Glory to God in the High Street

From the prophet Isaiah; ‘…they shall repair the ruined cities…’

The text for today comes from that time we spoke of last week when the people of Israel had been in exile in Babylon, while their own land had been invaded and taken over. The time came when they could return and they went back and found that their cities had been devastated and ruined. I think we can all imagine the sense of the sorrow at coming home to find that home had changed…

I am just about old enough to remember when there were still parts of Britain that were bomb sites after the war. I imagine that many of us have been to Plymouth and wondered whether the bombs or the planners of the 1960s did more damage…. My Armenian friend Ani is tormented right now because she can see what the Azeris are doing to destroy precious and historic Armenian churches.

And cities and towns of course can be devastated by more things than bombs or war. Populations can move on or change. Economic circumstances can change cities radically. Diseases too. Right now, the streets of Taunton are looking very different because of Covid-19 combined with changes to the ways we shop. I was in a meeting this week when we asked each other how we all are. One woman said, ‘Well, I work for Debenhams’.

These words from the prophet Isaiah spoke to the people returning from exile to find ruined cities. The prophet said that the cities would be repaired. This passage was important, we know, to Jesus – and he preached on it at least once. Jesus came from Nazareth, a place only 5 miles away from a city called Sepphoris that was the very emblem of Roman prosperity and power – and he visited Jerusalem, a city under occupation too. He too wanted to repair the cities that brought ruin to his own people. He wanted a change. And perhaps these words from the prophet Isaiah can speak to us too, in a time when our own cities, our own streets, need to be repaired.

There is an old joke about a church that had put up a sign at Christmas to repeat the song of the angels; ‘Glory to God in the highest!’. But, one of the letters had fallen off the sign and so it said, ‘Glory to God in the High Street’. And perhaps that is, after all, the more appropriate message. The whole meaning of the Christmas story turns on the truth that God comes down from ‘the highest’ and is made known right here, down here, with us, in our cities and in our streets. The message of our faith is not that we seek only the heavenly city, but that we believe that God will help us restore the earthly ones, because God is interested in good lives for all God’s people right now, and not just jam tomorrow in the heavenly realm. The message of Christmas is that the down to earth ‘high street’ and lower streets, the alley ways and ginnels, the tower blocks and cathedrals, the flats and the houses, all of these can give God glory. Glory to God in the high street.

Most of the conversations I have about the ‘high street’ these days – whether it’s Taunton or Bridgwater or Wellington – are about how awful it is, how many closures and closing down sales, the proliferation of coffee shops and charity shops. No County Stores – and now Debenhams probably going in March – one after another shops closing. There is a sadness about the High Street and Fore Street, a feeling of past glory faded and a sense of being left behind. Is it only going to be the big cities now that can offer a great and diverse city experience? Where is all this going? And what does it mean for jobs for local people, for a sense that we belong somewhere, for a place to meet others for a great night out, for a sense of civic pride?

It is often said that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. And there’s quite a lot of going through the wilderness too… But there is something of the Bible that suggests that we are made to live in ‘cities’ (which is not necessarily cities like London on New York or Delhi), but in communities, in gathering places where we can celebrate life together and build something. I think this is why I’m glad that we are part of something like Citizens UK – and why some of you might be part of neighbourhood associations or Rotary, and why we might want to give toys to local children. We want to be part of rebuilding civic life, of bringing joy to homes and streets, of giving ‘glory to God in the high street’ you might say. We may believe that our citizenship is in heaven, but it is rooted here too, in this world, in these streets, among these people. God is among us – not only above us.

In a while the choir are going to sing an Advent hymn that is also about bringing good news to the high street. It’s probably a bit ambitious for us, but I hope you will understand why I think we should sing it. It’s a hymn that was written in a time rather like ours. It was written by Philipp Nicolai in North Germany, in 1598, in a year when plague was killing people in his town. He was ill himself as he wrote. It’s the hymn that we call ‘Wake O wake’ – and it holds together, at least, 3 cities. There’s the physical actual city in which the writer lived – a city with watchmen looking over the walls, either for danger or for good news. There’s the city of Jerusalem, Zion. And there’s the city of heaven. And it’s all mixed up with the parable of the ten bridesmaids… not easy for anyone to unravel! We have the sense of someone writing from a city under siege, waiting for relief. And the sense of someone eager to enter a new city too. Nicolai said in his introduction to the hymn that he had written it as something to leave behind if God should call me from this world and something to comfort other sufferers who might also be visited with the pestilence. Nicolai even puts into the hymn, in a hidden form, the initials of a former pupil of his who had died in the plague aged 15. His initials were G, Z and W – and they are included (in reverse order in the 3 verses) – Wake, Zion and Gloria…

So, here is a hymn written from a city (a city that in size would have been more like a town or even a village in our terms) that was beset by illness, its people looking forward to God coming to relieve them while they also placed their hope in the heavenly city, and a new life. Ring any bells?

I think we can see the parallels with our own town today. Taunton has no walls or watchmen now, though it would have done once. Now, today, we are living with the effects of Covid-19 – whether that’s death or economic peril for many. We look and wait and watch for relief – and the reaction to the first vaccines is really very like the joy in this hymn at the coming of the bridegroom. And we hold out hope that our town, our city, will be renewed, as God comes and the High Street, and Fore Street, and your street and mine, are blessed with the presence of the Christ child as Advent becomes Christmas. We pray that there will indeed be ‘Glory to God in the High Street’. So even if it’s a stretch for us to sing – when we can’t have everyone on their feet and singing out loud – I think it’s worth having a go today.

I wonder if it helps us to know that people have been down this road before us; that those returning from exile in Babylon looked at their ruined cities and believed that God would restore them, that Jesus preached on such a hopeful text in times when the only decent cities were Roman ones, that faithful Christians in a time of plague looked for God to come, and that now we wait, as a nation, for the time of enduring to be over and for better days to come.

May those better days indeed come, and not just for a few, but for all, not just for the county, but for the town, not only for the wealthy, but for those who have no work, not just for those who can shop on-line, but for all who long to walk the high street, to greet their friends and to enjoy the gifts of life. May it be so, and may it be soon. Amen.