A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on Christmas Night & Day 2022
We’re surrounded by difficulties this Christmas.
From Day 1, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, was unremitting in his downbeat assessment of how things are with the British economy. It’s been nearly a year since the war in Ukraine started. Covid is still around, now joined by winter flu. The cost-of-living crisis has severely impacted countless households and businesses. And we’ve begun a winter of discontent with strikes in key areas of our national life.
Is there any good news?
At church during Christmas most of our Old Testament readings come from the book of the prophet Isaiah and often from the middle chapters, chapters 40 to 55. These chapters date from the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon, when the nation lost everything, their homeland, their temple, their king, all the markers of their identity, and they were now living in exile in a foreign land.
Things couldn’t have been grimmer.
The well-known opening words of Psalm 137 capture the mood of the Jewish people at the time:
‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept…’
When you know a little of the context, the prophecies from Isaiah that come from this time are remarkable.
What possible ‘good news’ could there be in exile in Babylon? Yet that’s just what we heard being announced tonight/today:
‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of
the messenger who brings good news.’
The Jewish people were desperate for good news just as we are, even if the way to get the news through was very different then to now.
Then it was the job of a messenger, often a solo runner, to get the news through as quickly as possible. Up on the walls of the city were sentinels who looked out for the messenger, working out whether they brought good news or bad.
And when the sentinels saw that the messenger was bringing good news, they shouted to the people in the city who responded with singing and dancing:
‘Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem’, we heard.
In desperate times, this is heady stuff. But is it good news for today?
‘Good news’ is what the word ‘gospel’ means. It was the word used in the ancient world to describe an announcement about a significant public event: the emperor’s had a son, the war’s over in Ukraine. It was the word used to tell the world that life was about to change and for the better.
So, it was bold of the early church to take this word and use it to summarise Christ’s life. This was ‘gospel’, this was good news that had changed the world for the better.
And initially it wasn’t at all apparent. People had to wait to find out just how profound a change this birth had brought. It only became apparent many years later, after Christ’s death and resurrection. Then people looked back and started gathering the stories together as they remembered them, retold them and passed them on.
‘How did this good news begin?’ they asked themselves. And each of the four gospel writers goes back to find a different starting point to begin their gospel story.
Mark doesn’t go very far – back to the work of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus when he was 30 years old.
Matthew and Luke go further – back to the birth of Jesus, with Matthew tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, and Luke back to Adam.
You might have thought that was as far back as you could go. But John takes the story still further back – before Abraham was, before Adam was, before time was, God was:
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word
was with God, and the Word was God.’
And there’s more that Saint John wants to tell us. This creative, revealing, dynamic Word is not some kind of abstraction. The Word has a face, becomes a person. These opening words of his gospel come to a climax when Saint John writes:
‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us.’
It’s an incredible way for John to begin his story of Jesus, weaving together deep philosophical insights with the facts of history, to tell the world about this human being who was completely transparent to the mystery of God.
This is the heart of the gospel, the good news of Christ, as relevant today as it’s always been.
So, as we listen tonight/today to the opening words of John’s gospel, surrounded by all the difficulties that we face, what parts of it are we drawn to?
- That the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
- That the Word became flesh and lived among us.
- Or perhaps it’s the whole sweep of John’s vision that lifts our hearts and takes our breath away.
Because Saint John believes passionately that it’s in this birth, this person, this story that the eternal reality of God is totally present – and that changes everything.
‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news.’