So today I am going to do the difficult thing of trying to ride two horses at once – and not being a circus star, I may well fall off – between this Sunday and next, the Christian Church celebrates the festival of Epiphany – its fixed for the 6th of January – it marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas – it’s the traditional time for decorations to come down and trees to be put out… Tuesday night is 12th night –
The two horses part comes because we are not there yet – and although we should wait – we won’t be here in church on Wednesday for Epiphany worship – so today, I want to stay in the season of Christmas, but lean forward into Epiphany.
And one reason for doing that is because I think there is a kind of shape to what we are doing in this part of the Christian Year – there is a sense in which, during Advent, in the weeks before Christmas, there is a kind of contraction – a narrowing, a focusing down which is going on – all of the world’s searching and waiting and wondering – what the carol calls the hopes and fears of all the years – all this is drawn and directed, is linked and connected to a set of very small and obscure events, and finally, to the birth of a tiny baby, who is wrapped in swaddling bands and laid in a manger, because there was no room at the inn. What is extraordinary and mind boggling – what is absurd and yet also, in the literal sense ‘adorable’ - is the story we tell about God becoming small, about God being born, about God coming to be with us.
This is the story which is told from a different angle in the astonishing first chapter of John’s gospel – if Luke has told us the story from below – looking up from Bethlehem’s deep and dreamless sleep – John tells it from above – looking down from the silent stars.
The passage we read from John chapter 1 - this is definitely the hardest of the horses to balance on – because it is so hard as a preacher to know how to say anything at all. These are some of the most astonishing words ever written – some of the most famous words in the English language and in many other languages – Im Anfang war das Wort, Au Commencement etait la Parole; in the Beginning was the Word – in principio erat verbum, and in the Greek language they were first written in: en arche en ho logos.
The writer of John’s Gospel does something which religiously and philosophically, theologically and spiritually displays enormous daring and imagination and inspiration – for a start, he is not just writing – he is rewriting – he takes the opening words of the Hebrew bible from Genesis 1:1 – In the beginning God… – and his rewriting is also a retranslating – in the beginning God created… + God said let there be light – what is added to Genesis by John is the Greek Word LOGOS – a word which scholars have always struggled to translate – it carries the sense of communication, but also of reason, of intelligence – the power which makes the universe intelligible and beautiful – the 16th C German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler famously defined science as ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’ – the gospel writer here takes this term which operates impersonally within Greek philosophy – as the mind or reason or intelligence which speaks through the whole of reality – takes this word and places it within his account of God – but not only places it, personalises it – identifies it with this absurd, adorable, awe inspiring story of the baby who was born to Mary. The Logos became flesh.
The Greek language gives us this identification of Jesus as the Logos, but it is when it was translated into Latin – Verbum caro factum est – the word caro is the Latin word for flesh, for meat – carne – its where our word carnivorous comes from – and more familiar to us in church, its where we get the crucial theological term – incarnation – the words we will say in a few moments in the Nicene Creed – he was incarnate of the holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary – he was enfleshed – he became truly human.
Those of you who know me, know that I don’t identity as a liberal or a progressive Christian – I believe the Creed, I believe in the Virgin Birth, I believe in the incarnation, I believe in the resurrection – Yes I am aware that we struggle within human language to express the mysteries of God – but for me there has always been a poetry and a power to the language of orthodox Christianity, which liberal theology tries to reduce to prose. Listen again:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him… what has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
These are words to make any preacher with any sense want to simply shut up and wait in wonder before them – My way of doing that is to switch horses – to move from the one called incarnation to the one called epiphany – and to move us towards the Lord’s Table and our celebration of communion by reflecting on the story we began with – the story from Matthew’s Gospel of the magi following the star.
I freely admit to loving this story of the wise men. It’s a story of longing and searching; it’s a story of travelling; but it’s also it’s a story of finding – the star stops – there is a place where the star stops – and it is over Jesus. It’s a story about the joy of finding – and it’s a story about worship.
If the weeks of Advent have been weeks of contracting and converging, focusing in on the tiny body of Mary’s son Jesus – the feast of Epiphany marks the point at which our vision and understanding begin to expand and explode – by summoning travellers from the East, wise men, logos pilgrims, those who try to think God’s thoughts after God – Matthew’s gospel invites the whole world to show up at Bethlehem – Just as Luke’s angels invite the local shepherds to walk a mile or so into the village – so Matthew’s star summons the magi to travel hundreds of miles – to come from the ends of the earth. So from the beginning, the Church has believed and taught that Jesus is born for the poor uneducated shepherds who live on the hills beside Bethlehem and Jesus is born for the wealthy intellectual strangers who live in palaces in the East –
At the birth of Jesus - Flesh and stars come together - Come looking for a scrap of newborn flesh – and you will find the Logos – come looking for the Logos and you will find a crying, puking, pooing, chuckling bundle of babyflesh.
And this is what makes Christianity and the Christian Gospel - the absurd, the adorable, the awe inspiring thing it is – it is not so much that you or I are deeply spiritual people, blessed with huge insight and sensitivity to the mystical side of life – its not that this is a religion designed for intellectuals and academics – it is that those who hanker after the stars are given flesh and those who embrace flesh are given the stars.
We sometimes sing - who is he in yonder stall – at whose feet the shepherds fall – but its not just shepherds who are drawn to the manger and who fall to their knees, its astonomers and philosophers - because the gospel is the same for all of them and for all of us –
So maybe its not so hard to ride these two horses – because from John 1 and from Matthew 2 we hear this: that God has become flesh in Jesus – and this is good news for you and for me and for all the world.
This is our first Sunday and our first Communion service of a New Year – the air is thick with resolutions, cheques are being written for gym memberships – for some of us 2016 is shiny with promise, we can hardly wait for it to unfold – for others, it holds uncertainty and threat, or it seems likely to be more of a same we are already finding hard to bear.
There are gifts of grace here for all of us this morning: there is a profound reminder of God coming to be with us – becoming flesh and living among us. With that comes a promise of life and light – a promise of newness, of grace and truth. With that also comes the challenge to us as a congregation – we are the body of Christ [communion moment – let us be for you, your body – we have to be the hands which touch people, the arms which hold people – the community which welcomes people] – we have to be a congregation of incarnation. There is no child so small, no scrap of life so precious, who is not born like Jesus, whose cry is like us all.
But we are also called to be a congregation of epiphany – a place which welcomes seekers and searchers with all their questions and doubts – but a place of faith, of joyful discovery of God’s presence – a place where people glimpse God’s glory in the face of Jesus, a place where we glimpse God’s glory and come to pour out our adoration – to give the rich things of our lives to God – gold and frankincense and myrrh.
This table is a place of incarnation and epiphany – whether you sit on this side for the common cup or this side for the little cups (and if you’re on the wrong side feel free to move during the next hymn) -
The scandal of communion – is the scandal of Christmas – is the scandal of God coming to us in flesh + blood
And it is absurd, but it is also adorable – and it is designed to shape us – so that in our flesh God’s grace may also be known and shown
Because here at this table – in what we touch and taste – we focus in and we zoom out – we marvel at the ordinariness of what we take in our hands and taste in our mouths – and we also marvel at the extraordinary – the supernatural – the spiritual connection we have with the God of the universe and the God who is with us and in us and between us – in Jesus Christ.
So come to the Lord’s Supper today to find Incarnation and epiphany
Come to meet the Christ who comes in flesh and stars.