Here is the sermon for the ‘midnight’ communion service tonight. It concludes the series on the Prologue to John’s Gospel, and given the hour at which it will be delivered, is shorter than my typical Sunday morning sermons.
Grace and truth. As we complete our reflections on the Prologue to John’s Gospel tonight, these two words dominate the final verses. Grace and truth. They are such rich words, and not to be trivialised in the way we often do, where grace is no more than what we say before meals and truth is no more than being right. Here, grace and truth are linked to the rich beauty of the Incarnation, the birth of our Lord in human flesh.
In particular, there are two strands about grace and truth in these final verses of the Prologue.
Firstly, God’s grace and truth in the Incarnation are the glory of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Verse 14)
When the Word is made flesh – when Jesus is born – we see the glory of God, and that glory is ‘full of grace and truth’.
When he says ‘we have seen his glory’, John may want his readers to think about the time in the Book of Exodus when Moses asked to see God’s glory. When indeed God’s glory passed near to him, the Lord proclaimed that he was
the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:5-7)
So back then, seeing God’s glory meant discovering the goodness of God. Now, as we see God’s glory in the birth of his Son, we also find the goodness of God revealed to us: he is ‘full of grace and truth’.
We might think that to see the glory of God is a fearful thing and in one sense it is. We can no more see the glory of God in all its splendour than we can safely look straight at the sun. But at heart, seeing the glory of God is a good and wonderful thing. The glory of God is that he is the saving God.
And we celebrate this supremely at Christmas. Here above all we see God’s glory. He is the saving and redeeming God. His Son takes on human flesh in order to bring his grace and truth to the world. Perhaps here the old saying that GRACE stands for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense comes into its own. The riches of God which we do not deserve come to us courtesy of all that Christ gives up. Eventually that will be the Cross. But it begins with the Incarnation. Tonight we mark when God goes up a gear in the salvation of the world.
And what a privilege it is to mark this. ‘We have seen his glory’ – we have, says John, and the implication is that not everybody has. He has not long said that
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (verse 11).
Let us never treat the glory of God’s goodness, his grace and truth, as a commonplace. It is not that we are some kind of élite because we have seen his glory, but it is the most awe-inspiring privilege. This is the One who outstrips John the Baptist, because although he came after him in terms of birth is actually senior to him because he originates before him (verse 15). This is the One who would later claim, ‘Before Abraham was, I Am’.
So in the morning, even amidst the rushing of preparation and the rustle of paper, might we have a moment to contemplate what a truly wonderful thing it is to know that God has revealed his glory in the coming of his Son? Here is grace and truth: grace in God giving us the blessings we do not deserve as sinners; truth in that he who himself is the truth has come into our midst. What wonder. What glory. What goodness this is.
Secondly, God’s grace and truth in the Incarnation are a greater grace. Here I want to tease out something of the relationship between God’s work as witnessed in what we call the Old Testament and his work in Jesus Christ Incarnate. Sometimes we seem to set them up in opposition to each other. Because we can come to the Scriptures in that frame of mind, we can hear a verse like verse 17,
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ
and think that ‘law’ is being opposed to ‘grace and truth’. Law is bad, grace is good, we think.
But this is to miss the force of verse 16, immediately before it. The NIV translates it,
From the fulness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.
However, I would translate it more literally:
From the fullness of his grace we have all received grace instead of grace.
What preceded the coming of Jesus was grace. The Old Testament Law was not originally given in order to say to God’s people, ‘Follow these rules and you will be saved.’ It had a different purpose. The Law was given at Mount Sinai, after God had saved them from the Egyptians. Salvation had taken place. The Law then showed them how to live as the people of God in grateful response to that salvation.
Why, then, does Paul speak about ‘law’ and ‘grace’ in Romans as if they are opposites? Because people ended up using the Law of Moses in the wrong ways. Either they used it to say, “I’m one of the in-crowd and you’re not” (the elitism I spoke about near the end of the first point) or they said, “My keeping of the Law is what saves me” (salvation by works, not by faith). The Law was unable to save in itself, but it could show where people needed to change and it could show ways of faithful and grateful response to God’s salvation, just as the ethical passages in the New Testament can for Christians. And because it could have a good purpose in the plans of God, it was a gift of grace.
Therefore when Jesus comes, he brings a greater grace. It is ‘grace instead of grace’. Jesus is the fulfilment of all the Old Testament hopes – not just the prophets, as we often remember in Advent, but the Law, too. What the Law could not do in transforming us, he can. What the Law pointed to, he brings to fulfilment. The grace of the Incarnation replaces all the promises of the Old Covenant: truly, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’
It’s like going to a concert where there is a support act before the main act you have gone to see. When the main act is about to take to the stage, they may be introduced with words to the effect that this is who you’ve been waiting for. John is telling us that Jesus is who we have been waiting for. In him is the grace of forgiving love, for he will offer a sacrifice that does not need to be repeated like the Old Testament sacrifices – this is ‘grace instead of grace’. In him is not only the example of how to live in gratitude for the love of God, but also the gift of the Spirit in order to live that way, unlike the Law – again, this is ‘grace instead of grace’.
John’s Prologue, then, concludes at a fitting place as we stand on the cusp of Christmas – never has the glory of God’s goodness been better seen than in the grace and truth of Jesus. And the gracious God of the Old Covenant now gives a greater grace as his Son inaugurates the New Covenant. ‘O come, let us adore him – Christ the Lord.’