A Sermon for Christmas 2
Some words from our Gospel reading this morning: “we have seen his glory”.
Let me begin by wishing you all a very happy new year, and (because today is still the 12th day of Christmas) a very happy Christmas. Tonight all the decorations should be stowed away for another year, trees come down, fairy lights are boxed up and lots of us will be making trips to attics and lofts with boxes of stuff. And in the midst of this we hear again the Gospel read at the heart of our Christmas celebrations, with this line that “we have seen his glory”.
Glory is not something that we should put away with the decorations, but there is a real danger that we miss the glory for the trappings of Christmas. There is a Christian tradition, which we will observe here at the Cathedral, that crib sets do not get put away on twelfth night, but that they remain out until the end of the greater Christmas season at Candlemas. The crib stays out until Lent is in view, and that seems to me to be a good way of understanding the concept of ‘glory’ that St John gives us in this Christmas Gospel.
Glory is, of course, one of the most important ways in which St John speaks about Jesus and his significance for us. Throughout the Gospel, the miracles point to the glory of Jesus. In a few weeks time, we shall read the story of the wedding at Cana which ends with the assertion that “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (John 2.11). But above all, it is in the death of Jesus that his glory is revealed. As Judas leaves the last supper to go and betray Jesus, Jesus says “now the Son of Man has been glorified” (John 13.31). Throughout St John’s Gospel, from the beginning to the end, ‘glory’ refers to the self-sacrificial love of God shown to us in Christ. Both the crib and the cross show this to us: the self-emptying of God as he becomes human in Jesus; the self-emptying of the incarnate God as he suffers death on the cross for our sake. In the crib and the cross, the glory of God is shown to be the self-emptying, self-sacrificing gift of God’s very self.
But just in case we dare to think that this is just the frame of the story, just a couple of chapters, a prologue and an epilogue that don’t really matter, then we need to look closer at the whole of the Gospel reading this morning. Not only does St John pepper the whole of his Gospel with references to ‘glory’, he does so in this passage in the context of the nature of God and the nature of the whole world. The climax of this morning’s reading is the statement that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. More literally, this is “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us”. In Jesus, the presence of God who met with the people of Israel in the tent of meeting in the wilderness and then in the Temple in Jerusalem, in Jesus the presence of the God of Israel lives. We are being told that Jesus is the presence of God. And the reading goes on. “No one has ever seen God” it says, “it is God the only Son … who has made him known”. We know God through Jesus. Or as one of the great Archbishops of Canterbury once said: “God is Christlike and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all!”
“We have seen his glory” – the glory of the God who empties himself in becoming human, the glory of the God whose love leads him to death on a cross. This is the true nature of God – the God revealed in and through Jesus. It is also the nature of the world. The figure of Wisdom who we met in our first reading, telling of her glory in the midst of the people, is also the figure of Jesus. Indeed, the hymn to the Word of God which is our Gospel reading, is also a hymn to the Wisdom of God. Wisdom is the way in which God made everything, the blue-print of creation. It is through Wisdom that God made everything that has been made, and nothing that God made was made without Wisdom. The Wisdom of God is, as one writer has so eloquently put it, “the grain of the universe”. If we are to work with the grain of the universe, with the way in which all things have been made, then we do so by working with the way in which the Wisdom of God is at work. And that is in the glory of giving himself away that we see in Jesus, the Wisdom of God, the Word of God, the Glory of God.
So this morning, as we stand at the end of this Christmas season and at the start of this new year, let me urge you to attend to the glory that we see in Jesus and let that glory, the glory of the Son of the Father, the glory that gives itself away, let that glory change two things. Let it change the way you encounter God, and let it change the way in which we live in the world.
Let the glory seen in Jesus change the way that you encounter God. God is not a tyrant in the sky. He is not the great debt collector. He is not Santa Claus – he does not have a list of who has been naughty and who has been nice. Rather God is Christlike and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all. God is the God that we see in Jesus. God comes to us, wherever we are, and wants to be with us. This is not an undemanding God, Jesus asks us to follow him! This is not a God who we can shape by our own needs or desires. It is not a God we can control. But the God we see in Christ is a God who calls us, each one of us with all our foibles, and our imperfections, to find our true fulfilment and our glory in him. So this new year, why not try to spend a few moments each day in his presence and come to know this God better. Find a way of regularly praying and reading the Bible. That will be a great gift for the new year.
Let the glory seen in Jesus change the way in which you encounter God and let it also change the way that we live in this world. The Wisdom of God, which is the same as the glory of God, is the self-giving, self-emptying God that we see in Jesus. But that is not how it feels. It feels natural to want security and safety, yet the God of Jesus risks everything in coming to us and loses everything in dying. It feels natural to be suspicious of that we don’t know, yet in Jesus we see that the strangers and the odd, the sinners and the outcasts are all made welcome. We live in the midst of a politics of fear, when we are given dire warnings of economic collapse, takeover by foreign nationals, terrorist attacks and so on. What would it be like for us to live out a politics of life, hope and love, where we see this world not as a place where we must defend our corner, but as a holy place in which we can encounter the God of Jesus in the people, places and stuff of life. Whether it is greeting a new neighbour, speaking up for the weak, buying goods which are fairly traded, or simply refusing to be cowed by those who preach hate, despair and hopelessness. What can we do to live in a world that is ordered by self-giving, rather that self-grabbing? That is a question for us all this new year. Perhaps we are helped by the Gospel reading, which describes the glory revealed in Jesus as “full of grace and truth”. Can we work for grace and truth in our world, and not allow ourselves to be satisfied with the half-truths and the ungraciousness of much that happens. If we were to insist on grace and truth, then so much would be transformed. Grace and truth make us attend both to what happens but also to how it happens. Both are important. Both will contribute to the renewal of our world. And of course, both begin with how we approach things ourselves.
Given at Derby Cathedral 5.1.14.