Sermon at St Mary Abbots, Sunday 26th January 2020
Choral Matins | Christian Unity Week
We are still in Christmas mode; the time of the Epiphany. Actually the Roman Catholic Church finished the Christmas period two weeks ago. It’s good to know that, for once, we are ahead of the Church of England. I am happy to preach on the theme of Christmas and particularly the Epiphany, when the wise men came to Bethlehem, to signify the revelation of this child to the world. Here we are today celebrating the same feast. Not all of us are wise. Not all of us are men. Nonetheless, we are called to replace the wise men and reveal this child to the nations.
The Gospel passage we’ve just heard uses, what for many, are abstract words, particularly the use the Greek, philosophical term, ‘The Word’. When you look at the crib and see the little babe; you don’t normally say, “ah, look at the Word”. I’m sure the shepherds who came to see the child never used such language. They would have said something like, “ah, look. Isn’t he cute”. When we see a baby we can change. We might make funny noises like people do when they try to communicate with babies, “coudgy, coudgy coo” or words to that effect. Some people just pull funny faces. But you wouldn’t say, “hello Word. Coudgy, coudgy coo”, would you? Or, if you were a biblical scholar, “hello Logos. Coudgy coudgy coo”. Well, I wouldn’t.
No, the child Jesus is a child. It’s an ordinary looking baby; nothing abstract or philosophical about it. Soon Mary will have to change its nappy as every Mum has to do, because all babies need their nappies changing. Maybe Joseph was liberated and he too changed Jesus’ nappy. This looks like a very ordinary child, except to his parents of course; like all parents it is the most beautiful baby in the world. Now if he were born today you’d be seeing lots photos of him; now this is one just after he was born, doesn’t he luke cute; here’s one of him in the crib: doesn’t he look gorgeous; and here’s one with him with the ox and the donkey; and, look here’s one with one of the shepherds holding him. You can see he looks a bit frightened. Well, what child wouldn’t be. But doesn’t he look beautiful?
This child isn’t just beautiful it is God; it is the Word, it is the Logos. The challenge for us Christians is to believe this. Not something we can take for granted.
The great evangelist John writes of this event. John is depicted in art as an eagle; because his vision is so lofty, he flies so high above all others and certainly above the other three evangelists. John is the only one who calls Jesus, ‘the Word’. ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, our hands have handled, of the Word of life”. The other three evangelists don’t speak in such lofty philosophical terms, their language is more down to earth. They describe how the disciples ate and drank with Jesus. How they walked from village to village with him. How they got hot and tired and thirsty with him. They argued with him, boasted about who was the greatest with him. Fished with him. They went to weddings with him, drank lots of wine with him. Embraced him, hugged him, slapped him on the back. This is a different description of the Word, as related by Mathew, Mark and Luke, not so spiritual or philosophical but one we could more easily relate to.
Then the baby grew up to be a young boy, then a young man, then a man. A man among other men in his mountain top village of Nazareth. He was in many ways just like the other men in his village. Today, we might say: he was “one of the lads”. It can still shock us when we read in scripture how his own people rejected him; some even thought he was out of his mind! But we shouldn’t be shocked. We are coming at this truth with the hindsight of 2000 years; and hindsight is the clearest form of sight. Had we been alive at the time, had we lived in Nazareth village, had we gone to school with him, had we seen him grow up, had we seen him going out each day to work with his father, had we seen him at the wine harvest, or at weddings, had we experienced these mundane things, would we have understood what he was saying in the synagogue that the prophesy of Isaiah is being fulfilled even as you listen? Would we have got down on our knees, as we would today, and worship him as the Son of God: truly God and truly man? I doubt it.
History can make us critical and incredulous of those who knew him: that they didn’t recognize who he really was. But what about us today, with the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight, of experience, of the witness of others, especially the martyrs, the saints: are we any better? Are we like John the Evangelist; when we look in the crib: do we see the Word, the Son of God. Because if we do, then it will have changed our lives.
Someone who has faith in Jesus as the only son of God, will be different from others. This has always been important but never so much as today. Today we are living in a secular and materialistic society; a society that has pushed God to the periphery. Our Christian values are being eroded by other more secular values. No longer is Sunday, for instance, a day to stop work in order to worship God. People now have to go to work, at least many of them. If they are not working many spend their Sundays at a garden centre or rugby or football match, or just simply having a long lie in. The majority of people living in England will not have looked at a crib at Christmas; the closest they’ll come to that is if they watched ‘The Vicar of Dibley, Christmas Special’. How are those people going to hear the Word of God? It’s such an important question and the answer is equally important: they will hear the Word of God through us. We are called to evangelize these people, to tell them about the Good News of Jesus Christ; to tell them that God is a God of love and mercy.
This is the challenge for us Christians today, living in this secular society. We have to believe ourselves that the baby Jesus is the Word; that Jesus is the Logos. Not just any old baby but God himself. If we are to be effective evangelizers then our faith has to transform our lives. And we will be concerned not only for those who come to church but for the majority who don’t. Our faith will give us a desire to be evangelizers, to go out to others. Our faith has been given to us as a gift, it is not meant to be kept to ourselves, but to be shared with others.
We, Roman Catholics, haven’t really been very good at evangelization. We have tended to look after our own. But times have changed, and so have we. Several decades ago one of our Popes, wrote an encyclical letter entitled, ‘Evangelization in the Modern World’. He concluded that people today are not looking for teachers so much as for witnesses. In other words, those who lives convince others to the truths of the Gospel. Who was it who said, “go out and preach the gospel, use words if necessary”. And this is the point: it is not by preaching to others that we will convince people but by the way we live. If we are kind, generous, compassionate, honest and sincere people will notice. They won’t know anything about the Logos but they will see something of God in you. This is what we were baptized for: to believe and in believing to share that faith with others.
And how much more effective would our sharing be if we Christians were one. The Churches in London are too comfortable in their own skin. We need to get out of our comfort zones. As baptized Christians we share a lot in common. In fact, what we share far outweighs what divides us; yet we continue to live our divisions.
I don’t want to finish on a negative note. It wouldn’t be right. The true Christian is positive; always the optimist. Our slogan should be “yes we can”. Yes we can be one. The world we live in needs our witness, our united witness, to the gospel message: that Jesus, born in a stable in Bethlehem, is truly God and man. To share this news, this Good News, isn’t an option, it’s an obligation imposed on us when we were baptised. If you love the incarnate Word then you can’t keep that love to yourself. Our world is desperate for this Good News. And for this reason, we owe it to God to try harder to bring about unity. “Yes, we can”.