|12:00pm||Doors open for sightseeing|
|4:00pm||Last entry for sightseeing|
Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Christmas (5 January 2014) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
Ephesians 1: 3-14 John 1: 10-18
One might be excused for thinking that there is no romance in the Christian faith. Conduct a vox pop in the street about people’s perceptions of the faith and sensuality is unlikely to be one of the qualities offered as an indicator of religious experience.
Which seems odd given that Christmas is a celebration of flesh and blood, of humanity and vulnerability, of earth and material: of a child who sees the lined and anxious face of his father; tastes his mother’s milk; hears the bleating of sheep; smells cow dung; and touches kingly robes. Here are the five senses alive and enthroned in a manger.
The Christian faith is alive to sensuality like no other religion or philosophy. But sensuality is dangerous because it’s so difficult to contain its romance and its exuberance, its poetry and its dance-like rhythms, its large-scale canvases and its tendency to sing.
With the result that I sometimes think that we have placed God back into the tabernacle where we can contain the divine presence and – dare I say it – control the divine presence lest it encourage us to more sensuality than the authorities will allow us.
But the Gospel we have just heard does the opposite when we hear that the Word became flesh and lived among us: in the Greek ‘eskenosen’ – ‘pitched its tent’ – implying the Hebrew word ‘Shekinah’ – ‘the divine presence’. The divine presence which had previously been contained in the tabernacle but which is now in temporary accommodation – with all the mobility and flexibility that go with tents and camping equipment.
No longer a glory which is to be seen only by the priest at certain times of the year and under certain circumstances but now we have seen his glory and it is full of grace and truth – grace overflowing and given to undeserving people but given extravagantly nonetheless and truth real and eternal and openly revealed without controls or filters to every Tom, Dick and Harry who might happen to pass by.
God fulfilled the Law and the Prophets by taking the most enormous risk imaginable, by playing the joker in the pack, by sitting down with each and every one of us to a romantic candlelit dinner for two at his own expense.
Once upon a time, the Law said ‘Do this and live’ – now the Gospel says ‘Live and do this’.
And, no, I’m not going too far. John does that for me in his gospel. When he tells us, as he does at the end of the passage from his gospel which we have just heard, that it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known, he is already remembering how he himself – how could he forget – lay against Jesus’s breast, close to his heart, at the Last Supper: a Galilean fisherman close to the Father’s heart and making God known to us through his gospel.
Through his gospel which, in the few spare verses offered to us this morning, revels in God’s glory which, he tells us, is full of grace and truth; and then, in case we hadn’t quite got it, he tells us that we have received grace upon grace from God’s fullness; and then he tells us again that, through Jesus Christ, comes grace and truth.
One gets the impression that John at least has worked out that there is no tabernacle big enough to contain that amount of grace and truth; no tent temporary enough to enable the mobility and flexibility which that amount of grace and truth needs as it wings its way through all the world and across time despite all of the Church’s efforts in every age to pin the tent down with the tent pegs of caution and the mallets of control.
But off it flies like some Kansas homestead caught up in the whirlwind of God’s love and looking for a response from human beings – yes, mere mortals – who know what it means to be human, who know that they are flesh and blood, who know about romance and sensuality.
And who want to lay their head against the Father’s breast and hear the reassuring heartbeat of God divine and human, of God here in the midst of us, of God waiting to be gracious to us, of God who walks along side us when we triumph and lifts us when we fall, of God whose tiny hand once clutched at straw and then reached out to touch gold.
So, put away the tent pegs and lay down the mallet. Let the canvas float free. Don’t try to contain God – or, indeed, to contend with God: no one wants his thigh put out of joint.
That grace upon grace which, from God’s fullness we have received, we have all received and we have received it already. John uses the past tense, the perfect tense, the action fully completed, the gift completely given. It’s too late – bad luck – to try and decant it or strain it or press it through a sieve.
It’s not susceptible to codes of practice or working group reports and it cocks a snoop at dissenting statements. Talk about shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted!
The door of the tabernacle stands open and the divine presence is everywhere in all of its sensuality and intimacy. Lay your head against the Father’s breast and hear the heartbeat of faith and hope and love. And sit down to that romantic candlelit dinner for two – and eat.
After all, love has bidden you welcome.