Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Who do we think we are?

Bolton Priory
First Eucharist of Christmas 2014
Revd Simon Cowling
Hebrews 1. 1-4; John 1. 1-14

Here’s a trivia question to slip into someone’s Christmas cracker tomorrow. What do Jeremy Clarkson, Julian Clary, Nigella Lawson, and Boris Johnson have in common? The answer is that they have all appeared on the BBC genealogy series Who do you think you are. The series, now ten years old, reflects the continuing interest many of us have in our ancestors, our excitement at the prospect of finding something, or someone, racy amongst our forebears – though some may think that the people I’ve mentioned are quite racy enough.

But then, knowing where you come from has always been important. Scattered throughout various chapters of various books in the Old Testament you’ll find long genealogies. They don’t necessarily make particularly inspiring reading for us, it has to be said; but the writers who so carefully drew up the lists of names did so for a reason that was definitely intended to inspire. They wanted to remind the people of God that their relationship with God, and God’s relationship with them, could be traced back though the lives and experiences of particular individuals who had names, who had families and who bore witness to the continuing faithfulness of God to his people.

Given this Old Testament tradition, it’s not surprising that all four of the Gospel writers are interested in Jesus’s origins. In Mark’s case, admittedly, the interest is rather perfunctory. He simply notes that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee. Matthew and Luke have rather more detail.  They both include extensive genealogies for Jesus in their early chapters (though they are not often read in church): Matthew’s genealogy has forty one names, Luke’s has seventy six. And of course it’s through Matthew and Luke that we learn about Jesus’s birth, about Gabriel, Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem, a manger, shepherds, an angelic choir, a star and some wise men – all familiar features of Christmas.

And in tonight’s Gospel reading we hear St John pushing his account of Jesus’s origins back to before the beginning of time itself. Before anything else had been created Jesus, whom John describes as God’s Word, already existed with God. In fact, Jesus was not only with God, Jesus was God.  John goes on to press home the implications of this profound truth: that it is in and through Jesus that everything and everyone else has come into being. This is John’s answer to the question: Who do you think you are? He, and we, have Jesus as our ancestor.

Of course as well as being about origins, Christmas is about new beginnings. After all, what is newer than a new born child?  The importance of the opening words of St John’s Gospel is that they remind us that the birth of Christ is both a new beginning and the revealing of the origin of all things, the revealing of what has been eternally true: that Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Word, exists before all time, and that, in Jesus, God has loved us before all time. The birth in Bethlehem marks the point at which our time and God’s eternity intersect.

So the new beginning that Jesus’s birth signifies is the culmination of God’s loving purposes for the world. In former times, as we have heard in our first reading, these purposes were mediated through God’s prophets. But in the birth of Jesus there is a stepping beyond these traditional boundaries, these inherited patterns of faith. Jesus’s birth frees us to develop a more mature relationship with God. John is referring to this in tonight’s Gospel: the Jewish Law came through Moses, but through Jesus Christ have come grace and truth. Jesus, in his very person, embodies those qualities. Jesus makes God the Father known to us, and we can begin our relationship afresh with God knowing that in Jesus we are secure –  both in our origins and in our destiny.

God and sinners reconciled. When we sing that line of Charles Wesley’s great Christmas hymn, as we shall tonight, we need to remind ourselves how often we fall short of our commitment to live, to embody this reconciliation – in our family and personal relationships, in our relationships within and beyond the church, and in our relationship with God.  But our readings tonight, with their assurance of God’s loving purposes for us from eternity, give us courage and confidence to express once again our hope and trust in the reconciling power of God in Christ; and to pray once again that, like John the Baptist, we shall be given the grace and strength to bear witness to him in our lives – through what we say and what we are.

This won’t always be comfortable; though, pray God, it will not be for us as it was for Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. He bore witness as a servant of Christ on behalf of the poor and dispossessed through what he said and what he was – and was murdered by the rich and powerful because of it. These words of his express eloquently what it might mean to take the Christmas story seriously, and they challenge us to do so. As we listen, we thank God for the gift of his Son that we celebrate on this holy night; and we pray that as individuals and as a church that we may be worthy, both of God’s blessings and of his eternal promises.

Christ became a man of his people and of his time: He lived as a Jew, he worked as a labourer of Nazareth, and since then he continues to become incarnate in everyone. If many have distanced themselves from the church, it is precisely because the church has somewhat estranged itself from humanity. But a church that can feel as its own all that is human and wants to incarnate the pain, the hope, the affliction of all who suffer and feel joy; such a church will be Christ loved and awaited, Christ present. And that depends on us.