St Michael’s 25th December 2016
Readings – Isaiah 9:2-7; John 1:1-14
Many, many years ago as a trainee vicar I was on mission with a fellow student in Northampton. We were working with the local church for a week learning how to communicate the good news of Jesus and gain some real parish experience. So as part of that week my fellow student was invited to a discussion evening the church was holding down the pub. He walked in just as some man at the bar was loudly proclaiming that science has disproved religion. Now I should add at this point that my fellow student went by the name of Professor Rodney Holder, and he held several doctorates in astrophysics. Needless to say, when Professor Holder entered the conversation, the evening took quite a different turn.
But I often think back on that story because, you see, there’s a popular myth that somehow science has disproved religion. When you turn on the TV and watch a documentary about science, it nearly always talks about the Big Bang and evolution as if all the mysteries in the universe have been solved and you don’t need to believe in God any longer. What these documentaries fail to mention is that actually the majority of scientists in this country do have a firm faith, and indeed several scientists have come to faith precisely through studying the wonders and complexity of the universe.
To take another example: my daughter is studying biological sciences, and more specifically genetics, at university. She thought that the more she studied the more she would find her faith challenged. But in fact the more she has learnt the more she has found her faith deepened. For instance, the fact that a foetus usually develops so completely with rarely any significant mutation is for her nothing short of miraculous.
No, when men and women look at the whole universe or the intricate details of this life, more often than not they come to some kind of faith in God. The question then arises: how can we find out who this God is and what He’s like?
After all, if God is God, He does not stand at the end of a scientific calculation. Any God which was just some kind of complicated equation would not be truly God. That’s one reason why people often search for God in other directions. Perhaps they strive for the ultimate mystical experience as if by reaching the perfect high, they might somehow glimpse what God is like. I hope I don’t have to spell out the risks involved in that kind of approach! Or maybe they try to live a really, really good life, as if one day God might just possibly reward all their hard work. Well, that may be a better approach but it still falls short on one important point: that if God is God, then nothing we do can ever be good enough for Him. We may achieve 90% of what He wants us to do, but the reality remains – a God who is perfect is only ever satisfied with 100%.
So the question remains: how can we find out who this God is and what’s He like? The answer, I suggest, is found in our reading from John’s gospel this morning. Because actually our idea that God is somewhere out there, waiting to be discovered, is fundamentally wrong. Our God is not some old man sitting on a cloud playing a game of hide and seek with us. No, our God is one who right from the beginning of the world has always sought to communicate with us and who delights in making Himself known to us.
Listen again to these words from John 1:1-3: 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.
Now what John is saying here may sound rather obscure and complicated but in fact he is making a very simple point – that even the way God made the world was to tell us about His love, His truth and His goodness. So when we look at the beauty of a flock of birds, for example, or hold a newborn child in our arms, we should be able to not only marvel at the miracle of life, but also worship the God that made that life possible. We should be able to recognise in all the wonderful colours and all the different species the handiwork of a creator who made us, loves us and sustains us day by day.
But there’s a problem, as John goes on to explain in verses 4 and 5: 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. Now John here doesn’t explain what the darkness is or where it comes from. He’s simply making the point that there’s something that stops us seeing who God is and understanding what He wants of our lives.
So instead of seeing the world around as a gift of God we plunder and spoil it for our own selfish ends. Instead of seeing our neighbour as someone made in the image of God, we see him or her as a rival or a competitor, and fail to love them as we ought. And it’s not as if we can exactly plead ignorance. As Romans 1:20 tells us: … since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. Yet although the still small voice within us may tell us what is the right thing to do, generally we are very good at ignoring what it might be saying to us. As John will tell us later on in his gospel our tendency is to prefer darkness to light.
What, then, is God’s response to our spiritual blindness? Well, in the first instance God sends prophets, men and women filled with His Spirit who call us back to a living relationship with Him. Verses 6 and 7: There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all (men) might believe.
Yet sadly no matter how clear the message of a prophet like John there are still many who respond not in repentance and faith, but with anger and hostility. So in the case of John the Baptist he was arrested by King Herod who didn’t like the fact John preached against his marriage to his sister-in-law. Some time later he had him beheaded, and if you want to read the grizzly details of how this happened, you can look up Mark chapter 6 later on – I would suggest, not on Christmas Day.
This does not mean that the prophets’ message was in vain. Because part of their message was that God Himself would come to His people and reveal Himself once and for all. As the gospel writer John (not to be confused with John the Baptist) says in verses 8 and 9: He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
And in fact this had been God’s plan all along. God knew in advance how we would respond to the goodness and beauty around us. He knew in advance how we would fail to listen to the message of the prophets. Our rebellion against Him and our sin saddened Him, but did not surprise Him. That is why from the very beginning of creation God planned for His Son to come into the world, and to make known His love, His truth and His goodness.
So exactly would the Son of God, the true light of the world, come among us?
The stunning answer is in verse 14: 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.
In other words the Son of God becomes one of us. He is born as a tiny baby in a manger in Bethlehem. He grows up to share our joys and our sorrows, and He lives a real human life. If you were to read through the story of Jesus this Christmas – as I hope you would do – you will see that that there are occasions when Jesus is tired, when He is angry, when He is hungry. The Christmas story is not God pretending to be one of us. It is about God actually being one of us, and being able to identify with us at the deepest level.
Yet somehow this Jesus is also fully God, and lives in such a way that He truly reflects who God is to us. So when we look at Jesus all our guessing games about God stop. We don’t have to play hide and seek with God because in Jesus God has already come to us. So we no longer need to search for the ultimate scientific proof, or find the ultimate mystical experience, or strive for an impossible perfection. Because what we have in Jesus is personal communication from God Himself revealing to us all we need to know about Him. That is why throughout this passage John calls Jesus the Word. He wants to show us that we have a God who speaks and who is not silent. The only real question is whether we are listening.
And that takes me to an important part of the passage we have missed out so far. Verses 10-13:
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. 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.
You see, this wonderful God who made us, who sustains us and who has given us Jesus does not force Himself on us. How could God be said to be truly loving if we had no choice but to accept Him, whether we wanted to or not? No, by sending His Son to be born in a manger God shows us His love by leaving us with the freedom to welcome or to reject Him. Just as indeed in Jesus’ lifetime there were some who welcomed Him and some who rejected Him.
So God leaves us with two options:
Option A is to reject the good news of Jesus who was born in a manger and died on a cross for our sins. And in some ways this can seem can quite attractive option. After all, choosing this option doesn’t mean we have to change our lives. We can try to carry on living in spiritual darkness as if God isn’t there, and keep putting ourselves at the centre of our lives. But the questions about who God is and what He wants for our lives won’t go away. And indeed as John will go on to say in the rest of his gospel ultimately the consequences of rejecting Him are extremely serious.
Option B, on the other hand, is to receive Jesus as the Son of God and welcome the light of His presence, the Holy Spirit, into your life. Now this option will involve quite a few radical changes. It will mean basing our lives around what Jesus wants, and spending time and effort discovering His will. That may sound like hard work, and indeed sometimes it will be. But we will keep on following Jesus for the simple fact that through Him we know we have become a child of God, where we have a relationship with our Heavenly Father that lasts for all eternity.
And please note, there really no option C. John deliberately uses the language of light and darkness to show there can be no middle position. At Christmas time it can be so easy to profess our faith in Jesus, maybe come to a service and sing a few carols. But if after Christmas we live as if Jesus isn’t really the Son of God, and don’t welcome His presence in our life, John tells us we are still in darkness.
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.
So let me ask you this Christmas – do you know that thanks to Jesus you are a child of God? If not, or if you’re not sure, take some time to think about the two options I’ve just talked about. Because the best gift anyone can receive today is the knowledge Jesus is their Saviour, as He comes to live in their hearts.
Let’s spend a moment, then, thinking about our response to the Word made flesh, and then I’ll pray …
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