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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Christmas Day Saturday 25 December 2010

25 December 2010 at 10:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Isaiah: 52: 7-10; Hebrews 1: 1-4; John 1: 1-14

It is a great delight for me on behalf of all of us here at Westminster Abbey to wish you and yours a very happy Christmas.

I can’t understand the curmudgeons who fill the airwaves with Scrooge-like criticism of Christmas: those who say that it was really only invented 150 years ago or that it’s too regimented or that their families always fall out or that they hate turkey. For me, for us here this morning, Christmas is at heart a simple, joyful, beautiful celebration of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God for the wonderful gift of His Son and, in tribute to that amazing grace, we offer gifts to those we love. What could be more obviously right?

What we come to celebrate this morning, with the familiar Christmas readings, the joyful hymns, the wonderful music of choir and organ, is however not that simple. It is pretty astonishing, really rather mind-blowing: that God in his eternal Word is as at this time born into flesh so that God himself can share our human condition and live and die with us and for us.

Christian writers have marvelled at this truth. Hear these words of the 17th century poet Thomas Philipot, a scion of my own place of birth, as he reflects on the incarnation, God’s being born into flesh: 

‘And God who man’s frail house of earth composed
Himself in a frail house of earth enclosed;
Who did control the fire, air, sea and earth
Was clad with all these four and had a birth 
In time, who was begotten before time
Received a birth, or th’early sun did climb
Th’ascent o’th’ East. Whom the vast air, and main,
And precincts of the earth could not contain,
Is circumscribed now in so brief a room,
He’s lodged i’ the circuit of a virgin’s womb.’

Through the birth as a human being of the Eternal Word, begotten by God before time began, the second person of the Holy Trinity, God chose the limitation of his powers. St Paul says of Christ Jesus that ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.’ [Philippians 2: 6-8]

St John, in the Prologue to his Gospel we heard just now, wants his hearer to understand who it is being born as a baby, this Word of God from the beginning: ‘the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ [John 1: 1-3] It was ‘the Word [who] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.’ [John 1: 14] But crucially God does not force this knowledge, this experience, on anyone. It is significant that Jesus is born on the edge of society, the child of parents who are travelling, refugees, with nowhere to lay their heads. Despite the angelic host and the star in the East, crowds do not flock to see this miraculous birth. The early witnesses to the birth of Jesus are people outside the run of Israelite society: the shepherds out on their hills, often regarded as less than respectable; the magi from the East, certainly not ‘people like us.’ John emphasises the point. ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not accept him.’ [John 1: 10, 11]

A well-known person who is terminally ill recently said in a memorable criticism of the God in whom he does not believe, ‘He makes you ill and commands you to be well.’ How far that is from the true image of God, the God in whom we believe, who comes to share our human condition, to be born as one of us, to suffer and to die with us and being raised to new life, to turn despair into hope, fear into confidence, death into life, hatred into love - and all for love of us, despite our unloveliness, because of our unloveliness.

The heart of the matter is that God’s very purpose in creating and sustaining the universe is that it should be the realm where love can be shared: God’s infinite love for his creation and for each one of us human beings. But none of this is forced on us. We are not required to believe. We are not bludgeoned into accepting the gift of love. We can if we wish live in hatred and enmity – and far too often we choose to do so. God’s love is a free gift to those who are willing to receive it. As St John says, ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. [John 1: 12, 13]

In the outstretched arms of the new-born baby Jesus, God offers that love to us today, tentatively, humbly, generously. God’s gift of love has no strings attached, makes no demands, imposes no burdens. Freely given, it can be freely received. We can accept his gift of love, simply by opening our hearts and saying in our minds, ‘Yes, Lord Jesus.’

If we receive the gift, we shall share it with others and we shall grow in love for God and for our fellow human beings. That growing in love will change us over time and enable us to become more and more closely united with Our Lord Jesus Christ. Our union with Christ may in the end cost us no less than everything but we shall have come to know that nothing at all matters for us by comparison with the love of God: God’s love for us and our love for God and our neighbour.

With St Paul we shall be able to say, ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8: 35-39]

May the power of that love enfold you and those you love this day and for evermore!

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