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Bishop Pete Christmas 2022 sermon at Sheffield Cathedral


John 1.1-14: The Word became Flesh

Do you know the little story about the small boy, who was desperate to play the part of Joseph in his Primary School Nativity Play, but got asked to play the inn-keeper instead.  Feeling hard done-by, he plotted his revenge.  On the afternoon of the actual performance, with all the parents anxiously willing on their own children, he waited for his moment.  When Mary and Joseph came knocking, instead of telling them there was no room at the inn, he flung wide the door, waved them in, and said ‘Mary, Joseph, welcome!  We’ve been expecting you.  We’ve saved you the best rooms in the house.  Will you be wanting two singles or one double?’ The day was saved by the quick thinking of the boy playing Joseph.  Sticking his head round the door, he made a disgusted face and said,  ‘Come on, Mary, this place is a pigsty.  We’re not staying here.  I’d rather stay in the stable round the back’. 

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas, without little children dressing up at the local school as Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise-men, and the angels.  But all too often, once Christmas is over, Jesus himself is put away until next year, along with the props from those Nativity plays, the Christmas Tree and the Fairy Lights, the cards and the crackers.  And I think I know the reason.  I think it’s because for most people there is no connection between the baby Jesus and the real world, the world of our climate emergency, of war in Ukraine, of rampant inflation, of postal workers, paramedics, nurses and train drivers on strike, the world of fraught family get togethers and broken relationships.  But for Christian believers, the whole point of the Christmas story is that God loves the world so much, that he has entered it, to fix it.  So for the next ten minutes I want to say something about that, and about the Gospel reading we’ve just heard together.  Let me give you a few mileposts I expect to pass along the way: I’m going to mention a grey haired old woman from Lancashire; my father-in-law’s beard, and my brother’s adoption.  So by the time I get to the bit about a the day my family went to court, you’ll know I’m nearly finished. 

1.  The Word made Flesh:

To begin with, let me remind you of the first and last verses of that Gospel reading we have just heard: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’.  

What does that mean?   I think its John’s way of saying that if you’re wondering if there’s a God (and if there is, what he’s like), then you should take a long, hard look at the human being, Jesus Christ.

I said I’d mention a grey haired old woman from Lancashire.  Many years ago, when I was a student, I used to hitch-hike everywhere.  It was quite safe to do it back then.  On one occasion, I was travelling to visit a friend who lived in Barnoldswick in Lancashire, or Barlick as it’s known by the locals.  I’d never been to his house before, so when I arrived in the town, I got the kind person who had given me a lift to drop me near a telephone box, so that I could call my friend to ask for directions to his house.  This was of course long before the advent of mobile phones.  His mother answered, and so she’d know where I was, she asked me what I could see from the phone box: ‘A bus shelter’ I said, ‘and a post office’.  ‘Oh yes’, she said, ‘I think I know where you must be.  Just up the road, is there a little park with swings and a slide?’  ‘Yes’, I said.  ‘And on the opposite side of the road, can you see a house with a bright yellow front door?’  ‘Yes’, I said.  ‘And does the window of that house have a bright yellow flower-box?’ ‘Yes’, I said.  ‘And from the window of that house, behind the net curtain, can you see a little grey-haired old lady, who is waving to you?’. I had arrived, even if I did not know it.

It’s amazing sometimes how close you can be to finding what you are looking for, without realising it.  You and I are within easy calling distance of the Living God, and what we celebrate tonight is that Jesus is God’s way of waving to us, beckoning to us, and saying, ‘Yoo-hoo.  I’m right here’. 

To know God is what we were made for. It is what makes humans what we are.  It’s as if there is a God-shaped gap in each of our lives, which means that we ache and long for God, until we find him.  As one of the early Christians, St. Augustine put it: ‘Thou has made us for thyself O God, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in thee’. 

2.  His own people did not receive him

The trouble is that sometimes a revelation is so unexpected that it works like a disguise: that’s why I wanted to mention my father in law’s beard. 

My father in law is long retired now, but he used to be a Baptist minister, and for about sixteen years he had a magnificent beard.  It was a big beard, long and thick and bushy.  It made him look like an Old Testament Prophet in one of those epic Hollywood films.  Then one Christmas, he took the part of a Roman soldier in the Church Christmas Play.  He knew Roman soldiers didn’t wear beards, and being the sort of person who does things properly or not at all, he decided to shave his off.  He did it without warning anyone; not even his wife or daughters.  The first time he went to his church clean-shaven, an assistant minister, one of my father-in-laws closest colleagues, took him for a complete stranger, and actually said to him: ‘Can I help you, sir?’!

John calls Jesus ‘God’s Word made flesh’.  You could say that Jesus shows us what God looks like, clean shaven.  Look at Jesus Christ, and you see what the face of God is really like.  So what does the revelation of God look like?  This is John’s verdict: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth’.  That’s what the face of God looks like: it is full of grace and truth.  These days, of course, its mostly dancers on Strictly, or Olympic gymnasts, who are described as ‘full of grace’.  But John doesn’t mean that Jesus was ‘graceful’ in that sense.  He means that Jesus, and therefore God, is full of mercy and kindness.  He is so patient he goes on loving us long after we’ve ceased to deserve it.  And Jesus is full of truth, too.  John means that Jesus was, and God is, always true to his word, utterly faithful and reliable, someone on whom we can always depend.

That’s the revelation Jesus brought us.  He came to show us a God who is full of grace and truth.  But then, as now, the revelation was so un-expected that it works like a brilliant disguise.  Hardly anyone recognised Jesus for who he was either on the day he was born in the stable, or on the day that he died on the cross.  And not everyone recognises him now.  As John put it, The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 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.

You have to look twice at Jesus to recognise that God chose to show himself to the world in him. But if you do look twice at Jesus, and if you do see God beckoning to you in him, what then?

3.  Power to become children of God

This is how John goes on: ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’. 

That brings me to my brother’s adoption.  I have a younger brother, called Chris, who has been part of my family since he was two.  He’s in his fifties now.  When he was born, it just wasn’t possible for his biological parents to bring him up, so he spent the first two years of his life in an orphanage.  Then he came to live with us.  At first it was only possible for us to foster Chris, but as soon his circumstances allowed, we wanted to adopt him.  In fact, he was seven when the day finally came for us all went to court, to complete the legal formalities.  It was a great day for our family, full of celebration.  I was about 14 then, and I really wanted him to know that I looked on him as my natural brother.  I remember saying to him: ‘Chris, I know Mum and Dad aren’t your natural parents, but I hope you’ll always feel like a proper member of the family, because I think of you as my blood brother’.  Do you know what he said?  He almost looked sorry for me, and with his chin up, he said, ‘Pete, Mum and Dad only had you; but they chose me’.  Isn’t that wonderful?  ‘Mum and Dad only had you, but they chose me’. 

Well, the Apostle John is trying to say something similar to us.  God doesn’t just have children, he chooses them.  None of us just happened.  We were created, each one of us, by a loving God, who longs to be a caring father to us, and who invites us, each one of us, to be his child.  God has issued an open invitation, that as the proper brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, we might be adopted into God’s family.  But like any adoption, this one demands the consent of the child.  God invites us, but never forces us, into relationship with him.  The wonderful thing about celebrating Christmas with a service of Holy Communion is that it gives us the chance to say ‘Yes’ to God.  As we take the bread and wine, we count ourselves among those who receive Jesus for who he is, who recognise him as the Word made flesh and who count ourselves as God’s children, and with the Living God himself as our Heavenly Father.