Bishop John’s Christmas Day sermon

CHRISTMAS: THE ART OF TRANSLATION

Question: how was God to translate his life and purpose into something we could understand?

A translation company has recently launched a ‘Think before you ink’ campaign to highlight the risk of botched tattoos. They cite the example of a man who had ‘Jenius’ tattooed on his forehead – spelt with a J. Another asked for the Mandarin symbol for ‘live and let live’ but instead got one for ‘sweet and sour chicken’. And a woman used a website to translate ‘I love David’ into Hebrew but ended up with a tattoo which said ‘Babylon is the world’s leading dictionary and translation software.’

Translation isn’t risk-free. So the question again: how was God to translate his life and purpose into something we could understand? Answer: live among us as one of us. When the Brixton riots took place a group of Christians from a suburban church were talking to a local Brixton priest. ‘What can we do?’ they asked. ‘Go and live there,’ he said.

So ‘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.’

John 1, today’s gospel, has a glorious familiarity about it. I love it! It hits the button every time. This is the heart of Christmas; this is the heart of faith. And I particularly love the way the picture of Jesus, of the incarnation, emerges from the mists of the early verses. We start with the rich, enigmatic picture of the Word that was in the beginning, that was with God and was God, and through whom all things came into being. That’s quite a CV.

And then (a little more clarity coming through the mist) what came into being in him was life, life itself, nothing less. And that life was light not just for the favoured few, but for all people. That life, that light, was on its way into the world. John is saying: Can you see it, a light beginning to glow in the darkness?

And then an interlude, a release of tension, ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John, and he came as a witness to this light, not being the light himself of course, but pointing to it. Can you see it now, John says, a little more clearly as the mist evaporates? This true light, which is for everyone, is there on the horizon, coming into view right now.

And then, suddenly, ‘He was in the world,’ the one through whom the world came into being. Not everyone was at the arrivals gate; not everyone accepted him. But those who did, boy, was that good; they became children of God. And then finally, standing clear and true, all mists dispelled, John declares: ‘the Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory – ‘yes we really have!’ – full of grace and truth.’

I once went to see that great Himalayan mountain Annapurna, 26,000 ft, eighth highest in the world. We arrived at Pokhara after a hair-raising bus trip with a 12 year old driver on speed, only to find the mountain was hidden in mist and rain. I was up early the next morning and leapt to the balcony to look for Annapurna. The rain had gone, but the mist was still there and we spent the day getting trekking permits and finding sherpas, occasionally looking up hopefully to see if the mountains had appeared. Then the next morning I was up and off to the balcony again, but still no mountain – until I dared to look above the mist and clouds. And there, magnificent in the early morning sun, was the amazing peak of Annapurna. It was a heart-pounding moment. Finally I beheld its glory, this great mountain, full of grace and its own truth.

That’s how it feels to me as Jesus comes out of the Johannine mists in today’s famous gospel. Not for John the call of Mary, the misunderstanding over her pregnancy, the wretched journey to Bethlehem, the stable, the shepherds, the Magi. John is concerned with the big picture, the cosmic significance of what’s going on here. This is no small town deity pushed to the edge and trying to get a mention in the weekly newspaper. This is the God whose light has been travelling towards us from the Big Bang for 13.7 billion years at a speed 186,000 miles per second. This is a God of extraordinary scale, emerging from the mists of space-time and pouring his life and purpose into a human life, the life of Jesus bar-Joseph, carpenter from Nazareth.

One life, lived so close to God, so saturated in God, that very soon people who’d known him were saying he must have been the Son of God. No other description seemed to fit.

But this world that Jesus inhabited was as hard and fragile as it is now. Men and women were as confused and dangerous then as now. The human heart is always in need of divine surgery. As Studdert-Kennedy, the First World War chaplain, wrote, ‘the hand that rocks the cradle wrecks the world.’ As human beings our gentleness with the child we love seems only to be matched by our capacity to hurt and destroy. The evidence is in the news every day – the savage murder of Lee Rigby, the appalling violence in Syria, the merciless killings in Iraq, the daily humiliation of the Palestinians; it’s endless.

So it’s not sufficient to be moved by the magnificent vision John puts before us. The incarnation had a purpose. God’s strategy was to move in, live deep, and share everything. Jesus lived up to his elbows in human need; his life was embedded in the lumpy contours of everyday life. And there he brought healing, hope, release, forgiveness, and renewal of every kind to people often bruised and broken.

Our admiration for Nelson Mandela was because he too moved in, lived deep and shared everything with his suffering people. He wouldn’t compromise on either hope or racial dignity. He knew, as Martin Luther King said, that ‘the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.’ And with justice came kindness. He invited his gaoler to his inauguration as President. When he visited a Head of State he greeted the lady serving the tea as well as the Prime Minister. Mandela was renowned for his small acts of kindness – a sure sign of a gracious life.

Which is where we come in. ‘What can we do?’ ‘Go and live there,’ said the priest. God’s call through his Son, is to move in, live deep, and share everything. Which is why I’m really pleased to see so many churches getting involved in debt counselling, credit unions, food banks, street pastors, homeless shelters, school mentoring, walking alongside ex-prisoners and so on, as well as a million acts of kindness every day by ordinary Christians just getting on with it.

God has translated his life and purpose into something we could understand, and we do the same when we reflect his strategy of deep engagement, when our lives demonstrate that love.  God has moved in, lived deep and shared our lives. He calls us to do the same in our own sphere of life and influence, small or great. Some here today can make considerable changes in the fabric of civil society; others here can make a real difference in the life of one other person. But the call to enlist as a change-maker is to everyone, whoever we are, wherever we are.

And with or without a tattoo…

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