The Word became flesh: text of a sermon preached at St Stephen’s, Exeter on Christmas Day, 2019

Detail from Madonna and Child: Bernadino Luini

For the past few years, whenever I’ve preached at Christmas it’s generally been at Midnight Mass. That means, of course, that I’ve preached on St Luke’s story of Our Lord’s birth: Mary and Joseph coming to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the stable, the shepherds’ visit, and at the centre of it all the Virgin Mother and her Child. And what a story it is! Even after two thousand years painters still love to paint it, sculptors to carve it, and poets and hymn writers to hymn it. Countless schools and churches around the world love to reenact it. The most cynical and morally beaten-up among us generally still have a moment when our hearts are strangely warmed as we gather round a Christmas crib or watch a Nativity Play, however simply (or even badly) written or performed. 

That, then, is what we get to think about at Midnight Mass.

By contrast, in the light of Christmas morning, while not forgetting that wonderful story—our hymns are still reminding us of it—while not forgetting that, the church now asks us to pay attention to the passage from St John that we just heard, the Prologue to his gospel. In it John tells us his version of the same story. And it’s different. Very different! Moving from Luke’s stable to John’s Prologue is like moving from a cosy thatched cottage to a solemn temple.

John’s version begins back in time, indeed, before time. No doubt the evangelist had read in his Bible that “in the beginning” God created the heavens and the earth. So he now starts by pointing out that in that same “beginning”, even before God created anything, “the Word”—God’s Word—already was! (1.1) Through that Word, he tells us, the universe itself was uttered into being (1.3). In that Word was life, and the life was the light of humankind—the true light, that enlightens us all, the light that continues to shine throughout our history (1.4). And although that history contains much that is dark, still “the darkness did not overcome” it (1.5)—the “overcome” of our NRSVs being something of an under-translation: John’s Greek word is “κατέλαβεν”—”grasped” or “apprehended” — a rather brilliant choice, since it implies not only that darkness has never defeated the light but also that it has never understood it (1.5). As the colloquialism has it, when it comes to light, the darkness has simply never got it.

After a couple of digressions about John the Baptist and other things, John comes to the affirmation that is heart and centre of the Christmas story as he tells it: “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” “Flesh”—σάρξ: a word that to John’s first hearers would have spoken of our humanity in all its frailty and transience. I dare say neither John nor his hearers could think of anything more utterly different from God’s eternal Word than “flesh”, and yet “flesh” is what John says the eternal Word “became”—ἐγένετο: his choice of word indicating what happened here was no mere appearance, like an actor putting on a costume or a mask, but real.[1] St Augustine of Hippo declared that throughout his life before he became a Christian, as he struggled to find wisdom, he’d come across other sources that spoke to him of God’s Word. But only in Christianity did he find it written that “the Word became flesh” (Confessions VII).

Just why does the church want us to hear all this—in effect, a summary history of the universe—on this particular day? I think because it tells us something of what the Bethlehem story means. It’s only too easy for us to sentimentalise that story. We can hear it and at the end of it say, “Yes, it’s beautiful. But it was all a very long time ago. Next week we must go back to work and the world will not have changed. Life will still be the same old same old.”

And that’s precisely where St John says we’re wrong. “No,” he says. “If you think that, you simply haven’t got it. You’re like the dark that surrounds the light but never understands it. What happened at Bethlehem that night involved a union between ourselves and God that changes everything, a union that is staggering if not preposterous, a colossal, breathtaking paradox. Don’t you hear it? The Word became flesh.

For all the lightness of her verse, Christian Rosetti expresses that paradox very firmly in her carol, “In the bleak midwinter” [2]—indeed, she compels us to pay attention to it:

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,

Nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away,

When he comes to reign.

So much any follower of the God of Abraham, any faithful Jew, Moslem or Christian may affirm. But then comes the affirmation that only a Christian can make:

In the bleak midwinter

A stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty,

Jesus Christ

It is precisely our humanity, our back-to-work-and-the-world-hasn’t-changed humanity, our it’s-only-more-of-the-same-old-same-old humanity, which God has consecrated and tied to God’s own self in the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s what John tells us. The Word has become flesh.

And just why would God do such a thing as that? John’s answer to that question comes only a little later in the gospel, in what’s understandably one of the best-loved verses in the Bible. God did it, John says, because “God so loved the world” (3.16). Though God needs nothing and has perfection within the Triune Unity, still God, one of Whose names is “Immanuel, God with us”, wills to be in union with a creature who is other than God’s Self—and for no other reason than love. God wants us to be (as 2 Peter puts it) “partakers of the divine nature” (1.4). And since we in our frailty cannot attain to God, God in God’s loving-kindness comes to us. Love is why God in the child of Bethlehem tied God’s self indissolubly to us, even though, in the sinful world that humankind had made, it would cost him the cross.[3] And love is why at the end of the gospel story, when Christ is exalted to the right hand of God, it will be our humanity that is exalted with him and in him. “Beloved,” says John’s first letter, “even now are we children of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we do know this, that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3.2).

And that is why the church, amid and in spite of all the darkness and confusion that is in the world, continues to wish us all a Merry Christmas. Amen.

[1] The evangelist’s choice of word excludes “any possibility that the human flesh of Jesus was something similar to clothing which he had put on, something quite external to him, which he could discard at will… This does not mean that the Logos was changed into a human being.… Nor does the use of ἐγένετο imply that the Logos ceased to be God. The sense is that the Logos became a human being without ceasing to be God. Thus the purpose of ἐγένετο is to emphasize that the Logos did not just ‘dwell in’ human flesh, did not just ‘have’ a human body in order to speak his part for one or more performances, like a Greek actor walking on stage with a particular mask. He, the divine Logos, was in reality the principal character in the drama” (John F. McHugh, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on John 1–4 ICC [London: T & T Clark, 2009] 53).

[2] First published as “A Christmas Carol” in Scribner’s Monthly (January 1872) 272; now in The New English Hymnal 28; The Hymnal 1982 112.

[3] There is a school of thought, particularly prominent in the Eastern church, which says asserts that it was always God’s purpose to become incarnate, even if humanity had not sinned. While such “what-would-have-happened-if” questions are surely close to being meaningless, and in any case I am certainly not qualified to have an opinion on the matter that would be worth much, still, for what it is worth, I confess that this is an idea that I find attractive.

Judgement: text of a sermon preached in St. Olave’s Church, Exeter on the Second Sunday of Advent, 2019.

Advent 2A: OT Isaiah 11.1-10; Ps. 72.1-7, 18, 19; NT Romans 15.4-13; Gospel Matt. 3.1-12

I still remember the morning of my ordination to the diaconate. Thirty of us had been in silent retreat over the weekend. Now we were released from silence. The bishop had pointed out, kindly but firmly, that the ordination service was very long, and however much some of the more pious among us might wish to fast, as far as he was concerned it was a matter of holy obedience that we eat breakfast. So there we all were, crowded into the refectory, chattering noisily and nervously over eggs and bacon and toast and marmalade and enormous mugs of tea or coffee.  

The archdeacon in charge of us, who appeared to be enjoying his moment of glory, got to his feet and cleared his throat. 

“There are,” he said, “just a few last things.” 

The bishop looked up.  

“Four, if I remember correctly,” he said, and returned to his egg.  

He was, I suspected, beginning to get just a little fed up with the archdeacon.  

The interesting thing was that even in those far-off days, when some of us like to think the church preached the faith and everything was simply divine, not everyone got the joke. Even then it was a long time since the church had been expected to spend the four Sundays of Advent preaching about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. 

Be that as it may, I, as some of you may know, am an Oxford man. And that means virtually by definition that I’m a defender of lost causes. So as this is the Second Sunday in Advent, whatever may be going on elsewhere in the church or the world, I’m going to talk about judgment—God’s judgment.  

I’m encouraged in this by the fact that Post Communion prayer that the church appoints for today explicitly points out that God who sent His Son “to redeem the world” will also “send him again to be our judge”, and also by the fact that the bible readings we’ve just heard were all, directly or indirectly, concerned with judgment.  Isaiah of Jerusalem, centuries before the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, speaks of a coming King upon whom God’s Spirit shall rest, one who 

shall not judge by what his eyes see,

    or decide by what his ears hear; 

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. (Isa 11.3-4)

St Paul, whom we didn’t read in church this morning, but whose appointed passage you can see on the lesson sheets for today, also talks about the coming one, though he doesn’t in this passage actually use the word “judgment”. 

One thing you may notice about them both is how upbeat they are. Paul finishes his little section with an exhortation to plain joy: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit!” (Rom. 15.13). Both prophet and apostle see the coming Day of the Lord as something to look forward to, not something to fear.  In this respect, they are rather like Handel’s Messiah. Or perhaps more precisely I should say that Handel’s Messiah interprets the sort of thing they are saying very well.  You’ll remember that the music of the Messiah does get rather sad and serious sometimes, for example when the texts are about Jesus’ passion and death. But when the texts are about God coming to reign over the world and judge the nations, it is always cheerful and exciting. “Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, arise, shine, for thy light is come!” And so on. I will not embarrass myself by attempting to sing it, but I trust you get the point. 

So why are the prophet and the apostle so cheerful?  

In a word, because for them God’s judgment means that what is wrong with the world is going to be put right!  And indeed, the first thing we must do if we are to understand the biblical idea of God as judge is to forget our pictures of an elderly man wearing an enormous wig sitting above us and pronouncing sentence. We must think instead of a deliverer coming to rescue us—like St George saving the princess from the dragon, or Robin Hood saving the poor people of Nottingham from the wicked sheriff, or the good sheriff in the old Western movies who rides into town and rids the citizens of the wicked cattle baron who’s trying to take over. That, of course, is what those who are called “judges” in the Book of Judges are like: Samson, Jephthah, and all the others.  They are heroes who deliver Israel from her enemies. And that’s what our psalmist this morning was talking about when he prayed that a righteous king would

judge your people righteously,

and your poor with justice. (Ps. 72.2)

To put it another way, biblical “judgment” is basically not about condemning the guilty but about vindicating the helpless. It’s about the sort of thing we mean when we talk of “justice for the poor” or “justice for the unborn”—in other words, justice for those who are not in a position to defend or protect themselves. It’s about delivering the helpless from what oppresses them. That’s what we mean, or at any rate what we ought to mean, when we say – as, God willing, we will say in a few minutes—that we believe in Jesus Christ who will “come in glory to judge the living and the dead”.

And of course that is what we all want to happen. 

Or is it? 

It would be idle to pretend there is absolutely nothing in the prospect of God killing off all the dragons or bad cattle barons or wicked sheriffs that threatens us. On the contrary! There is, alas, a streak in all of us that’s quite attracted by the idea of being a successful dragon or cattle baron or wicked sheriff, at least for so long as we can get away with it—so long, perhaps, as we think God won’t notice. We all have in us streaks of pride, greed and vainglory. 

So where will we be in that wonderful Last Judgment to which we might have so looked forward if we’d been better people? 

A hard question—and part of the answer to it surely involves a passage from today’s Scripture readings that I haven’t so far mentioned: the gospel!  “You brood of vipers!” roars John the Baptist. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?!” (Matt. 3.7).  Let’s face it, no one’s going to give John the Baptist high marks for pastoral sensitivity. Some people for a time thought he might be the Messiah, and the rest of us poor sinners may well thank God that he wasn’t. But leaving all that aside, let’s focus on the one thing that the Baptist surely did get right: which is to say, he paid people the compliment of suggesting that God took their responses to God very seriously.  

Or to put it another way, John the Baptist reminds us that God’s judgment means that we are going to have to face the truth not only about others, but also about ourselves. We’re going to have to admit that we have on the whole been extraordinarily unsatisfactory human beings. And admitting that, openly and publicly before angels and the archangels and the whole company of heaven, is not something we expect to enjoy.  We’d prefer to hang on to our self-deceptions and our self-righteousness. Unfortunately, however, those things are lies, and since heaven can only accommodate truth (Rev. 22.15), they’ll have to go.  It will be a question of having one or the other: Saint George or the dragon, Robin Hood or the wicked sheriff, the penny or the bun.  We cannot forever go on as we do at present—trying to have both. We’re going to have to think again. And that—“thinking again”—is exactly what the words translated “repent” and “repentance” in our gospel reading mean.

On the other hand, if the saints are to be trusted, when the moment actually comes for such final self-abandonment to divine providence, perhaps it will not seem such a very big thing after all – not once we have allowed ourselves to look properly into the eyes of our saviour. For then we shall know that we have found what we were truly looking for all the time, even in our most dragon-ish moments, even in our times of greatest sinfulness and folly. We shall see that the One who judges us is also our truest lover and always has been. And in that moment the times when we wished to turn our back on God will seem like lovers’ quarrels – the quarrels and difficulties between true lovers that only lead in the end to their marrying.  

And that, of course, is the other image that goes in the Bible with the last Judgment: a Wedding.  In the Book of Revelation, the day when the world is judged is also the Church’s wedding day, the day when she becomes Christ’s bride: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21.2).  A wedding is the consummation and goal of all that has gone before.  The entire difficult, costly process of preparation, adjustment, and engagement leads up to it.  And yet, as any married person will tell you, a wedding is not therefore an end.  Indeed, it is essentially a beginning—the beginning of marriage, the beginning of a new life.  

So it will be with us.  We look for our Lord to come as judge and as bridegroom, so that life, our true life, with him and with each other, communio sanctorum,the communion of saints, may begin.  

That is what will happen when our Lord comes to us in the Last Judgment.  

Even so, come Lord Jesus. 

And now let us confess our faith, as the church has taught us:

We believe in One God….