A lot of people don’t think of our gospel reading for this morning as a nativity story. It is a common Christmas reading, but these days it doesn’t seem to capture people’s imagination like the stories Luke and Matthew tell. The angel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah – the Roman census and the desperate journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem (with or without a little donkey) - the search for a place to stay in Joseph’s ancestral home town, and the eventual realization that they were going to have to bunk down with the animals - the birth of the baby so far from home, and his first crib in the animals’ feeding trough - the angel choir singing to the shepherds, and their journey to the manger to see the Saviour - the long journey of the wise men, probably arriving months later, or even years, and then the desperate flight of the holy family into Egypt to escape from King Herod’s death squads – this is fantastic storytelling, and it draws us in and grips our imaginations year by year.
For most people, John chapter one doesn’t have quite the same appeal. It reads more like a chapter from a philosophy book, and philosophy has always been a minority interest. My guess is that most churches will not read this passage over the Christmas season – or if they do, they’ll read it at one of the smaller services.
But I don’t think we’re doing John justice by ignoring his nativity story. Because it is a nativity story, you see – only, it’s a nativity story that starts a lot further back than Matthew or Luke. Matthew starts his gospel with a genealogy that traces the line of Jesus back nearly two thousand years to Abraham. Luke goes even further, tracing Jesus back to the first human beings who walked this earth, however long ago that may be. But John goes even further back than that - in fact, he goes as far back as you can possibly go, and certainly further back than he thought he was going:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
‘In the beginning’. When is that, precisely? Undoubtedly John was thinking of the first sentence of the Book of Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. But if we use our imagination – and John’s gospel positively demands that we use our imagination as we read it – then we can go far, far further back. The two creation stories in Genesis one and two describe the beginnings of the universe in terms of life on this earth: the earth is created first, and then the sun and moon and stars are created to give it light and warmth. But of course we now know that history is far older than that. Most scientists think that the earth is about four and a half billion years old, and we human beings have lived on it for only a tiny fraction of its history. But our universe itself; how old is it? Well, of course, scientific consensus is changing all the time, but I think the current estimate puts it at about fourteen billion years, starting with a big bang that was prepared and timed to absolute perfection to create life as we know it.
Is Jesus just involved in the New Testament, in the gospel stories and the birth of Christianity? No, says John – I want you to go far, far further back than that. ‘In the beginning’ – the very beginning, when God began to create the heavens, when God carefully planned that big bang fourteen million years ago, or however long ago it may actually turn out to have been – in the beginning was the Word. In other words, even this far back, we still aren’t at the beginning of the Word himself. We can go as far back as we possibly can in the history of our universe, to a time when all that existed was God himself - and yet Christ was already there. ‘And the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. In some way far beyond our human understanding, he shares the very nature of God, but is somehow distinct from the Father as well. Our rational brain will never understand this, but John invites us to reach out and grasp it with our imagination.
And what happens then? In the Genesis story, God starts to speak: ‘Then God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light’ (Gen. 1:3). And so begins a whole series of ‘speakings’. ‘And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters”’ (1:6). ‘And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (1:9) – and so on, and so on, a whole series of creative words, causing vegetation and plant life, birds and fish and animals, the sun and moon and stars, and leading up to the climax of the story, ‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”’ (1:26).
This is the power of God’s word. God doesn’t need to get his toolbox out and exercise his muscles: God’s very word has the power to bring creation into existence. Our words express the thoughts of our minds. I can have a thought in my mind, but no-one can see that thought except for me. But when I speak it, or write it, then my thought comes out into the open. And in the same way, God has all the wonders of creation in his mind, but then he speaks it out, and it becomes real.
But the truth is even more wonderful than that. Once again John invites us to use our imagination here. What if the Word of God was itself alive and active and personal? What if it wasn’t just a thing, like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars? What if it had a personality of its own? What if ‘the Word was with God, and the Word was God’?
This is what John spells out for us in verse 3:
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (vv.3-5).
This ‘Word’, this ‘Logos’ in Greek, is Jesus himself. In an amazing way, far beyond our human imagination, he was himself the creative Word that brought everything into being. So Jesus is not just interested in things like Bible study and sacraments and prayer; he’s not just interested in what we sometimes call our ‘spiritual life’. Jesus is interested in black holes and red dwarfs, in dinosaurs and woodland caribou extinction, in the majesty of the night sky and the beauty of the mountains. Paul sums this up in Colossians when he says,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created... (Colossians 1:15).
So John is establishing for us the identity of the baby in the manger. He isn’t just a great religious teacher or prophet, but the very Word of God himself, ‘and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:3). That’s who Christmas is all about.
And then, a little later on in the passage, comes what C.S. Lewis called ‘The Grand Miracle’:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).
This is the great descent – the One through whom absolutely everything in the universe was created now stoops down to enter his creation. And he doesn’t even do it like a Greek god, taking the form of a warrior or a beautiful woman; no, he becomes a tiny, helpless zygote inside his mother Mary. He grows and eventually is born, but of course, like all babies, he’s totally helpless, totally dependant on his parents to keep him alive. ‘He emptied himself’, says Paul in Philippians – in other words, he laid aside his power and glory and became a true human being, sharing our lives and our struggles, to show us not only what God is like, but also what God designed human life to be like.
‘We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son’. Jesus once said, ‘If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father’. I once met the Rev. Andrew Asbil, whose father was Walter Asbil, former bishop of Niagara. Andrew was absolutely the spitting image of his Dad, and someone once saw the two of them together and said, “Now I understand what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the father’!”
And yet, it’s not immediately obvious to us that Jesus is the image of God. We think of God as power and majesty, but Jesus looks just like an ordinary human being. What does John mean when he says ‘We have seen his glory’? In John’s gospel, the cross is the supreme example of the glory of Jesus. In other words, the glory of God is indestructible love – love that would rather die than hate. It’s not in power and majesty that we see the glory of God in Jesus: it’s in his way of life, doing the will of God even when it cost him his life. ‘Having loved his own who were in the world’, says John, ‘he loved them to the end’.
So the powerful, creative word of God took on a body and lived a flesh-and-blood life as one of us; as Eugene Peterson put it, ‘the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’. Too often we reverse that process: we take the flesh and blood Jesus and make him into a Word, a doctrine, an intellectual idea, or even worse, a theological argument that we want to win! But that’s not what Christmas is all about. Paul doesn’t say that Christians are the Word of Christ; he says we are the Body of Christ. In other words, the Word still needs to be made flesh. And so as we welcome Jesus into our hearts and put his teaching into practice in our lives, the Word becomes visible and tangible again. All of us together: as we use our hearts and minds and bodies to follow Jesus, the Word is made flesh and moves into our neighbourhood.
So we thank God this morning for the message of Christmas: that the Word of God didn’t stay safely in heaven, but chose to humble himself, to become weak and vulnerable, to enter human life in all its mess and ambiguity – and in that context, to live and die and rise again to save us. And we are called to live out this Christmas message: first of all, as John puts it, by ‘receiving him’, by ‘believing in his name’, and then by following his example of plunging into human life ourselves, in all its mess and ambiguity, and giving ourselves to doing the will of the One who has sent us. Remember what he said? ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’ (John 20:21). So when this service is over today, you and I are called to continue the Christmas story; we’re sent out by God into the neighbourhood, so that the Word can continue to be made flesh in the broken and hurting world that Jesus came to save. May the God who became one of us at Christmas strengthen us by his Holy Spirit so that we may be faithful to this calling he has given us.