Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Christmas Day 2016
Start Date 25th Dec 2016 10:30am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

A child on the top deck of a bus with his mother. He was perhaps three years old. He was asking questions. It was a beautiful day. Why is the sky blue? That was one of them. They came in a stream, too many and too loud for his mother to handle, with inquisitive ears all around her. She told him to shut up. ‘Shut up!’ He was quiet then. I felt sorry for them both. I hoped he would go on asking questions his mother couldn’t easily answer. I hoped his mother would overcome her embarrassment. This was a long time ago. The child is probably in his mid-thirties now. I rather hope he has a 3-year old asking questions and embarrassing him.

But I hope he is still asking questions too, lots of questions, impossible to answer. But still worth asking. Questions not just like Why is the sky blue? and Why are there clouds? and How far away is the sun? and How many stars are there? but even better questions, and even more difficult to answer, questions like Is there a God? and Where is God? and Does God care? Those are the big questions and I think people keep on asking them, even though they find it hard to answer them.

We know that some people think they have absolutely clear answers: they say, There is no God; God is nowhere; since there is no God, there is no one to care. But the great majority of people either aren’t at all sure, despite their perhaps wanting to believe, or they vaguely think there might be a God but haven’t much clue what God might be like. And of course a great many people are a little frightened of religion, which they see as controversial and possibly even dangerous—after all it leads some people to do terrible things—so they avoid talking about religion and describe themselves as spiritual people. We can understand why that would happen. It feels more open and straight-forward and less controversial. In any case, no one wants not to be spiritual; the alternative might lead us to being described as carnal, driven just by physical needs, the needs of the flesh. So if I could wave a magic wand, I would urge people to re-embrace their religious instincts, and religious practice. Perhaps that is part of the picture that brings you here today.

I suggested earlier that the big questions about God are impossible to answer. And there is indeed some truth in that. They are impossible to answer in such a way as to persuade everyone that there is a cast-iron, drop down gorgeous, utterly convincing and irrefutable proof. Incidentally, if you want solid undeniable proof, even in a court of law, even in a scientific experiment, you search in vain.

Do you remember these words? ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ It’s from St Paul’s wonderful passage about love, that ends, ‘Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ Now we see in a mirror dimly. One day we shall see face to face. So even St Paul, full of confidence and conviction, was sure that the best we could hope for in this life was seeing through a glass darkly. And how about this passage? ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ So, religious faith is not just a stab in the dark, and it can and does carry conviction, and it grows and develops with practice, but it is about looking through a mist and trusting that what we see mistily will clarify one day.

The answer to the big questions is a matter of faith not sight. Though we cannot see clearly, we can believe and trust. And the great story of Christmas, that we celebrate today, is a really important part of our deciding that it is right and good to take the risk of peering into the mist and seeing the shape of Jesus. And through seeing the shape of Jesus, we can begin to see the shape of God.

We can be confident that Jesus lived and had a religious following. There are Roman writers who had no great interest in Christianity, or who saw it as a threat to be exterminated, who give us clear evidence of that. But what did the life and ministry and mission of Jesus mean? And what does it say about God? That is the question.

We have the wonderful, familiar accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ in two of the four Gospels, St Matthew’s and St Luke’s. But in the passage we heard just now, the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, we are helped to peer through the mist. Thus we can begin to see what Christmas means, and what it says about God. That then begins to be interesting.

St John is absolutely clear and strong in what he says about God and Jesus. From the very beginning, before ever the universe came into being, God was. And the Word of God was with God and was God. That is: in the beginning, God spoke. God’s spoken Word began the process of creation. God’s Word created life, and life meant light, and, although there was darkness, and still is, the darkness could never conquer the light. Hold on to that hope! Then St John speaks of the light being in the world. But even God’s people, the people he had chosen to come to know God and make him known, failed to see or grasp the light. Some did and John calls them children of God. And now gloriously, he says, in Jesus Christ, the Word becomes flesh. God breaks through into his own world and is born into human flesh, in Jesus Christ. Jesus is fully human and also absolutely divine: God and Humanity together in the one Person Jesus Christ. And St John goes on to say what he himself has come to see: this Jesus ‘lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’

Later in his Gospel, St John makes abundantly clear what this all means. Some of Jesus’ disciples are slow to get it. That’s no surprise. So are we. One of them asks Jesus to show them what God is like. “Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Even Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, the forerunner, was unsure about whether Jesus was who he thought he was. ‘‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
So the words and deeds of Jesus, his life, his teaching, his healing, his suffering and death, his resurrection, show us God, not just what God is like, they show us who God is. Jesus Christ is the revelation of the Father.

Today’s beautiful feast answers our fundamental questions: God is; God is revealed in Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ shows us the love and care of God, as well as God’s beauty and truth. God’s light shines and darkness will never overcome it. On these truths we can rely: fantastic reasons for a beautiful, holy and happy Christmas, one and all.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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