St Johns and St Stephens Church, Reading, 3rd January 2016
All-in-one Christmas, Epiphany and New Year
Jeremiah 31:7-14, John 1:1-18
There has been a bit of liturgical confusion about today. I’m almost certain that statement has got everyone’s pulses racing, so let me explain. The liturgical rota gives today as Epiphany, but it’s not – that’s on January 6th. It’s actually the second Sunday of Christmas. Great stuff, eh? But let’s pull 3 things together here: Christmas, Epiphany, and the New Year and see where we get to. The thing about having an annual cycle of readings, liturgy and prayers – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, Creation and Kingdom is that it spreads the story of our faith across the whole year and then repeats it. The story at the heart of our Christian community is so big that you really can’t do it justice in one go.
We, as Christians, are people of a particular story. Our faith isn’t a set of principles or rules: do this, don’t do that and so on although there are principles. No, that’s not the heart of it. We don’t dress differently or look different. We aren’t immune from pain, suffering or disappointment. No, what we have, like treasure, like pure gold, like a pearl of great price, like shining light, like music, is what we heard in our gospel reading this morning, so familiar we may not even have heard it properly: ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it…..And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory…from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace’ (Jn 1:4,5,14,16).
Does that touch you? Does that move you? There is the Christmas message, the reality of the baby in the manger as seen by John as he tried to make sense of three years of sharing his life with Jesus bar Joseph, called the Christ. But what touches me even more, are the opening words of the first letter of John. We don’t read that much but get a load of this: ‘We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.’ (1 Jn 1:1-5) Don’t you love it? John saw, heard, touched – Him; and had an epiphany, a light bulb moment, that this man whom he followed and came to love, was Himself the word of life, the eternal Son of God.
The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon is reputed to have said that the first thing you need after hearing the gospel, is oxygen. He was right! This gospel that we hold, that we share between us, that has been given freely and without condition is one of astounding generosity, of amazing grace, of deepest love. It is not some harsh, punitive, judgmental, shouty diktat thrown down from heaven for us to get on with do the best we can. No, it is a life that is given us, God revealed in a single human life of extraordinary dimensions. A life that at every step showed what God is really like. A life that accepted the weak and sinful, that healed the sick, that welcomed the wayward, that made whole the broken, that embraced the repellent; that also was no stranger to injustice, pain, and suffering but yet had a power that could vanquish even that final enemy, death. That is our faith, that is what sets us apart: we affirm the truth of it, we hold it, we celebrate it, we set it as the gem on the ring on our finger.
It changes everything and it touches everything. We are not alone. That life, lived out on earth is our inspiration and our hope. At the beginning of 2016, we are very aware of fear and danger in the world. Actually, that has always been the case but it does seem quite acute at the moment with millions of refugees pouring across international borders, international terrorism and the awful threat of climate disaster. It is very easy to get dragged down, to lose hope. Let’s not! The people of the Central Africa Republic have been going through appalling trauma in the last couple of years as the Christian and Muslim communities have been tearing each other apart. In October Pope Francis insisted on visiting the war-torn country, telling his minders that if they didn’t let him go he would open the door of the aircraft and jump out! He did go, visiting mosques and churches and giving a message of reconciliation and hope. What a fantastic, brave act! Francis was drawing richly on his Christian heritage, on this reality we share with him and found hope, found inspiration to go and do something extraordinary. Perhaps we could find the same thing?
Moving from the global to the personal, many of us are facing our own difficulties – they might be to do with work or lack of work, with relationships, with children or elderly parents, with illness, with loss of our faculties, with depression, with bereavement or any number of things. They can crowd our lives and drag us down and can lead us to unwise words, actions or decisions. I’m not foolish enough to say, ‘Believe in Jesus and it’ll all work out fine’ because while it may work out that way, it may equally well not, either. No, but what I am saying is that here is something that gives us hope. We come together every week to remember, celebrate and enter into the reality that is Christ, Christ present here between us and in us, present in the words of scripture, present in the prayers, present in the bread and wine, present in a reality that reaches right to our hearts. When we can’t do it ourselves, we reach out to our sisters and brothers and ask for their help, to pray and stand alongside.
It is very good to remind ourselves of all of this as we stand at the beginning of another year, not-quite-Christmas and not-quite-Epiphany. Do you know what Epiphany is? It’s the festival on the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th and it honours the moment when the three kings brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus and we hold it as the celebration of the revealing of Jesus to the Gentiles, to non-Jews. It’s also known as the season of light, for this story we hold is like a light, it shines out in darkness. And epiphanies are moments when something suddenly becomes crystal clear to us, when it jumps through our minds and lands in our hearts. Let this Christmas truth, the giving of Christ to humanity – that is, to us – fall into our hearts, fill us with joy and hope and give us strength for whatever the new year brings.