we have been adopted, and the pattern is broken, because adoption means same person, new status. The adoptee doesn't earn it, he or she simply takes on the position given by another.
Having seen several people through the process of adoption, I am very conscious of the self-giving that underlies it. The whole thing depends on the adopter(s), whose generosity can transform the life chances of the adoptee, and whose position is ever after different. And while adoptive families are no more beds of roses with perfect outcomes than any other family life, they find their origins not in acts of sexual intercourse but in the opening of a home and of lives to a stranger. You can see why St Paul uses this act of great and enduring selfless love when he describes our being adopted as children by God, and being no longer slaves (as so many were in his world) but now children and heirs.
If we are adopted by God, then we haven't had to do it - it's been done to and for us. The success or otherwise of our resolutions doesn't much matter, because it can't affect the love of God which has already totally transformed our prospects.
We are leaving behind a year which many seem to have experienced as depressing and troubling; one which they would be glad to put behind them. Equally many may be looking ahead to the next few weeks and months with anxiety and trepidation. But whatever the failures of the past, and the uncertainties of the future, we go forward in faith and trust in the one and only God, who has made all of this and who loves it all with a passion beyond our ability to express, so great that he has made us his children and fellow-heirs with Christ.