Sermon given on Christmas Day 2019
John 1 1-14
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Wednesday, 25th December 2019 at 10.30 AM
There is a famous Christmas Day story set here in Westminster Abbey. It takes us back to Christmas Day 1066 William the Conqueror, victorious over Harold’s Saxon army at Senlac Hill, came here to be crowned. After a great procession and some elaborate chants in Latin, he stepped into the Abbey. And there, Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances spoke to the Norman invaders in their own language – if the king presented to you please you, declare it. There was a shout of acclaim. But, there was a problem with language, defeated Saxons needed to swear loyalty too. So, Ealdred Archbishop of York asked the same question in an English we would not recognise – if the king presented to you please you, declare it. The trouble is the Normans did not recognise it either. Outside, soldiers posted by an anxious Conqueror, to keep him safe, heard a bewildering roar and, assuming the worst, they set fire to Westminster.
Despite our best efforts to organise Christmas, truss it up in tinsel, anaesthetize it with cherry brandy and have really precise timings, that involve turning the on oven at 04.50 am, and setting brussel sprouts to simmer from 05.10, Christmas so often escapes us. We can be beset by misunderstandings. There was the year my dear father, set out to tidy up wrapping paper, but actually threw presents away, including a necklace my daughter never did see again. There was piece of paper, ‘you ordered Brussel sprouts, we delivered bananas’. Or, the clever wish list, that absolutely guaranteed that I got the book I most wanted – indeed, I got it three times. Christmas overturns our best efforts.
It was always so. Christmas is an interruption, a break in continuity. The familiar story is now so familiar to us, that we miss the judder and the jolt. St Luke, telling this story, wants us to make us stumble over the utter implausibility and fragility of it all – a Virgin great with child, an old woman long past childbirth giving birth to John the Baptist, no room at the inn. In St Matthew, Joseph wants to desert Mary, wise men follow a star but still cannot find Christ and enlist the help of Herod - of all people. It is mayhem - mayhem and murder. Christmas is disruptive.
It was interruption and disruption, that we heard this morning in John’s gospel, Christ comes amongst us – the Son of God, the first born before creation the one to whom the world belongs - but no-one will have it, no one will have him.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him
John has hold of us by the lapels, wants to tell us something, we need to pay attention. Now, I know it is Christmas morning, I know celebration beckons and by tea time great Uncle Ernest may well not be thinking clearly, but whilst we are bright-eyed and buoyant let’s give a moment to Theology 101 – An Introduction to the Doctrine of St John.
This is the gospel that starts ‘In the beginning’. Well, that plugs us straight into the mains. We have heard this before; another book starts like this – In the beginning – that’s how the first book starts – Genesis. Genesis is the book about creation, the story of how everything began. John is making a pitch, he is telling us he is doing that too. This is not just a story about a baby in a manger, this, says John, is the story of everything.
John and Genesis, the same story, but with a difference. The Book of Genesis tells us that at the beginning of everything God said ‘Let there be light’. Now, light is a very good place to start. We know that life depends on light. But, we also think of light in another way. If I say something wise to the Canon Theologian he might say (once he has recovered from the shock of it) ‘I see’ meaning ‘I understand’. We think of ‘the light of understanding’. When someone gets an idea they could not grasp before, we say ‘light has dawned’. Genesis tells us that all things begin in God and hopes that we will see that; Genesis hopes that we will live in that light.
John, does something else. John does not give us light; he gives us a Word. In the beginning was the Word. It all begins with a word, with a very specific word. Now suppose for a moment, having discovered we have a Canon Theologian, you go to him for some insight. You want to know, perhaps, why when you stare into the eyes of your best beloved you get a funny feeling in your stomach. He might tell you ‘Well, there is a word for that, it is called love’. Equally, he could say ‘there is a term for that, or even an expression for that, it is love. In just the same way, in Greek, the language John used, there were different possibilities. What John says is that In the beginning was the logos. It is fine to translate that and say that ‘In the beginning was the Word’, but it would also be good to translate it as ‘In the beginning was the explanation’. That is what John means. In the beginning, God spoke and God offered an explanation.
God whose life is just simple, unqualified, undefended love, pours love out of himself in creation and, doing that, God explains. That is what John is trying to tell us. Jesus arrives amongst us at Christmas as an explanation. Jesus is where it begins, how it begins and where it is going, Jesus as explanation. Then, so that we do not go wrong, John quickly adds some significant bits of information. This explanation, the one that explains everything, arrives as light in the darkness
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
So, Christ arrives in contested space - living in darkness, even choosing darkness, not everyone has the light of understanding. Indeed,
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
This explanation is not just contested; it is rejected. Although it is the explanation of everything; alternatives are offered, there are other theories. Or, more dangerously, the idea that there could be such a thing as an explanation of everything is ridiculed. We are, after all, too sophisticated, too sensible for an explanation of everything. We turn away, just as we keep turning away from one another when we are hurt, angry or upset. Any explanation but this one. Do you know Charles Causley’s poem, written after he had been looking at a crucifix in Normandy?
I am the great sun, but you do not see me,…
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
I am the captain but you will not obey.
I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
I am the city where you will not stay.
God issues out in love and explains everything, the explanation is Jesus, who is our life and meaning and we, complicated people that we are, will not have it. We reject the explanation we are offered, hate the love we are shown, kill the life we are given. That is what the evangelist St John is trying to tell us this morning.
If it all sounds a bit complicated, let me employ the words of an old friend, now dead, God rest him. The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once said
The whole of our faith is the belief that God loves us; I mean there isn’t anything else. Anything else we say we believe is just a way of saying that God loves us. Any proposition, any article of faith, is only an expression of faith if it is a way of saying that God loves us.
God who is nothing but love, explains, the explanation is just love and it looks like a human being. It is a human being, Jesus, that is the explanation.
Can life, even at Christmas be confusing and difficult? Yes, it can. Does it sometimes feel as though the darkness is winning? Yes, absolutely. Are we living in contested space? We are. Have we been lied to? Yes, we probably have. All of that is agreed and accepted in our reading this morning. All of that and the promise, spoken once at creation, and ringing through all things forever, that an explanation has been given and the explanation is love. It was always, and will always, be love. And it will always be true.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
God’s explanation is given to us in the one form we might recognise, as the Father’s Son, a human being. The explanation is Christ living, dying and rising; that is an explanation we can learn and even live ourselves. The explanation is true and the explanation is beautiful. Full of grace and truth. No wonder we celebrate Christmas. Here is the Word of hope, we longed for. Here is the explanation, in language we can understand, here is the end of confusion, and here is hope. Happy Christmas.