St Michael’s 25th December 2011
Reading – John 1:1-14
Long, long ago before the invention of personal computers and games consoles, families played games together at Christmas. It was amazing the fun you could have with just a few people, maybe a pen and paper, or a piece of music. One of the most popular games was charades – does anyone still play it?
It’s really frustrating trying to communicate without words, isn’t it? Without words it’s easy to misunderstand what someone is saying, or simply get the message wrong. Indeed you may not even realise that there is a message in the first place. Is the person playing charades simply waving his hands around or is he trying to tell me something? Sometimes the answer’s not that clear.
Of course, the game of charades is just a piece of fun. But now let’s turn to our reading from John’s gospel, the one we have every Christmas day, and begin reading: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Why does John describe Jesus in what at first sounds like a rather obscure and theoretical way? The short answer is, because many people do not understand we have a personal God who communicates. Yes, they have a vague idea that God is there, that there is some spirit or power or force who is in control over all things, but who this God is, or what He is like – well, that’s quite a different matter. We can only hope to get to know this God by ourselves seeking to address Him and hoping that we get some kind of response. And so religion becomes a matter of performing this ritual or seeking this mystical experience in the hope that maybe, just maybe we might acquire some knowledge of this God who is somewhere out there.
But that is not the view of God the Christian faith presents. By calling Jesus “the Word” John is making a fundamentally important point – we have a God who speaks. He doesn’t play charades with us, or leaves us to struggle towards some state of enlightenment. We have a God who communicates with us, who makes Himself known.
How, then, does God speak to us? I know this can be a question which confuses a lot of people. After all, in the usual course of business, we do not tend to hear God talking directly to us. Of course this is not to say that God cannot audibly communicate with us, if He so chooses. Looking back on my own life I myself can testify to a particular occasion about 15 years ago where I unmistakeably heard His voice. But if my experience is anything to go by, such occasions are rare, and tend to be the exception, rather than the norm.
So if we are not talking about God speaking in an audible, clearly unmistakeable way, what are talking about? This is what John explains in our reading this morning.
First of all, God speaks through His work of creation.
Back in the Old Testament the psalmist wrote these words: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4).
All around us we are surrounded by the tangible evidence of a good, creator God. Some of that evidence is spectacular and beautiful like the colour of a winter sunset, or the roar of a woodland waterfall. Some of that evidence is more mundane but nonetheless just as real, such as the regular cycle of seasons, and the rhythm of harvest, harrowing, ploughing and planting. Wherever we look and whatever we look for, we can learn so much about the nature of our God by observing the world around us.
So why is that more people do not hear God speaking to them through creation? John gives the answer in verse 5: The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. Now John is not saying that we live in a world where there are two equal and opposite forces of light and darkness. But He is saying there is a kind of spiritual darkness which has blinded us to the goodness and generosity of our God. He has given us a wonderful and beautiful world, yet all too often we have spoilt it with our greed and selfishness. Even more importantly, we have turned our backs on God and tried to live without reference to His commandments and His goodness. As we look back on this turbulent and extraordinary year, we can see all too clearly how this has been the case. Harsh regimes who have ruled by fear and terror, natural disasters made worse by human errors and poor planning, leaders and opinion makers whose judgement has been clouded by a desire for fame and financial reward.
Yet God has not given up this world. If you read the Old Testament you realise how God spoke to Abraham, to Moses, to David, how He raised up a people to love and to serve Him, and how He sent His prophets to remind them of the promises He had made. The idea was that this people – the people of Israel – would show to the wider world who God was, and how He could be known. But the tragedy of the Old Testament is that by and large this people failed to live up to their calling. They went after other gods, forgot the law God had given them, and failed to trust those promises. Not that they were in any sense worse than anyone else. Yes, it might be easy to look back over Scripture and criticise the attitude of God’s people, but history shows that there has never been anyone who has faithfully kept and obeyed God’s law. God’s law can tell us who God is, and how we should worship Him, but mere words on a page cannot change the attitude of our heart.
So, God speaks through His work of creation. He has spoken in history through the giving of the law. But on the whole we have not been listening. John writes these words in verses 10 and 11: He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Words which surely apply not only to the world in general or people out there, but also to you, and to me. For if we’re honest with ourselves, all of us know that we have not fully recognised God for all that He is, or received Him into our hearts. If anything, we have tried to shut Him out of our lives, excluded Him from the major decisions we make or obeyed Him only when it suits us.
And this takes us back to the question at the very heart of this passage – has God failed in His attempt to communicate with us? Are we simply left playing charades with God, trying to glimpse what He might like and attempting to read the signs He has given us?
Amazingly, the answer to this question is “No”. Because right at the heart of the Christmas story is the simple and astonishing fact that Jesus the eternal Word of God has been born into the world. Jesus is the ultimate communication from God who tells us who God is and what He is like. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it in our first reading: In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. Isn’t that truly wonderful? God has spoken once and for all through His Son Jesus. When we come to Jesus, all our searching and all our striving comes to an end. For there in the manger is the answer to our deepest longings and deepest questions – the Creator of heaven and earth now present in human form, come to be our Saviour and our Lord.
The gospel writer John puts it this way: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. And let’s not forget as we read these words, that as one of the twelve apostles John spent three years in Jesus’ presence. They spent hours each day, talking, eating, walking together. If anyone had seen any sin or failure on Jesus’ part, it would have been John. But as he looks back over Jesus’ life, he can only summarise his experience of meeting Jesus as an encounter with God’s glory. John is one of the eyewitnesses who confirms the essential truth of our verses from Hebrews, that God really has spoken, that the Word made flesh is God’s ultimate revelation to us.
Of course, you may well say that’s very well for John. He was privileged to see Jesus walk this earth. He was able to experience God’s glory directly for Himself. Surely it’s very different for us. We cannot see or experience Jesus in the same way. So how can He reveal God directly to us? Don’t we face the same issue with Jesus revealing to God to us, as hearing God speak?
That’s a good question, but it has an answer. Listen again to verses 12-13: Yet to all who received 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. What John is saying is that when we recognise Jesus for who He truly is, and when we place our faith and trust in Him, then something very special happens. This same Jesus comes and lives in our hearts. It’s what John in his gospel calls “born-again”, a phrase which is often used wrongly, but simply means this: that Jesus by His Holy Spirit enters the centre of our beings and becomes an active presence in and among us.
And when we have the presence of the Holy Spirit in our heart we know what it means for God to speak to us. We don’t have to spend our lives wondering if there is some God out there who might however vaguely care for us and love us. We have the very presence of God our Creator and Redeemer right with us, wherever we go, whatever we do. And to me that is the real wonder and mystery of the Christmas story – not just that God Himself takes on flesh and makes His dwelling among us as tiny child, though that is marvellous enough. It is that this same Jesus comes and makes His dwelling today among all who recognise Him for who He is – as Saviour, Christ and Lord, the very word of God.
As Charles Wesley wrote in the well-known carol we will be singing shortly:
Mild, He lays His glory by;
Born that men no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.
So let me ask you at this Christmas time – do you recognise Jesus as the Word of God? If so, how have you responded? Do you know this second birth Charles Wesley talks about, or are you yet to receive the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit? Let’s all of us spend some time reflecting on our reading from John’s gospel and then I’ll pray…
(Read John 1:12-13 again)