You may feel I am trying to tell you everything about me this morning, but please trust that I am not. I found myself on the drive down this past Friday remembering a conversation with a couple respected scholars in our communion over the passage in John. Seeing how it is my first sermon with you, and I do not yet know you or the rhythms of Advent parish life, if this hits where you all are, Bishop Tom and Bishop Grant deserve much of the credit. Maybe the beer helped it to grow. John 1 is one of those passages that, I think, seems extremely difficult to preach. There are probably a few hundred topics from which to choose from this passage. How does one choose the ones a congregation needs to hear? Or, worse, how does one preach on all the topics outside an African setting where people will sometimes worship together for hours? And here I was having a beer with a couple noted scholars and talking specifically about this passage. And now, not having been intimately involved with your lives, though I have watched from afar, I have to preach a sermon from this?
By way of backstory, I must tell you of the roll of the Gospel of John in my life. As many of you know, I was selected to study at St. Anne’s College at Oxford University when I was an undergraduate student. It was a prestigious honor that, although I appreciated it then, I lacked the fuller understanding available to age and wisdom. Last time I looked, one of my dons, Ken, was the Principal of All Souls’ College, which is like Oxford’s graduate school. Christopher is now the Canon Historian or something like that for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Conrad Russell has had it best, perhaps. He retired from his position at Harvard to become the Earl and all that entails. It may be good to be the king, but I think being an Earl is not a bad consolation prize.
One of the perks of this program was that we got full reading privileges at the Bodleian library. Yes, you heard gasps. Back then, there were only six million or so books made available to those who had reading privileges at the Bodleian. It’s kind of like the Library of Congress, but for serious nerds! Anyway, full privileges included access to Duke Humphrey’s Library. Yes, those gasps have turned to moans. It is the rare book collection at Oxford. Naturally, just to say I had taken advantage of my full privileges after some serious lectures by dons and speakers, I entered the rare book collection. To my utter surprise, they had a beautiful, absolutely stunning book displayed. It was clearly old, but magnificently beautiful even to this jaded American male youth’s eyes. And it was drawn, rather than written it seemed to me, in Latin. In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The language, to my own young eyes, was every bit as beautiful as the accompanying artwork. Donna here is drooling, as are, I see, a few others of you. Yes, I was able to read the Gospel of John from the Lindisfarne Gospels. You might not recognize the name, but you would the picture. The Gospels date back to the late 600’s or early 700’s. And this one happened to be on that page under its protective covering as I decided to exercise my privilege. Talk about blessed!
It was, in many ways, the cherry on top of the sundae that would enliven, or maybe enflesh, my own faith. Like many, typical in school, my faith was more intellectual than real belief. Yes, I thought there was a God out there, but I had not really given much thought as to what that meant or whether the words in these texts were true. But that year, I had come across a toss away paragraph in Tacitus, a famous Roman historian under Caesar Augustus – you might remember his name. He talked about these pesky people, a sect of the Jews, who believed their God, a carpenter, had died and rose again. He scoffed at the idea, like any good Roman whose existence depended upon Augustus would, but it reminded me that this was real. This was history.
I had also come across another historian, a Jewish historian by the name of Josephus. He, too, in rather offhanded remarks, dismissed these people who claimed that Messiah had come and died and been brought back to life. They were more responsible, in his mind, for any tensions between the Jews and the Empire than anything else. The Jews got a bad reputation because of the Christians, at least such was his argument to the Roman authorities.
While these things were dancing through my head at that time, God was also after my heart. I was invited by this really cute girl (who would later become my wife) and some of the others in my program to this weird Church of England Service called Evensong, which was being held at Christ Church Cathedral and included their 63 member boy choir. Boy did they sing. They sang the Creed in Greek. They sang the versicles. They sang it all. And it dawned on me, while bathed in those beautiful voices and their accompanying echoes, that such songs and prayers had been said for some seventeen centuries. I suppose, looking back on it, that was a time when God got His hooks in me for real. I suppose, over the course of those months, that’s when this, all that we preach and teach and celebrate, was enfleshed in my mind. Our faith is not an intellectual exercise. It is not an idea. It is a joy and reverence and thanksgiving for God who, rightfully could have remained unreachable across that chasm created by our sin, chose to come down from heaven and redeem each and every one of us who calls Him Lord. He acted in history. This passage from John reminds us that God has begun the process of recreating all that was marred by sin. We cannot read, we cannot hear the words of John and not call to mind the words of Genesis 1. All is being restored in Christ. All is being redeemed by the Word who was with God and is God in the very beginning. It is beautiful, no doubt, but what purpose does it inform in our new life together as pastor and people?
It seems to be, thanks to that conversation six or seven years ago, that there are at least three was it should impact us, whether we realize them yet or not. First, and I recognize that we do not want to go there yet, but the shadow of the Cross hangs over the manger scene. The little babe, whose birth is announced by angels, testified to by shepherds, and honored by the wise men, came with a purpose to do the will of the Father. I pray that this Cup passes from Me. Not My will, but Your will be done. This Word become flesh, this God become human will meet us each and every single time you and I gather to celebrate the Eucharist. This is My body. This is My blood. Perhaps, thinking of that meal juxtaposed between the Manger and the Cross, you have choked or gagged a bit this morning. Great! This meal is not meant to be taken nonchalantly. This meal is not to be eaten as if it is not big deal or as if there will be however many more this week. This meal is meant to be eaten cognizant of the cost He paid for our salvation. This meal is meant to be consumed from an attitude of joyful thanksgiving and amazed love. This meal differs from all the others you will ever eat! Why do you think those outside the early Church supposed we were cannibals who ate babies? It is incredibly hard to realize that we need to be saved and to let the Savior work in us. Yes John 1 reminds us that He came to do just that. The Word became flesh!
The second area upon which I want to focus this morning is on an area that interests me more professionally than maybe you pastorally. But we do have youth here today, and the youth need to hear this Gospel word in the midst of events and testimonies of the world. We live in a world which is challenging the very nature of Creation. Part of our fight over marriage in the church, part of our whole issue with human sexuality, part of the reason that the sex trade is so profitable for those who practice slavery in our midst, is our obsession as a society with doing what seems right and best and feels good to us rather than listening to the words of our Lord, the Word of God. When Jesus condescends to become human, He begins the process of uniting once more, heaven to earth and earth to heaven. Why do you think we pray this day from the collect that God wonderfully created, yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature? That Mary needed to consent to this process and that He came as a male child is essential to this story in God’s mind. Eve’s sin is redeemed through Mary’s implicit trust – Let it be done as you say; Adam’s sin through Jesus’ faith and trust in the Father. We each have our own role to play in His Kingdom, we each were created in His image, and we each are called to live as He instructs rather than as seems best to us. The world may sing a siren’s song to convince us each that we need to figure out for ourselves who we are, but we know, we know at the deepest core of our beings thanks to this enfleshment of God’s Word, that He knows who we are. And still He loves us, even unto death. As a direct consequence, we men and we women have been redeemed by our Lord and set forth to glorify Him in all that we do. All.
Lastly, and perhaps most uncomfortable related to the first area, John in this passage touches upon a number of secondary fights within our church today. In some baptismal language and teaching today, it is more fashionable to describe ourselves as co-laborers with God. We will hear it described how we must look to see where God is working in the world and then get to work helping Him, as if He needs us to complete His work. The Trinitarian aspect of our baptism is slowly being replaced. In some quarters, it already has been removed. The uncomfortable truth of this passage is that we are a judged people. Our words fail to live up to the standard of God’s Word. That is why we need a Savior. That is why we need Him to come down. John’s message enfleshes God’s words of mercy and love and forgiveness and judgment. All of it. We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we speak of mercy without judgment, love without reconciliation, Christmas without Easter. As we talked about in the area of the Eucharist a moment ago, the Cross looms over the Manger scene. The world longs to hear I’m ok and you’re ok, but John reminds us of the truth we know, deep down inside each of us we know, we are not ok. But like my friends at AA have learned, thanks especially to the teachings of faithful Episcopalians named Bill and Sam, it is ok not to be ok. Because He came and dwelt among us, and lived and died for the purpose of redeeming each and every one of us.
I have no doubt that I have given you much upon which to chew rather than gruel. It is, nevertheless, an interesting way to begin a pastoral relationship. We are all about a beginnings and words, are we not? Which words, brothers and sisters, govern your life today? Which words, when placed against John’s hard teaching define you? Words that have significant meaning in my life right now are sore, tired, discombobulation. This is the first day in a long time where no child was asking me to wait for them to finish getting ready before I came to church. I am, admittedly, a bit out of sorts. Perhaps you are, too. Perhaps, reflecting, you find yourself anxious, surprised, disappointed, confused. I know some of you are worried whether you will measure up to imaginary standards you think I have, and some of you are rightfully worried that one day, Justin and Francis may learn about you and all that you do. Will Brian love us; will we love him and Karen and all those kids? And how will we ever learn all their names? Maybe my words have only highlighted in your own mind that you want desperately to know these things about God but cannot begin to understand how or why God would choose to save you, especially in this way. That’s ok, too. Part of our job will be to figure that out together. One thing we do know this day, brothers and sisters: that Holy Mystery we call the Incarnation is so much more than a greeting card or a beautiful idea. It is a way of life, a cross –bearing life, that brings light into the darkness and hope to the hopeless. It is the Word of God!