'Full of Grace and Truth' - Christmas Day Sermon 2017
John 1:14-17 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
John 4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."
John 8:31-32 Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
John 14:6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
John 18:37-38 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." 38 Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"
Listen to the sermon here:
A trilogy books I greatly enjoyed a few years ago
was the Philip Pullman series ‘His Dark Materials’.
and condemned by certain quarters of the Christian church,
I found them to be that rare combination
of both thoroughly enjoyable, and profoundly thought provoking.
I’m looking forward to reading the latest sequel, the ‘Book of Dust’,
which I opened on my Kindle just this morning for Christmas.
The ‘church’ in the books
is represented by an establishment known as the Magisterium,
a powerful and power-hungry organization
that constantly seeks to silence its critics and reassert its monopoly;
which, to be fair, is a not-unrealistic caricature
of what the church can become.
In a year where we have been remembering Martin Luther’s great critique
of the indulgence-selling church of his time,
we would do well to remember that all stripes of religious conviction
have a propensity to succumb to the temptation to power.
From the rise of radical nationalistic Islam,
to the fusion of right-wing politics
with conservative evangelicalism in North America,
to the established church of our own country,
we live in a world where religion and power do deals to mutual benefit.
In Philip Pullman’s novels, the looming authority of the Magisterium
provides the backdrop for the adventures
of the young female protagonist Lyra;
and on her adventures she comes into possession of a wonderful object,
known as the Alethiometer, or the Golden Compass.
In a world of lies and untruths,
the Alethiometer points to the truth,
and not always comfortably.
It enables those who know how to read it
to access the deep truth of creation
which exists beyond the propaganda of the Magisterium and its allies.
And this idea of deep truth,
which cuts through the lies by which people live,
is just one of several profoundly Christian concepts
that Philip Pullman builds into his supposedly atheistic narrative.
He could even be echoing John’s gospel,
which is shot through with the language of truth.
The Greek word for truth, which is used in the gospel, is ‘aletheia’,
and in fact this is where Philip Pullman’s word ‘Alethiometer’ comes from,
it’s something that measures truth.
And it’s this word ‘aletheia’ that we meet time and again through John’s gospel,
beginning with our verse for this morning from the prologue to the gospel.
If you’ve been with us at Bloomsbury for our various services through Advent,
you’ll know that we’ve been working our way
through the opening verses of the fourth gospel,
and today we conclude
with the closest thing John gets to a birth-narrative.
In the fourth gospel there’s no choirs of angels or singing shepherds,
no wise men or virgin birth,
no census, no inn, no donkey, no cattle lowing…
Just this bold and profound statement:
John 1.14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son,
full of grace and truth.
The word aletheia, translated here as ‘truth’,
means literally ‘to stop concealing’, or ‘to reveal’.
To see the truth is to see the true nature of things,
which would otherwise be concealed, falsified, truncated, or suppressed.
Aletheia reveals the full, or the real state of affairs,
it is to see things as they really, or truly, are.
And in a world of post-truth, fake-news,
it can be very hard indeed to know what the true, or real state of affairs is.
Facebook have been in the real news recently
for their efforts to counter the spread of fake news
on their social media platform,
as they have tried various algorithms
to highlight those stories doing the rounds which are either simply untrue,
or worse, are malicious or carefully designed
to manipulate people into certain views.
The recent resurgence of far right political ideologies in Europe
can in part be traced to the spreading of fake stories about refugees and immigration
on platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp;
with President Trump’s notorious re-Tweeting
of hateful fake news stories originating with the organisation Britain First
giving a prime example of how lies and falsehood can take root
and spread so quickly in our world.
And in the midst of all this, how are we to know truth?
What is to be our guide to truth?
Unfortunately we don’t have Philip Pullman’s Alethiometer
to help us distinguish the truth from the lies,
and there is no perfected spiritual algorithm
to which we can turn for a calculated answer.
Rather, says John’s gospel, we hear the truth
through the word of the Father, spoken in the person of Jesus,
mediated to us by the revelation of the Spirit.
The truth of all things is made known to us
through the life of the one in whom God becomes flesh.
And it is as we hear the stories of Jesus
that we are signposted to the truth of the witness he gives.
It’s like we are invited to read the world
through the lens of Jesus,
to hold up the ideologies, beliefs, and actions of those around us,
and measure them against the words and actions of Jesus.
And I worry that all too often Christians don’t do this;
that all too often we become obsessed with a narrow Biblicism
where we use the words of the Bible as our yardstick,
forgetting that the words of the Bible are simply there to point us
to the ultimate Word made flesh who lived among us,
and who continues to witnesses to our spirits by his Spirit of truth.
Truth, according to John’s gospel,
is known by the inner witness of the Spirit
whispering the truth of Christ’s witness
to the depths of our being.
And I do understand that in some ways
this can seem a highly unsatisfactory answer,
because it is so subjective.
I do understand that in a world of uncertainty,
people long for the certainty of a written guide,
that will lead them into truth if only they follow it carefully enough.
I really do understand the desire
to have access to the word of God in written form,
that can be held, and read, and followed.
But that is not what John’s gospel says we have.
The Christian Bible is not God’s written truth for us to follow,
any more than John the Baptist was himself the Messiah.
Rather, the Bible testifies to the truth because it points to Jesus,
just as John the Baptist testified to Jesus and pointed to him.
The Law of Moses was the Jewish attempt to capture truth in written form,
and Jesus comes to fulfil that law
by writing it onto our living hearts, and into our daily lives,
rather than on tablets of stone, or scrolls of parchment.
The word of truth, it seems, cannot be contained in stone or book,
because this word is alive, it dwells among us,
speaking truth to our hearts by the Spirit of truth that is active in our lives.
And this Spirit of truth, the Spirit of Jesus who is God-made-flesh
brings truth to birth in our lives
just as Jesus came to birth in Bethlehem in Judea.
And here we find ourselves at the heart of Christmas,
and the enduring significance of the baby in the manger.
Jesus came to a world of sin and darkness,
to unmask the lies and to reveal truth,
and he does the same thing in our world today.
Letting the Spirit of Jesus into our lives is a dangerous thing,
because once we start to listen to the whispers of truth,
we start to see the world differently,
and once we see it differently,
we have to start living differently.
As truth is born in our lives through the witness of Jesus,
the lies by which we live, and by which we are often comforted,
are challenged and stripped away.
The birth of the Word of truth is an uncomfortable thing,
as any birth is and should be.
New life does not come easily,
but it does come, whether we are ready or not.
And this morning, as we gather to worship the child in the manger,
I wonder if we can hear his cry of truth,
echoing down the years to today?