The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Monday, 25th December 2017 at 10.30 AM
When I was young, we had one bible and one prayer book, the Authorised Version or the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. If we found the words hard to understand, because they had been formed in the early 17th century and the 16th century respectively, we had to wait until they suddenly pinged from mistiness into clarity of understanding. That was always a wonderful moment: what on earth does ‘ineffable’ mean? Too holy to be spoken. I still remember the moment when I got it.
There were other versions of the bible. Then in the 1950s there was the Revised Standard Version and in the 1960s the New English Bible and so it went on: the New International Version and the Jerusalem Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible, and language after language. Many of the groups of translators met here at Westminster Abbey in the Jerusalem Chamber, just as the translators of the Authorised Version had done before its publication in 1611.
At the end of October this year, we held a special service here in the Abbey to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther published his 95 theses and launched a whirlwind of change that affected the whole of Europe and has had the widest impact around the Christian world. Happily, the service was attended by Roman Catholics and Orthodox as well as Reformed, Lutheran and Pentecostal leaders.
Before Luther, possibly without Luther, we would have had no direct personal access to the bible at all. All would have been mediated through the reading of small portions of scripture in church and the teaching of the clergy. What a blessing it is that we have immediate direct and personal access to the bible, not only in print, but via personal apps on our smart phones so that we can read it wherever we are in the world. It used to be said that the bible was the book in widest circulation in the world and the least read. So, let us take the book off the shelf and ponder it for a moment.
When I was armed with more modern translations of the bible and had a go at the original Greek, I was taught and encouraged to dissect the bible, especially the four gospels. We had to work out the various authoritative sources from which the gospels had been assembled. Then we had to look at the form in which different accounts and narratives had been written. Then we had to discover how the editor had put the whole thing together. Only later could we begin to think about the narrative itself. We spent so much time peering into the who and the how that we began to be highly suspicious of the what and the why.
Over the five decades of regular immersion since then, there has grown in me a profound respect, regard, affection and admiration for the complexity and beauty and majesty of the gospel accounts of the life, mission and ministry of Jesus as Saviour, Lord and God. The two accounts of the birth of Jesus from St Matthew’s and St Luke’s Gospels, which we have been listening to again in carol services, fill me with more than a sense of nostalgic familiarity.
Of course St Luke’s account is deeply embedded in our consciousness: the annunciation, when the angel Gabriel to Mary came, his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame; the visitation, when the child in Mary’s cousin Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy, the child who would be John the Baptist, and Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’; then in Bethlehem, Mary laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn; and then the shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, were terrified when they encountered the angel of the Lord; and they came with haste and found the babe lying in the manger. ‘And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will.’
So, the narrative is strong and powerful, but it also has profound meaning, way beyond its central message about the birth of the Saviour. Think of the shepherds. Whilst shepherds had significant status in early Israel, once the practice of agriculture had spread from Egypt and become embedded, the keeping of sheep and goats had become a task for people on the lowest rung of the social ladder. The Lord God almighty deliberately chose the weakest and lowest in society to hear first the message of the birth of God’s Son. And they responded without hesitation, gladly and willingly, going with haste to find the baby Jesus. And they returned glorifying and praising God. This instant conversion and worship contrasts strongly with the higher and highest in society, who cannot find a room for the family and fail completely to recognise the wonder in their midst. The shepherds’ response of ready recognition and joyful worship offers a challenge to us, who are so easily guarded in our response to Jesus and our commitment to him as we are to the poor.
St Mark has nothing of the birth of Jesus, beginning his gospel with the adult John the Baptist and goes instantly on to the mission of Christ. St John also has no narrative of the nativity. He goes instead straight for the meaning. What is this all about? What was going on? What does this birth mean for anyone, for us? He has perspective. He is looking back from perhaps a couple of decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus and some say a couple of decades more than that. So he has the benefit of hindsight. He knows, as of course the other evangelists know, that to believe in Jesus and to follow Jesus is at the very least a risky business. Most people are unwilling to take the risk. But he is very keen indeed to help those who read or hear his gospel to perceive Jesus for what he is and to believe and trust in him.
We heard a few moments ago how John described the real significance of this birth. The Word of God, in the beginning with God, was born into flesh, in Jesus Christ. In other words before the big bang, before the process of creation had started , the Word who was with God and who also was God, the Word by whom and in whom everything that there is came into being, became human like you and me but without ceasing to be divine. God and man came to coexist in the one person Jesus Christ. He lived among us, says John. We knew him. We have seen his glory. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
Jesus Christ, the Word of God, came to God’s people but they did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.
Throughout his Gospel St John reports that people had come to see and to believe. In the Upper Room, the risen Jesus said to doubting Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ That’s us, folks. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. I hope and pray that’s all of us.
I wish you a very Happy Christmas!