Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Day Sermon 2014

Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12)
John 1:1-14
Psalm 98

The opening of John’s Gospel may at first seem like an odd reading for Christmas morning. There is no star in the east, no manger in Bethlehem, no angels, and no shepherds. There isn’t even a mention of Mary, the virgin mother of our Lord or her husband Joseph. John takes us back further. He takes us back before even the foundation of the world was laid, back before time itself. He takes us to a beginning before the beginning, into the depths of eternity, and into the very heart of God himself.
It is fitting that John’s gospel is traditionally represented by an eagle. No other gospel soars to quite the dizzying heights that John’s does, nor does any gospel speak so openly of Jesus’ divinity. Among all of God’s creatures, none is able to gaze into the dazzling brilliance of the sun’s light like the eagle. John pierces deep into the eternal mysteries of God and shares with us what he sees. Many readers find themselves closer to God when reading the gospel of John than any other book in scripture. Tradition tells us that the author of the fourth gospel was the beloved disciple, John, whom we are told would rest his head in the Lord’s breast, close to his heart. These are the words of the one who was so near to the One who was in the bosom of the Father from all eternity.
If we want to understand the miraculous birth of that first Christmas morning, John tells us that we need to understand another birth.  Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of the Father. As the Nicene Creed tells us, “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father.” Before Jesus was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he was born from the heart of the Father in Eternity. He was the Word spoken by God before all worlds through whom all things were made.
Words fail us here, however, because as soon as we say “begotten” or “spoken” we immediately imply that there was a time when he was not. Bound as we are by time, we cannot conceive of eternity which is beyond time.
You may have noticed our beautiful Christmas wreath hanging on top of the rood screen. Such wreaths have become synonymous with the Christmas season. They were used by many pre-Christian people as symbols of victory, peace, hope, and renewal. Christians embraced them as a profound symbol of their own faith. The wreath is round; it has so beginning and no end. Moreover, it is traditionally made with the branches of evergreens which persist throughout the changing seasons. In this way, they are powerful reminders of the eternal life of God. Like the wreath, Christ has no beginning and no end, but is always and continuously begotten of the Father in one eternal generation.
John writes “in the beginning was the Word.” Before there was a beginning there was the Word. “The Word was with God,” he says, implying a distinction between God the Father and the Son. Yet he continues, “the Word was God.” Again we are soaring with John above the limits of human perception or understanding, and we must be content to simply gaze at the mystery with awe. What we can say is this: what is begotten of God is of the same kind as God. What is spoken by God is an expression and extension of God’s own being. The Nicene Creed calls him “God from God, Light from Light.”
The image used is one of one candle being lit from another. If you were here at our midnight service last night, you got to experience this in a tangible way. From one light, many lights were lit. They were all of the same kind, though distinct. The first light was not diminished by lighting the second. In the same way the Son is an expression of the fullness of the Father’s deity, distinct while being the same in kind and undiminished.
John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” The same flame that was lit in Christ from the fire of the Father’s own heart has been lit also on the earth to give light to all of us who live in darkness.
This is the promise of eternal life which is to know the only True God and Jesus Christ who he has sent. This is the light that enlightens all who come into the world but which in our sinful rebellion we choose to suppress and deny. Here in the bleak midwinter, in the darkest time of year, Christmas day shines with the brightness of that light, and for however briefly and fleetingly the world sees it and rejoices.
God came down to Earth that first Christmas day. John writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The creator of all things who was begotten before time humbled himself and consented to be born of a mortal woman in a cave in a remote place in the world. In this simple birth, a birth like countless others in the history of the world, God visits his people with his redeeming love. This is a revelation too lofty for human beings to attain. Because we could not rise to him, God stooped to us. 
Dorothy Sayers has compared the incarnation to the moment when the author of a play steps out on stage to take a bow. Some have suggested an even better analogy for the Incarnation comes from Sayer’s own mystery novels. Sayers wrote about an aristocratic sleuth named Lord Peter Wimsey.
Throughout much of her novels Lord Wimsey is a bachelor, but eventually he meets Harriet Vane. This heroine bears a remarkable similarity to the author Sayers herself. She too is a mystery novelist and like Sayers one of the first women to graduate from Oxford. Eventually Wimsey and Vane fall in love and marry.
Isn’t that interesting? Sayers loved her creation so much that she chose to become a character in her own novel and wrote herself into his story. Perhaps this was always her intention from the beginning. How could Lord Wimsey know unless she chose to reveal it to him?
This is precisely what God did for us. He became part of our story in the incarnation. He entered into our world to rescue us and knit himself to us forever.  He chose to reveal himself to us. Jesus’ birth is a declaration of love and reconciliation to mankind. These are the tidings of the Christmas angels; the song of peace and good will towards mankind on whom God’s favor rest.
Much has been said about the degradation and commercialization of the Christmas season, but for all that seeks to obscure it, the true glory still manages to shines through. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. During what other time of the year can you hear these words sung so earnestly and passionately over the radio in a department store:

Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth

The Christmas story still captivates people, because it taps into their deepest longing. It is the dear desire of every nation, the truth that they know deep down and which in those special moments of grace they allow to penetrate their heart. We all long to see it because it is the announcement of reconciliation to guilty sinners, the undying grace of God, that is ever green and always in season. We who worship now at the manger in Bethlehem have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father's only son, full of grace and truth.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Day: A Sermon by F.D. Maurice


(Preached at Guy's Hospital. Christmas Day, 1839.)

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His 
glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of 
grace and truth. ST. JOHN i. 14. 

 MY BRETHEEN, You that are here to-day, have come together from various places. Many of you do not know each other now, scarcely any of you knew each other a few weeks ago. You have been brought up in different families, perhaps many miles, or hundreds of miles apart. You have had different joys, and different sorrows. Each of you has some ache or sickness of his own. Each of you knows a whole world of things about himself, and knows very little about his neighbours. And yet I can wish you all a happy Christmas today. And I know that the words belong to one of you as much as to another. To you that were born here in London, and to him that was born (if there be such a one) over the sea ; to you who have a wife and children, and to you who have none ; to healthy men, and sick men, be their sickness what it may. It is strange that it should be so ; but you know that so it is. These same words ' A happy Christmas to you ! ' have been spoken this morning by people who never heard of us. The like of them have been spoken in, other languages. They have been spoken now for nearly eighteen hundred years. The persons who heard them through all that time, and in all those places, understood that they were addressed to themselves.

It is a pleasant thought, this, that we are not shut up, each in his own narrow circle ; that people have some common thing to be glad about, if it were but for a little while ; for one day in the whole year. And yet, I think, there would be a sadness in that thought too. It would be sad to feel "We have been brethren in joy for a few hours, but it could not last. In a little time the flood of our private feelings, and sorrows, and sins, broke in upon us, and we were divided and solitary again." It would be better, would it not, if this joy, in which we are all sharers, was one which had something to do with each of us, one which each of us, in his private chamber, had been crying after ; something that would give another meaning to our own pleasures, and that would take the sting out of our pains. Then that common day of happiness would be one which we might remember, it would not be a day of twenty-four hours, but a day to last for ever.

Let us see whether Christmas day be such a day as this. You are told what it means in the verse I have just read, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us ; and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." These words explain Christmas to us; the Church uses them for that end. But the words themselves are most wonderful who shall interpret them? Perhaps you may say, 'The chapter which you read to us from the desk interprets them. That tells us when and how the Word was made flesh.’ You would say rightly; but still that answer would not be enough. It is true that the event which that chapter speaks of, is the event which the text speaks of. But what did that event mean ? What does St. John mean when he says THE WOKD was made flesh? We turn back a few verses, and we find him saying, " In the beginning was the WORD, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." ' What,’ you will exclaim, ' and do such words as these make Christmas day clearer to us ? Surely they speak of things almost too deep for an angel to think of. Can you suppose that they will help us poor and ignorant men to understand anything ? Christmas day we have kept for many years ; old men and children, young men and maidens, have kept it. Must we go back to the beginning of the world before we can learn how to keep it rightly ? '

Yes! Brethren, I believe that you must give heed to these words if you would know what Christmas day is, or what any day of your lives is, or what you your selves are, or why you have come into this world, and what you have to do in it. But I believe, also, that they are not hard words; not words which poor and ignorant need turn away from. I am sure they are meant especially for those who find that the things which are told them in books puzzle them very much, and that they cannot make out the sense of what is told them from pulpits ; for men who have a livelihood to get by the sweat of their brows ; for men whose bodies and minds are wasted by disease. I say this confidently, and I think when you have considered what it is that perplexes you in books and in sermons, you will agree with me. Is it not the words you read and hear in them ? They float about you; they tell you of something that you are sure you want to know, but you cannot see them or handle them, and the things you can see and handle, do not tell you what they signify. Whence do they come? Who has given them to you ? Who has taught you to utter them ?

St. John reveals the secret. He speaks to us of THE WORD. Of One in whom the very life and sense of them dwells." In him," he says, " was life," and not only this, but "the life was the light of men." All the light or intelligence that has ever been in any man's mind, has come from him, has been communicated by him. All those thoughts and questionings with us which words try to explain, are awakened by him. It is he who leads each man to ask, " What am I ? Whither am I going ? What is it to be a man? '  It is he who gives the answer. But this is not enough. We are living in the midst of a strange world ; we have eyes and ears to take in the sights and sounds of it; but we do not know what all these sights and sounds have to do with us ; what use we are to make of them; whether they are our masters or our servants. "All things” says St. John, " were made by him, and with out him was not anything made that was made."What clear bright sunbeams are these ! It seems as if they caught light from the very source of light. This world, that is so beautiful when we look at it, and yet seems so confused when we think about it, was made by him who is the Lord of men ; by that Word who inspires their thoughts, who gives them language. Out of him came the light that makes each thing distinct from the other, and the life that brings all things into one. He is the maker of the world, and the interpreter of it. 
This is strange and amazing; but it is not all. You are confused about yourselves, and your own lives, and you are confused about the world that surrounds you. But is there no other thought more confusing and overwhelming still ? Is there not a whisper in your hearts about One who is higher than yourselves ; and higher than the world ; about One who is all Powerful and all Right ; One who cannot look upon any evil thing, or be satisfied with anything that is less good and holy than himself ? Is there no whisper about God ? Hear once again : "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." He then who made the worlds, he who is the light of men, was with God before all things were. He knew the absolute and awful Being whom our lips tremble to speak of ; He held converse with Him ; He delighted in Him. Yea, he was God. This unseen Teacher of men, this source of our light and our life, was perfectly one with Him whom no man hath seen or can see ; the brightness of his glory, the express image of his person.

Brethren, am I speaking of things too deep and fearful for men to utter ? I should think so indeed, if St. John had not uttered them, and if the Church had not bidden me set them before you to-day. The more deep and awful they seem to you and to me, the better it is for us. Let us pray God that every day we may grow into the feeling which Moses had when he drew nigh to the bush, and was commanded to put his shoes from off his feet, because the place whereon he stood was holy ground. But we shall not have this feeling unless we do approach when God speaks to us and bids us approach him. The coward has no reverence; only a vague dread of something that he thinks will do him harm. If we would tremble with a real holy fear, we must come into the light, and sea everything as it stands out beautifully and gloriously, not stay in the darkness, where there are nothing but dim shadows and specters which frighten us, and which we wish to fly from. St. John warns us of this. After he has spoken of him who is the light of man, he says, "And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." This light is with us, about us, at every hour and moment. It comes to us, and brings a thousand things back to us that we thought were gone forever. Words that were spoken to people who have left the world ; acts that no human eye saw ; thoughts that passed in the depths of our own souls. You know you that have been on sick beds that what I say is true ; you know that all these have visited you as you lay at night, longing for sleep and not finding it. And have you not also felt this? 'Now, even now there is an evil near me, clinging to me, that I cannot get rid of : it is part of my own self ; if it dies, I must die.” And then how dark the future has looked to you. You have said to yourselves, “It may be better, the light may break in upon it.”  You could not wholly lose that hope. But it has grown dimmer and dimmer, and you have feared that the time to come would be darker and more miserable than the time gone by, and you could see no end of it.

Here, brethren, is the Light shining in the darkness. Someone there is who has power to recall those things that you thought had perished, to set them clearly and fully before you. Someone there is who is admonishing you of your state now. Some one there is who can enable you to look onward. And, oh brethren, have you not oftentimes felt, “He who has this power, has another too. He might deliver me out of this evil, even of that past evil which seems to possess me. He might give me a new life in the midst of this death. If I could see and know him, and converse with him, I believe that he would ; for he must be good, else why does the evil in me so struggle with him, why does he condemn it ? '
"The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness has not compre hended it." It tries to enclose it, and quench it ; but in vain. The light is there still, and by it we know what the darkness is. I have spoken to you in this way, because I know that you have all hearts and consciences, which testify of the presence of Him whom these verses declare to us.

 I hope that some of you have more than this ; but my message is to all, and what I am saying now is true, not only about you who are here, but about all men who have ever been in the world. "He hath ordered the times before appointed (saith St. Paul), and the bounds of men's habitation, that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him." That is to say, God hath placed one man in this period, one man in that ; one man in this country, one man in that ; but in every age and in every country, He has been, by some means or other, stirring men up to feel his presence, and to inquire after him. And therefore men have said, ' Where is he, and how can we know him? Where does that Word dwell who is speaking to me inwardly, and making me feel that he is my Lord, and that I ought to serve him ? Where is he? Is he in the air, or in the clouds ; is he in the ocean when it rages against me, or in the woods through which the wind is roaring at night ? Who can declare him to me ? 'This was the question which men were asking of each other; and now they seemed to find him here, now there ; now in animals more mean than themselves, which did them good or harm ; now in the beautiful lights of heaven, now in the creatures of their own race, who had lived on the earth and left it. Still they sought him, and dreamed of him ; but could not discover him. He must be like themselves, they said, and yet he must be most different. He must hate their evil, and yet they wanted one who could sympathise in it. He must bring them together, and keep them as one, and yet each man seemed to need a separate God for himself, to enter into his miseries. Yet all this while " He was not far from every one of them, for in Him," says St. Paul again, "we live, and move, and have our being." Though it seemed as if the thought of his presence confounded them, and made them wretched ; yet from that presence came all their light, and their freedom, and their hope. In spite of all disappointments, they could not but believe that he would make himself known, and that their blindness should not hinder them from beholding Him. 

"The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." This is St. John's declaration. He does not invent a great many arguments to prove it ; he simply says, 'So it was.' This poor fisherman, who was once upon a time sitting in his father's ship on the lake of Galilee, mending his nets, this man who was infinitely humbler and less self-conceited now than he was then, says out boldly and without hesitation, ' This everlasting Word, in whom was life, and whose life was the light of men, this Word who was with God and was God, was made flesh and dwelt among us ; He whom all nations and kindreds and people have been longing to see, He whom they have been worshipping in the sun and the moon and the stars ; He whom their consciences have been confessing and witnessing of, He has actually shown himself to us ; He has been born into the world in a little village in our country ; He has grown up among us, we have seen Him, heard Him, handled Him ; He has walked about with us, we have had the most intimate converse with Him ; we are sure that He was a real man, that He was in all outward respects like us, speaking with a human voice, sensible of bodily fatigue, enduring bodily pain ; we are certain that He had all the feelings and sympathies of a man ; we are certain that He had friends, that He sorrowed with them and for them, that He cared for little children; in everything He was human." And yet (he adds) we beheld his glory the glory as of the only begotten of the Father." We are sure that in this man, this poor man, thus entering into our feelings and circumstances, we beheld the living God. Not some unseen power some angel or divine creature who might have been sent down on a message of mercy to our little corner of the earth, or to us poor fishermen of Galilee it is not such a being whom we saw hidden under this human form ; we declare that we saw the glory of the Father, of Him who made heaven and earth and the sea, of Him who has been, and is, and is to be ; of Him to whom all nations and kindreds belong, and who shall be at last acknowledged as the one living and true God of all. We say that the Father revealed himself fully and perfectly in this man, that he was with him before the worlds were, that he held unbroken converse with him while he was upon earth,that he is upon the right hand of his glory now. He told us that when we saw him we saw the Father. The lowliest of men told us so, and we believed him. We are certain that all the Love and Grace and Holiness of God came forth in Him; we are certain that he exercised the power of God; and we are appointed to declare this truth to all men, that they may believe it and rejoice in it. We say that God has made himself known to men, and that in the flesh of Jesus Christ there is a bond between all creatures and their Creator. 

That a meek, humble man, who believed that no thing was so horrible as to trifle with God's name, should have spoken such words as these, so boldly, and yet so calmly, with such a certainty that they were true and that he could live and act upon them, this is wonderful. But yet, this might have been, and the world might have gone on as if no such sounds had ever been proclaimed in it. What is the case- actually? These incredible words have been believed. In the east, in the west, in the north and the south, men there were, who said, "They are and must be true." Though all their interests went the other way, they said so ; though they had to give up the most cherished notions and feelings, they said so; though they had to believe despised men of a despised nation, they said so ; though the world was against them and would not leave them quiet in their faith, they said so. The world could not leave them quiet in their faith; for it was not a faith about themselves, but about the world. They did not say, ' The Son of God has been made flesh for us.' They said, ' By this act He has redeemed our race, He has declared that mankind is created in Him, that men have a new eternal life in Him. He has proclaimed himself the King and Lord of the universe. And we do not live and die to claim some glory for ourselves because we are good men or saints. If we are good men or saints, it is because we renounce all pretensions to goodness and saintship in ourselves, because we say that all we have is in Him who has been made flesh, and in that flesh has made us one with Him, that we might receive the Spirit of the Father and the Son. If we are saints and good men it is because we will have no honor but what we claim for the poorest beggar who will enter into God's covenant, and put on Christ by holy baptism.' 

You see, then, it was not a question whether this man or that should hold a certain opinion. The question was, "Who is the Ruler of the world ? " The apostles said, "This Jesus of Nazareth is its Ruler." Their words prevailed. The masters of the earth confessed that they were right. Here in England, at the other end of the world, the news was heard and received. Then the day which said the Word has been made flesh and has dwelt among us, became the queen-day of the year. All the joy of the year was felt to be stored up in it. Every man, and woman, and child, had a right to be merry upon it.

And has this right ceased? There are some who will tell you that it has ; and it seems the general opinion, that people are not as merry now on this day as they used to be. One says that this is a grievous thing, that we should try if we can to bring back the old times. Another says, ' This cannot be, people are wiser now. They know that one day is no better than another; the thing is to be real Christians in our hearts.” Another tells us “Christmas day is forgotten, because that of which Christmas day speaks does not signify so much as it once did. It was good for the people who lived a thousand years ago to believe such tales ; but we have better and more solid things to care for.”
 Brethren, I will tell you what I believe is the truth about these notions, which different people will puzzle you with. To those who say, 'Let us bring back the old times let us be merry as we used to be.’ I would say, “We cannot be merry merely because we try to be so. We cannot be merry unless there is something to make us merry. If our hearts be glad we shall find ways to express our gladness, but we do not make our hearts glad by pretending that they are so, or by putting on the outward signs of jollity. 

Now, this is what men have been endeavoring to do, and they find that it is a vain thing. They have heard from their forefathers that Christmas day was a good day ; a day when children and parents, brothers and sisters, should meet together and rejoice ; they have, accordingly, met and kept holiday. As long as they remembered that they were kinsfolk, and liked coming together for the sake of greeting old friends, and looking at the happy faces of children, they had the savor of Christmas day in them, even though they might not always recollect in whose name they were assembled, and what his coming into the world had to do with their good fellowship. But by degrees, the song, and the cup, and the dance, which were signs of the pleasure that friends and brothers had in seeing one another, were more thought of than their friendship and their brotherhood ; then the joy wasted away, and went so much the faster because they were trying to invent ways of keeping it up. Good hearty English gladness must have some root. If we care about nothing but ourselves, we shall not be merry at Christmas time, or at any other time. 

And therefore, brethren, I do not know what those mean who say, that we are to be good Christians in our hearts, but are not to think about Christmas day. That seems to me like saying that we are to be very good Christians for ourselves, but that we are not to care whether our neighbors have any share in the blessing or not. Now how a man can be a good Christian and only be concerned about himself, I do not know. These days are witnesses to all men, everywhere, young and old, rich and poor, of a blessingwhich God has bestowed upon them. If there be no such blessing we ought to say so plainly ; but if there be, it is a base and miserable thing not to like the plain, simple testimonies of it which come down from generation to generation, and which all alike may own and rejoice in whether they have book-learning or no. And mark this, also, brethren ; they who would cheat us of these days, and send us to a book, though it be the best book in the world, for all our teaching, soon forget that our faith is not in a book, but in Him of whom the book speaks. They forget that the Word is a living person, and that he was made flesh and dwelt among us. These days bear witness of that truth bless God for them.

Yes, bless God for them! For he is a liar who says that the words which St. John speaks to us to-day, are not as fresh, as living, as necessary now as they were when he first wrote them down. It may be, brethren, that easy, comfortable people make less of Christmas day than they once did. Perhaps they will presently make less of it than they do now. If the Bible be true this was to be expected. If Christmas is a real and true thing it was to be expected. For hear what Isaiah says, and St. Peter repeats the words, "The grass withereth, the flower thereof falleth away, but the Word of our God endureth for ever." As if he had said, 'All that has grown out of this root shall drop off in order that it may be seen how deeply the root itself is fixed in the soil.' 

We do not keep Christmas in the bright, sunny time of the year, but now in the heart of winter, when everything is bare and dry. And our Lord himself is said to be " a root out of a dry ground," that, indeed, from which all the blossoms of hope and joy are to come, but which must first be owned in its own nakedness before they shall appear. If then, brethren, men have begun to fancy that their gladness has another root than this, it is meet that for a time they should be left to try whether they can keep it alive by any efforts and skill of theirs. If Christmas joy has been separated from Christ, it is no wonder and no dishonor to Christ that it should grow feeble and hollow. But Christmas is not dead, because the mirth of those who have forgotten its meaning is dead. It is not dead for you, it is not dead for people who lie upon beds tormented with fevers, and dropsies, and cancers. It is not dead for the children in factories, and for the men who are working in mines, and for prisoners who never see the light of the sun. To all these the news, "The Word who was in the beginning with God and was God, in whom is life, and whose life is the light of men, by whom all things were made, and without whom was not anything made that was made, became flesh and dwelt among us, entered into our poverty, and suffering, and death,"-is just as mighty and cheering news now as it was when St. Peter first declared it to his countrymen on the day of Pentecost. 

You want this truth, brethren, you cannot live or die without it. You have a right to it, no men can have a greater. By your baptism God hath given you a portion in him who was made flesh ; by your suffering he is inviting you to claim that portion, to understand that it is indeed for you Christ lived and died. You may live as if no such news as this had ever been proclaimed in the world, but it is not the less true that it has been proclaimed, and proclaimed for you. 

And blessed be God, this proclamation is not made merely through weak, mortal lips; that altar bears a more deep and amazing witness of it than it is possible for these words of mine to bear. There you may learn how real the union is which the living Word of God established with the flesh of man ; how truly that flesh is given to be the life of the world. Christmas day declares that He dwelt among us. To those who there eat his flesh and drink his blood, he promises that he will dwell in them, and that they shall dwell in Him. This is the festival which makes us know, indeed, that we are members of one body; it binds together the life of Christ on earth with his life in heaven; it assures us that Christmas day belongs not to time but to eternity.