The glory of the Lord
St Mary's Church, Christmas Day 2005
Hebrews 1: 1-4; John 1: 1-14
Famous, famous words sung by every self-respecting choral society over the past month or so, and read in every church either in their carol service or at some point in Advent; words of promise that the prophet Isaiah proclaimed to the exiled Israelites as they looked for comfort and relief in Babylon.
Words echoed in the song of the Angels in that mysterious vision of the shepherds on the hillside above Bethlehem as the birth of Jesus is proclaimed. I have said it before, and I shall say it boringly often: context is everything. The Gospel writers do not quote the prophets just for fun. It's not a sort of random exercise of each choosing their favourite texts for the week, and shoving them in as they think fit. Nor is it a question of believing that Isaiah and Micah and Malachi and the rest had sort of magic insight into the forthcoming birth of Jesus (4,5, 600 years later). What the Gospel writers knew was that they had to record an event, the Jesus event, that had fundamentally transformed the lives of those who had been touched by it. The world was a different place, it had new meaning, they believed in their context that God's promise had been fulfilled. And they knew their scriptures. They knew that when God's people had last seemed abandoned, punished and without hope, deserted by their God, Isaiah and others brought powerful messages of liberation, restoration and fulfilment. In other words the prophets offered the vision of the glory of God (understood as the revelation of his promise to his people being finally fulfilled) amidst the lostness, the hopelessness, the faithlessness of the human condition.
Echoes of hope and expectation
So, 'Glory be to God on high, and in earth peace, goodwill to all men' (or all people actually!) is by no means just a random hymn of praise for the shepherds to hear and jump for joy at, alongside subsequent generations of Christian people as we celebrate the Eucharist each week, but is actually a very focussed and specific echo of Isaiah's words of hope and expectation proclaimed to an lost and oppressed people. As with so much of our faith and devotion, centuries of over-useage have domesticated revolutionary words and removed their sting. They have become, to hark back to my sermon last Sunday evening, the epitomy of decent, upright Christian people doing what's best Sunday by Sunday.
But that is not their context. Imagine – it doesn't take much imagining because Margaret Tarrant and others have painted wonderful pictures to feed our imagination – imagine the multitude of the heavenly host appearing with the angel, singing Charpentier's Gloria (for I am quite sure that it must have been Charpentier). Well, would it really only have been that strange and wild bunch of rogues out on the hillside, who would more likely have been fantasising about Kylie or Abba or something than about heavenly choirs, who would have been the recipients of this life-changing message in 16 part harmony? Of course not; but the glory of the Lord is revealed not to those who have no need of it, those who are already decent upstanding citizens who go to church each Sunday, assured of their saved status. The glory of the Lord – the fulfilment of God's extraordinary promise, the assurance of hope and salvation, is made known to precisely those who know nothing about it, those who have lost hope, those who have fallen far short of what God requires of them and know it. And that glory is not just revealed in a sort of magic show of the Northern Lights, but they, those petty criminals, drop-outs, rough sleepers – whoever they are – are invited, are prompted, irresistably, to run from the reality of the place of being outcast to the place where salvation is born. And what do they find? Not a king on a throne. Not a wealthy potentate in a palace of jewels that they dare not come near. They find that salvation is born in the midst of them, just there, round the corner, in an outhouse, surrounded by smelly animals and rotting straw. Just the place they themselves might find refuge on a bleak midwinter's night. 'Now there's glory' as Humpty Dumpty was heard to exclaim. The majesty of God's power, the majesty of God's love, the majesty of God's 'Yes' to us as we are, who we are, where we are.
Born into human frailty
That is a hard message for me to preach; it may be a hard message for you to hear. I know all about human frailty. So, in your hearts do you. Of that I am sure. But the joy, the hope and the promise of That revelation of God's glory, of this celebration this morning, is that, you and I, as we are have received God's invitation, and it is to the party that is right here because God has come to us.
Now you may think that I have taken this sermon out of a cupboard somewhere, and didn't check the readings before I did so. But that would be wrong. I knew well what the Gospel reading this morning would be; and one of the basic disciplines I always try to work with in biblical reflection is to allow for the integrity of each Gospel and not to shoehorn bits of the story in one into the narrative of another. To do so undermines each writer's aims and objectives. But you know well that John's Gospel is significantly different from the other three. It is often referred to as the theological Gospel -a bit insulting to the others, since they too are just as much studies in theology; but John sets out to be primarily reflective rather than simply retelling the story. And it would not be far from the truth to say that at the heart of his reflection is the word glory.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son”. This community for whom John is writing knows the story, has seen the glory revealed, so John then uses different parts of the story as a teaching aid to open up for his disciples a fuller understanding of the glory that has been revealed right up to the foot of the cross, where for John the final victory of God over the powers of this world is made clear. So I simply want to invite you to reflect today on that theme of God's glory revealed to the shepherds and their kindred down the ages, and to ask yourselves, 'Is that the glory that we have seen? Is that the glory in which we believe? Must we place our hands, with Thomas, in Jesus' side in order that we may believe?' But remember Jesus' final words 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.'
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