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Joy to the World! – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey TristramIsaiah 52:7-10 / Psalm 98 / Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12) / John 1:1-14

It’s Christmas Day. I love Christmas – and I love singing at Christmas! Christmas is a time for singing: everyone and everything seems to be singing. Have you noticed when you are in a really good mood, or at a birthday, or you’ve just heard a wonderful piece of news, you want to sing, or ring bells, or jump up and down – you can’t help it – it’s just joy! Particularly at Christmas, the Scriptures are full of singing. Our Psalm today: “Sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things – lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.” And not just people, but the whole of creation: “Shout for joy all you lands, lift up your voice, rejoice and sing … let the sea make a noise, let the rivers clap their hands … let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” (Psalm 96) At Christmas, it is as if the whole of creation is singing with joy!

During Advent we have heard week by week from the prophet Isaiah. And he has often been fierce and forbidding. But today is Christmas, and listen to him today: “Lift up your voices together and sing for joy.” And it’s not just people. Everyone and everything is singing. “Break forth into singing you ruins of Jerusalem,” he says. Even the buildings are singing!

So why are we singing today? Why full of joy? Because of that child: that precious, vulnerable child Jesus, born to Mary, in Bethlehem. And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us why we should sing. Because that child, he says, “Is the reflection of God’s glory: the exact imprint of God’s very being.” We sing with joy today because, reflected in Jesus, we have seen God’s glory. When we come to the crèche and gaze upon Jesus, we see God’s glory. When those shepherds in the fields heard from the angel the good news of great joy, their dark world was invaded by God’s glory – for suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host singing God’s praise “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth!”

And after the shepherds had gone to see Jesus, as they returned home, we read, “they glorified and praised God.” I think that means they sang! I can see them jumping up and down and singing, like King David before them. “We’ve just seen the reflection of God’s glory!” How could you not sing and maybe dance with joy?”

So what had the shepherds seen – and what do we see with the eye of faith, when we gaze on the child Jesus? As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “We are gazing at the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” The exact imprint: that means that Jesus is like an exact impression made by a seal on clay or wax. So that in John’s Gospel (14:9) Jesus can say, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

But what is this “glory” that Jesus is reflecting? Until the birth of Jesus, no one could see God’s glory and live. In the Hebrew Scriptures only Moses was granted permission to approach the glory of God. At Sinai God called Moses up to the top of the mountain, where God’s glory was present, but covered by a cloud. But then God actually called Moses to enter into the cloud to meet with God and see God’s glory. When he finally came down from the mountain, the skin of his face was so radiant, that they were afraid to go near him. Moses had approached God’s unapproachable majesty and lived. We can never go near God’s unapproachable majesty and live. But at Christmas, and this is the miracle of Christmas, God’s unapproachable majesty comes down to us. We cannot approach God, but God in all his glory graciously approaches us. Through an act of unimaginable love, the unapproachable God becomes flesh, and comes to us in a small child. And on the face of this child as John puts it in our Gospel, “we have seen his glory, glory of the only Son of God.” This is the wonder and mystery and joy of Christmas. No wonder we are singing! No wonder the angels are singing – and the shepherds, and the little fields, the woods, the rivers, the ruins; the whole of creation cannot stop singing for joy!

At Christmas, the God of unapproachable majesty has come down in a child, to find you and me, lost and afraid, and to bring us home.

Today we gaze in awe and wonder as we contemplate the glory of God made flesh in a human child. But God became flesh not just for us to gaze on, but to save us. That child grew up to be a man – a man who today, longs to draw near to you and to me. He longs to know us more deeply than we know ourselves, to love us more perfectly than we dare believe: to embrace us, and through the Cross, to redeem us from our sins and bring us home to God.

I’m so struck by that image in the reading from Isaiah: the image of the ruins of Jerusalem singing! Wow! What if God on this holy day is inviting the ruins of my life to sing? What if God is saying to us “I have become flesh this day so that you may be filled with my glory so that all the parts of you which lie in ruins: your failures, the parts of you that are broken and seem irreparable – I want to redeem them all!” So that, as the monk and poet Symeon so beautifully put it, “So that everything in us that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, may in Him be transformed” (Symeon the New Theologian). Wow – even my ‘ruins’ might just start to sing!

Christmas is a day of such hope and such joy, because God’s unapproachable glory has come down to us – and however dark our world may seem at this time – we know that the light of God’s glory shines in the world and the darkness has not overcome it.

I close with some more words from that poet and monk, Symeon the New Theologian. They are words which I love and have been praying with during this Advent. He was writing in the unimaginably dark days of the 10th century. Yet they ring with faith and joy, and the sheer mind-blowing wonder of it all:

“I know (not “believe” – know) that the Immovable comes down;
I know that the Invisible appears to me;
I know that He who is far outside the whole creation
Takes me into Himself, and hides me in his arms.”

That’s something to sing about!
A wonderful and joyful Christmas to you all.

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1 Comment

  1. Ruth West on December 27, 2016 at 20:51

    Your title is so appropriate! Joy to the World! In the words of the carol, “The Lord is come!” The Savior! The Redeemer! Wonderful! Counselor! Prince of Peace! Isaiah’s words ring true! He has come; He is here; He is coming again! I have had a wonderful Christmas. To church twice; to a family get-together; and a meeting with friends. I hope you have had a joy-filled Christmas Day as well.

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