Hebrews 1.1-4 [5-12]
John 1. 1-14
May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit of life,
'The world is running out of words.' That was the rather amazing claim made earlier this month by a team of researchers from an organisation called Epoch. According to Epoch there could be up to a quadrillion words in existence, but even that many won't be enough to feed a new technology called the chatbot. Chatbots have been in the news a lot recently; they're a form of artificial intelligence that you can ask to write anything; essays, reports, short stories, even sermons! One called ChatGPT is so sophisticated that a few days ago my son suggested seeing if it could write today's sermon. So, we asked it to write a sermon on 1 John for Christmas day and it did ….by hoovering up thousands of references on the internet and taking just a few seconds it came up with something that began:
"Dear friends in Christ,
As we gather together on this joyous day, let us turn to the words of the apostle John. In John 1 we are reminded that Jesus is the word, the Word who was with God in the beginning and who was God... this passage reminds us of the incredible love that God has for us..."
Not bad really, for a computer programme, but for all that it can draw on even a quadrillion words there seems to me to be something missing here. Maybe it's knowing that a chatbot doesn't do what I do when I'm planning a sermon, and take its dog for long wet walks while it's thinking over what to say –maybe it's because I'm pretty certain also that ChatGPT doesn't sit at its desk and say a little prayer for guidance before it starts to write...but mostly I think it's because for all the millions of words at its disposal ChatGPT totally lacks any sense of the mystery and wonder that we feel as living, loving fragile human beings when we think about everything that Christmas means for us. This is especially so when we hear those all-encompassing and wonderful opening lines from today's Gospel:
'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.'
ChatGPT needs a quadrillion words in order to operate, but the great mystery expressed here at the opening to John's Gospel is that God just needs the one. What an amazing idea that is, and quite something to reflect on this Christmas morning. I John invites us to strip away all the many thousands of words we've used in recent days- words we've written and read in Christmas Cards and sung in carols, the words of all those happy Christmases we've wished one another, until we find the one 'word' that really matters, the word which John tells us was with God at the beginning of everything. We're being invited to understand that all those words and all the love and wonder they express begin with God, and with the relationship God has with us through Christ. Today's Gospel tells us that everything we love about Christmas, about life, love, and the world in which we live, has at its centre this mystery of the Word made flesh and living amongst us.
This icon seems to be trying to express something of that mystery.
We don't know who crafted it originally sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries, or even where it was made, but so much of what we're told about the mystery of the Word in 1 John is here. I hope you'll want to keep it and come back to it again and again because, like the gospel reading itself one encounter won't be enough to appreciate it in all its wonder. As you look at it, think for a moment about 1 John, and how it expresses the interconnected mysteries of Creation, 'life and light which John tells us about and which he says are all wrapped up in the one 'Word'. Through the icon I think we're being invited to reflect on how we can encounter God as 'word' in three senses: God as something spoken, God as something written and God as something physically present in the world.
The voice of God, calling the universe into being at its beginning, is symbolised by the way the tips of the fingers of Christ's right hand touch the tip of his thumb. He's pointing to his own body as a way of inviting us to think about 'what has come into being in him'. His left hand holds an open Gospel that reminds us of how God speaks to us through the Bible and the written word, and the figure of Christ Himself shows us 'the Word made flesh and dwelling amongst us'. The golden background suggests the heavens, but it also reflects the light of the day we're living in now, reflecting the light of this Christmas day here in church. It glows with its own shimmering beauty, it's golden light reminding us that Jesus is the 'the true light that gives light to everyone'. The cross in Christ's halo foreshadows the crucifixion, as do the tiny black crosses in the margins, reminding us that his death will come about because of the world not recognising him. 'He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.'
Ultimately the opening to John's Gospel invites us today to enter into a new understanding of who Jesus was and is. We'll never get to the end of the amazing mystery we're celebrating today, not even in a lifetime of Christmases. We'll certainly never find exactly the right words for the immensity of the love which that mystery embodies, and which is embodied in the figure of Christ himself, even with a quadrillion words to choose from. let's hope and pray instead that this Christmas morning something of the wonder and beauty of God's grace, made real and tangible for all of us in the birth of Christ, can be born in our lives as they are today, and that we too can discover what it means to of become children of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit