Christmas sermon from the Bishop of Sheffield
24th December 2018
Christmas Eve 2018, 11.30pm Holy Communion, Sheffield Cathedral
John 1.01-14: Yet the world did not know him
An odd thing happened to me a few years ago. My mother in law Mary had undergone emergency heart surgery. Everything went as well as we could have hoped: she was soon home again from hospital, and to this day she’s alive and well. But at the time the situation felt risky / and one Friday, a week before the operation was due, Cathy and I drove down to mid Wales to see her, and my father-in-law Michael. We wanted to drop off some ready-cooked meals for them and (although of course nobody acknowledged this in so many words) to store up some last memories of Mary in case she didn’t survive the procedure. One of Cathy’s sisters, Hilary, had had the same idea, and another sister (Cathy is one of four girls) had told us that Hilary would be visiting the day after us, on the Saturday.
Anyway, on the Friday lunchtime, Michael, Mary, Cathy and I took a short stroll from their house to a nearby café. As we walked, I saw a woman coming down the road towards us, who looked a bit like Hilary. ‘I wonder if Cathy or her parents will notice the likeness?’, I thought to myself; and I was chuckling at the coincidence that I should see Hilary’s double right there just 24 hours before she herself was due. A little later, I looked up again – curious to see just how close a likeness to Hilary there would be on closer inspection. But by now the woman was grinning at us from ear to ear, and waving. ‘It’s Hilary!’, I said.
It turned out that Cathy and I had got the wrong end of the stick. Hilary was always intending to visit on the same day as ourselves, and Michael and Mary knew it perfectly well – they hadn’t bothered to mention it to us only because they assumed we already knew; and while I was confused about who I was seeing, they simply hadn’t spotted her // coming down the road.
Reflecting on it afterwards, I was struck how my mind started out by trying to fit the new evidence into a story I already had clear in my head. The story in my head was that Hilary wouldn’t be arriving until the following day; so when I first saw her, my reaction wasn’t ‘Oh, there’s Hilary’; it was ‘Oh, how funny, there’s Hilary’s spitting image’. But eventually, the evidence was so strong that the story in my head had to give way: it was Hilary herself after all, not a doppel -gänger; it was my expectations that were wrong. To begin with, I was trying to interpret new data within an existing framework; in the end, the new data was so overwhelming that the old framework had to go. A new narrative was required to make sense of the situation.
The True Light which enlightens everyone was coming into the World
Some of you will have seen where I’m going with this, I suppose. There was a time, and maybe you can say the same, when the story I carried around in my head, and with which I interpreted the world, excluded God. The result was that when I was granted the occasional glimpse of God’s presence, I used to squeeze that data into the existing framework: ‘Obviously it’s not God. The genuine article is not possible. It must be a look-alike, or a sound-alike, or a feel-alike’. And I dare say I’m not the only here for whom conversion meant, in effect, abandoning an old story which had ceased to be adequate, which no longer did justice to my growing experience, in favour of a different outlook, one which made more satisfying sense, sense not just of the existence of God, but of myself in relation to God.
Well, I don’t know how far you identify with that. But the Gospel reading this evening suggests that that process, or some process like it, is not just a common one, but an inevitable one where God is concerned — inevitable because a relationship with God is not something within our grasp. It’s not easy for creatures like us, who dwell in time and space, to know an eternal and infinite Creator. It’s not easy for sinners like us to know the Holy One. Or (to use the terminology of our Gospel reading), it’s not easy for us to hear the Word of God.
Repeatedly in our reading there are little indicators that if we are to know God, we are utterly dependent on what Christian tradition calls ‘grace’: we rely on God’s initiative, his gift, his unmerited favour towards us. Listen again to these words: 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. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.
The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world. It had to because almost by definition, it is beyond our capacity to enlighten ourselves: enlightenment always does come to us. Though the true light came into the world, the world did not recognise him, because this enlightening Word is almost always contrary to human expectation. But to those who did receive him (since the true light is always something that to be received), he gave power (because this power is always a gift), to become children of God (because a relationship with God is not our natural state, it is always something // into which we must enter). This true light, the Word of God, became flesh, says John, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The Word made flesh?
For most of us, at least at first, the Word of God is pretty unintelligible, even incomprehensible. It is hard for us to hear it, even when it is ‘made flesh’, (even when it is, as it were, spoken to us in our mother tongue). The Word of God is so utterly unexpected that we’re bound to try to squeeze it into our prior understanding. God is a strict judge, isn’t he? God is a stickler for the rules, and in the end ‘rules is rules’, surely? We know, don’t we, that God is easily angered and hard to please, God is hugely demanding and maybe even / also / inclined to be vindictive?
If our mental framework is anything like that, and it often is, just because we are so inclined to make God in our own image; well, if our mental framework is anything like that, then it’s no surprise that we find a Word of grace and truth easy to mis-hear and difficult to comprehend.
When our boys were little, we were living in Gateshead, up in the North East. In fact, Tom, our youngest, was born there and when he first learned to speak it was with a definite Geordie accent. Mostly, Cathy and I understood him perfectly well, though we often had to translate for family and friends when they came to visit. But on one occasion, even Cathy was caught out. Tom came running to her at home one day, brandishing a piece of paper and a pen. ‘Mam, mam’, he said, ‘will you draw us a wheel?’. Giving him her full attention, like the doting mother she was, Cathy replied, ‘Yes son, of course. What sort of a wheel? A tractor wheel? A bicycle wheel?’. ‘Nor…’, came the contemptuous response, ‘a killa wheel!’.
In Jesus, God has spoken his decisive Word to the world, but the world has not understood it. God speaks in broad grace, and that’s not an accent we find it easy to hear. We are more at home with the accent of merit, / of just deserts. We are not well attuned to this strange dialect in which God speaks to us, a dialect of goodness and favour, mercy and love: we have to listen to his Word carefully, and repeatedly, so that it becomes familiar to us. Even then, at least now and again, we’re bound to mishear it and misunderstand it, but gradually over time we become accustomed to it and are able to recognise in this Word the grace and truth of the God who created us, and who made us to live in communion with him, through his Son.
One last thing and then I’m done. Some of you will know that since last Christmas, my wife Cathy and I have become grandparents for the first time. In fact our new granddaughter is staying with us at the moment. She was born in January, so although, a year ago, we knew she was due, we hadn’t met her. And she didn’t have a name. Of course, she’ll get more pleasure out of Christmas when she’s a bit older, and I’m sure that will give Cathy and me more pleasure too. But this year, we’ll cherish the fact that she’s a baby, a human being in her own right, with a name. And what a lovely name she has — her name is Grace.
Strip away the tinsel, and all the commercial packaging, and grace is at the heart of the Christmas story because grace is at the heart of God. But it’s really no wonder that so few recognised Jesus, at his first coming, for who he was: the Word of God made flesh, the human personification of the grace and mercy in God’s heart, the full revelation of the infinite generosity and eternally kindness of God. It’s no wonder so few recognised him then, given that our own ears still find it so difficult to hear that Word spoken to us today.
But oh how badly, how urgently we need to hear and receive the word of grace God speaks to us, because if we cannot learn to hear once more God’s dialect of generosity and kindness, how will we ever learn to speak it again? How will we ever recover our capacity to speak generously and kindly if not by hearing and receiving the grace and mercy of the Word made flesh?
And at this moment in the life of our nation, in the midst of the deadlock over Brexit, and at this moment in the life of our planet, with global politics precarious and a devastating tsunami in Indonesia reminding us again of the constant threat of climate change — in the face of such an uncertain future, isn’t it clear how badly our own society and the entire world need kindness and generosity? It seems to me tonight that we need urgently to recover grace in parliament and in local politics, grace in journalism, grace on social media; and yes, we need urgently to recover grace (kindness and generosity) in church too, when followers of Jesus disagree strongly with one another. And I strongly suspect we need to recover that same kindness and generosity in our homes and workplaces, our pubs and clubs and other spaces where we meet. We need to recover grace.
But here’s the thing. It might not be so difficult for us to do that. You see, in English the word grace is linked to the word gratitude. Come to that, you can actually hear both grace and gratitude, in the Spanish word gracias, meaning thank you. That’s as it should be, because of course thankfulness is always the right response to grace. So here’s my top tip for 2019: it’s actually not that difficult to receive the gift of God’s kindness and generosity, manifest in Jesus — all it requires from any one of us is a thank you. And gratitude is the perfect place to start if, in the course of 2019, you want to learn to speak God’s language, or if you want to learn to speak it more or speak it better — if you want to promote the recovery of generosity and kindndess. So tonight, I wish you an experience of God’s grace and a heart full of gratitude.