How’s your Christmas? Has it been good? I hope so. A lot’s probably happened in the last 24hrs. You know, I always feel at a disadvantage on Christmas morning – preaching – because so much has already happened. I like Christmas Eve a little better, if I’m being honest because that’s usually before you Christmas. But Christmas morning – like 90% of it’s gone already – raise your hand if you’ve opened no presents yet. Would you mind? Do you think we could, perhaps, just start over… Like, start from the beginning? Pretend that no Christmas has happened so far? To really grasp the significance of this Christmas thing?
I mean like St. John does. He’s the fourth guy to write a gospel – a summary of this baby born at Christmas. Fourth isn’t bad, but it ain’t first. When you’re fourth, you can’t do the same thing as three gospels before you. And, I haven’t written a gospel myself but I’d guess the introduction options get a little slim. Matthew took the whole “Jewish genealogy” intro – from father Abraham all the way down to Jesus the promised Messiah. Mark – he did the avant-garde, in media res thing – warp 9 straight into John the Baptist preparing the way and Jesus (30 yrs old) is walking into Messiah ministry. Luke – he called dibs on the scholarly start, to “draw up an account” of “carefully investigated” things – and he took all the Christmas thunder – by chapter 2, it’s Angels Over Bethlehem and the Shepherd’s Hurry-Off 5K, kicked off by that unforgettable temporal frame: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…” You remember? So, if you’re John and your fourth, where does God have you start? What does God have you present, so deep into things already? Why not the beginning?
The beginning of the Christmas story would be a great place to begin, of course. But John, you notice, doesn’t drone-cam us into the manger-space with Mary in the throes of childbirth. He goes way back. Because this Christmas baby goes way back. To the beginning. “In the beginning…” John says. He doesn’t qualify it – the beginning of the fourth year of Tiberius Caesar… Sounds just like Genesis 1, the account of creation? Because boldly that’s what John means: the beginning before all things. There, in the beginning, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” John’s words are very simple. The longest word in John’s Greek language is six letters long. There are no thesaurus-trawling here; no theological one-offs. But you understand right away that this is no simple concept. This Word is with God – present to, face-to-face with, intimately connected with, inclined toward, a perfect fit with God; in fact, he is personal – district from and yet very God himself. Right now we should properly call him the Son of God or the 2nd person of the Triune God – later John will call him Jesus – your Christmas Savior. But for the moment, he is therewith and as God before anything else was. John makes that very clear…
“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” Now, if we’re after the significance of Christmas, how’s this thing? The little baby Savior over whom everyone coos and oohs – he’s the creator of all things. That’s a little hard to dismiss. How’s this? Stare into the manger scene and know that God has no time for the inanity of atheist ontologies; the conceit that life banged into being from nothing – that self-preserving, unscience that some random, billion-year, super-slow, tornado of construction brought the mundanity of otherwise dead matter into this incredible complexity we call life? By no means… No, by this means only is life. In this Word of God is life. And, if on our Christmas morning, John lights up our celebration with idea that all of life has its beginning in the Word of God and we do too, shouldn’t we ask, “Did he have a purpose for all this? For me?”
He most certainly does. Except, you have to hold on just a minute for the “what” and consider this trouble with Christmas. My wife loves sappy B-level, Christmas movies – that’s a personal trouble for me. These Canadians on Netflix have cornered the market on saccharine Christmas – all snowy ski lodges and personal struggle and hot chocolate that resolves into the true meaning of Christmas: everyone comes together; usually with romance. We like that at Christmas – Christmas is the season of love and goodwill and togetherness, connecting. So John lobs this incandescent bomb under your Christmas tree – you may have conceived of life and beginning, celebrated Christ’s birth, had some nice LifeTouch moments, but the claim is that he’s not just some ornament that decorates your experience but rather the very source of your existence… That ought to be life-changing. Except here is what you find: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” There’s a disconnect. Jump to verse 9, “[This] true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world [his world] did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Forget about purpose – on a relational level – there is no connection between you and me the creation and the creator. There should be working for the glory of our creator, lining up with his purposes, loving his designs. But there is animosity. There is hate. There is selfishness. There is rejection. And God calls it sin – in you, in me, in this world – darkness you recognize and feel and cannot honestly deny. The kind you can surely see when your world seeks to build better versions of itself – because they feel it’s broken too.
And, John tells us, God’s not content with that. Not then; not now. So he reaches out. Long ago, “[t]here came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe.” Do you see what God wants at Christmas? He shines Jesus’ life-light out into the world and he sends people to testify about it. Not so that people smile and hold hands around a Christmas tree and are kind in checkout lines but so that they believe – so that they hear, understand, and agree – more, adore… So that you may believe, he sent people like John the Baptist who prepared the way, or the pastor who preached on Christmas Day, or the children who sang of the angels and the shepherds and the baby – who clearly sang and meant to tell you who this baby is… God’s Word on Christmas.
It’s probably significant that that’s the concept John chooses to begin his gospel. Others, as we said have genealogy and gentle nativity. John begins with this concept, “the Word”. Consider that for a second.
- If we take up God’s claim that this Word is the one through whom all creation came, it brings to mind how God described it in Genesis 1 or how the psalmist put in Psalm 33: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth…[God] spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.” John names God’s bare awesome. He verbalized nuclear fusion and atomic energy and cardiac rhythm and nervous systems and reproduction and life – whatever it is that makes my bundle of molecules different than this pulpit’s – animate. Stop and look. See and understand. In the manger is Christ so far above us, so far beyond us. So great that you cannot grasp the breadth of his knowledge or the limitlessness of his power. Here is the creative force and will of God in person…
- But if this is our creator, we need to understand this him – what God wants or feels about our sins and us. To really understand someone requires words, doesn’t it? Imagine you’re walking through a park. You see a young man in his 30’s. By what you see, you can deduce things. He has no ring on his finger – perhaps he’s single. He has a big beard and a plaid shirt, painted on jeans, bench-grade boots – he must be a hipster. He’s eating a sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and a portobello mushroom in place of meat. You assume he’s a vegetarian. You could conclude many things about him. But would you say you actually know him? No! To do that would require a conversation – words – probably many. When God calls Jesus “the Word,” he’s telling us that he is the way God lets us really get to know him. We can look at creation and see his power or his wisdom. But only when we look at Christ can we see what we really need to know: that God’s intention for us is not destruction and damnation but salvation. This is the cause of Christmas and the purpose for it…
Jesus comes because God wants people to know him and become “children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” Connected to him – not by their own work, not by some human system, by nothing from the brains of humankind, really. Connected and knowing and privileged to be with him and belong with him and understand him.
Perhaps though we’d feel that the issue with the significance of Christmas isn’t really understanding God… No, sometimes people who don’t know God and even people who have long been children of God struggle with this: “But does he understand me? Does he know what it’s like to be me – weak? God, do you know what it’s like to be so scared you can barely function? God, do you know what it’s like to have family and friends let you down again and again? To have it all on your shoulders? God, do you understand how it is to feel like God is against you…that God’s abandoned you?”
This morning John says, that Jesus does understand you and the weakness of life in this world – born in a manger, poor and lowly. He understands fears that arrest you – look at him shedding tears and blood in Gethsemane, waiting to die – not wanting but willing to do whatever his heavenly Father desires. He knows family failures – his family thought he was crazy. And he knows what it’s like to have God against you. He says, “I understand that better than you because my Father would never abandon you. But when I was on the cross paying for your sins, he did abandon me.”
God understands. Jesus knows you. Because “[t]he Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” It started at Christmas long ago. But as we gather here, or pick up the Bible that tells his story, “we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father.” This glory, that the only-begotten Son of God, with God before all things, would choose to be with us, to willingly stand under God’s wrath for sins and sinners to save us. This glory, that he is “full of grace” – 100% forgiveness for our sins, all of the love of God, and without restriction shining for all people. This glory, that he is “full of truth” – 100% the full compass of what is right and real, all you ever need to know to truly live with God forever. This is God’s Word to us. He’s speaking to you. And he’s sharing the best way to begin Christmas – for the first time or again and again – it’s very simple: Christ the Savior is born – receive him.