A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on December 24, 2022 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: John 1: 1-14
If you’ve ever seen ‘Fawlty Towers,’ you’ll know that it’s basically one joke stretched out over twelve episodes. Basil Fawlty’s the proprietor of an undistinguished hotel in Torquay. He’s surrounded by imbeciles, in the form of some of his staff, and several of his guests; but he’s also beholden to the wealthier of his guests for income, so he has to find a way to contain his barely suppressed rage, enough to be polite to his guests and communicate with his staff. His frequent attempts and consistent failures to do so constitute the endless repeated cycle of wild flailings and ultimately explosive violence that makes the series agonising, hilarious and gripping viewing.
But here’s a question: what if it weren’t a comedy? What if Fawlty Towers were actually a profound portrayal of human life, in which communication is largely impossible, and conventions of civility are always on the point of snapping, whereupon violence inevitably ensues? Think about what it feels like to try to communicate with something or someone that can’t or won’t receive your radar signals and send appropriate signals back. Like a relentless puppy that just won’t calm down, or a youth group that won’t listen to instructions or demands; like a terrorist who won’t be reasonable, or a flatmate to whom it’s like talking to a brick wall. In all these situations, scary as it is to say it, violence lurks just beneath the surface. Words aren’t helping you. You’re perilously close to turning into Basil Fawlty and catapulting to a place beyond words. Civilisation is about finding and learning ways to resolve tension and conflict without violence. But sometimes the best of us can teeter towards becoming profoundly uncivilised.
Which is why some of the most moving stories are about how two people can make a journey from a stand-off of frustrated and scarcely suppressed violence to a relationship of genuine peace. Virginia Axline was a primary school teacher in 1950s Ohio who went back to college and studied with the psychologist Carl Rogers. She developed the practice of child-centred play therapy, which offers warm, non-judgemental acceptance to children and patiently allows them to find their own solutions at their own pace. In a famous book, she describes a single child named Dibs, who presents as seldom speaking, often withdrawing, and frequently violently lashing out. Over the course of a year, by listening and not judging, Axline induces Dibs to find words for his feelings, and begin to interact with his family and peers. She never asks questions like ‘Did you have a good time?’ because they require a particular answer, which can leave a child trapped. She never says, ‘See you next week,’ because she won’t make promises that might not be kept. Gradually trust and space and permission develop, and eventually the words emerge and the violence ceases. The book is subtitled In Search of Self, but I’d call it Establishing Relationship or even Finding Words.
The first sentence of perhaps the most important story ever written is this: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ This sentence is itself a nod to the first sentence in the Bible, which starts, ‘When all things began.’ But it’s saying something more profound than that earlier sentence. It’s saying communication – the desire to share and relate, the urge to engage and listen and receive and open up – this is at the very core of all things, indeed the reason for the creation of all things. ‘The Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ In other words, the essence that created existence, the forever that conceived of time, the everywhere that brought about here is, at its very heart, about communication – nonviolent communication, partnership, relationship, togetherness. In fact, that’s the purpose of existence – to communicate fully with one another and to communicate back with God. There’s nothing more important than that.
But here we run into two problems. The first is, not all communication is healthy – some words are hurtful, cruel and destructive. (And you might not know this, but this was true even before the invention of Twitter.) The second is, words are sometimes only words. Words aren’t always rooted in feelings, actions, or integrity: sometimes words can be so far from actuality they might just as well be called lies. In 1990 the rock band Extreme released a ballad that struck a chord with many people whose partners were quick with the terms of endearment, but whose way of showing it made those words empty. ‘Saying “I love you,”’ goes the song, ‘Is not the words I want to hear from you. It’s not that I want you Not to say, but if you only knew How easy it would be to show me how you feel More than words is all you have to do to make it real Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me – ‘Cause I’d already know.’ Rock ballads don’t get more searing than that.
Now I don’t know anything about the religious persuasion of the members of Extreme, but I wonder if they’ve realised, all the thousands of times they’ve been called upon to sing their most famous song these last 30 years, that they are perfectly expressing the heart of what Christmas is all about. Let me set out the sequence as we’ve discovered it tonight. Communication is at the heart of all things, because the real big bang that started this whole thing off was God’s decision to be in relationship – for the persons of the Trinity to communicate as fully beyond themselves as they do with each other. Humanity is the purpose of creation, because humanity is the partner with whom God can be fully in relationship. But it turns out humanity finds ways to twist communication from its created purpose as the texture of relationship to a sinister parody of relationship in cruelty, and the outright undermining of relationship in lies. There’s no Virginia Axline to come alongside wounded, fearful and withdrawn humanity and create trust through patience and understanding. Many prophets offer words; many brave souls offer example. But collectively, humanity’s response to God embodies the words of that song: ‘More than words is all you have to do to make it real.’
Which brings us to the most significant sentence in the Bible, and I would suggest the most important sentence ever written. A sentence about communication, and how communication turns into trust and relationship. Fourteen verses into that same story I referred to earlier, a story known as John’s gospel, we find these priceless, peerless, perfect words: ‘And the Word became flesh, and lived among us.’ Here lies the fulfilment of the whole reason for the existence of all things. Everything that happened before this moment is backdrop and preparation. Everything that’s happened since has been echo and embedding. This is the central moment, in which God’s original desire to be with us becomes more than words. Jesus appears, fully human – born of a human mother in pretty desperate, shoddy, forsaken, neglected, rough and inhospitable conditions; let’s just say the ox wasn’t too particular where it went to the bathroom and the ass wasn’t too fussed about where it brought up last night’s fodder. But Jesus is also fully divine, for the heavens ring with the song of angels and a star guides the magi to the place of his birth. Jesus is the perfect communication of God to us, more than words, making it real, and Jesus is the perfect communication of us to God, how easy it can be to show God how we feel.
The whole of Jesus’ life is like Virginia Axline’s year with young Dibs. Jesus is creating an environment for us where we can live beyond cruelty and lies, and finally find ways to dwell beyond violence in patience, understanding and trust. He’s in search of our self, listening, not judging, offering open enquiry not closed questions, inviting us to wonder and discover and allowing us to find our own solutions at our own pace. Jesus is the Word of God that offers us the epitome of communication, through which we may find a relationship that lasts forever.
Yet there’s no naïveté in Christmas. There’s simplicity, and a degree of innocence – but no naïveté. Because we all know that cruelty and lies enter Christ’s story soon enough. They’re there in Herod’s court when the Magi go to Jerusalem by mistake and they’re there when Herod sends soldiers to kill all the young children in Bethlehem. And they catch up with Jesus in the end, when his communication meets the world’s violence, and for a moment violence prevails. But the light of communication and relationship shines in the darkness of violence, and promises that, if we can only find time and patience, we will eventually see trust and relationship emerge from even the most violent of our failures to find words.
This is the wonder of Christmas. The Word becomes more than words. And inspires us to let the Holy Spirit of patience and tenderness turn our own violent frustration and anger into relationship and trust, and eventually to let those words become flesh, in embodied gestures and commitments of solidarity and love. It’s because the Word became flesh, because God came among us to embody utter relationship with us, because God has faced the worst of our cruelty and lies, because God has shown us, because God has made it real, that we gather this holy night, with stars so brightly shining, and say to God, boldly, bravely, gladly, ‘You don’t have to say that you love us – ’cause we already know.’