From Joe Pilling
St Oswald’s Askrigg
Sermon on Lectionary Readings
Morning Prayer 4 February 2018 Second Sunday before Lent
Proverbs 8:1, 22-31
We could organise a small and harmless competition at the end of this morning’s service to see which of us heard the first fourteen verses of John’s gospel most often in December. I heard it at two carol services and on Christmas Day in London and at one carol service in Hawes – four readings in all. I am sure that someone here can beat that comfortably but, whether you can or not, you may share my initial astonishment that the drawers-up of the lectionary have it appearing again as soon as the first Sunday of February.
The other readings and the psalm with which it is linked in this service help to explain the mystery. The collect also sheds some light on its re-appearance. We are not expected to revisit John the Baptist or the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem so soon after Christmas. The passage, of course, has some claim to say more in a short space than any other fourteen verses in the Bible so there is no shortage of other themes to draw out.
I spent years listening to sermons that had three points, never less than three and never more than three. It seems to have become less fashionable in recent years. In keeping with new habits I plan to make just two points this morning but it doesn’t mean that I will only speak for two-thirds of the usual time, whatever that might be.
When I first read the collect, the psalm and the readings I saw only one point, in a word creation. The collect refers to God creating the heavens and the earth. The psalm captures the exuberance of creation. In the Authorised Version verse 26 reads “…there is that leviathan whom thou hast made to play therein.” We have “which you have made for the sport of it.” The meaning is not identical but both have a sense of fun, of creation for pleasure and not simply for functionality.
The passage from Proverbs mentions the mountains, the hills, the earth, the soil, the sky, the sea. The Colossians passage takes us back to the natural world, all things in heaven and on earth, but beyond that to what we might misleadingly call human institutions: “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers”.
The psalm spells out how we should react to God’s creation. We should sing, praise and rejoice. There are times and places where we might understand people forgetting how to respond but surely not here in Wensleydale. Over the centuries here, the people God created have handled the natural world he created to give us more reason rather than less to sing, praise and rejoice.
In a verse that isn’t normally picked up in Christmas sermons the gospel says “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”. That is the bridge between my first point about creation and my second point this morning. All three readings, but particularly the epistle and the gospel, say something about Christ which we recognise but is not all that often central to our understanding of him.
Proverbs 8, including the ten verses that were read to us, is to do with an entity other the Lord God who was present before the beginning of the creation of the world. One commentary I consulted described the entity as Ms Wisdom. Wisdom, also described as understanding, is clearly female and was beside God in creation like a master worker, rejoicing and, not least, delighting in the human race.
The other readings don’t go so far as to say explicitly that the writer of Proverbs was half way to understanding the existence of Christ as the Son of God. Those readings do echo the language and thinking of Proverbs 8 which is no doubt why we have them all together in this service. God the Father was not alone in creation.
Proverbs says “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work”. Paul describes Christ as the firstborn of all creation and as the beginning. The first six words of John’s gospel are “In the beginning was the Word” and our passage ends with absolute clarity: “…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.”
As the first Christian leaders thought through and prayed about all they knew of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection in the light of their Scriptures - what we call the Old Testament - they reached the conclusions that we have so powerfully and movingly set out for us in Colossians and John. I have heard many attempts to flatter someone in speeches or in conversation. The language of Colossians is well beyond flattery. It doesn’t have the feel of exaggeration in an attempt to please.
It is extravagant, whole-hearted, awesome. Christ is the firstborn of all creation and also the firstborn from the dead. In him all visible and invisible things in heaven and earth were created. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Christ is before all things and in him all things hold together. Christ is the head of the body, the church.
Both Colossians and John could properly be described as poetic and have been. They are certainly powerfully expressed. I have quoted from Colossians and here is John. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” The message in both cases is heavily reinforced by repeating it in parallel ways. But the main point to get hold of is that, however well expressed, we are hearing the literal truth.
How are we to square this picture of Jesus with the rather different picture that we hear more often: “Jesus, friend of little children”, “What a friend we have in Jesus”, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”? If there is a tendency to dwell more on Christ’s life on earth, on his teaching, on his friendships, on the miracles, it is understandable. His life on earth was hardly commonplace but it is easier to approach than his place within the Trinity and his role in creation.
The glorious answer to this conundrum is that it isn’t a conundrum at all. Unless both pictures are true and not in contradiction with one another our faith is vain, as Paul says about another aspect of what we believe. We shouldn’t shy away from this extravagant picture of Christ before Bethlehem. The more we dwell on it and the better we understand it the more we understand what was happening in his life on earth, his death and his resurrection. Jesus Christ as man and Jesus Christ as God are not in conflict. That they are both true is the whole point. Nor is it the case that this centre of our faith is something for the heart rather than for the brain. Many of us may come to it first through our feelings but it bears thinking about just as much as feeling about.
Towards the end of both passages there is a reference to the purpose of Christ being born as a man amongst us. In Colossians we are told “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross”. John tells us that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”.
Christ’s position before his birth in Bethlehem is as indispensable a part of these glorious truths as all that happened in Israel 2000 years ago. We can begin to understand them and make them our own because, as Paul says, “Christ is the image of the invisible God.”
Rev Dave Clark
Vicar of the Benefice of Upper Wensleydale