A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 52:7-10

John 1:1-14

I can’t hear or read the opening words of today’s Gospel without being deeply moved. They trigger an almost visceral response in me. “In the beginning was the Word …” I’ve read the passage many hundreds of times, studied the text, spent time meditating on it, sitting with it, absorbing it – and it speaks to me every time. There is the link with the opening words of the Bible in Genesis chapter 1, that incredible poem of praise to God about creation with its repeated echoing phrases – “God made, and God saw that it was good.” But it’s more than that. There’s the poetry, the repetition of words and ideas – the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God. There’s the idea of life and light which shines in the darkness, and the absolute certainty that the darkness did not overcome it. And then, the last sentence of today’s reading: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

How much there is contained in these few verses. And how we need to hear the words, the sentiments expressed there – today as much as ever. It has been a dark and frightening year for the world. A year ago few of us had heard of coronavirus, let alone Covid-19. Few of us could have predicted that travel would be instantly stopped; that the mighty cruise ships would be seen as petri dishes for a deadly virus; that supermarkets would be stripped of toilet paper in the panic-buying that so belittled each one of us; that a whole state, a whole country, continents even, would go into lock-down. Shattered dreams, job losses, separation of families, isolation and loneliness, nasal swabs and anxious waits for the Covid-negative text are all part of the darkness.  The on-again, off-again rules and numbers and masks and hand sanitiser. The flattening curve, the 2nd and then 3rd wave, the mounting infection and death rates – terrifying figures, and behind every one of them an individual and their loved ones.

And, of course, the heroes. The leaders of government at all levels, briefed by the scientists and medical people, having to make tough decisions which will affect us all for decades to come. The incredible bravery and sheer hard work of the nurses, the doctors, the ambulance drivers, the morticians who face this darkness head on.

And then there is Christmas! The parties for some, the empty seats at the table for others, the zooming together, and the polite nod or elbow bump instead of the longed-for hug and kiss. And Christmas carols. How lucky we are here in South Australia to be among the few in the world able to sing carols together, when just a few weeks ago it looked as if that would not be possible. This year I invite you to go beyond the familiar tune and opening line and notice the words you are singing.

Songs, psalms, hymns and carols have always been one of the principal ways in which Christian people have communicated the Gospel. In almost every carol there is to be found an invitation of sorts, a pithy statement or two containing deep truths about God and Jesus, and a suggestion of some action to be taken.

O come all ye faithful” continues to be one of the most popular and I can’t really imagine a Christmas without singing it. In just a few words verse 2 captures the essence of the Christmas message: God of God, Light of Light, Very God, Begotten, not created. Incredible. How to comprehend the full meaning of those statements? And to think that this God, this Light, became a human being, fragile, vulnerable, needing to be cradled in his mother’s arms. O come, let us adore Him!

My father always swore he could not sing, yet I have fond memories of him, along with the rest of the congregation, belting out the chorus of “Hark! The herald angels sing”. Wonderful words too in the verses, full of poignancy and deep meaning. Peace, mercy, sinners reconciled. And a little later: veiled in flesh the Godhead see. And then the repeated phrase in the last verse (and don’t allow yourself to get sidetracked in the language of yesteryear):

Born that man no more may die,  

Born to raise the sons of earth,

Born to give them second birth.

Here is the Gospel, the light shining into the darkness. Glory indeed, to the new-born King.

The more we look at the words of carols the deeper we are taken into the mystery of God, and marvel at the wonder, almost absurdity, of the message of the carols. Can the ‘hopes and fears of all the years’, even this year, really ‘be met in thee tonight’? Can we take comfort that ‘while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love’? “O little town of Bethlehem” ends with an impassioned and heartfelt cry to God, ‘O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.’

But this year I think my favourite carol, and the one I’d like to leave you with, is a short poem written by Tasmanian poet Clive Sansom. Addressed to the Lady, Mary the mother of Jesus, Bob Chilcott’s music has ensured a place for this carol in many Christmas services around the world.  Referencing a star larger than Venus the gentle shepherds come to the manger leaving us with these words in the final verse.

And so we have come, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Our love, our hopes, ourselves,
We give to your son.

Perhaps, just perhaps, as this extraordinary dark year draws towards its close, we too can bring our love, our hopes, ourselves and lay them as gifts before the one who is the Word, the Life and the Light of the world.