Second Sunday of Christmas - Ephesians 1:3-14 and John 1:10-18
Well I don’t know how your Christmas and New Year were – some of you may have had a great time others of you may have had a more difficult time. Well as a family we had a good time. Great to spend it with friends and family with good food but with the reality of some difficult absences. However good it was I would not have used the word lavish. What times in your life would you describe as ‘lavish’? Those times that were excessive, exuberant and extravagant in luxury. It is not a word we often use. But here in our epistle reading as part of a breathless hymn of praise we have it:
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us’. (Ephesians 1:5-8)
It is a wonderful use of language which seeks to conjure up in our minds an image of what God has done for us.
A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting the Alhambra Palace and fortress complex of the Moorish rulers of Granada in southern Spain, set on a hilly terrace on the southeastern border of the city of Granada. The decorations within the palaces typified the remains of Moorish dominion within Spain. With little influence from the Islamic mainland, artists endlessly reproduced the same forms and trends. The Courts of the Lion is an oblong court, surrounded by a low gallery supported on 124 white marble columns adorned by varieties of foliage. The square is paved with coloured tiles, and the colonnade with white marble; while the walls are covered up from the ground with blue and yellow tiles, with a border above and below enameled blue and gold. In the centre of the court is the Fountain of Lions, an alabaster basin supported by the figures of twelve lions in white marble, not designed with sculptural accuracy, but as symbols of strength and courage. It is lavish.
The word, lavish is always associated with riches. The word, lavish, is never associated with poverty. You never say, “A person is lavishing in poverty.” You never associate the word, lavish, with criticism. You never say, “You lavish a person with criticism.” Nor do you associate the word, lavish, with frugality.
No act of God in time and history gives us more of an understanding of how God has given us the gift of grace lavished upon us as that of the Incarnation. At the right time and in the most undeniable and unforgettable way, God stepped into our world enabling us to be called children of God. It is a lavish gift and we are not children of God, by blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
John Pritchard (The Bishop of Oxford) in the Times news paper on Christmas Eve, talked about our claim as Christians that ‘love came down at Christmas’ was embodied in the only form we could ultimately understand – a human life. Jesus was the human face of God, God’s self portrait glimpsed in the puckered vulnerability of a new born baby.’
John in his gospel does not offer details of how and where. There is no manger scene, no adoring shepherds, no wise men from the East, just the incredible revolutionary announcement that God has become like us in Christ so that we can be called children of God and become like him.
We have very different experiences of being children and of parents, however when John was writing he would have had in mind the overwhelming image of children in scripture, that they are cherished by their parent – privileged and adored. Scriptures give us an image of children of God upon whom he has compassion (Jeremiah 31:20), who he never forgets (Isaiah 49:15) and to whom he gives eternal life. It is a right which is extended to Jew and gentile alike. What a difference it would make to 2014 if we really understood this – that God has lavished upon us his grace and mercy and that we are cherished as his children.
When the author of the letter to the Ephesians pauses for breath, he does so to conclude that this is given to us so that we might give glory to God. God has become like us in Christ, not only so we can be children of God but so that we can become like him. John Pritchard tells us that Jesus fully embodied God’s love as fully as human life can do, and left us the task of making that love visible and transformative in the lives of others.
Last week a YouGov poll told us that between 1957 and 2013 the number of people who believe in a personal God or some sort of spirit, God or life force has dropped from 78% to 49%. It also revealed that atheists out-number believers in a personal God by 28% to 17%. Our culture may be less receptive to the story of love coming down at Christmas, but where love is seen in action often in the darkest situations, and where churches show themselves to be communities of grace, then people are intrigued and open to the whisper of divine love.
During the first Eucharist of Christmas as Deacon I had the privilege of reading the gospel of John at the end of the liturgy. As we processed down the nave manoeuvring around the font singing ‘Yea Lord we greet thee born this happy morning’ we moved further on and around the Christmas tree and out of the West End doors and I read into the darkness “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”(John1: 4)
I had been warned in the vestry to know that my microphone would be on and someone recounted how in previous years the Deacon was heard to be saying, where are we going? Where we were going was into the world. The liturgy was very symbolic, with the gospel of good news we rightly proclaimed it to the world into the dark places where the light would not be overcome.
It is a gospel for the world. Not just for the safe warm environment of the Cathedral but also for the dark places of our lives and the lives of the world. It is a gospel not just to be proclaimed in word but also in deed - in the small things as well as the large.
Pope Francis was named as Person of the Year 2013 by Time Magazine. The magazine commented at the speed at which he has captivated the imagination of millions. The photographs used captured the gospel of good news, him washing the feet of female convicts, posing for ‘selfies’ with young visitors to the Vatican, embracing a man with a deformed face and welcoming small children who had managed to scale the steps of St Peters. His words and deeds talk about a church which is servant and comforter of hurting people.
His vision is of a pastoral church which embraces the poor, the spiritually broken and the lonely. We are called as children of God to make God’s love visible and transforming.
So at the beginning of this New Year let us know God’s lavish grace and mercy. Let us walk in His light and love as children of God and lavish his love upon the world.
Sermon preached on the 5th January 2014 by Canon Sarah Mullally