Every year, we hear those words from John’s Gospel (I have heard them three times today, and we will hear them a few more times before Christmas comes!) about a light shining in the darkness, which the darkness could not overcome. I wonder what kind of light Jesus brings, and into what kind of darkness does that light shine?
In 2016, it has mostly felt as though the darkness has been stronger than the light, even defeated the light, and at times the light has been very hard to see – or even hope for. Yet, the words of the Gospel stand true, for us who believe – these are the words of eternal life – that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That evil may have its hour, but God shall have his day. Goodness triumphs in the end…..that is the message of the Gospel.
Yet, Jesus comes into the world, not as an ordinary light in any ordinary darkness – like the darkness children fear at night, or the darkness of a winter morning, or even the darkness of whatever we fear may happen in the future. Jesus comes into the darkness of the worst kind – the darkness of sin, and evil, hell and death, violence, and injustice – he comes into the spiritual darkness of the world which isn’t resolved by plugging in a lamp, or shining a torch – it takes divine light, radiant light – the light of Christ – the light of love.
And as human beings, that is the very kind of darkness that we spend most of our time trying to run away from, because it forces us to be vulnerable, and when we are vulnerable we are most human…..and none of us really want to be human, if we are honest! I’m sure we will all for one reason or the other, be glad to see the end of 2016 because it has been full of darkness, and darkness of a certain sort. But just as we are busy running away from our humanity – and our flesh – and our world – God in Jesus Christ is running the opposite way, to take on our humanity, our flesh, our world….our brokenness in the womb of Mary, in a dirty stable, in a very ordinary and dysfunctional family. And so while we endeavour to grow out of our humanity, God yearns to grow into our humanity – and in Jesus Christ takes all of this human stuff on. The stuff we don’t quite want….the stuff we want to circumnavigate so much so that we want to freeze our bodies to wake up in a totally different age! Jesus does all of this, at a cost –we know the full story, the baby grows up – he has to find a job, he has to attend weddings, he has to obey his Mother, and find his way in the world amongst his peers…..and he does it so that we might be fully human, and so that we might know the face of God.
You know, there are only two places in the whole world where even the most wise and great, and powerful and the most intelligent amongst us are forced to fall completely silent, places where strength, courage and intellect fail us – at the manger in Bethlehem, and at the cross of calvary.
Because they do not make sense.
Both are symbols of defeat in the beginning. They do not make sense because the most powerful, most astonishing being in all creation the one who made it ALL – the first and the last, decides to come to us as a helpless, vulnerable, human being….and this mystery is all about the birth of a child, not of the astonishing work of a strong person, not of the bold discovery of a wise man or group of people, not of the pious and miraculous workings of a saint. It is simply about the creator of the world – stopping down to our level. Being born in a stable, and nailed to a cross like a criminal. Neither of which the creator of the world had to endure…
But He does.
And for me, this is why the Christian claim makes sense – the Christian God makes sense because the story is so nonsensical, so stupidly simple, so flawed and so human….but I can relate to this God – because he came to me, lived like me, died the way many die, and rose again that we might have hope – even in the darkness of life. Our Truth wasn’t just dictated to us on the top of a mountain, it was lived in Jesus the word made flesh – we see God’s promise in Jesus.
Advent is about preparing ourselves for the beginning of this amazing story – of a God who became human for us humans, that we might know him and love him, and live with him forever. It’s deeper and more emotive than just a birth taking place, in a romantic idyllic Christmas card scene – it is about God revealing his very self to us, in the most humble and basic of ways – to me that is a God worth believing in, worth hoping in, and worth dying to.
This Christmas, might you open your heart mind and soul – to the Son of God who alone has power to save us.
‘Hail Mary, full of grace – the Lord is with thee, Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb – Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God – pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.’
I hope that in some way, you hearing me say those words might make you feel slightly uncomfortable…
You might suppose, I would suggest wrongly, that I opened my sermon with those words because I am a closeted Roman Catholic….as it happens, I have no problem saying the Hail Mary – and hopefully by the end you will understand a little bit why that is the case.
As protestants, and I would argue as Methodists we are not quite sure what to make of Mary, much less what to make of the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer.
For us, Mary is an obstacle at worst, an oddity at best – we know she is important, but just how important we are not so sure.
When you think about it, the first half of that prayer:
‘Hail Mary, full of grace – the Lord is with thee, Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus’. That first half, is simply a repetition of the Angel’s words to Mary…..
The second half, is slightly more problematic…
The Angel – greets Mary, gives her the news that the Lord is with her, that she should not be afraid – that she will be considered blessed for generations, and the fruit of her womb is to be precious and blessed.
And the thing is, it’s easy for us to forget just how important and central to the whole Christmas story Mary is – every year, we go through the motions of the birth of Christ, and we seem for one reason or the other to simply accept the fact that Mary says to the Angel, and by extension to the Lord – ‘let it be with me according to thy word’.
Those words “Let it be with me according to thy word” – those precious words, words not just of acceptance, or of simply giving in to pressure – but words of free and total submission – to God’s perfect will.
And it is those words, and through that young girl, that our salvation comes into the world.
Yes, by God’s will, yes by God’s power, yes by God’s grace – but through Mary’s womb, and obedience, and wisdom.
A major negative of our patriarchal, male-dominated culture – is that the roles of women are so often downplayed. And so we take it for granted that Mary would say yes, to an overbearing ‘male’ God – who is all powerful and all-knowing….of course she would have!….but, actually, she could have said ‘no’…..choose the person next door, try me again next year Angel…..not right now…..I’ve enough going on in my life. Mary wasn’t commanded to give birth to God’s son.
You know, all of those excuses that we bring to God as reasons why our hearts and lives and souls are incapable of offering him any room – those shallow excuses, the first things that spring to our minds – the things that God can see right through, and yet Mary in her simplicity, in her foresight, in her wisdom – simply says: Lord, I will do your will.
And it changes her life – it changes our life, it changes Joseph’s life – it changes the life of the world, and of the world to come.
Because in her yes, which cancelled out a thousand ‘no’s’ God is able to take on flesh, and enter into the world which so needed to be redeemed.
So not only does Jesus become a second Adam, but Mary becomes a second Eve – putting right what went off the rails in the past.
Very often, statues of Mary will depict her crushing a snake’s head with her foot – a sign that in her womb, the beginning of Satan’s defeat is taking place – and upon the cross, Satan’s power is crushed forever – totally annihilated. And in icons Mary is depicted cheek to cheek with Jesus, or with Jesus in her arms being held out to the world – as if to say, world – he is your gift. He is my saviour and yours….
And if he were not flesh – then how would our salvation enter the world?
St Ephraim the Syrian – an ancient hymn-writer, wrote a long list of rhetorical statements about God becoming man:
‘If he was not flesh, why was Mary introduced at all? And if he was not God, whom was Gabriel calling Lord?
If he was not flesh, who was lying in the manger? And if he was not God, whom did the Angels come down and glorify?
If he was not flesh, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes? And if he was not God, whom did the shepherds worship?
If he was not flesh, whom did Joseph circumcise? And if he was not God, in whose honour did the star speed through the heavens?
If he was not flesh, whom did Mary suckle? And if he was not God, to whom did the Magi offer gifts?
If he was not flesh, whom did Symeon carry in his arms? And if he was not God, to whom did he say, “Let me depart in peace”?
If he was not flesh, the marks of the nails and the lance in whose hands and side did Thomas handle? And if he was not God, to whom did he cry out, “My Lord and my God”?
If he was not God and man, our salvation is a lie, and the words of the Prophets are lies. But the Prophets spoke the truth, and their testimonies were not lies. The Holy Spirit spoke through them what they had been commanded.’
Without the free consent on the part of Mary, God simply cannot become human. Mary’s ‘yes’ is a yes full of grace, because it is freely given….and in the same way in which Abraham’s loins were blessed by the Holy Spirit – so too, is the womb of Mary.
And Mary shows us not just how to respond to God’s call – but also, how to pray and meditate upon the mysteries of our faith.
For as we hear in the Gospel, ‘Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart’. Probably in silence and in a solitude that may have caused Joseph to pull his hair out, as Mary works things out in her heart…..and not out loud with him.
As the first person to believe in Jesus Christ for who and what he is, Mary as the first Christian shows us what we can receive when we kneel in humility before the manger. We can receive transformation of the deepest and most incredible kind – it is because of the incarnation that we can know what it truly means to be changed from glory into glory – for Mary’s life is transformed, and through her obedience and free will, the life of the world is transformed….
‘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’
Christ was born to give us second birth – born to give us eternal life – born to raise humankind up, by becoming human…
Mary shows us what we as Methodists call ‘holiness’, that right relationship with God – ‘that holiness without which no-one may see the Lord.’ Our prayer should be always, to be people who have the obedience and wisdom of Mary, that we too might become full of the Holy Spirit of God – and sing God’s praises because of what he has wrought in us, and through us.
As Methodists, infact as Christians, we neglect her example, her faith, and her obedience at our peril – for she shows us so clearly and simplistically what it means to be a servant of God, a disciple of Jesus Christ, a believer in the Good News.
And on this night of all nights, it is right to say once again: with the Angel Gabriel, those words which both protestant and catholic can say together – for they are the words of scripture, the words which mark the very beginning of our redemption through Christ – ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee – blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.’
Epiphany (Covenant Sunday)
‘O For a heart to praise my God,
a heart from sin set free!
A heart that always feels thy blood
So freely spilt for me!
A heart resigned, submissive, meek,
My great Redeemers throne;
Where only Christ is heard to speak,
Where Jesus reigns alone.’
For months, we had been preparing and stressing about Christmas – and now that it’s all over, and our decorations are down, I want us to look back to the heart of Christmas briefly again.
I think it’s easy to forget that the only reason we are able to come and worship here today,
The only reason we gather today to offer God the sacrifice of praise,
The only reason we can look upon each other as sisters and brothers,
The only reason we know what God’s love looks like –
Is because God in Jesus Christ came down to us here on earth.
God became human, that we might become divine.
Now, the covenant service is one that many people avoid. And believe me I understand their fear…
There’s two ways of looking at what we will do later today.
The first is, that God literally takes every word we say in the Covenant Prayer as a personal commitment and request from our side, to God. I have lost count of the amount of times that people have said to me that they don’t like the covenant service, or that they always miss out the words ‘put me to suffering’ because they fear that in saying those words God is going to treat them in a Job-like way, and suddenly rain ruin upon their lives and families….! Now, if any of us think God works like that – we need a longer conversation than this sermon will allow, but I can assure you that’s not what the Covenant prayer is about.
The second way of looking at the Covenant Prayer is this. That it is a prayer which is a whole and complete offering up to God of all that we are, and all that we have – that He might make us what we are truly made to be. You’ll remember me preaching about Mary the Mother of Jesus on Christmas Eve – and saying that I think we ignore her example at our peril….well, I can’t really think of anyone else who lived the first few lines of our Covenant Prayer. “I am no longer my own but yours, put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will, put me to doing, put me to suffering, let me be employed for you or laid aside for you.’ In other words “Let it be to me according to thy word”.
Or as Wesley said:
“be it according to thy word!
This moment let it be!
The life I lose for thee, my Lord,
I find again in thee!’
That’s the way I see the covenant prayer. It’s an offering of my whole being, and my whole path, and all of my hopes and fears and desires to God – because at the end of the day, all that I have and am is God’s property.
Now I want you to ask yourselves – how do you know that the people in your life love you? Most probably because they make time for you – and it isn’t any different in our relationship with God.
Covenant requires Relationship, Relationship requires Trust, and Trust requires Time.
You can’t make a covenant with a God you are not in relationship with.
You cannot be in relationship with a God you do not trust.
You cannot trust someone you do not make the time to know.
Now we know the kind of intimacy that Jesus seeks. He says to us in John’s Gospel: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches…as my father has loved me so I have loved you, abide in my love.’
Jesus is saying to us he wants to be in deep, intimate love with us. Jesus is madly in love with us – that’s why he came. That’s why he went to the cross. That’s why he did everything he did…..ALL OF IT!
What happened in Bethlehem all those years ago was for you!
What happened by the sea of Galilee was for you!
What happened in the Garden of tears, and upon the cross was for you!
All this for you – before you could know anything of it!
And of course it is a mystery, because we don’t know how to make sense of the creator of the world giving His all for us..
But God does.
Covenant is not about guilt-tripping.
Covenant is not about singing up to a life of burdens and sacrifice.
Covenant is not about just what God asks of us.
Covenant is not just about our sin, and folly.
Covenant is about relationship,
Covenant is about love,
Covenant is about grace, and mercy, and hope and spiritual renewal.
And the scariest thing of all – is that fundamentally Covenant is about reminding us – that we can be like Jesus.
That we make it every year – is a sign of the fact that making it once is never enough. Just like we would never only tell someone we love them once, neither do we commit ourselves to God just once.
We come to make our covenant with the God who in sending his son to us, made a covenant with us before time began.
But Covenant is also about saying: Lord, we know that apart from you we have no hope. We know that without love for you and our neighbour we will not see your Kingdom. We know that there is no good in us, but the good that comes to birth through your power and your grace.
But as you came to us, so we’re coming before you – because even if we don’t manage it, we want to try to Love you like you love us.
And we will fail – but God you know that. But we want to be people who fail and yet keep trying….!
St Paul tells us what that trying looks like……he says that we must ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.’
We know what God’s will for us is: For us to glorify him – and to enjoy him forever.
In the depths of your heart, you know what it is that Jesus asks of you today – and in the depths of your heart you know what you would ask of him. He is no longer in the crib, no longer by the sea of Galilee, no longer upon the cross – but here, in our midsts, in bread and wine – calling your name. Seeking your heart.
Today – we re-commit ourselves as people who live in reckless abandon to God’s grace. Until that time when we see him face to face – in the glory of his kingdom.
‘O Jesus let thy dying cry
pierce to the bottom of my heart,
Its evils cure, its wants supply,
And bid my unbelief depart.
Slay the dire root and seed of sin;
Prepare for thee the holiest place;
Then, O essential Love, come in!
And fill thy house with endless praise.
Let me according to thy word,
A tender, contrite heart receive,
Which grieves at having grieved its Lord,
And never can itself forgive:
A heart thy joys and griefs to feel,
A heart that cannot faithless prove,
A heart where Christ alone may dwell,
All praise, all meekness, and all love.’