Good morning, Friends!
Last week we started Advent – the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ. We looked at what people in the time of Jesus had heard from the prophets.
This morning, I want us to read from the gospel of John. I always think of the opening verses of John as the alternative Christmas story.
There’s no shepherds. There’s no kings. There’s no baby in the manger.
John tells the story in a different way. He goes way back, to the beginning of all things. Long before the birth of Jesus. Long before the prophets. Before everything we know, God had a plan.
God was working to save the world, all the way back from the time of creation. Yes.
It goes back that far. God created a savior, before the world ever got started. God knew that we would need Christ. Love was the first Word that God ever spoke.
Let’s hear what John has to say.
In the beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Through the Word, all things were made;
Without the Word, nothing created was made.
In the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.
– John 1:1-6
Christmas time is always a wonderful season. It’s really about my favorite time of the year. Families get together. People get presents. I enjoy Christmas!
I love the carols and the decorations. I like getting kissed under the mistletoe. I like peanut brittle, and fruit cake, and all that sweet stuff.
And I love the story of the shepherds and the manger. I love hearing about the special star and the search for the newborn king.
But today, I want us to step back just for a few moments, and ask ourselves, “What’s it all about? If we didn’t have all that wonderful, sentimental stuff, what would be left? What would we find at the heart of the Christmas message?”
John tells a very simple story. It is so simple, that it’s almost like poetry. John says that before all things began, God spoke. John says that there was a living Word, which existed before all things. That living word was with God. And that living word was God.
The Word, John tells us later, is love. The love of God, poured out for us. Laid down for us. Love is God’s main commandment. Love is what God wants.
John says, that who God is, and the Word which God speaks, are inseparable.
God speaks, and everything else comes into being. We exist, we are alive, because of the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, filling our souls. We came into being, we were called into being, by this demanding, form-creating, life-giving Word.
Another way of saying this is, that at the beginning of all things, and before all things, there was Light. The basic reality of the universe we know is light, and not darkness.
When the universe began, there wasn’t nothingness. There was no emptiness. There was simply no shape to things.
I can imagine myself not being around. I can imagine everybody here being gone.
I can easily imagine this building being gone. But if you take away this world, and if you take away all worlds, and if you take away the very fabric of time and space as we know it, there is still something left.
The basic reality, that which existed before all things came into being, and which will continue, long after everything we know ceases to exist, is Light. God’s Light.
The Word which God speaks, and the Light which God gives, are the very substance of our universe. God is the ground and being of our existence. As Paul said in one of his first sermons, “In God, we live, and move, and have our being…” (Acts 17:28)
I don’t know if I have words which are adequate to express the depth of this basic understanding. But God is not some actor on the stage of an independently existing universe. God doesn’t depend on anything else in order to exist. It’s the other way round.
We exist, everything we see exists, and even everything we don’t see exists, because of God. God’s Light is the underlying reality beneath all things. God’s Word is what creates and redeems all things.
And what John is saying, is that if we step back from all the stories and all the sentimental songs, then this Light, this Word, is known to us in the form and in the person of Jesus Christ.
I think that one of the reasons we highlight all of the family festivities and the other traditions of Christmas, is that the truth of what took place is something which is too simple for us. The truth is too powerful. And so we dress it up. We focus on the non-essentials, like trees and reindeer. We put up all the decorations, because the basic truth is too overwhelming for us. God is here with us.
When I was a little boy, our family spent some time living in Italy. And so I grew up learning to speak Italian. And the Italian word, carne, literally means “meat.” It’s the same in Spanish, too. Carne means flesh. You know, skin and bones. Teeth and toenails. Eyes and ears and noses and all that stuff that we all have.
So, in carne literally means, “in flesh” or “made out of meat”. Incarnation means that the Word which John is talking about, the Light which existed before this world or any other world, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”
I think that’s a very difficult idea for most people to accept. If it were an easy idea, there wouldn’t be any need for us to talk about it.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, it says that when God made a friendship with Moses, that God used to come down into a tent. Moses and the people set it up, outside the camp. They called it “the tent of meeting,” or they called it “the tabernacle.”
And that tent was God’s dwelling place. Maybe it wasn’t the only place where God lived. But the people of Israel knew that God certainly came to them there, at the tent of meeting. And God spoke to them there, directly. The word of the Lord came to them in that form.
The tent of meeting was where God answered their questions. It was where they prayed. It was where God gave them guidance. It was their holy place.
What John’s gospel is saying to us, is that when God wanted to speak to us again, God chose a new place for the Word to come. Instead of a tent in the wilderness, or instead of a temple that could be torn down in just a few days, the new place, the new tabernacle, was in the body of Jesus.
Why that should upset people, that God should come and speak to us in that way, is something that I’ve never figured out.
It isn’t as if Christ were a new God, or anything like that. John is very clear on that point. This is the same God, this is the same Word, this is the same Light, who has been present ever since the beginning.
Redeeming the world was God’s plan, long before the human life of Jesus. But Jesus’ life is where it all comes into focus. This is where we see the Light most clearly. This is where we hear the Word, without anyone getting in the way. Because Jesus’ life is where the living Word came to live among us, as one of us.
That’s what Christmas is really all about. You can believe in the choirs of angels, if you want to. I like angels. Sometimes I feel that I can almost hear them singing.
But you can be skeptical about these things, if that’s the kind of person you are. I believe that God made us rational, and I have the greatest respect for honest questions, in any field, if people ask them with intelligence and sincerity.
So, go ahead celebrate Christmas any way you want to. It’s fine!
What John says, and I don’t think that anyone here is going to argue against this, is that to everyone who receives the living Word, and to everyone who believes and trusts and walks in the Light, there is given a power.
It isn’t the kind of power which allows us to lord it over other people. It isn’t a power which makes us superior to our fellow human beings.
To those who receive the Light and the Word, there is given the power to become children of God, to be born in a new way. It’s hard to explain that new birth, just as it was hard for Jesus to explain the life which he wanted to share with people.
It’s either much too hard for us to understand, or else it’s much too simple. It’s as simple and direct as the invitation: “Follow Me…” Jesus called different people in different ways. And that’s all right.
I think that there are different versions of the Christmas story, because different words speak to different hearts. Next week, we’re going to hear one of the other Christmas stories, the one with the shepherds and the angels. But the message is still the same: God cares enough about us to come here and be with us. God cares enough about us, to live our lives, to take on the same pain and the same problems as everybody here.
God shows us the way to life, by living it along side us, under the same limits and the same handicaps which we labor under. God’s Word and God’s Light can reach into human hearts and human minds.
Receiving the Light and believing the Word doesn’t make us different from our fellow human beings. We’re not different stuff from all our neighbors.
And being a Christian doesn’t remove us from life, or excuse us from whatever problems or challenges come our way. But believing and receiving makes us realize who we are. We are God’s children.
It makes us realize that God is here, at Christmas. God is always here, within us and around us. God understands every sorrow we have, and God shares in every joy. And all the gifts that we have and share, at Christmas time and at all other times, all of our gifts, “grace upon grace,” come from Christ.
Let’s take all this into our quiet time together. And may the Word of God dwell richly in all of our minds and hearts.