This sermon, preached at Bolton St James’ Church, Bradford, on Christmas Eve 1997, was one of the thirty sermons shortlisted for “The Times” Preacher of the Year Award 1998.
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen
“May the words of my mouth …” Oh, I love words! I always have done. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get a long sermon this evening. You’re not! It’ll be a short one. But I do love words. On the morning I started at Keighley Boys Grammar School way back in 1953 I very nearly alienated myself from the rest of my intake because of words. The English master asked, “Who likes reading dictionaries?” and I put my hand in the air, expecting most of the other boys to do the same, only to find that I was the only one …
But it didn’t put me off. I still like reading dictionaries; and I still like to find out where words come from. Take the word “wassailing” that crops up in the old carol, “Here we come a-wassailing”. “Now what does that mean?” I wondered. “And where does it come from?” I began to dig and ten minutes later I had the answer. Wassailing is from two Anglo-Saxon words — wes meaning “be” and hal meaning “healthy”. “Wes hal” was an Anglo-Saxon toast — They would raise their glasses and say, “Be healthy!” or “Good health!” as we would put it today. But I got a bonus. I read on in my reference book and found that, in those Anglo-Saxon days, you didn’t raise a glass, you raised a kind of jug called a “piggin”. So put the jug and the toast together to make a name for your inn and what do you get? “The Piggin Wes Hale” or, as we now spell it and know it, “The Pig and Whistle”. Fascinating, eh?
But words, of course, are not just there for our amusement. Indeed, that’s the last of their functions. Words are first and foremost the means of getting things done. Words are for making things happen. People say “actions speak louder than words” and maybe they do. But it’s usually words that bring about the actions. “Stop!” “Go!” “Shoot!” “Hide!” “Charge!” “Help!” Think of the changes that the utterances of just those few words have brought about in the history of the world and in the histories of the countless individuals in it. And they’ll go on doing so until the end of time. Words change things. Words make things happen.
So, maybe it’s not surprising that Saint John, when he thinks back to the beginning of everything — the creation of this world and the entire universe — speaks about a Word that brought it all into being, that made it all happen.
It was not a new idea. The Greeks had come up with it 600 years before Christ. A philosopher called Heraclitus argued that only a word — a logos — of great power could call everything there is into existence and keep it all held together and running smoothly. But the Jews had had the idea for even longer. They too believed that the heavens and the earth and everything in them came into being because of the word — the dabar — of God. Psalm 33.6: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Genesis 1. 3:“And God said, Let there be light and there was light”.
And so now, to Jew and Greek (who together make up the world as John knows it), John has begun by saying something they already know and with which they can readily agree: “In the beginning was the Word — logos to the Greek, dabar to the Jew — and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
So far so good. Heads are nodding in approval.
“He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.”
Heads are still nodding, but not quite so vigorously. Both Jew and Greek can still go along with John — except for his puzzling use of the words “he” and “him”. Surely he means “it” — “It was with God in the beginning. Through it all things were made. In it was life?” You can’t talk about a word as a person!
But, yes, John can. Indeed, this is the heart of the astounding message that John is about to drop in the laps of horrified Jew and incredulous Greek.
“The word — your logos Mr Greek, your dabar Mr Jew — became flesh and dwelt among us. He who called the very universe into existence and sustains it through every moment of time has himself entered that universe as a human being.”
Can you begin to grasp the enormity of that message. Let me put it to you another way. Millions of years ago, God spoke, and the universe began. If anyone had been around to hear the sound of God speaking (which of course they weren’t), they would, so the physicists and cosmologists assure us, have heard a “big bang” — the sound of a gigantic explosion as raw energy became primal matter and began to accelerate aware from the point at which the word was spoken. Awesome!
But then, just 2000 years ago, God spoke again. And this time there were people around to hear him — but just two at first, a young girl Mary and her husband Joseph — and what they heard was this.
[Play recording of new-born baby crying]
The voice of God. The cry of a baby. The word has become flesh and moved into Bethlehem.
Many of our Christmas carols take up the theme:
“Lo, within a manger lies He who built the starry skies”;
“Ah, Lord, who hast created all, How hast thou made Thee weak and small?”;
And that line of Charles Wesley’s that I love the best of all: “Our God contracted to a span — a hand’s width — incomprehensibly made man”.
And the big question, of course, is why? Why does God clothe himself in flesh. Why does the All-mighty become the All-lowly — soiling the straw of a cattle trough, depending for his very life on milk from a peasant girl’s breast? What, on earth, is the Eternal God thinking of when he does such a thing?
Well, in a word — he is thinking of “you”… and “me”. As the carol says:
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that man no more may die;
born to raise the sons of earth,
born to give them second birth.
We’ve all been born once and we’ll all die. But God did this astounding thing that we all might be born again, born into his family, receive his life, inherit his kingdom.
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” — No, they took him outside the city walls and nailed him to a tree — “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
This whole amazing event — this stupendous self-emptying by God — was a rescue operation motivated by unspeakable love. Love so great that it broke the barriers of space and time. Love so great that it broke the barriers of life and death. Love so great that it broke the barriers of flesh and spirit.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Indeed he did. And now the Word awaits our word. Awaits a word spoken in sincerity in your heart and mine as, once again, we contemplate Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, lying in a manger. He awaits a simple “Amen” to all that he has done; a simple “yes” of acceptance.
Yes, Lord, we greet you,
Born this happy morning,
Jesus, to you be glory given!
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing:
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.
A joyful and peaceful and blessed Christmas to you all!