Sermon for Sunday 2 January 2022
John 1:14. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
We come here each week to listen to the word of God, but God has something greater for us today, not just to hear the word but to see it. In Bible language we go to Bethlehem to see this word which the Lord has brought to pass and shown to us. Faith comes by hearing, but it comes much more readily by sight. I’m going to try to explain to you what this means for us. Christmas is the beginning of a season, not the end of Advent. The mystery unfolds. At Christmas the eternal Word becomes flesh, but it takes time to celebrate and absorb what this event contains. So maybe we should talk about the Christmas – Epiphany Mystery. It is as if the treasures of faith, the Christmas presents, take time to be unwrapped. Christmas begins a feast by telling us the story of the Son of God being born as a human being. So God comes into our lives. But there’s more. We are to move into His life. The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. At the Epiphany we shall bring gold, the symbol of his kingship. We shall bring frankincense, incense, in recognition of his divinity. We shall bring myrrh, which was used for embalming, as a symbol of his Passion. Do you see what is happening, what is changing? First God comes into our life; now we prepare to enter His life. The Christmas – Epiphany mystery is wonderful; the principal purpose of our liturgy and our prayers is to step into God’s life because “we have beheld – seen – his glory”, as today’s Gospel tells us, “glory as of the only Son of the Father”.
It’s not easy to live up to all this. God’s divine light is constantly challenged by all those repressive and regressive forces within us as individuals and within society and among the nations. So last Tuesday we celebrated, if that’s the word, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when Herod set out to have the new born king killed off through an act of mass infanticide. Herod is in the grip of evil, but at least he is real. Herod didn’t want change. Didn’t like being threatened. The wise men hinted at change when they talked about this new star and asked Herod the fatal question, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ The very last thing Herod wanted was the appearance of the Messiah.
At every turn in our lives we are presented with these choices, forks in the road. We can look up at the star and think like Herod: I don’t really want that divine child in my life, he’s a challenge to my conceit, a judgment on my life, makes me feel guilty, and he wants me to change. So I shall snuff him out or, less dramatically, confine him to Sunday. Or we can go forward in faith like the wise men in Thursday’s Feast of the Epiphany, secure in our prophecies, willing to worship and ready to offer ourselves, whatever I can give, poor as I am. We have received God’s gift of himself, and we respond by giving ourselves to him. The wise men followed a star, the promise of the Truth. They didn’t write the scenario in advance, with themselves as heroes, as we are tempted to do. They looked for their salvation beyond themselves, they knew that they were being beckoned, guided, towards a place of great joy. They gave the best they had, gold, frankincense and myrrh. What can we give? We can give this Christ child a home.
Looking for God, searching for God. We can spend our lives doing that, never quite sure whether we have found Him or not. Frustrating, isn’t it? “Union with God is not something we can or need to acquire. God is too simple to be absent.” [Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light, 2019] He’s not going to play hide and seek with us. It is we, with our cluttered minds, who remain unaware that “the true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world”. God is the ground of our being. This is not something we need to seek. God’s life, life with God, is a Gift to each of us, an eternal life. Maybe we’ve known this all along. St Augustine comes to our rescue when we need to say something in simple words; he suggests that “You cannot love what you do not know”. We knew it once. The Christmas-Epiphany mystery story in the Gospels is full of characters, whose longing for God is a response to having been already touched and embraced by God. So our longing for God is not the desperate search of an outsider, but is rather a homing instinct, recognizing the star, hearing the song again, rejoicing in the light. In the words of our epistle to the Ephesians: “we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory”.
It is we who find a home in Bethlehem, Christ comes home with us. That’s what is meant by seeing the Word as well as hearing it. Christ is in what happens to us, in what we see, in what we do, in the people we meet. But there’s more, much more. The Word which is God offers himself to me today to be seen in my own nature, in who I am. He’s that close, bringing us peace and a deep joy. Deep down we are joyful beings. We know that a newborn child blesses a house, changes how everyone lives. A New Year, indeed. So may Christ bless your home, your family, your friendships, and all that you do.
Fr. Julian Browning