Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Christmas Day 2011
25 December 2011 at 10:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Every Christmas Day since the beginning of her reign in 1952, The Queen has broadcast a Christmas message to the nation. This afternoon’s broadcast will be a curtain-raiser for the celebrations in 2012 of the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne on 6th February 1952. There is always a reference to the religious meaning of Christmas, from which it is clear how important to The Queen is her Christian faith.
Last year, she included a reference to the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which has been one of the important themes of 2011 here at Westminster Abbey. The King James Bible itself The Queen acknowledged as a masterpiece of English prose and the most vivid translation of the scriptures. ‘The glorious language of this Bible’, she said, ‘has survived the turbulence of history and given many of us the most widely-recognised and beautiful descriptions of the birth of Jesus Christ which we celebrate today.’ The year’s celebrations have included the publication of books, radio and television series, exhibitions, lectures and performance of all kinds and culminated in a thanksgiving service here on 16th November.
Here at Westminster, we recognised the beauty of the language and its influence on the culture of the English-speaking peoples, but emphasised the religious power and significance not only of the 1611 translation but of the Bible itself – and of the great story the Bible tells.
Today’s reading from the Prologue to St John’s Gospel marks a pivotal point in the Bible’s story. So important is this moment – so much a new beginning – that St John starts his Gospel with the very first words of the Bible: ‘In the beginning.’ ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,’ says Genesis. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ says St John.
The great story the Bible tells is the story of God’s creative, redemptive and sustaining love, generous, forgiving, persistent – love that will not let the creation go, love that will not let the world go, love that will not let us go.
The story begins with the creation of the universe, to be a place of goodness, of generosity and love. Everything was provided for men and women and the animal kingdom to live together in harmony and peace: ‘and behold it was very good.’
All too soon, in the great story of creation, the original man and woman, Adam and Eve, find it in their hearts to seek power for themselves. Dissatisfied with the good they have, they want more than they should, more than they need. Their downfall comes quickly and they experience life outside paradise. They have a problem: how should they live with their failure, and with their shame and embarrassment, and with their greed and false ambition?
And God has a problem: how can he bring his people back to him, how can he restore peace and harmony in the created order, how can he show his love for people who have turned away from him? He decides to draw a particular people close to himself, to show how life can be. He chooses Abraham to be the father of a great nation that will be God’s people. Soon, these people become the agents through whom God frees them and their neighbours from famine. Joseph, the son of Jacob, with his coat of many colours, by a series of God-inspired events, becomes next in power to the Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. God’s people are intended to be and can be his agents in the world for good. The story moves on.
The Egyptians turn against them and God has to act again, this time through Moses, to bring them out of slavery to freedom in the Promised Land. But God’s people rebel and turn against him; even after they have received God’s law and know how they should live, they ignore it. God sends judges to rule them and even tolerates the rule of kings, but still they turn away. He sends prophets with his message of love, demanding of them that they turn away from evil and do good; he saves them time and again from disaster, brought on because they have over-reached themselves yet again. And still they turn away.
What can God do to show his people that he still loves them and to help them enjoy his love and share God’s love with each other? God prepares a plan. He will come to share their life. He will become one of his people, be born into human flesh. ‘They will respect my Son.’ He will transform his people from within. He will empty himself of his almighty power and take on the condition of a slave. He will accept all the weakness and limitation of human life. He will show how a truly good life can be lived. He will use sheer goodness to break the power of evil, to break the hold of sin and death. The plan is potentially devastating, certainly risky – and mighty, worthy of the one who, for love alone, created the universe.
‘And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” and the angel departed from her.’ [Luke 1: 38] The plan was afoot. The first Christmas: the angels, the shepherds, the wise men. Jesus becomes a man, is baptised in the river Jordan, attracts a circle of followers, teaches, heals, speaks of his heavenly Father, and sends out his apostles to spread the message of God’s love. Most of the people reject him.
‘He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.’ But some accepted him, ‘as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’ The culmination of the story of God incarnate is the death and resurrection of our Lord. That is not for this morning but for Holy Week and Easter.
What is the culmination of this great story the Bible tells? God’s love triumphs. We see God’s triumph in the pouring out of his Spirit on all flesh at Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. We see God’s triumph in the life of the Church, the body of Christ, the redeemed community, never perfect, always striving – God’s people, by God’s grace, sharing his love in the world. It is that community that opens windows on to heaven and builds community all around. We see God’s triumph ultimately in the great vision of the last book of the Bible, the Revelation to St John. ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away; and there was no more sea.’
God’s love triumphs. And it will. God longs to share his love with us; in Jesus Christ he lives and dies to share his love with us. God’s love can triumph in our own lives – does, as we open our hearts and our minds and our wills to him this morning. I pray that, above all the gifts you will receive today, you will receive this Christmas morning God’s mighty gift, as you come to Jesus present in the bread and wine, and share God’s gift with those you love. On behalf of the Abbey community, I wish you and yours a very happy Christmas.