Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Christmas Day 2013
25 December 2013 at 10:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
‘O God, wherefore art thou absent from us so long?’ You can hear the pain of the psalmist, in exile, distressed and angry that God seemed to have abandoned his people, who were far from home and under the control of the enemy. No doubt he remembered the old stories of how God had answered the call of his prophets. The false gods failed to answer their prophets’ call. The Lord the God of Israel answered Elijah’s call immediately with fire from heaven. Why not now?
The question, Why does God not prevent this or achieve that, why does he not destroy the wicked and protect the good? has been asked through the four millennia of Jewish and Christian history and answered in various ways. For some, the conclusion has been that there is no God, no pattern or meaning to this life; that everything is random and we have to make the best of it for ourselves, to make it up as we go along. For others, wanting to hold on to a belief in God in the face of the existence of evil, God is an absentee landlord, or the almighty clockmaker who then lets it get on with itself, or perhaps God is simply within us, our ultimate concern.
The reading we have just heard, the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, confronts the confusion with a bold assertion. There is reason and purpose in the universe and there always has been. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ And this Word of God means life and is light, meaning, an end to confusion. ‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.’
And this Word of God has communicated in various ways from the very beginning of creation, but not been readily heard. ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’
So now, at the first Christmas, St John says, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us ‘and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ The coming of the baby Jesus at Bethlehem is the birth into flesh, the incarnation, of the Son of God, the Word of God, with God from the very beginning. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, comes to live on earth not under human disguise but as a human being.
So, Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, is God and Man, experiencing the poverty and deprivation of human life at the most basic. Born in a stable, to parents seeking refuge, he grows up to work for his living and then has nowhere to lay his head and ends his life on earth as a criminal hanging on a cross. He suffers in his own person the cruelty of man at his most inhuman. He bears the whole burden of the evil choices human beings so easily make.
A striking image of the Nativity, painted by the Venetian Lorenzo Lotto in 1523, can be seen in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Mary and Joseph kneel by the crib adoring the baby Jesus, who has his hands outstretched to his mother. The ox and ass are in the stable behind and on a hillside a shepherd with his sheep. So far so sweet. But then you notice that by the crib lies a bag of money, thirty pieces of silver. Above the stable door are perched two pigeons, the animals of a redeeming sacrifice. A ladder leads to what looks like a cross. On the green hill are three trees. On a shelf above the scene stands a crucifix. The stable and the cross are two aspects of the one story of God’s redeeming love.
God’s choice was to be born amongst the poor and marginalised. ‘Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.’
God’s plan from the beginning was to be born as a human being, when the time had fully come, so that he could share his love, suffering and dying to redeem the world.
So, where is God? Is he really absent? No, he is with us in all the mess of our lives, in the pain and suffering, working his transformations for good from within. This great truth is what gives meaning and purpose to life and should give joy to the world this Christmas and throughout the years.
God of God, Light of Light, lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God. O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!