The True Meaning of Christmas - John 1:1-14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A few years ago I was given a lovely little book of letters written to God by young children and they really do give tremendous insight into what is going on in their lovely little heads. Let me give you two or three examples: ‘Dear God, Did you really mean ‘Do unto others as they do unto you’? Because if you did then I am going to fix my brother!’ ‘Dear God, Thank you for my baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.’ ‘Dear God, I bet it is hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it’. And here is one straight from the heart: ‘Dear God, I wish there wasn’t no such thing as sin. I wish there was not such a thing as war.’ Now that is not just the cry of a child is it? A few years ago a whole range of people took place in extensive interviews about their thoughts about what has now come to be known as ‘spirituality.’ And they make sober and moving reading. These too are cries from the heart. Just let me read to you one comment which is representative of so many and this is what the person said: ‘There is so much war and conflict. If there is a God, why doesn’t he just send someone down?’ And maybe you are here tonight and you would echo those sentiments. ‘It is all very well if there is a God to be cocooned in heaven, enjoying the bliss of paradise, but why doesn’t he spare a thought for some of us his creatures sweating it out amidst the pains of earth?’ You know, of all the religions in the world, Christianity is the only one which is not fazed by that sort of question. In fact it welcomes it. And it welcomes it because it gives an opportunity to explain the breathtaking good news that God has gone one step better than ‘sending someone down’, he has actually come down himself.
This is the way one eye witness of this amazing event puts it in his biography called John’s Gospel which is read every Christmas, you can see it on your service sheet, John 1:14.: ‘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.’ Now just for moment let’s try and get our minds around what has just been said because it really is quite extraordinary stuff.
‘The Word’ (that is God himself according verse 1), became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ Do you get that? God became a man. While the creatures of earth went about their daily business quite unaware- what happened? Well, Divinity arrived. That is what happened in a specific locatable place at a specific datable time. Heaven opened herself and placed her most precious Being in- a human uterus. The Omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been Spirit for all eternity became pierceable. He who was larger than the whole universe became a human embryo. In fact he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young Jewish girl. Isn’t that something? When John says, ‘The Word became flesh’ he means that God was a foetus. It is holiness sleeping in a womb; the creator of life being created. God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen. He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother. God had come down you see. He came not as a flash of light or as an unapproachable conqueror, but as one whose first cries were heard by a peasant girl and a sleepy middle aged carpenter. The hands that first held him were calloused with dirt under the finger nails. No silk. No ivory. No hype. No party. No glitz. No glamour. In fact if it were it not for the shepherds, there would have been no reception at all. And if it were not for a group of stargazers, there would have been no gifts. Angels watched as Mary changed God’s nappy. The universe watched with wonder as The Almighty learned to walk. Later on children played in the street with him. And had the synagogue leader in Nazareth known who was listening to his sermons…well, he may have just sat down and handed it right over to him. The only sensible thing to do when God is in your congregation. Have you ever thought that Jesus may have had pimples, nappy rash, colic? Perhaps a girl down the street had a crush on him or vice versa- the ‘Word became flesh’ you see. It could be that his knees were bony, we don’t really know. But one thing we do know: He was, while being completely divine, completely human. How about that for a miracle? How about that for sending someone down?
Notice how John goes on to say he, ‘made his dwelling among us.’ Yes, ‘us’ real people in a real world, the suffering war torn world the person who was interviewed was complaining about. For thirty-three years he would feel everything you and I have ever felt. He felt weak. He grew weary. He knew fear. He was susceptible to wooing women. He got colds, he burped, and he had body odour. His feelings got hurt. His feet got tired. His head ached. To think of Jesus in such a way is—well, it seems almost irreverent, doesn’t it? It’s not something we like to do; it makes us feel uncomfortable. It is much easier to keep the humanity out of the incarnation. It is much more to our liking to clean the manure from around the manger, to wipe the sweat out of his eyes and pretend he never snored or blew his nose or hit his thumb with a hammer. He’s easier to stomach that way. Far better to have the domesticated children’s Jesus of the nativity play. There is something about keeping him as a stain glass image that keeps him distant, packaged, predictable. But you read on in the Gospels and you will see there is nothing at all predictable about Jesus- the God who became man. As C.S. Lewis put it: ‘Aslan is no tame lion.’ Let him be as human as he intended to be. Let him into the mire and muck of our world. For only if we let him in can he pull us out.
But you say, John says we saw his ‘glory’. Isn’t that the sort of halo around his head we see in those Victorian pictures? Well, no. Because John goes on to tell us what that glory actually is. God's "glory" is simply God's essential character, what we would see and experience God to be like if all the barriers could somehow be stripped away. Well, says John, what you see when you look at Jesus is precisely that- God's glory. And what is that glory like, what is that character like? It is grace and it is truth, says John. Now the best way to understand those words is not to look up some dictionary definition, but simply to read the rest of John's story. Then you'll see what he meant by them. If you have never read it, or not read it recently, then let me say that you owe it to yourself to check it out. And when you do you will find for example:
In chapter 2, Jesus rescues a wedding from failure by making gallons and gallons of new wine. The human God brings joy and celebration to the world: that's God's character: that's grace and truth.
Turn over to chapter 3, and you
see him talking with a man called Nicodemus, he was the Archbishop of Canterbury
of his day and he tells him that he is far too religious and not nearly radical
enough in his so called spirituality. What he needs is a spiritual regeneration
which only God can give from above, not religious rigermerole from below. So
you see, the human God challenges the religiosity in the world: that's God's
character: full of grace and truth.
In chapter 4, he talks at the side of a well with a woman who has been much used and much abused, and who is thirsty for self-worth and for intimacy, and he talks openly with her about sex and religion in a way that was considered proper only among family members. But he does it anyway. The human God begins to create a new kind of community in the world where people's thirst for reality can begin to be quenched, where the longing for significance and meaning can be met: this too is the character of God: full of grace and truth.
In chapter 13, Jesus gets on his hands and knees, takes a basin of water and a towel, and washes his disciples' dirty, smelly feet as if he were their servant. The human God actually models a radically new kind of leadership in the world: this too is the essential nature of God: full of grace and truth.
But in chapter 19, Jesus suffers the death penalty at the hands of the Romans, coming back to life in a new, joyous, indestructible kind of life. The human God deals with the world's sin and suffering, the problem of life and death: this is also what God is like: full of grace and truth. And we are not to sentimentalize this. These events actually took place in a nation famous for its religious genius and under a government renowned for its efficiency. God was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, a fickle crowd stirred up by professional agitators. You know his executioners made vulgar jokes about him, called him filthy names, they smacked him in the face, flogged him and hanged him like a lump of raw piece of meat on a butchers hook. And that is grace- Jesus undeservingly taking the punishment we deserve for the way we treat our Maker. Today we may not try to kill him with nails, but we do it with deeds, often by simply ignoring him and wishing him to be as good as dead and out of our lives. But he says, ‘Even though they are like that and because they are like that I will take that sin to myself and be done with it.’ And as he is displayed there on that cross we see truth. There is the sad truth about humanity, this is the sort of thing we do given the opportunity, kill our Creator. But we also see the wonderful truth about God, that he is just and loving- dealing with the root cause of the world’s wars and horrors- our selfish rebellion against him because for all who come to him he offers an amnesty and fresh start and a new heart. How does John put it? : ‘For all who received him, who believed on his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’ That is what it means to become a Christian: to come back into contact with God through Jesus and experiencing that in the here and now.
So we know who this ‘Word’ is. It is Jesus. So let’s go back and re-read the introduction: In the beginning was Jesus and Jesus was with God and Jesus was God. Jesus was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Jesus, and without Jesus not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Jesus was life and the life of Jesus was the light of all people.
Do you now see who made you, and who owns you and who calls you to become his follower? It is Jesus.
Now, does this mean that those who vaguely believe in God or who are members of another religion have got it completely wrong? Well, not necessarily. But it does mean in all honesty that only a follower of Jesus will find the complete fulfilment and the intimacy of a relationship that others are looking for in God. Just listen to what a Muslim, who became a Christian a few years ago, said about his conversion: ‘I am a Christian for one reason alone, the absolute worshipability of Jesus Christ. By that word I mean that I have found no other being in the universe who compels my adoration as he has done.’ And there are plenty of people here tonight who would same exactly the same- you go and ask them.
The wonderful thing about the true God in Jesus is that he is so approachable. That is why people came to him. And boy, how they came to him! They came at night, they came during the day. They touched him as he walked down the streets; they followed him as he walked around the sea. They invited him into their homes and put children at his feet. That is how approachable he was. He never turned away an honest seeker- never.
And maybe that has been the problem for you: God has seemed so distant, a vague idea not a reachable person. Well, Jesus overcomes all of that. He overcomes the distance created by space and time by becoming a human being in space and time. He overcomes the barrier created by our selfishness and sin and all the muck within our lives by taking to himself in his own body on the cross the punishment and the muck- so for all who stop putting their trust in themselves and put their trust in him he gives new life and God becomes personally real.
Like those children, and like that person interviewed. you may have all sorts of questions you want to put to God, but because of what he did 2,000 years ago he asks bigger questions of you: Do you know who God is, what God is like? Do you know who Jesus is, how he's unique? Do you know who you are in this world? Do you know what life is all about? Do you want to get that brokenness you feel mended? Well, what is stopping you on the basis of what you have heard tonight? Some things in life can only be known by keeping a distance- like an experiment in a laboratory, the scientist must not interfere with the instruments. But other things can only be discovered by getting personally involved- like the love of a person for example. There comes a point when having asked the questions, thought about the issues, you take that step and say, ‘Right, count me in.’ And the true God, this Lord Jesus invites you to do just that now. He says ‘All the evidence for who I am and what I came to do has been put before you. Now I want you to take that step of faith and trust me. Yes, you will have to change direction, yes you will have to change the way you are living and what you are living for and start following and living for me. I promise I will be with you and I will give you other people to help you- other followers called Christians so you are not in it alone. What is more I will come into your life by my Spirit. I came down for you, will you now come forward to me?’ Well, will you? Why not do that now as we pray.
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