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The desert shall blossom like the rose

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Isaiah 52.7-10, John 1.1-14 Sermon Christmas Eve 2019

The opening words of tonight’s gospel are from John the evangelist, our John, as I like to call him. They echo the very first words in the bible, ‘In the beginning…’ where a lyrical description of how God created the universe follows. The power of God’s word stands out; he simply speaks and it happens…the earth, the sea, human beings…, and now John announces that most powerful of God’s words; his very self in Jesus Christ; that perfect expression of who God is…the Word has arrived.

Words are indeed powerful. The saying ‘Sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words can never harm me’ is simply not true. Words stick, especially ones that are negative, and we human beings are usually better at remembering those than the more positive ones. Before I went to Sweden I was talking with someone who had gone to the same church college a few years before and who, though, encouraging me, also remembered being homesick. ‘The homesickness was visceral’, he said. Those words stuck with me, especially the word ‘visceral’. During my first month in Sweden, if I was feeling a bit under the weather I would think, ‘Oh no, is this the start of visceral homesickness?!’

Spoken words are powerful, and Jesus is God’s spoken word, but written words also have power and it wasn’t long before those early disciples decided that those words about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection must be written down. Before this they would have talked about Jesus, and those memories of him, especially of his death and resurrection, gave them courage and hope during times of hardship. Do you remember when he healed Jairus’ daughter? Do you remember the huge catch of fish? His words on the cross? Mary seeing him in the garden? It’s through the written word that we so often encounter Jesus the living word. Those words we hear tonight from our scriptures speak about peace, about light shining in the darkness, about a God who comes to live next door to us. We need to feed on those words when more negative words gnaw away at us (like ‘visceral homesickness!).

On one of those exceedingly wet days we were having before Christmas I was sitting at a bus stop with 2 other women, all of us with bags of shopping, effortlessly weaving together one of those dreary conversations about the state of the weather, crowded shops, just missing the bus…one of the women was standing and suddenly the expression on her face changed, a distant look came over her, and she said, ‘it’s all too much, all this (waving her arm)’… Her face softened…’years ago we were in the desert..the desert’, she repeated (and I sensed this was in a similar category to visceral homesickness). ‘It was Christmas and we were in the desert; our first Christmas away from home. The others were nearly all single, many of them Americans. What would we do? I remembered carol singing at home, I asked around and soon there was a group of us and someone said we could ask for donations for an orphanage they knew about in the next village. So we went round singing carols, the words all so familiar, so homey somehow, and we raised a good amount for the orphanage and then I said, Come back to our place for some eats and they did and we sang again…and that was one of my best Christmasses ever’.

The two of us sitting were caught up in this word picture she was drawing (in fact, I nearly missed the next bus!) and, speaking for myself, I was no longer so conscious of the rain, the shopping and ‘all this’ (waving my arm). I was hearing what I would call a gospel memory, put into words that, as John would put it, shine in the darkness.

Christmas resounds with gospel memories. New words are spoken into places where negative words have been holding sway. Listen to these negative messages; ‘We’re too old’ – Zechariah and Elizabeth when they’re told that they will have a son. ‘You can’t marry her’, Joseph on discovering that Mary is pregnant. ‘There’s no room’, when Joseph and Mary are seeking somewhere to stay and for Jesus to be born. ‘You can’t leave the sheep’ (what some of us might have wanted to say to the shepherds). Now there are new words; ‘with God all things are possible’ (Luke 1.37), Immanuel, ‘God with us’, ‘Peace on earth’, challenging all those old messages.

The other evening we watched the film ‘Paddington’ again. Very enjoyable! One of Paddington’s characteristics is that he always tells the truth (the result of a strict upbringing by his aunt Lucy!), even when what he says can sound very unlikely, such as something looking like an elephant dropping in through the skylight while he was in the house on his own (the baddie in the story of course). Gradually the Brown family realise that he really does always speak the truth and learn to trust and accept him.

I wonder how often we think to ourselves ‘I wonder where the truth lies’ when hearing a report of something that has happened, or listening to what one or other political party is promising to do. Might their words just be telling us what they think we want to hear? Supposed truth can so often be more to do with expediency or a desire for popularity or worse still, used as a smoke screen, than as a description of reality.

Our John and the other evangelists wrote down what Jesus had said and done to convey the truth about him, and to give us words with which to challenge all those negatives in our world – what he calls darkness. John doesn’t say that the darkness disappears with Jesus’ arrival; he says Jesus the light shines and the darkness can’t overcome it. The darkness can’t overcome it because we’re dealing with solid truth, the truth out of which the universe was spoken into being, the truth embodied in Jesus Christ (whom we have seen, John says, in verse 14), God with us, ‘full of grace and truth’.

Because the accounts of Jesus’ birth include angels, dreams, babies, (2, counting John Baptist), a manger, a star and mysterious visitors from the East we can too easily hear them simply as stories, and good ones at that, and then not sit with them long enough to see and hear the truth being expressed through them. They ring out with joy (especially Luke’s gospel), light (John) and presence (Matthew). Together they open a window on God’s glory seen in a person, like one of us, an actual historical person, not a fictional super hero. The darkness in the world may continue as before – wars, betrayals, lies and so on, but the truth about us is plain for us all to see in Jesus. He has baptised our humanity, if you like; like him we are beloved, God delights in us, longs for us to share that bubbling joy, to cling to his goodness, to trust in it. The invitation is always there. And when the enemy of human nature whispers words like ‘visceral homesickness’, or ‘desert’, or ‘its hopeless’, or ‘you’ve failed again’ – whatever are his weasel words to you – we can come back with some of those words we hear in our Christmas gospel – God is with us (Immanuel), Do not be afraid (words to Mary and the shepherds), I bring you good news of great joy.

Mother Julian puts it like this;

It is God’s will that we should rejoice with him in our salvation and that we should be cheered and strengthened by it…He loves us and enjoys us, and so he wills that we love him and enjoy him, and firmly trust him; and all shall be well’.

May we know that more and more in the core of our being.                 Christine Bainbridge