Proverbs 8:1, 22-31; John 1:1-14
I have to confess that I have had enormous difficulty finding a way into preaching a sermon on the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. It was a measure of my desperation that I typed into Google: “In the beginning…” Google obligingly replied: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…. After that everything else was made in China….”
My first reaction was to laugh; I thought it was quite funny… And then I thought, very surprisingly, that here was the basis of a sermon: the juxtaposition of God with humanity, of God’s creative work with the industrial output of human beings. Even more importantly, there is an implication that once God had set things up, done the basics so to speak, he became redundant. Human skill took over. We humans are capable of making anything else that is needed. Such thought encourages arrogance and complacency, all too common among humans, and immediately the priorities shift: humankind is on a par with God, possibly better, more important than God. Human values replace eternal qualities. The eternal, transcendent creative power of God is replaced by the nitty gritty of industrial manufacture and achievement.
In St John’s Gospel the Word is all important, and the elements of creation – life, light and darkness come into being through that Word. It’s a beautiful passage and one that we’ve heard so often we’ve probably stopped thinking about it, or perhaps we never did think about it because, as my daughter says, it feels like a Lewis Carroll riddle, or as I said, like Winnie the Pooh saying “which is what and what is which”! But it is a beautiful passage that heralds in the dawn of creation in John’s description of life that springs from God’s Word and brings light into a dark void. But the immensity of the void, the darkness and the light lies way beyond our imagination. And the irony is that a reading all about the Word with a capital W lies far beyond the reach of mere human words. We are more likely to catch a glimpse of God’s transcendent creative power through the feelings the passage gives us than through too much thinking about it. So hold onto that feeling of the awe-inspiring darkness, light and life, and God, the Word, who brings it all into being.
Then, wonder of wonders, that Word we are told, “became flesh and lived among us.” This is truly the God of surprises. With all that transcendent power and creative majesty, he became a human being in a world of human values and of arrogance, selfishness and cruelty, a world that too often loses sight of God, doesn’t care about God and even crucifies God. The Word made flesh, God, started his earthly existence as a baby like all other humans, utterly helpless, weak, dependent and apparently the complete opposite of the God of creation. No wonder the magi had difficulty finding him! They were looking for kingly power not infant helplessness and they looked in a palace, not in a filthy stable. We continue to “miss” him today as we too look in the wrong places, in churches and cathedrals, in supposedly “holy” places, instead of in the world, at the heart of humanity, in a stable.
Two days ago, Friday, was Candlemas, the last day of Christmas. So today we finally look back at that baby in the manger, humanity at its most basic and vulnerable, revealing to us the Word that is God the Creator, in a stable. At the same time as we look back to the Christ child we look forward to Lent. Today is the second Sunday before Lent. Lent is traditionally a time of self-denial and abstinence, when we give up chocolate, alcohol, television, social media or whatever. But all that “giving up” denies the world, and today’s readings surely encourage us to affirm the world that God has brought into being, “rejoicing” with Wisdom at the delights of God’s Creation. It would be better in Lent to treat this world with reverence, go green for Lent doing anything that nurtures and protects the beauty and fragility of God’s created world; being thankful and rejoicing with Wisdom in the emerging signs of spring (however well hidden they are this year!)
Lent is also a time when we confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. We can’t put ourselves right by sheer will-power, self-improvement and effort, and we certainly can’t sort out the whole world by ourselves. Lent and St John’s Gospel tell us to open ourselves to God, because God’s whole purpose is salvation. God did not only create the world as we know it and humans as we know them; the Word brought the possibility of a new creation where there will be no more darkness. Instead of sackcloth and ashes and a Pharisaic demonstration of penitence and unworthiness, St John tells us to “receive” Jesus and to “believe in his name.” We are to open ourselves to God’s grace and God will grant us salvation. “Grace” is the polar opposite of the world of achievement, success and possessions where everything is made in China. Those human priorities exclude God. In a world where effort and achievement are rewarded, it’s extremely difficult simply to receive God’s free gift of grace. We feel we must “earn” it in some way by being terribly good and holy, and the whole point of grace is that it is unearned. It is a free gift.
The Word of which St John speaks, “logos” in Greek, means both a word that is spoken and it means the reason behind things which sets them in order and gives them a pattern. “Light” shone in the darkness as God spoke the Word and behind that creation of light and the universe is a pattern of love. God speaks the Word that expresses himself: “the Word was God” in just the same way as the music of Bach expresses Bach or the painting of Michelangelo expresses Michelangelo. So the Word expresses God’s own unique nature which is love. Why else does the Word become flesh and dwell among us? It’s not in order to exercise power, it’s not in order to punish wickedness, it’s not in order to demonstrate mighty acts. It’s because he loves us, wants to be with us, wants to open the gate of salvation for us.
Our minds stagger to a halt. Certainly mine does. We can’t grasp with our intellect or our imagination what God is. Trying to do so is a big mistake. So we must stop trying and let go. We must turn to the Jesus of St John’s Gospel where we see that his light shines in the darkness and things become clear. In the light of Jesus we can see everything in a new way – the physical universe, each bird and flower, human history, ourselves, each other – all illuminated by the light, the love of God in Jesus. Today’s collect prayed that God should teach us to “discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children.” That is our challenge as we move forward into Lent. Without love, an exploration of the “Word” becomes all in the mind, a dry and intellectual exercise. It is essential that we enter into communion with anything or anyone that we want to know. So we respond to Christ’s invitation in this service and “enter into communion” with him. In so doing we enter into communion with each other at this table. Corporately, as the body of Christ, we can move forward through Lent where the light of Christ can show us the way; corporately we must look for signs of God in creation and in humankind and enter into communion with both creation and humankind. Appreciation for the heart of things is far more important than the analysis of their parts.
My husband tells me from time to time that I’m very keen on having the last word. I probably am…. Most of us have that desire for closure as the modern world has it, to say that’s that, finished, done. But today is not about the “last” word. It’s about the first Word that begins everything. It’s about opening ourselves to a new beginning, not shutting the door and retreating inside, no more entering into communion. It’s about the beginning of Lent that we glimpse today, emerging from the mystery of Christmas and the Word that lived among us. And that is a mystery, which does not mean something we don’t understand at the moment, but one day we will. It means something awe-inspiring, something way beyond the confines of this world, something that will never be diminished by definitions, analysis and explanations. We must admit with Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Christmas puts us in touch with the God of surprises. It’s way beyond what we expect or understand, “God made man” in a stable. Blink and you miss him, and most of us do. How little even very well-educated people can explain, especially when they’re looking in the wrong place like the magi. We look in the wrong place and we value the wrong things and we jump to the wrong conclusions.
The writer Margaret Silf says: “The vulnerable baby who is God’s own self has countless siblings. Some of them live in your neighbourhood. You will recognise them because they are a gift that comes unwrapped, with the eyes of need looking straight into your own.” So a single parent, a bewildered refugee or immigrant, a lonely pensioner, a lost young person seeking escape in drugs or alcohol. How can each of us touch them with God’s love? How can we see beyond the world of designer jeans, expensive perfume, fast cars, smart phones that may well have been made in China? How can we see that these are false gods that do not bring fulfilment or happiness? It’s in finding the underlying, underpinning Word, the lifeblood of the universe that we can grow out of darkness and into the light, throughout the springtime of the year that is Lent.
It is in the Word made flesh that we can meet God’s glory; not just light, but glory. St John’s Gospel is a crescendo that is foreseen in today’s prologue moving from light in the darkness to the glory “as of a father’s only son”. The whole Gospel moves from Creation towards the ultimate glory of the crucifixion, the glory of Christ raised up on the cross, the greatest mystery of all. In Jesus, timeless truth entered time. Earth and heaven, human and divine, physical and spiritual become one in the mystery of love. And as we look to Jesus, to the Word made flesh, we see the glory of the Father, the glory of the first and last, alpha and omega, Creator and Redeemer, the foundation truth, beyond words underlying the whole universe. God made the world by his Word, and this same Word then appeared in flesh as a human, within his creation. And God’s final gift to his creatures is grace that is the true union of creatures with God through Jesus Christ, and the ultimate expression of God’s unsurpassable love. Amen.
“Finding the way through John” by John Fenton
“Water into wine” by Stephen Verney
“Lighted windows” by Margaret Silf