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The First Sunday After Christmas
Isaiah 61:10-62:5; Psalm 147:12-20; Galatians 3:23-4:7; John 1:1-18
It is remarkable what can be hidden behind outward appearance, isn’t it? Behind the shoddy exterior of our building lies the inside, perhaps not perfect but yet beautiful. Behind frightful clouds is the sun, waiting to punch through. Behind the sometimes gruff exterior of people lies deep, warm hearts that love and care for others. But there is the darker side to this, too; think of the many stories that we love to tell these days that are all about the “truth” that lies behind appearances: The Matrix, which has been brought back yet again, where the world is an illusion created by monster robots trying to farm humans for energy; Inception, where the protagonists can invade dreams, but which then begins to blur the line between what is dream and what is reality; Blade Runner, which raises the question of whether the people in it are humans or androids, or if it even matters. We love stories that are, in effect, apocalyptic, which simply means stories that reveal something, something beneath the surface that we didn’t know before.
John 1 is unique in the gospel accounts because it does exactly this, it clues us in, gives us a glimmer of what is behind what we see, reveals what is truly real to us. Now it might seem like an odd choice for the first Sunday of the Christmas season; where is the manger? Where are the shepherds? John 1:1-18 is not given to us, though, to tell that story, which can be found in Matthew and Luke. No, John takes us deeper, behind the veil of what we can see, past it to see what lies underneath. John opens up reality to us, and shows us what the manger, the star, the shepherds, the angels, and most of all the birth of Jesus, really mean.
Behind the veil of the material world, we are told that the child in a manger is none other than God the Son, part of the most Holy Trinity, the agent of creation. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” With and was. Distinct and the same. Son to the Father, but also God glorious and eternal and almighty. “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,” we are told.
That is why this simple child, who would grow to be a man, working with his hands like his human adopted father, was to become a prophet and rabbi, then a Savior and Lord. That is why he is called the Light of the World. Because united to that humble human form was also present the purity of the Divine, the person of God, Light and Life itself personified. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
This defies human reason and logic. “The Word” would mean different things to the different audiences of John. To one, the Jewish, it would mean the active work of God, for when God speaks, things happen, even creation itself being made. God’s Word is never separate from God, but is the thing which enacts whatever God intends. Here, John takes it further and personifies this Word. The Word is the Son, and the Son becomes incarnate as Jesus Christ. To the Greek, the Word is the organizing principle of all things, the universal truth if you will, that which brings all things into their intended shape and function. But it, also, is impersonal, an abstraction, not a person.
John pulls back the curtain and shows us the truth: Jesus is the Christ, and is the Word, and is the Son of God, and is very God of very God. This is the greatest, most central mystery of our faith. When brought to Christmas day, we then have to ponder how an infant, nursing and needing to be changed, requiring constant supervision and care, could yet be the very Creator who holds all things together by the power of his will. How could God be a human, let alone a child?
And yet he did. “He became flesh and dwelt among us.” He came as a real, true, human person, even as he was and is real, true, very God. When vs. 18 tells us that no one has ever seen God but he has made him known, it is telling us that those who gazed on the face of Christ were looking at the incarnate God. This is the central fact of the Christian faith, and all else hinges upon it. From this passage, this revelation of the true nature of Jesus Christ unveils two key implications.
One, by becoming flesh and living among us, being born, growing, learning, God the Son, Jesus Christ, knows what it is to be us. This is the greatest act of empathy ever done. He who is infinite and eternal knows what it means to inhabit this earth, in the dusty 1st century, with its brutality and violence, but also as the embodiment of the best of humanity, our compassion and mercy. In the darkness, in the brokenness of our own lives, we can know that God in Christ knows that darkness and brokenness too, and has felt it for us.
Which takes me to the second point. Jesus Christ, the Word taken on flesh did not just come to empathize, but to save. The culmination of the Incarnation, who he is, is the Cross and Resurrection, what he does. “But 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.” Jesus died, taking on all the suffering of human existence for all time, and bore through even death to rise again, and thus won for us adoption, new birth. We are children of God, and as Galatians says in him the things we use to distinguish ourselves are broken down. In Christ, we are all children of God. No ethnic identity, set of skills, wealth, power, or privilege gives any one of us more access to God than another. We all who believe stand before God the same.
To all who feel rejected, to all who feel beaten down, to all who are broken and know it, to all who despair, to all who feel there is no place for them in the world: Through belief in Jesus Christ, know that you have the power to be called a child of God, the same as any other, and whatever you think makes you less, know that God does not. In God, we are all kings and queens, children and heirs by his power. Because of the person of Jesus Christ, Paul can say in Galatians, “you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” And because that is true of you, Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled, that “and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” You, a child of God, beloved, accepted, rejoiced over.
Thus, the veil is pulled back. That is the big reveal, the surprise twist in the story: God becomes one of us to know us, and the God who knows is the God who saves by adopting us as his own. That is who Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God is, and what he does. Who better to follow, then the one who empathizes perfectly with us, and perfectly restores us to be children of the most High. Amen.
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