Christmas Midnight 2009
I am about to preach a sermon. The word “preach” comes from a Latin word meaning “to proclaim”. “Sermon” is also Latin and it means “word”. So I am about to proclaim the word.
I love words. I love to play with them, to build them up into great sandcastles, or perhaps word-castles. I love to let them trickle through my fingers or my brain. I love the feel of words.
Words are things which only humans have. Animals can talk to each other with great expression and feeling, but only humans actually make words. They have been making words for hundreds of thousands of years. Millions and billions of words.
In the book of Genesis, when God created the world, all the animals were brought to Adam so that he could name them – he gave each one a word – elephants and tigers, snails and worms, eagles and ducks – each one had a word to be its name.
Also in the book of Genesis, when humans were trying to build a tower up to heaven, we are told that God gave each one a different language, a different set of words, so that they were no longer able to understand each other. Trillions of words for humans to puzzle over and to argue about.
And, of course, humans started using all these words to talk about God. According to Muslim tradition, God has ninety nine names known to humans. All these names, and more, and to this very day we are no nearer to a true understanding of God. It is said that only the camel knows the true name of God and so far they have not shared it with us.
The Jews, very wisely, refuse to say any name for God. They use four letters, YHWH, as the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush. YHWH cannot be pronounced so that no one can use God’s name lightly or foolishly. The Jews, again wisely, refuse to try and capture the being of God in a single word.
The Bible, which Christians believe to be the revelation of God, contains 181,253 words. It was written by a hundred or so different people in at least four different languages, but even the Bible cannot fully describe God or even God’s plan for the world.
The Bible is inspired by God and God caused it to be written, but it is written in human language by humans. It is translated by humans, read by humans and interpreted by humans. 181,000 human words to reveal God to the world – you might think this is enough, but God thinks otherwise. God’s love for the world is so great that words are not enough.
There is only one way for the fullness of God to be revealed in a way that human beings could understand, and that is for God to show God’s true self as a human being. Every person in the world has had some experience of being human. We have been hungry, thirsty, tired and bored. We have been greedy, thoughtless, selfish and careless. We have been generous, kindly, loving and giving. The human experience includes knowing what it is like to have fingers and toes, what it is like to have arms and legs, eyes and ears. the pleasures of the body, like eating and sex, the pleasures of the mind like thinking and talking and being in love.
These are the ways that God seeks to reach us, through anger and fear, weakness and strength, loving and grieving and, of course, living and dying.
Jesus, in his earthly life, was a great preacher and teacher, one who could draw five thousand people away from their villages and keep them spellbound until night began to fall. Some of that preaching and teaching has been recorded for us in the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Sermon on the mount, the Beatitudes, the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John are three of the most wonderful passages of writing in the world along with St Paul’s sermon on love in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, which we hear at many weddings.
I love words, as I have said, but I remember and worship what Jesus did, and what he was and what he is more than I remember what he said. Words cannot feed the hungry or heal the sick. It was Jesus’ touch which made the blind see and raised the dead to life. Jesus certainly used words for example, when he took a dead girl’s hand and said, “Talitha cum.” which means, “Little girl, get up.” but it was his touch of the dead girl, so horrifying to the Pharisees, which restored the girl to life.
And no words could possibly do what Jesus achieved by dying on the cross. Death is the last barrier we come to as human beings. Only a fully human Christ could turn the barrier of death into a doorway to life, giving us the best good news, the best Gospel, we can possibly receive
St Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.” There’s a Godly truth in that saying.
God did not use words, instead he sent his Word with a capital W, God’s Word in human form, to live our life with us to the end and beyond. Tonight we celebrate the beginning of life. On this night we proclaim that Jesus begins his life as a human being, born like one of us of a human mother. Tonight we the beginning of our lives as children of God.