Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for Christmas Day (25th December 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

The Prologue to John’s Gospel may seem a strange choice for the Christmas Gospel, although it is a familiar reading. Mary and Joseph do not appear, there are no shepherds watching their flocks, or washing their socks, and there is not even an ox or ass deprived of their supper by the surprising arrival of a baby boy in their manger.

Yet this passage from John is indeed an appropriate reading for Christmas, as it captures the heart and meaning of the Christmas story in a nutshell. John explains that God’s eternal Word is coming down to earth to take on human flesh. God has been at work in human affairs before, through judges, kings and prophets, but now he is becoming more personally involved, as the very Word of God takes on human form and dwells with us on earth. The Greek word translated “dwelt” (εσκηνωσεν) means literally “put up his tent”. This is not a cursory call.  The visitor has come to stay!

Why has God come to us in Jesus? The world has fallen into darkness and needs light! So God has come to provide that light. “The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Jesus is the light of the world, a light to enlighten our paths and bring hope to those in the darkness of misery and despair.

It is indeed to us that God has come in Jesus. Even though many people, even those close to him, did not recognise in Jesus what God was doing, John explains that all those who do recognise and receive Jesus are invited to become God’s own children.

This gift was brought to us by Jesus not only in a manger long ago. It is also brought to us today. John does not go into the details of the story of the birth of the baby in Bethlehem because he is more interested in our birth, our new birth as children of God. So perhaps we should celebrate Christmas as our own birthday as well as the birthday of baby Jesus.

This insight came to me not from profound spiritual reading but from a conversation with a Spanish boy some years ago after a school carol service. “My birthday is on 25th December,” he told me proudly. “25th December is three things,” he said, “It is my birthday, it is Jesus’ birthday, and it is the Three Kings.” I raised my eyebrows at this and his mother quickly interposed to say that they both knew that the Three Kings really come on 6th January. That is when Spanish children receive their presents. Earlier the boy’s father had told me that he has to provide Christmas presents for his son on both 25th December and 6th January, so I suspect that the boy’s comment revealed guile rather than naivete. Yet I am grateful to him for his introductory remark. “My birthday is on 25th December.” So indeed it is for all of us Christians as we celebrate our new birth as children of God made possible by the coming into our world of the eternal Word of God born for us in Bethlehem. Happy Birthday, one and all!

Because Jesus has taken on human flesh we are able to know in him the unknowable God. As John writes later in the prologue, “no one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who has made him known.” We are able to recognise ourselves as God’s beloved children. This is God’s Christmas present to us: a new identity, a new opportunity, a new humanity, all made possible through God in Christ. This Christmas present is one for us to enjoy today and indeed to savour all through the year.

John’s beautiful prologue is a reflection upon the creative Word of God. This Word created in the beginning, created again when Jesus put up his tent on earth, and still creates when anyone receives Jesus in faith. We are the beneficiaries of this creative power. Sometimes we may wonder whether we can make a significant contribution, weak and frail as we may think ourselves to be, but that is to see ourselves in isolation, which is something that God never does. For him all followers of Christ are members of his one Body, and together they help and sustain and complement one another. 

We may think that we have little to contribute to the worldwide praise of God, but actually we form part of the universal praise orchestra that is the church of God. The little old lady who lights her candle in a run-down country church, or the Cardinal who dons glorious vestments for Mass in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the young man who endures a grim life in prison simply because of his Christian faith, or the little Spanish boy who says, “My birthday is on 25th December”, or you and me who have come to join in this celebration, all of these are playing their part, our part, in the Christian orchestra of praise. 

God hears all our notes, pianissimo or fortissimo, and he smiles at our expressions of gratitude, sometimes faltering and sometimes enthusiastic. “Behold, it is very good,” God says, as he has a fondness for the English of the Authorised Version of the Bible. He turns to his attendant angels, “Won’t it be wonderful when they arrive up here and discover that we are all a happy family, celebrating for ever, with all the presents already given!” Happy Christmas! Happy Birthday! Thank God!