Material for Worship on the Second Sunday after Christmas

The Ven. Peter Potter has prepared a reflection and prayers for the second Sunday of the season of Christmas.

A happy and blessed New Year to you all. I’m sure we’re all hoping it will be better than the last one. Even though many people will have removed their tree and decorations, we are still in the Christmas season until Wednesday, the arrival of the Magi on the Feast of the Epiphany.

We don’t often get two Sundays in the in-between days from Christmas to Epiphany and it’s even more unusual to have a reading from the book called Ecclesiasticus, which was written in the period between the Old and New Testaments. Today’s reading, Ecclesiasticus 1.1-12, is significant though, as it features the figure of Wisdom (Sophia), who is also found in Proverbs and has much in common with John’s concept of the Word in today’s Gospel, John 1:1-18

Listen to the passage from Ecclesiasticus read by Mary Birch.

The Gospel passage is read by Anthony Birch.

The Gospel according to St John is a masterpiece in its own right. It is written in simple, direct language – “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What could be more simple? But what depths lie beneath. Like a Russian doll, as you lift off one layer, you find another. Especially here, in this wonderful Prologue, these simple words introduce a mystery. But it is a mystery that reveals, not covers up, its meaning.

“In the beginning…” Yes, all four Gospels begin at the beginning. But they all begin at a different place. For John, the beginning is not in Bethlehem, with shepherds and angels; no donkey, no manger, not even Mary. Echoing the first verse of the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning” means just that. For John, the story of Jesus is the story of the whole cosmos. But yet, as we shall see shortly, it is also the story of particular events at a particular time. And yet again, a story that continues down to our own time, and beyond. Such is the artistry of the Fourth Gospel.

Unlike the shepherds and angels, the Word is not something you could put a costume on for the Nativity Play. But it is there in the Bible; in Ps 33, we find “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made”. It was also found in contemporary Greek philosophers, so the term Logos, Word would also be familiar to educated Gentiles. The Word, then, is God’s creative, dynamic force: “God said ‘Let there be light. And there was light’”. But this Logos is no ordinary word. When we speak, we make words with our lips and throat muscles, whereas this Word was with God. It was part of God’s being from all eternity. In Greek, the tense used is past continuous, that is, the Word was, always has been and still is part of the divine being and activity.

John is able to develop this insight, referring next to light, the first item on God’s list for the creation of the cosmos, a light that is not solely a physical phenomenon but also moral and spiritual, that is to say, truly life-giving. The Word spoken to create light brings with it the gift of life, for without it, creation is merely lifeless matter. This light, enlightening and life-giving, manifests itself at many times and in many places, in particular in the person of John the Baptist whose rôle is to prepare people to receive the true light, which had already been shining but had gone unrecognised.

Like the opening of some film epic which begins with a broad panorama and then gradually zooms in on a particular character, John is now ready for the climax of his prologue. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He identifies the Word with Jesus Christ and the whole history and future of the cosmos is now centred on one person. This is the whole Nativity Story condensed into one simple sentence but a sentence so profound that we can no longer read Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts as pretty stories about an important person. Nor – crucially – can we view the earthly life of Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection, as God’s afterthought or Plan B, which is what some of today’s popular explanations seem to imply. John has carefully prepared us for this verse, which reveals the eternal purpose of God and the whole meaning of the universe.

This verse actually uses the Russian-doll technique, for it conveys further levels of interpretation. The word that we translate as “dwelt” or “lived” (or perhaps “stayed”, in the Scottish sense of the word, would be an even better translation) is in Greek “pitched his tent” or, more literally “set up his tabernacle”. Pitching a tent has overtones of mobility, not being tied to a particular place. It reminds us of how God travelled with the Israelites up to the time when King Solomon built the temple and it also hints at the earthly life of one who would “have nowhere to lay his head”. To the Old Testament prophets, “tabernacle” was the place where God would dwell in the midst of his people for ever. Wherever we are, whatever is happening, God stays with us.

All this and more is contained in these 18 short verses. The mystery of God’s will and purpose in bringing the cosmos into being has been made known in the Word, now revealed in the incarnate Son of God. In his time, John the Baptist testified to him and now it is our turn to speak the words, to do the deeds, so that the Word that has become flesh is made known in our time and place.

Prayers for the New Year

Lord Jesus, you are the one who stands at the gate of the year. Give us a light that we may tread safely into the unknown. As we go into this new year, we place our hand into yours, for that is better than any earthly light and safer than a known way! Lord, hear us. Lord, graciously hear us.
(based on a poem by Minnie Haskins, 1875-1957)

Lord, you make all things new . In these dark days we pray for all who suffer – through illness, uncertainty, family breakups, war, starvation. Bring hope alive in their hearts and cause their spirits to be born again. In this new year kindle in the hearts of all a mighty flame so that in our time, many will see your wonders and live to praise your name. Lord, hear us. Lord, graciously hear us.

Lord Jesus, come and ‘first-foot ’for us. May we welcome you into our home and we invite your blessing, for us, for our families and neighbours. May your love be a light to guide us through this new year. Lord, hear us. Lord, graciously hear us.

Almighty and eternal God, we pray for your Church, for Christian people throughout the world, especially this congregation. Draw our hearts to you, guide our minds, fill our imaginations, control our wills, so that we may be wholly yours, dedicated and committed to you; and then use us, we pray, as you desire, and always to your glory and the wellbeing of your people. Lord, hear us. Lord, graciously hear us.

Lord, accept these prayers through our Saviour Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Amen.