Sermon - 25th December 2011
Scripture - John 1:1-18
Rev Andy Braunston
Well we’ve made it to Christmas! The last few weeks have, for many of us, been frantic as: we’ve struggled to find appropriate presents; post Christmas cards - hopefully on or before the last posting days; catch up with family and friends; organise our Christmas activities; and endure the frantic Christmas shopping crowds. At the same time we’ve also tried to carry on with the normal routine of our lives! We can, this morning, relax and realise that if we’ve forgotten to do something it’s too late and there is nothing we can do about it! It’s quite liberating to realise that there’s nothing more we can do so we can relax and enjoy the day.
Our days will be different; some will spend it with family, others with friends, others quietly at home with a partner or simply by themselves. We may mark the day with some nice food and drink, some good TV, lovely music or by simply being quiet and catching up with some reading.
But in this part of the day we’ve set aside some time to reflect on the birth of Christ – the reason for all our celebrations. As we celebrate I’d like us to reflect on three aspects of the Christmas story: the Word made Flesh, Light in Darkness and the unexpected.
Word Made Flesh
In the reading from St John’s prologue which we have just heard read to us we heard that Jesus was the Word made Flesh. The writer was using some Greek ideas about a pre-existent Word as being a metaphor for God’s own self. This Word, God, became human, took on our flesh, our human experience, our frailty, our pain, our joy – all that human life is about with its glories and tragedy.
We’re used to this familiar phrase – the Word became flesh - but we don’t always think through the implications. If God became flesh then flesh can be bad. There is a tendency in Christianity to be very suspicious of the flesh; the body is often portrayed as a place of sin and temptation. Women’s bodies, in particular, exercised the minds of the early Church Fathers who found them to be very problematic. Traditionally, the Church asked us to be wary of the “world, the flesh and the devil” and many traditional spiritual practices were designed to subdue the body. In fact the spiritual discipline of fasting has become a rather post-modern fad of dieting as the idea of the body being evil has transformed into a desire to have a body like the ones portrayed in the media.
In a church culture which has a history of being suspicious of the body and in a wider social culture where bodies are seen as good if they are young, smooth, and fit it’s good to be reminded that God became human and took on flesh. The embodied God is a reminder that all of our bodies are good, God-given and are the only way in which we perceive both God and the world. We are our bodies just as Jesus, from the moment he became human is inseparable from his.
Light in the Darkness
The second thing that St John’s prologue reminds us of is the idea of light in darkness. Maybe it’s because we celebrate Christmas in the middle of Winter just after the longest night we find the images of light and darkness particularly powerful. We light a candle each week during Advent and it’s traditional in many churches to light candles as a sign of prayer. The image of Jesus as the light of the world is one of my favourites and I like the reading we had today as the translators can’t quite decide how to translate bits of it. Some think the darkness couldn’t overpower the light, others think the darkness couldn’t understand the light. I think both aspects are true. In our Book Club in early December we looked at C S Lewis’ great classic The Screwtape Letters. Lewis wrote this as a series of letters from a more senior devil to a junior one coaching him on how to tempt a human known only to us as “the patient”. It is quite humorous in places but especially in the sections where Screwtape, the senior devil, simply can’t understand God’s purpose with humanity. He just doesn’t understand the idea of selfless love. The darkness can’t understand the light.
Not only is Jesus the light of the world, he calls us to act as lights which point to his light. Last Summer Ian and I took our camper van, up to the Orkney Islands. One of our favourite places in Orkney is the island of Westray and the Noup Head lighthouse there which is perched on the top of a huge cliff and helps ships navigate what are treacherous waters. As light houses people will follow the light we show in our daily lives, lights which should point them towards God and help them navigate the choppy waters of our contemporary world.
Finally it seems that Jesus is about the unexpected. St John writes that the Word came to his own people but that they didn’t recognise him. They longed for and prayed for the long-promised Messiah whom they understood as a political leader who would free them from oppression and restore Israel to be a sovereign nation again. But Jesus wasn’t like that, he was the Messiah and his message is overtly political but he wasn’t interested in becoming a politician or a ruler of the nation. He is found in the feeding trough for cattle not the royal palace, his birth is proclaimed to the shepherds – smelly outsiders who have to break the Law and work on the Sabbath – not in the court circular. The Jewish baby who is worshipped by Zoroastrian Magi. The helpless babe who narrowly escapes the murderous rage of the dangerous despot is another aspect of the unexpected in this story.
In our own lives God is often at work in unexpected places and with unexpected people. Many of us know that often the last place we may expect to find God is the places where God is expected to be found; the Church for many is a dangerous place. Yet God is often, instead, to be found on the outside, with those on the fringe who can see society as it really is.
God is found in the unexpected place and people we meet in our daily lives, God comes to us as light comes to the darkness – a light that the darkness can’t understand nor overpower – and God comes to us as flesh showing that our own bodies are good and have been made holy. Let’s mean these things when we bid each other, our families and friends and even those we don’t know or like a happy Christmas. Amen