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.’
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.