Our gospel reading tonight give us the central message of Christmas. We might not have recognized it right away, because it’s not the familiar story from Matthew or Luke – the journey to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the baby in the manger, the shepherds, the wise men. That’s the story we know really well.
What John gives us is the bigger picture – not the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but the journey from heaven to earth. John introduces us to this mysterious figure who he calls ‘the Word’. He says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1.1). We sense that John is straining at the limits of language here: how can something or someone both beGod and also be withGod? Don’t worry about that: if you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!
A few verses later comes the great moment in the text: ‘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 what’s happening in the Christmas story. God the Word – who has always existed for all time with God the Father – decides to enter the life of this planet in a real and visible and tangible way. So he becomes one of us. He takes on our humanity, our physical form, our limitations. He lives among us – or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, he ‘moves into the neighbourhood’.
Why? Why would God do such a thing? Let me share with you three things Christmas means for us.
First, Christmas is an affirmation of our human life.
As the years go by we’re becoming more and more aware of just how big the universe is. The numbers stagger the brain, so I’m not even going to try to explain them, but we all know that the universe stretches for millions of light years. When you look at some of the stars in the night sky you are actually a time traveller. You aren’t seeing those stars as they are today. You’re seeing them as they were when the light particles began their journey to earth, hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Imagine a God who could make a universe like that! It stretches through unimaginable distances of space, and it’s been in existence for over fourteen billion years. This planet that we live on is a tiny speck in that vast expanse. And we human beings are even tinier. This planet got along for most of its history without us. For us, a lifespan of a century is an amazing thing that very few of us achieve. So why would God take any notice of us?
And yet, he did. He holds the entire universe in his hands, but he chose to become a little child that Mary could hold in her arms – completely helpless, completely dependent on her. He accepted the limitations of being human. He experienced the pain and injustice we feel. As Paul says in one of his letters, ‘he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2.8).
Imagine the love that could motivate God to do a thing like that! Love is the only possible explanation for it. Apparently the smallness of our planet is not an issue with him. Apparently the insignificance of humanity in the history of this planet doesn’t even figure on his radar screen. Apparently he’s so in love with the human race that he was willing to come to us and be with us. What an affirmation of us as human beings!
And also, what an affirmation of our bodily life! Some religions think the body isn’t that important. It’s just a tent that we live in temporarily. It’s a nuisance, actually – if you really want to get close to God, you have to remove yourself from bodily concerns as much as possible. Not so, says Christianity! In fact, God himself took our humanity. He smelled the smell of good food cooking. He felt the enjoyment of a loving embrace. He heard the sound of music. He saw the beauty of a sunset over the lake of Galilee. He doesn’t ask us to abandon physical life to get to know him. Rather, he adoptsour physical life to get to know us!
So that’s the first thing we can say about Christmas – it’s an affirmation of our human and physical life. But that’s not the whole truth. Christmas is also a correction of the way we’ve chosen to live our life.
We all know we live in a fallen world. The evidence is all around us. Human beings are capable of incredible acts of kindness and love, but we’re also capable of unbelievable cruelty and selfishness. We don’t need to look at the big global events that are going on all around us. All we need to do is take an honest look at our own human capacity to mess things up. I’m incredibly good at that! In fact, it might just be my biggest talent!
Let me just explore this with you for a minute. In our Anglican liturgy, every Sunday we confess our sins to God in these words: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’. All we need to do is focus on the second half of that statement. A few years ago I remember hearing the story of an elderly lady who died alone in an inner-city apartment. It was two weeks before anyone discovered she was dead. What sort of a society have we created where that kind of thing can happen? Where were her neighbours? Why was there ‘no room at the inn’ for her?
We humans are made in God’s image, which is a good thing, but our life is spoiled by selfishness and self-centredness. And so the Incarnation acts as a corrective for us. Jesus not only shows us what God is like, he also shows us what we are meant to be like. He lives a life of complete love for God and for human beings. Rich and poor, young and old, insider and outsider, he loves them all. He speaks the truth at all times. He cares for the sick and the hungry. He loves his enemies and rays for those who hate him. Martin Luther called him ‘the Proper Man’.
Now I can hear you saying, ‘He may be the proper man, but his example is way out of reach for me’. That’s true – and that’s why Christianity has always taught that being a Christian isn’t just about gritting your teeth and trying to follow the example of Jesus. You’ll fail every time if you do that! We’ve also been taught that God comes among us – God actually enters our lives – and gives us a power beyond our own power. The Bible uses the symbolism of the heart – the very centre of our being. In the Incarnation God came to live in Mary in a physical way, as a human foetus in her womb. But now, Paul says, ‘I pray that…Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Ephesians 3.17). As we choose to trust him, so Jesus lives in us. As we pray and listen to him, and as we share in Holy Communion, his life in us gets stronger. And then we start to discover a strength we didn’t know we had before.
So Christmas is an affirmation of the goodness of our human life. It’s also a correction of the wrong choices we humans have made, and a pointer back to the right path for us. Finally, Christmas is an invitation.
‘O Come, all ye faithful,
joyful and triumphant;
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the king of angels.
O come let us adore him,
Christ the Lord’.
Christmas is the story of how God has come to us, but it’s also an invitation for us to come to God.
Think with me for a minute about what happens in human reconciliation. A genuine reconciliation can’t be a one way thing. Both parties need to move, or it can’t be real. Even if most of the guilt is on one side, the other party still has to make the decision to forgive, which is also a movement of its own.
Sometimes you see incredible stories of reconciliation, where one party seems to be making ninety percent of the movement – that’s a sign of how deeply they care and how much they want the reconciliation to happen. But that can only go so far. Unless the other party is prepared to move the final ten percent, the reconciliation won’t take place.
Paul says, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.19). God travelled an incredible distance to be reconciled with us. The one who created the vastness of the universe shrunk himself down to become a tiny little embryo in a mother’s womb. He went so far as to make himself unrecognizable! There was nothing unusual about the way Jesus looked. Nobody fell down at his feet instantly and cried out ‘My Lord and my God!’ He didn’t look like God; he looked just like one of us. And even when we rejected him and crucified him, he still forgave us.
God has gone the distance, but we’re invited to travel the final few yards. It may seem like a big journey for us, but it’s tiny compared to the journey he’s made. Our journey is to turn away from our selfishness and self-centredness and welcome him into the centre of our lives.
‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today…
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.’
This isn’t just a one-off thing. This is a daily journey we make. Each day we’re invited to trust Christ and welcome him in. We can do it again tonight, as we come up in a few minutes to receive our Christmas communion. We take a step of faith; we get up out of our seats and come to the front as needy people, knowing that the most important need we have is our need for the presence of God. We hold out our empty hands, and Christ fills them. We receive the bread and wine in faith and we feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. The God who entered the womb of Mary enters into us again. As Paul says, Christ lives in our hearts through faith.
Christmas is an affirmation of all that is good and beautiful in our created life. God came among us and lived it with us as one of us, so we know that nothing human is strange to him! But Christmas is also a correction of where we’ve gone wrong: Jesus shows us what human life is meant to look like, and he offers us his presence to help us reach toward that ideal. And finally, Christmas is an invitation: as God has made the long journey from heaven to earth for us, so we’re invited to make the journey of faith to him.
Tonight in this church we’re all at different stages in that journey. Some of us have been on it for many years. Some of us are in the very early stages of that journey. Wherever you are on that path, tonight Jesus invites you to take another step with him. The table is set. The meal is ready. You’re invited to come.