My sixth visit to Bethlehem happened to land in the week before Christmas. The city was full of lights and people were as usual welcoming and generous. But there was a hollowness too – latest statistics show the number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza has fallen to just 1%, there are very few tourists and even few visitors from local villages, business is slow and there are no signs that lasting peace, justice and freedom will be born again in this city and region any time soon. Its a place that has come to be important to me spiritually, politically and personally and it was a privilege to spend time there again and to find a quiet moment to write my sermon to be given in Birmingham – at a service where we look forward to welcoming people from different faiths alongside our regular worshippers.
This reading from John’s Gospel will be read before the sermon.
John 1 1-14
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.[b]
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth.
Allahu Akbar – you’ll have to imagine the gentle sound as I can’t add the sound file here
In the midst of the gentle plainsong of the call to prayer I picked out the familiar words. I was awake at 4 in the morning, in the quiet dead of night, staying in a small and rather chilly apartment not far from the centre of Bethlehem. The sounds float across the hills and valleys of this little town. Drifting over the shops, businesses, refugee camps, mosques, churches, walls, watchtowers and military installations. Allahu akbar – God is the greatest. The word takes form – as it drifts, filled with promise, comforting yet stirring, echoes of the eternal hope in a place where despair seems to be taking a terrible grip.
As I lay there listening I could not help thinking of the word taking flesh, right here in this town, just half a mile from where I lay. Living briefly among the people here, then in Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Galilee – places now familiar to me and visited by thousands who want to get as physically close as possible to the enfleshed word who shone God’s glory among us.
Last time I was here, we managed to sneak down to the grotto that marks the birthplace of Jesus and kneel at the spot where Jesus was supposed to have been born. There is an endless line of people shuffling, bowing, praying and leaving – at this time of year the queue comes out of the door of the church as pilgrims dash in by bus and dash out again.
Why are people so drawn to this man Jesus, the man who is the Word, life, light and glory. Why do people fly thousands of miles to be close to the places that he inhabited, to touch stones and walk streets that he might once have walked?
I think the answer lies in the last verse of our reading.
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.
Many, many, many of us, in our deepest being long for a unity with God. We long to know the embrace of the eternal, the unconditional love of the one who created us, the transforming tenderness of the one who can make us whole. But at the same time, deep within our minds and hearts we know God is so mysterious, so unlike us, so not human and so perfect that we are not sure if and how we can connect with such a being. And then there is somebody who can help us make that leap. Somebody who breathed, walked and talked like us but is bringing the fullness of divine glory to our tarnished, tired world.
So what is this glory of God that Jesus brings to earth. In the Hebrew tradition the word for glory is Shekinah – it’s a feminine word that permeates the Jewish understanding of God throughout the scriptures. In the Jewish, mystic tradition, as I understand it, the Kabbala tradition, shekinah is central to the understanding of creation.
In this understanding of the story God had to withdraw and become small in order to make room for the created world. God contracted and there was darkness and then there was light- 10 vessels filled with the light of God’s glory were sent out to fill the earth. But the power and the light and the glory were too much for the vessels and they shattered – sending fragments of glory out into the universe, like sand, like stars, like seed. (And according to this myth, more of these fragments fell in the Holy Land than anywhere else).
So now humanity has a purpose. To find these shards of light and where they are imprisoned to free them, when they have become dull, to help them back to holiness. And when enough has been gathered – the world will be restored and healed.
For us as Christians, we can see in Jesus one who carries the light, restored and full, holy and whole, healthy and healing. We can see how we could be if we nurture and restore and knit back together the light that lives in us. We can see how others could be, even those we regard as unholy or unsacred, if their light too was whole and healed.
Jesus walked among us, full of grace and truth. It’s odd how virtues and gifts often seem to go in pairs. One of my favourite organisations is the Centre for Action and Contemplation, because one of those is not enough on its own – we need new ways of being alongside new ways of doing. And it is the same for grace and truth – they need each other. Grace, the unconditional love of God, the non-stop kindness, the unquenchable compassion. We need it. We need to know that we won’t be abandoned, that we cannot fall out of the circle of God’s care, that God never gives up on us. But if that were it we could become lazy, complacent, infantilized and purposeless. Grace needs truth alongside. Truth keeps us learning, changing, seeking and responding. Truth sets us free. It opens vistas, corrects our misunderstandings, widens our preconceptions and heals our prejudice. But on its own truth can feel overwhelming, threatening and scary. It can make us defensive and we may run away from it. But together truth and grace give us what we need to become whole.
Grace and truth, offered to us by the one who made the earth and walked among us, let the divine light grow in us and we too can share God’s glory. And of course, we can be grace and truth for one another. We can offer support and love and care while making sure to be truthful, not to collude but to offer others new ways to see themselves and the world around them.
In Bethlehem I have met many who seek to live lives of grace and truth in difficult circumstances. Sometimes these people feel they are not changing anything, achieving anything, doing anything, yet their presence is essential and their lives speak of divine love. Our lives too, wherever we are, can be a sacrament, a tangible sign, of divine love.
At Christmas we may need plenty of grace, we may hear some truths for which we are not prepared. But as we spend times with those we love and those we sometimes find hard to love, let us look for the glory of God in them and offer them the priceless, timeless gift, that flows from the gift of God to humankind, the gift of grace and truth, working hand in hand to bring us all to the glory of God.