The Gospel of John, from which today’s gospel lesson comes, is both the easiest and the hardest to understand of the New Testament’s accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
John’s gospel is a bit like Jesus Himself, I suppose. A child can understand that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead so that all who turn from their sin and trust in Him have forgiveness and new, eternal life with God. But even a mature believer who has given steady attention to an intimate relationship with Jesus over many years, will never be able to fully understand everything about Jesus.
There will always be some mystery about Jesus and that’s as it should be because, after all, Jesus is God and you and I aren’t.
On Christmas Day, we encounter the mystery of God in full through the prologue to John’s Gospel.
It’s appointed as our Gospel reading, even though, unlike Matthew and Luke, John never tells the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
The Christmas story is in the first fourteen verses of John’s gospel, though. Whereas Matthew tells the story from the perspective of Joseph, the carpenter chosen to be Jesus’ earthly father, and Luke tells it from the vantage point of Mary, the virgin chosen to be Jesus’ earthly mother, John through the first thirteen-and-a-half verses of our lesson, tells us what happened on the first Christmas from the perspective of eternity, from the vantage point of God Himself.
Then, starting in the middle of verse 14, John switches perspectives. But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.
Go to our lesson, starting at verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. 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 all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
John’s Gospel starts out like Genesis 1: “In the beginning…” But while Genesis only goes back to the beginning of the universe God made for us, John’s “in the beginning” goes back before God had created the first thing.
John starts when the only life that existed was God, ever one, ever three persons.
We will meet the Holy Spirit later in John’s Gospel, but for now, his focus--like our focus at Christmas--is on the second person of the Trinity, the Word.
God the Word, God the Son, was, John says, the very power by which God brought creation into being. According to Genesis, God spoke and creation happened. According to John, God the Word was that word that God spoke into chaos and nothingness and made life, order, peace.
God the Word was God’s, “Let there be life” and there was life, including life for you and me.
This eternal Word seared the darkness of nothingness with the blazing light of His powerful, life-giving love. Darkness, John says, “has not overcome it,” or more literally, “has not seized it, overcome it, arrested it, or comprehended it.”
Created light, you know, travels at 186,000 miles per second, but its power dissipates over distance. The Word, the Light of God though, cannot be chained, inhibited, hid, or brought under control. It never fades or gives out.
Whenever humanity has sought to stop or avoid this Light, the Word has kept on shining: showing us our sin, showing us the way to be free of our sin, lighting the way to free others of their sins, so that the Word can keep doing what He did at the creation, make life.
Verse 6: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”
Some scholars believe that the John who wrote our gospel lesson was originally a disciple of the John he writes about here, John the Baptist. (Is that confusing enough?)
The gospel writer says that the Baptizer was, above all, “a witness,” pointing the world to the Word. “Don’t get confused,” our gospel writer is saying, “John the Baptist was a great and faithful man. But he wasn’t the Word and he wasn’t the Light of the world. His job was to point to the Word and the Light.”
By now, some of the gospel’s original hearers and listeners would have likely become impatient. “Spit it out, John,” they might have thought, “what’s this whole Word business about?” So far, you’ve told us Who He isn’t; but you haven’t told us Who He is. We’ve heard of God before. We’ve even heard of God’s Holy Spirit before. But what is this Word you keep talking about in circles?”
Had he been challenged in this way, John might have thought, “Glad you asked.” Verse 9-14a: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
The Word of God didn’t remain in the comfort of heaven.
He refused to be a mere philosophical proposition.
He wouldn’t be a distant deity.
He wouldn’t be, as some people picture God, a cosmic watchmaker who set the mechanics of the universe and then left His creatures to their own devices.
The brilliant blazing second Person of the Trinity decided to brave the darkness of this sinful, fallen world to light our way to life with God.
He took our flesh upon Himself and “made His dwelling among us,” literally, “pitched His tent” with those He first made in His own image.
He became a baby subjected to death by exposure as he lay in a manger on a silent night, who cried from hunger and pain, who soiled His diapers and would need to learn to walk and run eventually, do the work of a fix-it man.
The Word came to live lives like ours, full of challenges, tragedies, joys, fulfillment, and temptations. He came to live one perfect life, so that, in the words of Hebrews 4:15, He could be: “...tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin.”
Then He could give His sinless life as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. The Word was born into this world so that He could die in our places and so that all who turn from sin and believe in Him will have life with God, given “the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God,” as John puts it.
The Word Who once spoke the world into being, has come into our world. By His death and resurrection, He pronounces the good news that, by His grace, all who believe in Him are saved and made new. By grace through faith in Christ alone, we become God’s children.
At the end of verse 14, as I mentioned, John’s perspective changes. He moves from what God has done through this Word to explaining how he and his friends who followed this Word experienced Him on earth.
He talks about what He saw in the Word Who said of Himself, “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father.” [John 14:9]
And: “The Father and I are one.” [John 10:30]
And: “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” [John 8:58]
John writes in our lesson: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
In the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, we’re told that after Moses met with God at Mount Sinai, his face shone with the reflected light and glory of God Himself. The Israelites were so afraid of God’s brilliant light--fearful that their sins would be exposed, fearful that they would clearly see the way God wanted them to live and be forced to trust in Him, rather than themselves and their own preferred and sinful ways--that they told Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” [Exodus 20:19] They were terrified to be exposed in their sinfulness in the fiery presence of God.
Their terror was not ill-founded.
If we dare to stand before God without repentance and without faith in the Word, the only one Who can make us clean, we don’t stand a chance. Hebrews 10:31 says: “ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
But remember: Jesus came not just in truth; He also came in grace. Grace means charity, God’s charity for people born in sin like you and me. (The word we translate from the Greek in which the New Testament was written as grace is charitas, from which we get our English word, charity.)
The Word Who came to pitch His tent among us also came to cover us in the favor, resurrection, new life, and grace He won for all who believe in Him.
Because of His grace, we can say with the preacher in Hebrews 4:16: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
An intimate and eternal relationship with the Almighty King and Lord of the universe! That’s what the Word made flesh came to make possible for you and for me.
We know this Word as Jesus, truly God and truly man.
Jesus, the Word, is more than a Hallmark card, words of love spoken from afar by God.
Jesus is God with His sleeves rolled up, doing the hard work, making the painful sacrifice of love for each of us.
Jesus, the Word, is Immanuel, God with us, God for us, God our redeemer.
Even a child can understand this about Jesus. And even an adult needs Jesus just as much.
Always receive Him and you will have what you can find nowhere else: Life--new, eternal life--from God and with God, now and always.
That’s what Christmas is about.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was shared during worship this morning.]