December 25, 2017
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
It would appear that the evangelist of the fourth Gospel, the one we call “according to John” doesn’t know much about the Christmas story. No angels and shepherds. No star, no magi. He doesn’t even name the main characters of the story! Only John, the witness, is identified by name. Why then this gospel reading for Christmas? Because in 14 short verses, (or 18 if you read the entire prologue), it captures the heart, meaning, and benefits of the Christmas story.
When I began my studies toward ordination at Trinity College in Toronto, I enrolled in the first-year basic Greek course. Our professor had a rather unique method of instruction; he gave us the minimum we needed and tossed us into the Gospel of John, which became our text. We learned the grammar as we encountered it. So, I can never read this passage without seeing in my mind’s eye the first few verses in their original Greek, and forty-three years later, I can still recite some of it! And I can never read or listen to this passage without hearing in my memory the voice of Howard Buchner, the Dean of Divinity at the time. At Trinity, we held a service of Advent Lessons and Carols, because nobody was around for Christmas. And this passage was always the ninth and last reading, always read by the Dean. In perfect cadence, without a microphone but without raising his voice, he reached all the way to the choir loft at the back of the chapel clearly and distinctly.
“In the beginning was the Word…” So begin the words of the fourth gospel. Biblical scholars tell us that this prologue to the gospel had an independent life as a hymn to the divine Logos or Word, and that the author of the gospel incorporated it with additions to suit his purpose in writing. Certainly, this is a real prologue, like the overture to an opera or ballet. All the major themes of the gospel are found in these 18 verses: light and darkness, life, testimony, acceptance and rejection, glory, truth.
We can trace a development in the understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth is throughout the New Testament. As the earliest Christian writer, Paul asserted that, while descended from David according to the flesh, Jesus was declared Son of God by the mighty power with which God raised him from death. Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the four, tells us that Jesus’ divine Sonship was revealed at his baptism, when the heavenly voice proclaimed him to be God’s beloved. Matthew and Luke push the announcement of Jesus’ sonship further back, to his conception by the power of the Holy Spirit. Matthew and Luke also trace Jesus’ human antecedents. Matthew begins Jesus’ genealogy with Abraham, the founder of the nation from which the Messiah sprang. Luke reverses the order, beginning with Jesus and going all the way back to Adam, earth’s first settler, whom he also names son of God. From resurrection to baptism to conception – and now John completes the process. Only from John do we learn that Christ comes to us from the earliest time – from “the beginning”, from the dawn of creation.
We should be careful, though, not to read back into John the precise philosophical terminology of fourth century Christian dogmas. Jesus of Nazareth did not travel around Palestine preaching the Nicene Creed. No more do the gospels, yet the seeds of Christian doctrine are contained within them. Let us then let John speak for himself. Let us try to glimpse the mystery he sets before us.
“In the beginning was the Word.” From eternity, God is a communicating God. What God communicates is God’s self. God is a communicating God, a self-revealing God, a self-giving God. And of course, we hear a deliberate echo of the very first words of the Bible: “in the beginning”. In the beginning God created; in the beginning was the Word; in the beginning…God. God said, and it was so. God speaks, and there is light. God speaks, and there is life. “All things came into being through the Word. Whatever came into being through the Word was life, and that life was the light of all people.” The light that first shone in the world at creation now shines again with the coming of the Word. His birth is the beginning of a new creation, bringing the possibility of life to all. The life of which John speaks is more than physical existence; it is eternal life. And John tells us that this life is ours, not by nature, not by virtue of our own being, not because of the will of anyone else. Eternal life, the gift God holds in store for all people, is ours because we are a new creation in Christ. It is the gift of God freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
“The light shines in the dark, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The birth of Christ does not magically remove the darkness. Instead, it brings into the darkness an unquenchable light, an indestructible grace which the darkness, try as it might, cannot overcome. By that light, we are called to walk, we are called to govern our lives. By that light, we receive wisdom by which we are inwardly illumined, and so we have the gift of hope in a time when hope is fragile.
“There was a man named John.” In the fourth gospel, as in the others, John appears as the forerunner of the Messiah, but only here is he also called a witness. There was once a John, but there is always a man or a woman sent. That man or woman is each one of us, called by name and sent by our baptism. Sent to bear witness to the light. We are not ourselves the light. Sometimes we even deny the light and seem to belong to the realm of darkness.
“The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” We are given partial glimpses; we “see in a glass darkly”, as Paul said. No one – no human being or human institution – has a corner on the truth. John’s gospel calls us to acknowledge that Christ is greater than all the statements we make about him.
“He came to his own, and his own people did not accept him.” We ought not to conclude hastily that “home” means only Israel and “people” means only the Jews. Historically, Jesus’ mission was confined to Israel, and he experienced rejection from his people. However, the gospels are theology, not biography. When all is said and done, it is the world which did not know him. Disciples of Jesus are “in the world but not of it”. John speaks also at a more personal level. The home to which the Word comes is my life. I am of his people. He comes in baptism, in Eucharist, in prayer, in specific moments, people, and experiences in my life. Sometimes I fail to recognize him. Sometimes I turn my back on him. And sometimes, by God’s grace, I receive and welcome him, and I receive a power to be what he has made me – God’s own child.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Literally, in the Greek text, he pitched his tent among us, just as God moved with the Israelites through their journeying from slavery to the Promised Land of freedom. The Tent of the Presence was where Moses went to meet God, but he could never see God. Now, in the Word made flesh, God is hidden no longer. What mortal eyes could not see is revealed. The Word has taken up residence in the flesh he created. This journeying God is at home with us. God has a human face. Jesus “is the exact imprint of God’s very being”, as our reading from Hebrews says. “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made God known.”
The incarnate Word comes to his own, and his own will not receive him. But as many as do receive him, to them power is given. Can you see in the homeless person on the street the image of the world’s creator? You have been given power. Can you see in the barefoot refugee the messenger whose feet are beautiful with the good news of liberation? You have been given power. Can you hear the song of new creation from the ruins of Jerusalem, from our troubled inner cities, from the wounded prairies, forests, tundra, and oceans? You have been given power – power that threatens the world’s power, power that some desperately want to crush, but power that makes us children of God, ready to do God’s work. Because Jesus, the image and embodiment of God’s grace, takes on human flesh, we have been given the chance to draw closer to the heart of God with him. We have been given power to recognize ourselves as God’s beloved children. This is the true gift of Christmas: a new identity, a new humanity, a new opportunity, all through God in Christ. Amen.