The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham - Auckland Castle December 2019. (Picture: Keith Blundy)

John 1.1-14

I wonder what images have stuck in your mind this Christmas?
Are they the images created by the adverts; the feel good ones like Excitable Edgar the fire breathing young dragon from John Lewis or Nicholas and the satsumas of Sainsbury’s? Have you tapped your feet and sung along to Amazon’s ‘Everybody needs somebody?’
Perhaps instead the images that have stuck in your mind have been less cheery. The bushfires sweeping across parts of southern Australia; the floods in parts of the UK, or the fast melting ice of Antarctica.
You might have more personal images, closer to home; of families members weeping at the loss of someone deeply loved; or wreathed in smiles at the delight of gathering together as a family. You may simply have an image from a carol service, a school nativity play, or the opening of presents this morning. Every one of us has images of Christmas. Joyful and sad images abound. Images that speak of love and care; of family, friendship and fun. Images that tell stories of loss, loneliness and neglect.

Then we all have images of the first Christmas and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Images that have gathered ideas down through the ages. Francis of Assisi’s decision to create a live tableau with animals around the crib has lived on through the centuries as we all imagine animals present at Jesus’ birth, when in reality the text of Scripture mentions none. We all hold images of Mary dressed in blue holding the baby with a beatific smile when she would have looked just as tired and worn as any first time Mum after giving birth. We all hold onto ‘no crying he makes’ from singing Away in a Manger when as a fully human baby who hungered, felt pain, needed changing of course Jesus the baby cried.
The Christmas story has all kinds of accretions in the way we imagine it and retell it. Some are perfectly reasonable and plausible; others like nativity play lobsters, appearances by Doctor Who or Santa Claus are simply nonsensical.
Yet imaginatively entering into the Christmas story is important. The gospel writers invite us to meet the one born in Bethlehem. John here at the outset of his gospel tells us that we are all invited into a living relationship with God through the word made flesh; ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’ When he comes to close his gospel, he tells us that he has written it, ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20.30) This requires imagination but it is not imaginary. It is the real promise of a real life relationship with the real living God.
This Christmas morning what might our living in this dynamic relationship with God look like?

John mirrors the opening of the whole Bible with his opening words, ‘In the beginning’. He also highlights that all of creation exists because of God. It is no accident. It is not chaotic or meaningless. All of creation, every last fragment of it exists because God wills it into being and sustains it in being.
In a world rightly increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of the planet this matters. Flooding, fires, melting ice are all signs of the changing climate. We do need to act, together across the globe, to tackle this reality. It does require joint concerted effort where simply holding onto national interests can never hope to succeed. Yet arrogantly assuming that humanity alone can solve all of this will not succeed either. Only as we truly recognise that this earth is God’s and that acting in humility before our Creator, seeking divine wisdom, as ourselves created beings will we find the best ways forward. We have a very specific God given responsibility for the stewardship of the planet, so we cannot opt out and simply let it all unfold. We have to step up to our God given responsibility. But it is God given and we need to keep recognising that order in the care of all creation.

John stresses light very strongly in the opening of his gospel. It is a theme that runs the whole way through and the Word that becomes flesh in Bethlehem is the one who declares himself later to be ‘the light of the world’.
We all know darkness abounds in many ways. The darkness caused by addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography. The bleakness of lives impacted by domestic, sexual and child abuse. The fear created by terrorism, knife crime and human trafficking. The desperate situations that lead so many to become refugees. Then the squalor and entrapment huge numbers of them face in a world that does not appear know how to treat them well. The growing numbers who struggle to make ends meet and come to rely on foodbanks. The severity of breakdown in family relationships that leaves so many scarred for life, wondering who can be trusted and what true love looks and feels like. You can add your own further examples of darkness in our own region, nation and across the globe.
Yet into the darkness of this world Jesus came. A small flickering candle of light lying in an animal feeding trough in Bethlehem proves to be the light that enlightens everyone.
This surely calls us first to recognise the darkness of our own lives that need the light of Christ to shine into them. It then calls us to be those who follow in Jesus’ footsteps and enter into the dark places of the world seeking to shine the light of Christ into them. We can never do so arrogantly thinking we are better. We must always do so in humility, knowing that our darkness has had to be dispelled by Christ’s light, and that our tendency still is to love darkness rather than light.

As we celebrate the birth of Christ afresh and look ahead into 2020 let us all use our imaginations well to be people of the light.
We know what light looks like; it is full of grace and truth. We know what light looks like; it comes and lives alongside those in need of love and life. We know what light looks like. Light looks like a young woman who says ‘Yes’ to God’s call regardless of what others might think. Light looks like a young man who stands by his betrothed and honours her. Light looks like a child refugee. Light looks like a young boy playing safely on the street. Light looks like a carpenter supporting his family and working for the good of his community and neighbourhood. Light looks like the one who lays down his life for his friends. Light looks like Jesus, the Word made flesh.

This Christmas let the light of Christ shine.

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