A sermon by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
‘And the word became flesh’ - again. I think this is the fifth time this Christmas that I’ve heard those words from the opening lines of John’s gospel. I go to church for living, of course, so I’m abnormal; but if you’ve been to even one other service in the last fortnight, then you too may have that feeling of déjà vu; or rather, déjà entendu - I’m sure I’ve heard that before. This was the reading Bishop Nicholas preached about on Christmas Morning service, and it was the climax of the Nine Lessons and Carols - read so memorably not by a bigwig but by a child - so why read it again?
Today, the second Sunday of Christmas, may seem like the equivalent of turkey curry, the last serving of the leftovers from the carcass of Christmas, when everything around us is urging us on to new things. So - welcome to a countercultural Christmas: not twelve weeks ending on December 25th but twelve days beginning on that day. While the guidance systems of consumer capitalism try to lock us on to DIY sales and summer holidays, here we differ. In a culture that finds it hard to stand still, here we linger. We linger at the manger, here in the middle of us, because what you see there is too much to take in at once. And John’s gospel is our guide to what is going on, deep down, in the birth of Jesus.
To ‘get’ Jesus, says John, you need to set him against the background of eternity, which today’s reading does, in a kind of overture for what follows. As the book unfolds, what you see in Jesus at a particular time and place is what God is always and everywhere: Jesus forgiving someone, welcoming someone, bringing joy at a party – these are dimensions of God’s action, for this single, brief human life is a window into the eternal life of God.
Actually, more than a window. According to John, in those words you can never hear too often, Jesus does not just show us what God is like; Jesus actually embodies the life of God. So when Jesus is born, the Word of God takes on our flesh and blood.
But why the ‘Word’ of God? John could have said the Glory of God became flesh, or the Grace of God, or the Love. Why ‘Word’? It may be because, deep down, it’s words that most make us human. When our ancestors evolved into animals that could talk, really communicate, it was then that biology became history and our story became really interesting. After that, we had so many more ways to help or hurt each other. Creatures with language can feel so many things: not just hot or cold or hungry or tired or scared, but flattered, insulted, patronised, enlightened, lied to, inspired – all thanks to words, those rich, ambiguous sounds. Ever since, the word has shaped our lives. Even if you don’t have the power of speech it is still words that supply the alphabet of your thoughts.
Think of what crossed our airwaves in 2015 and how much hinged on language. Think how, in the General Election campaign, the commentators chewed over not just to what was said, but how it was said, with what weight, what tone of voice:
Think of Paris, and how the choice of one little word, ‘should’ rather than ‘shall’, made the difference in reaching agreement at the Climate Conference. Think of the same city and look at today’s BBC website: ‘Je Suis Charlie - how three words changed the world’. Not for nothing did we call the Magna Carta year as a celebration of the Power of Words.
And this is the world in which God becomes flesh. To be sure, in Jesus’ day, words travel more slowly, but they are no less potent. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ words get him in trouble; and, when Jesus is on trial for his life because of the words he has used, Pontius Pilate’s verdict will hinge on the words that pass between them and between Pilate and the crowd. If we can see God there, enmeshed in our world of words, then this a God who knows what it is like for us, deep down, who knows about the tangles of the mind, the ways we have of sounding clever and the trouble we have being simple. This is not a God you outgrow when you put away childish talk.
But here is the irony, for at Christmas God becomes a child. The Word that was in the beginning is born a baby, who has no words, who will need a parent to teach him to talk, to use those magical sounds that are both our glory and our downfall. But for now, all he has are inarticulate baby’s cries. You and I need to listen to these cries of God, not just on Christmas Day but today, at the start of new year, and every day. Deep down, it is God who is the parent, and we who (for all our clever words) are the tiny children. After all, we have only been on the earth for about two minutes of geological time. We are the ones who can’t really speak, who can’t find the words for the story we really want to tell about ourselves, while God is the wise eternal Word who spoke at the dawn of time. It takes God, crying out from the cradle of Jesus, crying out from the cross of Jesus, to cut through our chatter and shock us into the truth about ourselves.
And after the shock, what? Well, it’s not good to be totally countercultural, so how about a ‘New Year, new you!’ moment, a resolution for 2016? On 18th January we begin the Pilgrim Course. Each session takes its cue from life-changing words - the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and so on - and its aim is to ‘unpack … the basic message … of the Christian faith in a way that is reflective and conversational’; that is, not just to make us more clued up but also to help us find words to speak of God as you or I know God, or want to know God. Why not make it a New Year’s resolution to join?
The Word became flesh long ago and far away, but if we can receive him today, as we are invited to do in this Holy Communion, then the promise is that the Word can reshape our lives, that we can be born of God, and grow, and learn a new language, learn how to tell a different story about ourselves, one that is part of his story, full of grace and truth.