Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Nativity of Our Lord

This is the transcript of my sermon for the Nativity of our Lord on Christmas Night.

The Nativity of our Lord 

Reading: John 1:1-18

Our Gospel reading tonight, as it is every Christmas night, is the beginning of St John’s Gospel. It is a well-known and much-loved reading: ‘In the beginning was the Word ...’. This opening immediately sets St John’s Gospel apart from the other three Gospels. St Mark, as we saw on the Second Sunday of Advent, begins his Gospel with the ministry of John the Baptist. St Matthew and St Luke go back to the birth of Jesus, and give an account of the events surrounding it. Then, like St Mark, they describe the baptism by John as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

St John, however, while also giving prominence to John the Baptist at the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry, goes back not to the birth of Jesus, nor even to the birth and beginning of all things, but to before the beginning. Before anything began, he writes, there was God and there was the Word.

Imagine that you are one of the first readers of the Gospel, reading it yourself for the first time. You might think you are about to begin a work of philosophy about the nature of existence and being. At one level you would be right. St John writes of the Word:

‘All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ (John 1:3)

In Greek, the language St John is writing in, the Greek for ‘word’ is ‘logos’. St John’s first readers would have been both Jews and Greeks. And both Jews and Greeks would have been familiar with the concept of the ‘logos’.

Any Jew hearing the phrase, ‘In the beginning …’ would immediately think of the book of Genesis. In Genesis, it is God’s word that brings everything into existence. God said, ‘Let there be light and there was light.’ God speaks everything into being. His word is sufficient.

The Greeks also knew about the ‘logos’. The ‘logos’ was the rational principle that governed and permeated everything in the universe, and which gave it meaning. The logos to the Greeks was a sort of first century equivalent of the ‘force’ in the Star Wars movies: not personal, but central and essential, nevertheless.

But then, St John writes something that would have utterly shocked both Jew and Greek:

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory …’ (John 1:14)

Everything that St John writes initially about the Word, both Jew and Greek would understand, and would not have a problem with. They would see St John as using a literary device to write in personal terms about an abstract concept. The Jews were used to this technique. The concept of divine wisdom was often personified as a woman and spoken of in personal terms. Both Jew and Greek at first, then, would think that this is what St John is doing with the Word, but St John suddenly shocks his readers by telling us that the Word has become flesh; that is, become one of us.

But who is it? It is not until verse 17 that we are given a name for the Word made flesh:

‘The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ (John 1:17)

Jesus, so John is telling his readers, is not only the key to understanding the meaning of ‘life, the universe, and everything’, but it is also both through him and for him that everything came into existence in the first place. Everything that exists, has ever existed, or will ever exist finds the reason and purpose for its existence completely and solely in Christ.

Why does St John begin his Gospel like this? Well, he is about to give an account of the life and teaching of Jesus, and he wants to get something absolutely clear from the start. St John knows that his readers will have heard of Jesus. Some will also be believers. He wants them to know from the beginning that the One he is writing about is himself the beginning of all things.

Jesus is not simply another rabbi, philosopher, religious teacher, or prophet. When St John’s readers read what Jesus said and did, St John wants them to know just who it is who is saying and doing the things he describes. ‘We have seen his glory,’ St John writes, and in his Gospel, he writes about the glory he and his fellow disciples have seen in the signs that Jesus performed. St John wants us his readers to know that the person they are reading about is no ordinary person, He is the One whom, even as they read about him, they depend on for their existence. He is the ‘Word made flesh’.

Let us make no mistake then about what St John is telling us. He is saying that Jesus, whose birth we are celebrating tonight, is the One we too depend on for our existence, whether we realise it or not or whether we acknowledge it or not. In one sense, whether we believe in him or not doesn’t change anything; he remains the eternal Word of God. In another sense, however, whether we believe in him or not changes everything. St John tells us at the end of his Gospel the reason he has for writing his Gospel. It is:

‘ … so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:31)

What St John is writing about is not the word of a religious teacher nor is it even the word of an inspired prophet, this is the Word made flesh. St John wants us to know just who Jesus is. St John wants us to sit up and take notice as if our lives depend on it because as St John will tell us, they really do.

Having caught his readers’ attention, St John begins his story of Jesus. What, then, is the first thing that he tells us about Jesus, the Word made flesh? The very first thing that is said in the Gospel about Jesus, when at last in verse 29 he makes his human appearance, is said by John the Baptist. This has to be important given the build up to it. So, what does John the Baptist say?

‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ (John 1:29)

Not, here is someone who can explain the mysteries of the universe. Not, here is someone who can show you how to live your life to the full. Not even, here is someone who can tell you what is right and wrong. St John, of course, believes that Jesus can do all these things, and much more besides, but first and foremost, he is the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.

The phrase, ‘Lamb of God’ is not one that means a lot to us today, but to devout Jews it would resonate with meaning. Lambs were sacrificed every day in the Temple. And they were sacrificed especially at Passover as Jews remembered the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

St John begins his Gospel, not at the beginning but before the beginning; and he begins the earthly story of Jesus not by recounting its beginning, but by pointing us to its end. Jesus himself will refer throughout his ministry to this as ‘his hour’. This is what he, as the ‘Word made flesh’, came to do. As he enters Jerusalem at the end of his life, Jesus asks:

‘And what should I say – ‘Father save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’ (John 12: 27)

This is not what we want to hear. We are taking part in this service, in this unusual way, because we want, in the midst of all the chaos and negative headlines of the moment, at least to start Christmas on a positive note. We like the reassurance of the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby in the Manger; of the shepherds and the wise men; the message of peace on earth and of hope for the future. St John, however, brutally shatters our cozy image.

Just as we are gazing in wonder at the baby in the Manger, St John tells us that this baby we are gazing on is going to be sacrificed for our sin. Nailed to a cross, he who gives life to all men will by men be killed: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’

When John the Baptist says this, two of John’s own disciples immediately start to follow Jesus. Jesus turns to them and, in the first words that St John records Jesus as saying, asks them: ‘What are you seeking? (John 1:38)’. In the Gospel, people will come to Jesus seeking many things from answers to their questions to healing for their lives. The two disciples, however, reply simply, ‘Where are you staying?’ In other words, it is sufficient for them to be with him. If this is truly the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they cannot afford to let him out of their sight; they have to be with him. Jesus replies equally simply: ‘Come and you will see.’ (John 1:39).

And this is the invitation that is being extended to us as we read about the Word made flesh. St John is inviting us to ‘come and see’. St John has already told us that the One he invites us to come and see is the One who is the light of the world. And the light, he tells us shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. This is something we can all relate to for the world can seem very dark at times.

We know this only two well both here in Hong Kong and in the world, in general, at the moment. There seems to be so much that is wrong with the world and with society around us. For us locally, in Hong Kong, there is the ongoing crisis caused by the pandemic and the aftermath of the protests. Globally, apart from the pandemic, our world is facing many problems, not least with climate change and the uncertainties caused by global politics. As one British newspaper put it last weekend: ‘When will this nightmare end?’ We could all do with some light.

But while we may be only too aware of the problems that the world faces locally and globally, St John won’t let us off individually and personally. For the darkness is not something out there, the darkness is something in here: in the heart of each one of us. If all we needed was someone to guide us and show us the way, the Word would not have needed to become flesh. After all, as St John reminds us, we already have God's Law given to us by God through Moses. No, what we needed, and what we need, is someone to take away our sin. The sin that not only keeps us in the darkness, but the sin that also makes us a part of that darkness.

For our need tonight, is not for someone who can explain the mysteries of the universe to us; not for someone to show us how to live a happy and fulfilled life; not for someone to show us what is right and wrong. We even need more than someone who can give us forgiveness for our sins; we need someone who can save us from our sin. We are prisoners who need freeing, addicts who need delivering, the spiritually blind who need healing. But there can be no light, no hope, and no future for us while we remain trapped by our sin, lost, and in the darkness.

As, tonight, we look on the Word made flesh, St John says to each of us: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ The Blessed Virgin Mary was told she was to call the baby, who she would miraculously conceive and give birth to, Jesus. As if to make sure there is no doubt as to the baby’s name an angel also appears to tell Joseph the same. The angel explains that the reason why they are to call the baby’s name Jesus is that ‘he shall save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)’. The name Jesus means, ‘God saves’. And in Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has entered our world as the Lamb of God who does just that.

We read at the beginning of our service that amazing verse from later in St John's Gospel:

‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

Christmas is about giving. The thing about gifts is that they need opening. Tonight, God is offering each one of us the greatest gift of all, the gift of his Son, the Word made flesh, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The question is: will we open it? In our Gospel reading, St John tells us that ‘he came to his own and his own did not receive him’ (John 1:11). They refused the gift.

St John continues, however:

‘But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God …’ (John 1:12)

Tonight, will we receive or refuse the gift?

Many of you tonight as you watch this are experiencing darkness and facing your own personal nightmare. You are coping with sickness, bereavement, tragedy, financial uncertainty, and, not least, worries about your children and their future. The gift God is offering to us is not only forgiveness, but the possibility of a new life and a new beginning. A new life lived with God and in God rather than in darkness. But for that to happen, tonight must be about more than a nice way to start Christmas. It must be about deciding between light and darkness, life and death.

Tonight, we are offered the chance to receive the life of God. Life that can be ours because Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and who will take away our sin if we let him. Take away the sin that keeps us in darkness and that prevents us from experiencing the light and life of God.

Those first two disciples responded to Jesus’ invitation. They came and saw where he was staying, and, we are told, they stayed with him (John 1:39). Jesus doesn’t want spectators, he wants followers. To be a follower of Jesus is about more than believing certain things about him, more than keeping his teaching, more than joining his Church. It is about staying with him and entering a relationship with him that is intimate and real, so real that Jesus describes it as feeding on him, that is, becoming completely dependent on him. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and Jesus will tell his disciples later in John’s Gospel:

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.’ (John 6:53-56)

It is eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Lamb of God, the Word made flesh, that makes it possible for us to stay with him, to abide in him, and to live for him.

And so, we begin Christmas now, not by gathering at the Manger to celebrate and to wonder at his birth, but at the altar both to remember and to participate in his death. For it is in his death that we discover our life and by feeding on him that we continue in his life.

As you watch this service, you have responded to Jesus’ invitation to come and see. But now you have to make a decision as to whether you will also stay.

When Jesus told his disciples what it meant to follow him many turned back and ‘no longer went about with him’ (John 6:66). They refused to stay him with any longer. Jesus, then, asks his closest disciples including the original two disciples who he invited to come and see, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6:67).

St Peter answers for them all. May his answer also be our answer this Christmas:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

‘The Word became flesh and lived among us.’

‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

‘Come and see.’

Come and stay.


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