[This was shared today during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]
One of my favorite parts of the Christmas Candlelight Worship Service each year happens when the lights are dimmed, we hold our lit candles aloft, and listen again to the opening verses—the prologue—to John’s Gospel.
Like the familiar opening chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, these words too, tell the story of Christmas. But in them you’ll find no inn or manger, no shepherds or wise men, no star or shepherds. John’s account of the first Christmas, comprised of the first eighteen verses of his gospel, is told in more abstract terms and it goes way back even before the universe was created.
Back then, John says, in the time before time, when God was all there was, there was the Word, the Second Person of the Triune God composed of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. John’s use of the term The Word for the One you and I know as Jesus Christ was no accident. The Word—ho logos in the original Greek of the New Testament--was a Greek philosophical term used for the creating agent of the universe.
But that term—The Word—would have also been meaningful to the Jews who were among the first to hear and read the Gospel of John. The Jews had a deep reverence for the Word of God. God spoke His Word, the Old Testament tells us, and creation came into being. By God’s Word, Israel came into being, was set free from slavery in Egypt, was called to obedience when it strayed, was guided, was punished when it sinned, was soothed and reassured when it repented and walked with God, and was promised a Savior. The Word of God, they knew (and know) is a powerful thing!
On hearing the prologue to John’s Gospel, first century Jews and non-Jews alike would have immediately understood what was being said about Jesus. They might not have liked it that John was saying that Jesus was God in the flesh. That, they may have thought was foolish or scandalous. But they wouldn’t have misunderstood him at all.
We don’t always have or take the opportunity to look at John’s prologue on Christmas Eve. We usually consider Matthew's or Luke's narratives of Jesus' birth. And so this morning, the Second Sunday of Christmas, I want to talk about three passages within the prologue.
The first is John's telling of the Christmas story itself. It's one of the most joyful passages in the entire Bible: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” God, the Creator of the universe, came into our world, still God, but shrunk, if you will, to human size, born in a cave. Why did God do that?
Journalist Philip Yancey says that he began to understand why the Word became flesh when, as a kid, he got an aquarium. He learned that managing a marine aquarium is a lot of work. He writes, “I had to run a portable chemical laboratory to monitor the nitrate levels and the ammonia content. I pumped vitamins and antibiotics and sulfa drugs and enough enzymes to make a rock grow. I filtered the water through glass fibers and charcoal, and exposed it to ultraviolet light.”
He goes on: “You would think, in view of all the [work I did]…on their behalf, that my fish would at least be grateful. Not so. Every time my shadow loomed above the tank they dove for cover into the nearest shell…Although I opened the lid and dropped in food on a regular schedule…they responded to each visit as a sure sign of my designs to torture them. I could not convince them of my true concern…”
The young Yancey came to believe that the only way to reach these fish he cared so much about would be to become one of them. He thought, “I would have to become a fish and ‘speak’ to them in a language they could understand.”
The Word—God the Great Communicator—became flesh and communicated His love to us through His words and His actions, including sacrificing Himself on a cross.
This has great practical significance for us. The God Who refused to stand off from us, wants us to do more than sit on the sidelines in life or in the Church: The Word made flesh calls His people to put flesh and bone behind our belief that He is Lord of all.
Unfortunately, most churches seem afflicted with living by the 80/20 Rule. You know what that is. It's the observation that in most organizations, including the Church, twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work while eighty percent of the people do twenty percent of the work. Twenty percent give eighty percent of the money and eighty percent give twenty percent of the money.
Often, particularly in small towns where people have known one another their whole lives, there can be great fear about trying to break out of that eighty percent pack and taking on a ministry. We can become paralyzed by the fear that we'll be criticized. Martin Luther has advice for us. Luther said whenever we were unclear about our what to do, we should pray about, consult with Christian friends, and read Scripture. If, after all of that, we remain unclear about our course of action, we should "sin boldly," doing what we think will honor God and do right by our neighbor.
Chances are that whenever we try to do something for the cause of Christ, we will be criticized. The only people who are never criticized are the people who do nothing. But if we're intent on being true to the Word made flesh, enacting Christ's love in the world, doing nothing is not an option. We need to be involved in ministry, service in Christ's Name!
Another passage in John’s Gospel is among the saddest in the Bible. It’s this: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
God wants to help us. God wants to love us. God wants to be in our lives. But even when He comes to us, communicating all of His grace and His truth, we want to spurn God.
We know, in the words from Micah, that God has shown us what the He expects of us, “to do justice,…to love kindness, and to walk humbly with…God.” But we prefer looking out for number one.
We know that we’re to worship only God and yet we find millions of other things that we hold in higher esteem than God—from pleasure and ease to hard work that crowds out our relationships, from children we indulge to cold hard cash, from being thought of as important by the people in our community to whatever our drug of choice may be.
We know that we’re to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But we love the sense of superiority we get when we gossip about and put others down.
We know that “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh,” but we prefer making up on our own rules about sexuality.
In these ways and countless others, we, like the people who encountered Jesus back during His time on earth, often refuse to know Him or accept Him, rejecting His authority over our lives.
Fortunately, God is a stubborn lover. He’s like the guy I know who, without any planning or forethought, found himself one night telling a woman he had known for eight years, but only dated for a few weeks, “I love you.” At first, she said nothing in response to his declaration of love. She wasn’t sure that she loved this fellow, so quick to speak his mind and heart. Besides, she’d been hurt before. She didn’t know whether she wanted to risk loving someone else. But he was stubborn. Not certain that it would make any difference to the young woman, he kept insisting for several weeks that he loved her, that he wanted to spend his life with her. Then, one night, she embraced the man and said, “I love you.” She could have said no. But instead, Ann said yes to my love. January 11, will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of our first date and August 2, will bring our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. I am blessed because Ann returned my stubborn love.
Now, there’s no comparing my imperfect, human love to the love that God offers to us through Christ. But, just as Ann could have said no to me, God lets us say no to Christ, the Word made flesh. But God is so stubborn in love for us that even when we do say no, He won’t give up on us.
In the prologue to his Gospel, John observes of some who encountered Jesus during his time on earth: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
In Christ, God makes us His children.
In Christ, God stands with us, no matter what.
In Christ, God gives us an eternal inheritance that nothing and nobody can steal that from us.
No matter what you face in 2009, know that you are a child of God. The Word of God has come to you and to all who receive Him, who receive Hiis judgment and His grace, this is His simple message, “You are mine.”