Sermon for Second Sunday of Christmas – HIGH MASS Sunday 4 January 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Jeremiah 31.7-14; Psalm 147; Ephesians 1.3-14; John 1.1-18
Today, while we celebrate the Second Sunday of Christmas, many of our fellow-Anglicans, along with our Roman Catholics brothers and sisters, are anticipating the Epiphany by a couple of days. Some years ago I wrote in the Parish Paper that it is good that here we are still able to keep major weekday feasts on their traditional dates, rather than transferring them to the Sunday.
This was not a criticism of those who do this. If I was a parish priest in commuter land, where it is impossible to have a weekday evening service before 8pm, I would opt to celebrate them with a full congregation on a Sunday rather than a tiny on a weekday evening.
An email arrived shortly afterwards, accusing me of being “pusillanimous” in not condemning capitulation to contemporary laxity and laziness.
In case “pusillanimous” is not part of your everyday vocabulary, it means, “lacking in courage,” “timid,” or “mean-spirited.” I thought I was being generous, but I suspect it was the former sense my unsolicited correspondent had in mind. A colleague remarked that no one lacking in courage would take on being Vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street. It’s no job for the faint-hearted!
But keeping this Sunday as the Second Sunday of Christmas has the advantage of giving us another opportunity to hear the beginning of St. John’s Gospel. Some will have heard it on Christmas morning or as the climactic reading at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
Faced with the demand to preach on this passage again, with its cosmic theological and philosophical sweep, and its importance in Christian history, doctrine and the life of faith, a timid preacher might well opt to celebrate the Epiphany today. The Wise Men and their gifts might seem a much easier subject to handle.
John’s Gospel, although it moves like the others towards the same destination, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, as you know, has a very different feel to it. He is much more selective in the events he records and these are usually followed by substantial commentaries or discourses by Jesus.
The opening of the Gospel, usually called the “Prologue,” is itself distinct from the rest of the book: it is poetry rather than prose. If you have not been here before, you might have been surprised to hear the Gospel sung rather than read. We always do this at High Mass, but it is particularly appropriate to do so with this passage because it is in fact a hymn. It probably existed and was used in Christian worship before the Gospel was written. The author has adopted and adapted it to serve as the introduction to the Gospel.
The Gospel of John does sound very different but, like the others its concern is with the identity of Jesus: who Jesus is.
- It may not have a birth story, but at the heart of the Prologue it proclaims that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
- It does not say, as Luke and Matthew do, that the one conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, would be the Son of God, but it does begin by saying that the One who became flesh was with God from the beginning, and what God was, he was. (1.1)
- John does not tell us, as Luke does, that God’s Son was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, but he does say that the revelation of Jesus was concealed, if not hidden, veiled in flesh (1.14).
John sets out to show who Jesus is in terms of time and eternity, of heaven and earth, Creator and creation, of the divine and the human. To do this, he borrows an idea which would familiar in both Jewish and Greek culture – Word or Logos.
- For the world of Greek thought, for what we call “philosophy” – that is the love of wisdom, the Logos, the Word, was the divine reason, the source of shape and meaning to everything that existed.
- For Jews, we see at the very beginning of the book of Genesis, God creating by uttering his word – God speaks and things come into being.
In Judaism, the Word, or Wisdom, which is often used as an equivalent, a feminine noun for a masculine one, through which God creates and sustains the world came to be personified as a separate being. This self-expression of God finds its fulfillment for John in Christ.
The Prologue’s subject is the Word of God.
It has three stanzas with two insertions about John the Baptist.
1. The first, (verses 1-5) relates God to all creation through the Word and the Word to God. “In the beginning,” echoing Genesis, suggesting a new creation, “was the Word, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” The Word exists before anything in creation, before time itself, and is the agent of everything in creation. The Word is not a creature, part of creation, but the Creator.
2. After the first mention of “the man sent from God, whose name was John,” who “came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light,” the second stanza, (verses 9-13) relates God to human life through the Word: “The true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world – the world which he had made. Christ is the Light, as we will hear again in the Gospel, but we should note that there is a sense here that he is not just the light of Christians. He “enlightens every one.” Those who do not believe in him. Have bot even heard of him, but believe in God, or think and act in ways which reflect something of the divine law of love, are to some degree enlightened by him. In him John sees the source and fulfillment of the light “that enlightens everyone.”
“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, yet the world knew him not.” Here John addresses the mystery of rejection which will be one of the great themes of the Gospel. The world fails to recognise its Creator, and, worse still, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”
John wrestles here with the same issue that perplexed Paul: How could the Jewish people, or the majority of them, who had the Law and the Prophets and the Wisdom writings not recognise the Messiah when he came? The Gospel was written at a time when the split between church and synagogue had become irrevocable; feelings ran high and harsh things were said – something not unknown among Christians who disagree with each other. John, who represents Christians, then still the minority faith, sometimes uses language that would later be used to justify persecution of the Jews. We would do better to ask ourselves, whether with our heritage of faith, Gospel and sacraments and traditons, we would recognise Christ if he came among us.
But rejection is not the last word. Then comes the offer of divine grace: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Human reason is the gift of God, but unaided it cannot know God fully. This depends on the divine initiative and action. Knowing God is not just having information about God, it means being in relationship with God – sharing in the relationship between the Father and the Son which is one of the great themes of the Gospel which follows.
3. In the third stanza (verses 14-18), we have John’s Christmas story in miniature “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”
Here we have more echoes and fulfillment of the revelation of God in the Old Testament. The Word dwelling among us, making his home, “tabernacling,” among us, recalls the presence of God with his people in the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, which accompanied the people on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and later in the Temple.
The “grace and truth” of Jesus Christ echoes and fulfills that of the covenant, the relationship between God and his people: “For the law was given through Moses’ grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” For John, the Law finds its fulfillment and end in him.
Here, too, we have the response of faith to the Gospel: “we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…..And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.”
John echoes the Old Testament in saying that, “No one has ever seen God.” Even Moses had not been allowed to see the face of God. John tells us that “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. In Jesus we behold the “glory as of the only Son of the Father.” Here, in the person of Jesus, and in his life and work unfolded in the Gospel which follows, we see the glory, the very being and nature of God. The entire Gospel can be seen as an elaboration upon, a filling out of this final verse of the Prologue: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
And yet it is a strange glory, one which confounds human expectations of the divine, for it is a glory revealed in a human life and death. It is a revelation of God which many still reject because it seems not to meet our demands of God. If we must have a God, let him be a God of power who can make things work out for us. But this is the God whose very being is revealed in the Gospel as love, who comes not compel us by might but to draw us by love; for it is in loving that we become what we are made to be as children of God.
The Prologue to John’s Gospel uses human words to speak of the Word of God; the language of poetry. Poetry is allusive and suggestive. It is the speech of contemplation and worship, of awe and wonder. It is not the precise language of doctrine. After this sermon, and the silent reflection which follows it, (something which should always be part of our response to the Gospel), there comes the Nicene Creed. It is the product of the Church’s intellectual wrestling, in thought and argument, with what this all means about God and our response to him.
- Is Jesus truly divine, or just some intermediate figure between God and us?
- Is he truly human or just pretending to be – dressing as one of us but not really sharing our life and death?
- Or is he both human and divine?
- If he is not truly divine, how can he reveal, not just moral or religious ideas, but the fullness of God?
- If he is not truly human, how can our life be bound for ever to his and glorified, recreated and made glorious in him as the children of God?