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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: Actions have consequences
Date/time/service: Sunday Christmas 1 – St John the Evangelist 2020
Passage of scripture: 1 John 1 & John 21.19b-end
When I was a parish priest I always made a point of celebrating communion on the three days after Christmas. Often only one or two people came and occasionally nobody came so I had to say the service without consecrating the bread and wine, but I didn’t mind. I believe the reason these services are important is because they ground the great Christmas Story in reality. Boxing Day, as the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ reminds us, is also the Feast of Stephen. The day we remember the first person to be persecuted and killed for following the baby in the manger. Today, 27th December, we remember St John the Evangelist, the author of the 4th gospel who does not even find room in his writing to tell us the story of the birth of Jesus but launches straight in to the meaning and significance of the incarnation. Tomorrow we remember the Holy Innocents, when we honour all the children killed by Herod and wrestle with the problem of evil in a world where God is incarnate. I think it helps to be reminded that the great Christmas story is not only true but has consequences – the Church helps us in the three days following Christmas Day to face those consequences.
So, today is the Feast of St John the Evangelist who does not write a report or a history of the life of Jesus – he knows that if he is to come anywhere near conveying something of the truth of who Jesus was and is he will have to use metaphor and talk about Signs. John uses poetry and stories to try and delve into the truth and significance of who Jesus truly is – so, probably in his old age, he wrote the most profound, the most theologically challenging, the most complex and the most beautiful gospel. John provokes us to see, or at least glimpse that the action of God in giving us Jesus is so significant, so earth-shatteringly powerful and important that it would be an outrage to only ever think of his birth as a nice little story to be remembered once a year, to be an excuse for a bit of a party, it would perhaps be the biggest blasphemy to leave Jesus, in our memories and in our understanding, as a little baby in a manger, and so, like Mark, John does not even tell us the story of his birth. The gathering sentence at the beginning of Midnight Mass refers to Jesus as,
‘Great little one whose all-embracing birth brings earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth’.
John forces us to wrestle with the complexities, contradictions and challenges of the incarnation. He is saying – don’t just think about the action of God – think about the consequences.
In the first reading from the first epistle attributed to John we are told that God is light and that in God there is no darkness. We are called to walk in the light. In the gospel reading we are told that if everything Jesus did was to be written down, there would not be room in the world for all the books that would be written. For John, it seems, Jesus is the one who turns the light on, so that the truth of God is revealed and we are able to live life to the full. Or as John puts it, live life abundantly.
All the miracles, or signs, John records, tell stories of how life has gone wrong, a wedding reception when the wine runs out, a child at the point of death, a man who is blind, people far from home with nothing to eat, people caught in a storm. On each occasion Jesus steps in to turn things around, to transform the situation, so he provides plenty of excellent wine for the wedding reception, he heals the sick child, he enables the blind man to see, he feeds the hungry crowd and he walks across the raging sea to comfort those frightened by the storm. These stories are told not that we should be awestruck by the miraculous happenings themselves, but that we should be encouraged that Jesus can help people live life as it should be lived. Jesus says, in John 10v10 ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ For Jesus, life is never something that should simply be got through, he wants people to thrive, to excel, to experience life abundantly, that’s why he doesn’t provide just enough wine for the wedding reception, but gallons of the stuff, and when the 5,000 are fed there is heaps of food left over – John’s message is clear – there is reckless generosity at the heart of God providing opportunities for people to live life to the full.
For John the source of transformation and abundance we see in Jesus is nothing otherworldly of exclusively divine, it is simply love. In 1 John 4v16 John tells us, ‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.’ So John makes it clear that transformation and abundance are not the exclusive preserve of Jesus. We all have the ability to love so we all have the ability to help enable other people to have life and have it abundantly.
One of the privileges of my job is to talk with couples as they prepare for marriage. One of the things I say to them is that, through their marriage and the love which is at its heart, they should help each other live their lives to the full and help each other realise their potential so that, by the time they are old, wrinkled and wobbly, they will each be the best people they can be because the love of their spouse has set them free to live life and live it abundantly. In fact I often quote a line from a song by Sting which could have been written by St John the Evangelist, ‘If you love someone, set them free.’ Many of the ‘signs’ in John’s gospel and much of the teaching of Jesus he records are about liberation, being set free to live life and live it more abundantly.
On this day we give thanks for the wisdom and insights given us by John in his writing. Of course, most of his writing centres on Jesus but in truth, John’s writing is not about Jesus, it is about God. As the theologian John Fenton says, in John’s writing Jesus ‘is the Word of God, the Son of the Father, the agent, the messenger and apostle of another. John’s gospel is not Christo-centric, but theocentric.’ It’s all about God, it’s all about being drawn into the creativity of God, the light of God, the love of God, the very life of God.
Jesus, our master, meet us while we walk in the way, and long to reach the heavenly country; so that, following your light we may keep the way of righteousness, and never wander away into the darkness of this world’s night, while you, who are the Way, the Truth, and the Life, are shining within us; for your own name’s sake. Amen
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