The Word of God
St Michael’s and St Barnabas – Christmas Day 2014
Reading – John 1:1-14
There are just so many different ways nowadays to wish someone a Happy Christmas. Just think about it for a moment. Back in the last century you basically had three options – you could greet someone in person, or ring them up, or send them a card (I don’t think many people sent greetings by fax). But today the options appear almost limitless. You can e-mail, you can text, you can Skype, or Facebook, or use any of a whole host of applications such as Snapchat or Instagram.
We live in a world where there are many, many different forms of communication and we are exposed to a bewildering torrent of words day by day. The information revolution has been truly extraordinary and we now have the ability to get in touch with almost any part of the world, and access knowledge from almost any source.
Yet what I find interesting is that the more information we have at our disposal, the less we are inclined to trust what we read. Because what people post online or send on social media so often reflects their own personal opinion or agenda. That’s why, for example, students are routinely warned not to gather information on a site like Wikipedia. What appears as facts may turn out to be only one person’s particular point of view. Or why, for example, we need to go to several different sites to work out what’s really going in the world, because each source is pursuing its own angle, or indeed may be trying to feed us only the news it thinks we want to read. So despite all the major technological advances, the information age is also one of great confusion and uncertainty and unsatisfied hunger for truth.
Why I am talking about all this on Christmas day? Well, let’s listen to how John begins his account of Jesus: In the beginning was the Word – just one, a clear, unambiguous word that gives us the knowledge we need. And why is this word so special? Well let’s read on to the next part of the verse: and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This is a word that is utterly trustworthy and totally reliable because it comes from the source of all goodness and truth, who is God Himself. It is a word that can help us make sense of life’s deepest questions such as: who we are; what God is like; why we are here; how we should live.
And John begins his gospel at this point to make us realise that the story he is about to tell is not one that we can simply listen to once a year then forget. This is a story that contains the answers we have been looking for, answers we cannot find on our own, no matter how much we ask Google or search Wikipedia or trawl through the Internet.
So how do we access this Word of God? After all, He doesn’t have a website (at least, not a genuine one). You can’t e-mail Him and He’s not on Twitter. If this Word exists, yes, it is important that we find out about Him, but how on earth do we make contact?
John would answer this question in three ways.
First of all, look at creation.
Verses 2-3: He (that is, the Word) was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
Now during the Advent period Lynda and I have been reading an excellent book for the season called Longing, Waiting, Believing. It was written by a minister called Rodney Holder who trained with me at Wycliffe Hall. Rodney is also an astrophysicist who has written many books on the interaction between science and religion and who in 1998 won the Templeton Foundation Prize for his research into miracles. He is one of any number of scientists who through their research can see a divine order to creation, and the evidence of the work of the Word of God.
On a more personal level, as many of you know I have two daughters, one studying mathematics, and the other biology. Again it is fascinating to hear how both of them, although involved in very different disciplines, can see evidence of a creator God in their subjects. There is a design and a beauty in the natural world which bears out exactly what John is saying in these verses.
But this of course raises the question, why is sometimes so hard to see that design and beauty? John hints at the answer in the following verses:
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
Somehow it’s as if there’s something like a computer virus which has programmed us not to see God’s hand in the work of creation, or perhaps more accurately, refuse to believe that it is there. We are in our natural state more ready to doubt or deny God’s goodness than to acknowledge it.
But it’s not as if God hasn’t been trying to get through to us. If you were to go back to the Old Testament you would see how God sent to His people Israel laws to live by, and prophets who spoke His words. But if the Old Testament teaches us anything, it is that we have a great tendency to disobey God’s laws and ignore the voice of the prophets. Even when John the Baptist came announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand, not everyone accepted His message.
That’s why John talks in such graphic tones about light and darkness. We were designed as human beings to live in harmony with the one who made us and loved us. But we have chosen to reject our Creator and every effort He makes to communicate with us. We have chosen doubt over faith; self-interest over love; cynicism over hope. And our choices lead to a spiritual state which John describes in the starkest possible terms as darkness.
So does this mean we are destined to remain in ignorance of who God is and what He has done for us? The answer to this question would be yes, except for one totally stupendous and overwhelming fact John so beautifully describes in verse 14:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
Now do you begin to see the connection between all John has been saying and the Christmas story? John is saying that if we want to find out who the Word of God is, then, secondly, we need to look at the cradle. Because in that manger in Bethlehem we don’t just find a sweet, placid baby lying in his virgin mother’s arms: we find the very Word of God who has been with God and is God from the very beginning of time. He has come and broken into the darkness of our human existence, not in the way we might expect, the way of splendour and power and majesty, but in weakness and humility and totally vulnerable.
Why? Well, there are no neat answers to that question, and if we have no wonder and mystery at the story of the first Christmas, then I suggest we have not really grasped what that virgin birth was really all about. There is something about Jesus, the Son of God, being born of Mary that should rightly fill us with an overwhelming sense of awe. Because here is the one through whom all things were made, the light and life of God, totally helpless, totally dependent on his mother’s love.
And although we cannot fully answer why the word of God chose to come into the world this way, we can say that at the very least He became a visible, tangible presence we could understand and relate to. This is the Son of God descending to our level, experiencing the joys and the sorrows that we know so well, living and growing as a full human being, communicating with us in a language we can understand, making God accessible not as a remote, distant divinity, but as a loving Heavenly Father whom we can approach through Him.
As John, who was himself an eye-witness of Jesus’ ministry goes on say: 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 it’s when you appreciate that this child in the cradle is nothing other than the reflection of God’s glory, then you begin to understand what Charles Wesley was trying to say when these well-known words:
Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
But it is important to add that we cannot leave the Word of God lying in the cradle at Christmas, as if once the celebrations are over, we just get on with our lives for the next twelve months. The Word of God took human flesh not simply to be praised and glorified for the miracle of His Virgin Birth. He came to deal with the sin and the darkness that prevents us from seeing Him as He truly is.
So I believe that if the gospel writer John was with us today, He would urge us to look beyond creation and the cradle and consider the end of his story which is the cross. Because on the cross, for three agonising hours, for the only time in all of history, communication was lost between God the Father and God the Son. Why? So that Jesus could deal with the darkness which means we fail to see His light and truth and goodness, to establish that new relationship for us with God the Father we long for but in our strength never achieve.
Now we might wonder again why Jesus the Word of God chose to deal with our wrongdoing in this way. We might ask why He did not more clearly reveal Himself to the world through whom He was made. Again, we are treading on mysteries we can never fully explore. But we know enough to see both the cradle and the cross are expressions of God’s love for us. And when you love someone fully, you give them the option of whether or not they respond to that love.
That is why ultimately our response to the word of God has to be the way of faith. He does not stand at the end of a complicated equation, or abstract philosophical proof, for in that way our relationship with Him would be established on our own cleverness or goodness. No, He simply stands waiting for all who would love and obey Him to come to Him in humility, recognising their own faults and failings, and owning Him as Lord over their lives.
With what result? Well, John tells us in 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.
Isn’t that the most amazing and wonderful good news? The word of God through him all creation was made offers to us the right to become children of the living God, through the cradle and the cross. And although it has become a bit of a cliché, the best present at Christmas really is to receive Jesus into our hearts and so become a child of the living God.
Because in that way we find a new way of being, which John would describe as living in the light – that is the light of God’s presence. Not just for a season, or even for the three score years and ten that we spend on this earth, but forever. That is the gift of what John will later on in his gospel describe as the gift of eternal life, and not only is it available to you. It is also the gift, that whether you have recognised it or not, is the gift that you need, in an age of great confusion and uncertainty and hunger for truth.
So today may your prayer echo that of the hymn writer Philip Brooks who wrote these familiar words so long ago:
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel