Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: ‘And the word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’

Christmas Day
25 December 2020
10.30 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

Earlier this month, I was reading an article written by the Anglican Theologian Martyn Percy

In the article, he referred to a sermon preached by Lancelot Andrews on Christmas Day 1620

Fascinated by a reference to a sermon that was delivered exactly 400 years ago, today, I set out to find a copy

I eventually I found the sermon in a book entitled “The sermons of Lancelot Andrews” Volume 1 Nativity, Lenten and Passion

Alongside John Barton’s excellent book on the Bible, this is my theological find of the year

There is indeed a 1620 sermon which largely examines the role of the wise men who journeyed to find a child in a manger

In the sermon, Lancelot Andrews describes the Christ child as “[the} Word that cannot speak”

And I asked myself why would wise men seek out something that could not speak?

And this question continued to resonate as I read the Prologue to St John’s Gospel which is the reading for Christmas Day, four hundred years later

As St John reminds us this morning “And the word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us

Lancelot Andrews is one of the great figures of the Anglican Church

He was described by T S Eliot as “having a place second to none in the history of the formation of the English Church”

His sermons as “ranking with the finest English prose of their time”

Given his mastery of the English Language it is perhaps appropriate that he was also the Bishop who oversaw the King James Bible

Something we greatly treasure today

However, it is very apparent from reading about Lancelot Andrews that the incarnation of Jesus Christ was central to his faith

For Andrews, the incarnation was not something that happened two thousand years ago

But something that is always with us whether in 1620 or 2020

For Andrews the goal of human life is to become partakers of the divine nature

Something that God enables us to do through the birth of his Son, two thousand years ago

As such, it lies at the heart of his preaching

The prologue to John’s Gospel this morning stands in stark contrast to the other Gospels

Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the physical birth of Jesus, St John’s approach is

theological and radically different

There is of course, the physical birth of Jesus Christ which largely makes up our Christmas

Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the star, the shepherds and seers

And this translates into the crib, the carols, the Christmas cards we all know and love

And, even though all three birth narratives are slightly different, it might be, simply that we have different stories making up the whole

But if we look more critically at the crib and Christmas cards, our scientific age presents us with new and intriguing problems

Who or what exactly is the word made flesh? Who or what is the Christ child?

Today we now know about genetics and DNA which throw a radically different light on the issue

We know that, genetically, a woman only has X chromosomes

Therefore, in order for a boy to be born there is the need for a Y chromosome as well

But where did this Y chromosome come from?

And what about Jesus’ DNA which would have been provided, in part, by the Y chromosome?

Unfortunately, “The Word cannot speak” about his biology

Which is why a theological approach is so important as well for Christmas Day

And why, peculiarly, words written by a Bishop 400 years ago might be so germane to our present times

In my new book, I found a sermon Andrews had preached earlier in his career

In 1611, Andrews asked himself, what does “the Word made flesh” actually mean?

First of all he focusses on “The Word” and asks what is meant by “The word” alone?

As he points out, it could be Jesus’ teaching or words written about Jesus himself

But he goes on to observe that The Word is not just temporal but “begotten of the Father”

In other words, the “The Word” is not about the here and now, it is about eternity

Jesus speaks words, not only temporal to this life, but also words that reveal the wisdom of his Father

“I and the Father are one” Jesus states in John’s Gospel (10.30)

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (6:38)

As Andrews remarks, Jesus’ mind produces such words, not through the stirring of any human passions, but because he is truly one with his Father

Andrews then discusses what might be meant by the words “was made”

He poses the question “What was it that made the Word thus?”

He displays no sleight of hand when it comes to explaining this part of the sentence

And his reply to his rhetorical question “It was God and in God nothing but love…Love only did it”

“Was made” means precisely that – that God was made truly man

In our more modern times this is given different expression

David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham describes Jesus as the “the man God chose to be”

Rowan Williams said “we can boldly and almost playfully say God has moved or changed places”

If God does playfully move places then we do not need to worry ourselves about chromosomes or DNA

The final part of the phrase “made flesh” is where Andrews’ transports us to theological heights we could never imagine

First of all he explains that “made flesh” means that he was made man in the form of an infant

Not only an infant, but an infant of lowly birth.

God did not choose high estate for his son but rather “a stable for his palace, a manger for his cradle and poor clouts for his array”

But Andrews also projects us forward to the flesh of Jesus at the end of his life

“Black and blue, bloody and swollen, rent and torn, the thorns and nails sticking in his flesh, and such flesh he was made. A great factum”

But he expands this still further by expounding that this is not just the physical flesh of our dear Lord but also the sacramental flesh and blood

His “flesh” and the sacrament are one.

As such we have the privilege of not only celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ

But also to be partakers of his flesh, at the same time, in our Holy Communion

This is obviously cruelly denied in our current pandemic

But this famine enhances the sense of longing to be partakers of the word made flesh once more at Easter

In a final flourish, Andrews points out, deliciously, that the Hebrew Word for flesh is also the same word for Good Tidings

“Glad Tidings of Great Joy” are, in another sense, “the word made flesh”

Our “Good Tidings” to one another are enmeshed with the incarnation

This has been a momentous year

We have endured a pandemic for the best part of nine months and it looks likely to extend to twelve, at least

Over 65,000 citizens in our country have died and we have seen the worst hit to our economy since World War II

We are left reeling on Christmas Day

I was listening to a discussion the other day about the impact of the virus on the world

A couple of learned professors were asked to reflect on the positive things to come out of the pandemic in 2020

A commentator remarked that the pandemic had seen “the rescue of the enlightenment”

As he put it “the status and authority of what is deemed to be true by dint of learned inquiry can still hold sway”

And so it is this morning

This morning we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ as told in the Gospels

The physical birth of our Lord – the tiny infant lying in a manger- Matthew Mark and Luke

But also the “Word made flesh” at the same time

We remember that God dwelt among us as man and child

But that that he was “eternally begotten” and “full of grace and truth” at the same time

But we also remember the profound words of Lancelot Andrews

Even though the Christ Child is the “Word that cannot speak”

Wise men sought him out

The same applies to John who, two thousand years ago, sought out the truth from the physical facts around him

And just as “the status and authority of what is deemed to be true by dint of learned inquiry then held sway

It does exactly the same today