My favourite British Christmas tradition is the service of 9 lessons and carols that is broadcast every year from King’s College, Cambridge, and which is a staple of many people’s festive celebrations. And there are three regular features of that service which I want draw our attention to today.
Firstly, the service always begins with the hymn, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, with the first verse sung by a soloist – in the Cambridge version by a young choirboy with an unbroken voice. And as we hear this beautiful carol being sung we find ourselves transported to an obscure town called Bethlehem in an obscure outpost of the ancient Roman empire. Here our attention is very focused, very narrowed down to a tiny pinpoint on the atlas of the world, and indeed we focus even further as we are directed to a cattle-shed and then to a manger. And here, in the words of this carol, we are being reminded of something crucial about the baby being born in that manger in that stable. We are being reminded that this baby is the key to the story of the nation of Israel. For centuries this nation has been awaiting this one who is coming and now at last it is happening – ‘in Royal David’s city… in a lowly cattle shed where a mother laid her baby in a manger for a bed’. So sit up, ancient Israel and take note. What is happening here is directed at you!
But then as draw near the end of the service we hear a reading from St Matthew’s Gospel and this is about some astrologers who have come from the East to witness this child’s birth, alerted as they have been by the sight of a new star in the sky. So these astrologers are not from Israel – they are drawn from the nations of the earth and so this reading is telling us that this baby is key not just to Israel’s story: he is the key to the story of the whole wide world. In other words, here our focus is being widened, extended far beyond that manger in that cattle-shed in Royal David’s city to the four corners of the earth. So sit up, world and take note. What is happening here is directed at you!
But then, we come to the last reading of the Carol Service, this great passage from John’s Gospel – what we call the Prologue to John, and here our horizon widens and our focus extends even further. Here we encounter something truly mind-blowing: this baby being born in the manger in the cattle-shed is the key to the story of the entire universe in all its magnitude and mystery. What John is telling us is that in order to understand who this child is who is born in Royal David’s city we have to go right back to creation of all things – to the beginning. So, you may recall that the Book of Genesis begins with the words ‘In the beginning…’: ‘in the beginning when God created the heavens of the earth…’ And now John begins his Gospel with those exact same words, ‘in the beginning’, directly connecting Jesus and Genesis. And you will recall that in the first chapter of Genesis God creates by speaking, as he voices creation into being. The first chapter of Genesis resounds with the phrase ‘And God said…’ and each time ‘God said’ things appear: light and dark and sky and sea and dry land and all creatures great and small including, eventually, humankind. And John has the audacity to link God speaking the cosmos into life with Jesus. ‘In the beginning was the Word… all things came into being through him.’ So sit up and take note, universe: the coming of Jesus is directed at you for he is the key to your story!
So we have this three-fold progression from Israel, to the nations, to the entire cosmos, and I want to follow that progression now, but I want to do it by considering just one verse from this beautiful, towering prologue to John’s Gospel and it’s that verse that comes right at the end of the passage where we read, ‘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’. What a sublime verse, and in fact we realise it is made even more rich beautiful when we realise that we would better translate it, ‘and the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us’, or ‘pitched his tent among us’. What is that all about?
One way of reading what the Bible tells is to think of it as a story in which God, the Creator of all things, is looking for a place to dwell. God’s throne is in what we call heaven but his longing is to dwell on earth. The Old Testament is the story of God seeking a dwelling place in the world by securing a toe-hold in the nation of Israel. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and then as they journeyed through the wilderness God dwelt with them in a cloud that followed them by day and a pillar of fire by night. And that cloud and that fire were known as God’s Shekinah, his glory. And whenever Israel stopped to camp they pitched a tent called the tabernacle and here the Shekinah rested as God’s presence dwelt among the people. And in later years, when they arrived in the land God had promised them, they built a temple and the Shekinah came and rested there and this became God’s dwelling place. But now, in the introduction to his Gospel, John is telling us that God has come to tabernacle, to pitch his tent among us in Jesus. The dwelling place for his Shekinah in Israel has now become Jesus of Nazareth: ‘we have seen his glory, his Shekinah, the glory as of a father’s only son’, as John puts it.
That, brings us to the second step in the story. As we follow this narrative through the New Testament we find our horizons once again expanding beyond Israel as God calls people of every tribe and nation to create a dwelling place for him. That search for a dwelling begins in a community called the Church, where God’s Shekinah, his glory, rests. Where there is a community of Jesus people who worship God and who love and honour and obey God there God finds a dwelling place in the world. And what are the marks of that community? What does it look like? Well, this verse ends with five words, ‘full of grace and truth’. And that is such a beautiful description of Jesus, but it is also a description of a community shaped by Jesus. And as, this year, hopefully, we will emerge into a post-Covid world and seek our bearings for the future, we might ask what might it mean to be a community of grace in a world which is often grace-less? And what about a community of truth? Truth is one of the themes that runs through this Gospel. Later in the Gospel Jesus will describe himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, and when Jesus stands before Pilate, the representative of the world’s empire of Rome which is built on lies, and Pilate asks Jesus that searching question, ‘What is truth?’ And we might ask what it means to be a community of truth-seekers in a world that is in danger of giving up on the search for truth. And we might ask what it means to be a community whose search for truth is informed by grace – a community that is not hard-edged and strident but is generous and open to the truth of Christ wherever it might be found, even among those who do not acknowledge Christ as the truth.
That, however, is also not the end of the story, for we must take the third step as once again our horizons are stretched and expanded to include the whole cosmos which one day God will inhabit fully. For the end of the story is that all creation will be his dwelling place as God will be all in all. The God who has made a dwelling-place in Israel and then in his church will one day make his home in all creation, that is at peace and at rest. And at the turn of this year, in a time of ecological ruin and disaster, we might ask what it means for the church to be a community which is preparing all creation to make a home, to make all creation a dwelling-place fit for God? How might that affect how we live, we who profess Christ?
The story the Bible tells, reflected in the service of lessons and carols, is of God, the Maker, seeking a home in his creation, and the three stages of this home-coming. There is, however, one last point to be made briefly. There is one last dwelling place for God and it is your life and mine, your story and mine. Later in the New Testament Paul will speak of each one of us as a temple of the Holy Spirit – and here the cosmic become personal. The God who in Christ seeks a foothold in the world, a dwelling place, seeks it in you and me, in the story our lives tell. What might that mean for you in the coming year?
Today, this God who seeks to tabernacle amongst us comes to meet us here at this table, in bread and wine. He comes to us in Jesus of Nazareth, the hope of Israel. And he comes to us in Jesus the hope of all the world. And he comes to each of us in Jesus, the Word that shaped the very cosmos and who now speaks to us words of peace and hope.
Revd Sabrina Groeschel