Monthly Archives: November 2011
My old college friend David Flavell has some provocative ideas:
And here beginneth the first blog entry in a few weeks. Not only have I spent the last two Sundays either repeating an old sermon 0r taking part in all-age worship, other matters have drained my time and energies – not least a painful situation that led to us urgently transferring our children to a new school.
But now, we begin a new sermon series for Advent, based on the Prologue to John’s Gospel. I’ve wanted to do this for a few years at Advent, and this is my chance. We kick off tomorrow morning with the first five verses from John 1:1-18.
He is the man for whom the word ‘curmudgeon’ was probably invented. Bitter that he has not become the international superstar he deserves to be, jealous of others and angry at the machinations of the music industry in which he works. He fluctuates between belief in God and a raw atheism.
Yet when he sings of things spiritual, and he combines his Celtic roots with the blues traditions he loves, his music transports me to another place. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Van Morrison.
And he’s here this morning. (If only.)
In one of my favourite songs of his, the chorus says,
Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder?
Didn’t I come to lift your fiery vision bright?
Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder in the flame?
A sense of wonder is what this Advent sermon series is all about. For me, there is nothing like reading the Prologue to John’s Gospel for giving me a sense of wonder about Jesus, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate again.
Why not share for a moment with your neighbour what gives you a sense of wonder about the coming of Jesus?
What gives me a sense of wonder about the coming of Jesus is to think about who this Jesus is, who came in flesh. This morning, the first five verses of the Prologue give us three words to meditate on that give me that sense of wonder about the One who came.
And the first word is … Word:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. (Verses 1-2)
The Word. Because Jesus isn’t called Jesus until he is born, fully human, fully divine. Before the Incarnation, Jesus is the Word. Even before his birth, he is God speaking to us. He is God’s self-expression. We talk about the Bible as the Word of God, but because the Bible itself says that Jesus is the Word, we should refer to the Bible as the Word of God written, whereas Jesus is the living Word of God. Jesus is the guarantee that God speaks. God is not silent. In the Second Person of the Trinity, God speaks.
This Word of God is part of the divine fellowship: he is with God, and he is God, and he was with God from the beginning. Here, before all things, is the fellowship of love that is the Trinity. During our sermon series on 1 John, I argued that the statement ‘God is love’ only makes sense if God can express love within creation. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit; the Son loves the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. We get a hint of that here: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Here is that fellowship of love that has existed since before creation. Here, the Word is part of that love which must extend beyond its own boundaries. When we read that the Word was with God, we get hints of the love that led to creation and the love that led to redemption.
Jesus, the Word, expresses this inner love of the Trinity that will lead to creation and redemption. In these coming weeks, as we sing carols such as ‘Love came down at Christmas’, we shall be singing of this truth. It is a truth that has been since before the foundation of the universe. What we celebrate at Advent and Christmas is something that goes back before the Big Bang. Look into the night sky at the stars, whose light we see so many aeons since they emitted the waves that finally reach the Earth, and realise that way before that light ever left those celestial bodies, God was love and God was speaking. In the Incarnation we are about to celebrate, we look with awe at the constellations and galaxies that fill our skies and our telescopes, and however much we marvel at them, we remember that before they were flung on their journeys through space, there was a Word. That Word, part of the eternal Godhead, sharing in love and speech, would one day share that love and speech with the world in human flesh. And so we are filled with a sense of wonder.
The second word is life:
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (Verses 3-4)
So – the inner relationship of love in the Trinity that is hinted at when we say that the Word was with God from the beginning explodes beyond its boundaries into creation. Love cannot be contained within itself: love has to love outside itself. So God creates, and the Word is God’s agent of creation. Here, in the act of creation, is the first bursting out of God’s love. From Big Bang to infant worlds, from early microbes to human beings made in the image of God, here is the hand of God. The Bible never tells us how the world was made, for it is not a scientific text book, but it points us to the Maker.
In fact, God’s creative love involves giving life from within himself – ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of men’. Just as human parents give of their own lives to create life, so the Word does the same. This loving act of creation is an act of self-giving love. The life of God given to the pinnacle of creation, human beings, made in God’s image, is imparted. Remember the emphasis in Genesis upon God breathing life into human beings? Here is another way of saying that.
Moreover, as the Word gives life, ‘that life was the light of men’. Wherever there is light, it originates from the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. Wherever you find truth, beauty and goodness in life, you find it because the Word of God gave life which is light to all.
Am I saying that all religions lead to God? By no means. But I am affirming what Paul said to the people of Lystra in Acts. Paul told them,
We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy. (Acts 14:15b-17)
‘He has not left himself without testimony.’ ‘That life was the light of men.’ It’s what John Calvin called God’s common grace. In creation, God is good to all. And we affirm from the Prologue to John’s Gospel that it is through the Word, whom we came to know as Jesus, that God is good to all in creation.
How wonderful, then, to know that the One who was the agent of this loving creation, and whose gift of life provided for all goodness, would not only create but enter creation. As we enter Advent and prepare to mark the coming of the Christ child, we remember that the One who entered creation, born of a virgin, was God’s agent in making this creation, and his life already bestows beauty and truth throughout it. Look in the manger and see more than a baby boy. See the Life-giver. And then see if you are not filled with a sense of wonder.
We have heard the third and final word already, but it carries over from verse 4 to verse 5. The third word is light:
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (Verses 4-5)
I said earlier during the first point about the Word that the love in the Trinity had to go beyond the boundaries of the Godhead, and it did so in creation and redemption. In thinking about our second word, ‘life’, I showed that love in creation. Now in our third word, ‘light’, we see the love of the Trinity extending to redemption.
How? The light is not just the source of truth, beauty and goodness – ‘that life was the light of men’. It is more: there is not only light, there is darkness. Light is needed, because there is darkness. So the truth, beauty and goodness that come from the life-giving Word stand as a testimony in the face of sin. They are a testimony to the ways of God in opposition to the ways of a world that rejects that God.
But there is more. The light was to shine in the darkness in a more profound way. For the love of God sent into creation through the Word, which testified to love in contrast to hate and fear, could not stand still. The light would enter creation. It is what we celebrate as we approach Christmas by the route of Advent. So we marvel as, in the words of John Henry Newman, ‘A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.’ Darkness may abound, but light is coming. And on Christmas Day, we shall say: light has come! The baby of Bethlehem is born as a warrior of light, a sworn enemy of darkness.
And – again – there is more! This is no equal contest between light and darkness. Light and darkness, truth and falsehood, are not equal and opposite enemies. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.’ This is not an intellectual statement. To understand something is not merely to comprehend it, it is for that understanding to mean power over the other. The word ‘understood’ here can also be translated ‘overcome’ or ‘come to terms’. John is telling us that the darkness of the world cannot get to grips with the light of the Word. Once there is even a chink of light, the hold of darkness is broken. Though we still live in an age where light and darkness both exist, the light of the Second Person of the Trinity conquers, and will conquer.
How that light conquers, though, is another matter. Not for nothing did Graham Kendrick imagine Mary looking at Jesus lying in the manger and seeing thorns in the straw. Light would overcome darkness not by violence but by suffering, the suffering of the Cross.
Darkness will not have the final word. Light will. It is already guaranteed, in the coming of the Word who took the name Jesus. His birth, life, death and resurrection make light shine in the midst of a darkness that cannot come to terms with him.
Yes, the Word who experiences love within the Trinity is then the One who makes that love spill out in creation through his Life. And that love will stop at nothing, for it is the Light seen in sacrificial suffering to overcome the darkness.
Now tell me you’re not filled with a sense of wonder.
 Van Morrison, ‘A Sense of Wonder’, © Exile Music, 1984.
The other night I was talking with a friend of mine. He had seen somebody write something controversial on my Facebook page. My friend said, “As far as I’m concerned, if it’s not in the Bible, it’s wrong.”
To which I said, “Well, then, you’d better take your trousers off, because trousers are not in the Bible.”
It was one of my more subtle pieces of Theology, I’m sure you’ll agree. But my friend didn’t strip off.
Another word that isn’t the Bible is ‘Trinity’. Jehovah’s Witnesses will delight in telling you that. But the data that leads to the doctrine of the Trinity is all in the Bible, and that is why I believe in it.
To say that may make you nervous. Not a sermon on the Trinity! Has Trinity Sunday been secretly moved to November?
No. This is just to say that on a day when our theme is ‘God’s Love And Our Love’ (and hence why every hymn today features the love of God), we’re going to think firstly about God’s love. And in thinking about God’s love, we end up thinking about the Trinity. There’s nothing difficult coming here, just this thought: our passage makes one of the most basic statements in the whole Bible about God. John says, ‘God is love’ (verse 16). God’s very nature is love. How could that be true before creation? Only if it were possible for God to share and express love within God. There, within the Trinity, is love. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. God is love.
If you accept that, then here is the next thought. Love between people (or beings) needs to go beyond them. The love that a couple or a family shares needs to be extended beyond their boundaries. If they only keep love between themselves, it is no longer love, it is mutual selfishness.
The example I usually give is this. When I prepare a couple for marriage and I take them through the things they need to consider about their relationship, I ask them how the love they share can be a gift to others. The most common expression of this is if they are able to have children. But (unless they are one of the increasing number of couples who have had children prior to marriage) they do not know whether they will be able to have children or not. So I ask them where they will extend their love. Is there something in the community they can do as a couple? Most couples understand that just staying cooped up together is unhealthy.
In a similar way, ask now about the statement ‘God is love’. Can God simply keep love within God? Or does God need to extend love? I would say, ‘yes’. The love that is within God as Trinity extends in the act of love we call creation. God’s inner nature of love is first expressed outwardly in creation. God’s love exploded in creation.
But it doesn’t stop there. John gives us a specific example of God’s love, namely the birth and death of Jesus:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (Verses 9-10)
We experience God’s love in the birth of Jesus, who came in humility, poverty and obscurity to bring us life. We experience God’s love in his giving up Jesus even to the Cross for us, so that our sins might be forgiven. We need never think God is indifferent to us, because he has come to us in Jesus and even died for us.
Think for a moment about the news items regarding St Paul’s Cathedral and the Occupy LSX protestors’ camp. You will have seen in the week that eventually the Dean of St Paul’s resigned, due to the sustained criticism of the cathedral’s apparent hostility to the demonstrators. After the Dean resigned, the Bishop of London and some of the remaining cathedral staff went to visit the protestors. To my astonishment, one news report said it was the first time they had met. We do not have to worry about that with God. Not only has he met us in the birth and death of Jesus, he continues to meet us in the gift of the Holy Spirit. As John puts it in verse 13,
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
So that is our first and fundamental point: God is love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That comes before everything else. It has to be the basis of our responses, due to the way John starts this section:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God (verse 7a).
Hence our second thought is that we love in response to God’s love. As John puts it in verse 19:
We love because he first loved us.
God loves first; we love in response. That is always the order. If we get that wrong, our whole spiritual life shrivels up. If we think that our duty of love comes first, then faith becomes a list of dos and don’ts, it is all about oughts and musts. When we fall into that trap, there are only two possible destinations for the end of our journey: one is pride and the other is condemnation. We shall end up in ugly pride, because we shall delude ourselves that it’s all about us, look at our achievements! We shall be quite happy to draw all the attention to ourselves and perhaps fail to notice that we are deflecting it away from God. Indeed, God will be reduced to no more than Santa’s Little Helper.
The other destination when we put our acts of love before God’s love for us is, as I said, condemnation. We shall become only too aware of our failings. We shall know we get nowhere near God’s standards, and quite probably we shall fall a long way short of our own personal expectations. We shall have a hard time believing God can forgive us, and a difficult task in forgiving ourselves.
Pride and condemnation are pretty unattractive options, don’t you think? But if you put things the right way round, both of them are dealt with. Pride is crucified, and condemnation is healed. When we remember that ‘we love, because God first loved us’, then we see that the spiritual life is not one of relentless rule-keeping, but a life of gratitude. Everything the Christian does is a grateful response to the God of love. I do not seek to lead a holy life, because that is what will earn me enough brownie points with God. I seek to lead a holy life, because I want to please the Lord who loves me. It is similar in some ways to the healthiest of human relationships. When you know that someone wants to spend their life with you, it brings out gratitude. We seek to please them, not because that will make us love them – they already do – rather, we want to please them because they already love us.
There is a small way in which we mark that in the pattern of our Sunday worship. I always place the offering fairly late in the service, and normally after the ministry of the Word, where we have read the Scriptures and heard them expounded in the sermon. The offering only comes in the light of that. We have heard God speak to us through the Bible and an interpretation of it. Now, having heard of his love, we respond by offering our gifts as a sign of offering our very selves in thankfulness that God loves us.
We then carry that pattern out into daily life. All of life is like the saying of grace before a meal. God has given us good things, especially in Jesus. We are truly thankful. This time tomorrow, our lives will be a benediction in response to God’s goodness and love.
Finally, I want to fill out what a life of responsive love looks like, according to John. Near the end of the reading, John gives a couple of examples of what ‘We love, because God first loved us’ means in everyday Christian living.
One is that we have a great sense of security:
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (Verses 17-18)
If God loves us in the way I’ve described – in creation, in the Cross and in the gift of the Spirit – if he loves us to that extent – and if we respond by welcoming that love into our lives and responding in gratitude, then what have we to fear, asks John? Certainly we have no need to fear a God who loves that extravagantly. It is not that God’s love is sentimental or slushy. Rather, because God’s love is so generous, outrageous even and sacrificial, one who goes to that extent in love is not about to withdraw it on the hoof. We shall certainly fail in our response of love, but God is faithful. So we can be bold in the face of judgement, and unafraid of punishment from God, because his love has been lavished on us and we have drunk it in.
As I said earlier, all the hymns today feature the love of God. One that didn’t make the final five but which easily could have done would have been ‘And can it be’. Imagine singing those lines Charles Wesley wrote, based not on 1 John 4 but on Romans 8:
No condemnation now I dread,
Jesus and all in him is mine.
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown through Christ my own.
This is the inheritance of the one who knows God loves her or him. Whatever life throws at us, we live without paralysing fear of God, because we know we are accepted and loved beyond measure.
And that leads us to the other sign of living a life of responsive love. Because we are secure in God’s reckless love, we can live dangerously. In particular, we can give ourselves in love to our brothers and sisters.
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (Verses 20-21)
If God is for us, what is the worst that can happen to us? We can be rejected by human beings, but never by God. So we set out on the adventure of responsive love that not only responds directly to God in the language of worship, we also show responsive love by letting the love of God that has filled us overflow from us to others. If we have heard and received good news, how can we keep it to ourselves?
Or put it another way: when you first learn how to saw a piece of wood, you are taught to cut along the grain. Cutting across the grain is hard work. Therefore, since God made all of creation in love, it is cutting with the grain to love our brothers and sisters as God has loved us. There will be voices that tell us this is not the natural thing to do, but in God’s eyes they are tempting you to cut across the grain. It is not the way he made things to be.
There is a wonderful story in the Old Testament about a group of Israelite lepers who discover that the enemy army besieging their city has surprisingly fled. They go from tent to tent, plundering much-needed goods.
Eventually, one of the lepers says, what we are doing is not good. This is a day of good news! We should go to the city and tell everyone what we have found.
That is the position we are in when we love, because God first loved us. God has led us to discover the most wonderful treasure and the most vital gifts for true living. How can we not love our brothers and sisters by sharing our discovery, by letting God’s love spill over from our lives and flood the lives of others?
Truly, today is a day of good news.