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Christmas Day Sermon

The Reverend Charles Royden

John Chapter 1: The Word Made Flesh

I want to start by reminding you about the Ark of the Covenant

I wonder if any of you have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark with Harrison Ford. The Ark of the Covenant is a very interesting thing. It was a box or chest 45 x 27 x 27 inches made perhaps of Acacia wood. This box became venerated because it symbolised the presence of the living God at one particular spot on earth. The God who dwelt in the high and holy place was also present at the ark of the covenant in the midst of the people

It is described in Exodus 25:10-16
“Have them make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold moulding around it.  Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other.  Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.  Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it.  The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed.  Then put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you. “Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide.  And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover.  Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends.  The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover.  Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you.  There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.

So the ark was portable, it could be carried on poles overlaid with gold which passed through rings on the side. It was considered to be so holy that anybody who touched it, even by accident, would be punished by death.

The story is told as part of the account of how David brought the Ark to Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 6

David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand.  He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart  with the ark of God on it and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals. When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God. Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah. David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, “How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?”  He was not willing to take the ark of the LORD to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite.  The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the LORD blessed him and his entire household. Now King David was told, “The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.” So David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing.  When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf.  Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, 15 while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart. They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD.  After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty.  Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes. When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD.  I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honour.” And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.

The ark seems to have contained the two tablets of the law of 1 Kings 8:9 but according to Hebrews 9:4 it also contained

  • Aarons rod that budded (Num 17:1-10)
  • A golden urn holding manna (Ex 16:32-34)
  • It was carried by the sons of Levi on the wilderness wanderings (Deut 31:9)
  • Borne over the Jordan by priests (Josh 8:1)
  • Captured by the Philistines (1 sam 4)
  • Brought to Jerusalem by David (2 Sam 6:1)
  • It was kept in a tent like sanctuary and installed in the holiest chamber of Solomans temple.
  • The ark was captured when Jerusalem fell in 587/586 BC

The important thing to remmeber is that this was where God was thought to dwell, the ark was where God lived on earth.

So now let’s think about the temple built by Solomon

During the ministry of Jesus the temple was being built in Jerusalem. The main structure had been built and you might remember that one day the disciples of Jesus drew his attention to the magnificent stones which they saw. During the construction work, priests were trained as stonemasons so that they could build the holy parts of the temple. For ordinary people to do this would have been unacceptable because the temple was holy. On the walls surrounding the temple were warning signs written in Greek and Latin forbidding the entry of any gentile under penalty of death. There were increasingly sacred areas, from women, to male areas,
The place where God dwelt was the holy of holies and even the high priest could only go there once a year, on the day of atonement. when he did he had to go equipped with a bucket of blood to sacrifice for the sins of the people. A veil of Babylonian tapestry was hung to separate the nave and a second veil separated the holy of holies. Do you remember that this temple curtain was torn at the time of Jesus death?

The priests worked on the inner sanctuary. A thousands priests were trained according to he Jewish Historian Josephus. Even King Herod was not allowed into the construction work on the Holy of Holies, he was forbidden because he was not a priest.
The point is that God was separate, God was holy and you did not dare go near him. If you did you had to be a very holy person with a bucket of blood to sacrifice. God was distant, God was removed, God was other.

John’s prologue.

So in the light of all that we have read about the Ark of Covenant and the Temple, read the account from John 1:14 today in the light of that historical background. Read again those words from John Chapter 1

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory,
the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God had taken flesh! The story of Christmas is supposed to be shocking. The idea of the word becoming flesh and living among us is about as offensive an idea to a first-century Jew as you could possibly imagine. One of the guiding ideas of Jewish theology is that the sacred needs to be kept at a safe distance from the profane. The temple was built to separate the holy from the unholy, through a series of walls and exclusions.

Christmas turns all of this on its head. God actually becomes part of the stuff of humanity

The Church has had to rethink all of this just recently with the protest outside St Paul’s Cathedral. There was a big falling out if you remember between the clergy who thought that the riff raff ought to be locked up and the ones who believed that they should be welcomed. The reaction of many church people to was that there was a meeting of the sacred and the profane. God and worship should not be interrupted by the material concerns of the world. God was not interested in entering the political debate about the disparity between rich and poor. What was important was getting the worship right.

This of course is Old Testament temple thinking. Where Jesus walked was literally the most holy place on earth and he went out of his way to meet with very ordinary people. In his society there were elaborate rituals which separated not just the temple but also relationships outside. Many people were regarded as unclean. Jesus deliberately attacked all of those people who upheld this system. he knew that whilst it strived for purity it neglected justice.

Jesus got rid of the idea of ritual purity, clean worship and instead reinforced the call for love and compassion. So Jesus touched lepers and haemorrhaging women and mixed with poor people and outcasts. We love our rituals and our degrees of separation. Jesus doesn’t. Jesus announced his ministry at Nazareth by saying his mission was
“to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,
recovery of sight for the blind and release for the oppressed”.

Does that sound like the role of a traditional priest? Jesus is describing his own ministry as though he was a religious freedom fighter. Jesus means to bring reform to society to tackle poverty, injustice and oppression. Even today we sometimes forget and fall back into the trap of thinking about God as a holy, other worldly God. Nothing can be further from the truth and we are reminded of that as we see God lying in a manger.

Charles Royden