Back in early September we began this year’s journey through the Bible with the first words of the book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created…” Today we begin our New Testament journey with the first words of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word…” In this way John signals that the God of creation is doing something that is both very old and very new. The Messiah so long awaited and hoped for by the Jews has finally come, and while Luke and Matthew have given us some glimpses of what that looked like, John is going to give us an understanding of what it all means. Luke gives us tangibles: a stable, a manger, animals, angels, shepherds, parents, and a baby. John gives us intangibles: light, dark, Word, grace, and truth. Tonight we will look at the tangibles. This morning we look at the intangibles.
According to the Genesis account of creation, before God began his creating activity there was no light. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. So the very first thing God did when he started creating was to create light. Light was a necessary condition for life to exist. But God did not do away with darkness altogether. He left light and darkness to exist together in the world. The human race has gone to great lengths to overcome darkness, and sometimes it seems that electricity has banished darkness completely… until there is an ice storm or a hurricane or some other event which plunges us back into the darkness.
Light and dark also co-exist in each of us, metaphorically speaking. God created people in his image, to live with him in perfect innocence, but that did not last long. Even those earliest people listened to the darkness that lured and tempted them, and they disobeyed God. That set the tone for the human race, and from time to time we all struggle with the inner choices we make between light and darkness. The release of a new Star Wars movie, which I have not seen yet, undoubtedly leads us to confront again this battle between the dark side and the light within us.
Throughout the Old Testament, God tried to pierce the world’s darkness by working through individuals. As Hebrews says, “In many and various ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets.” This was only moderately successful, and the world seemed to become darker and darker. So God chose another route in time. Hebrews says, “But in these latter days, he has spoken to us by a Son, through whom he created the world. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”
Or, as John puts it, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” A child was born in the darkness of night, in the darkness of a stable, in the darkness of poverty and powerlessness. It is as though God looked once again at a world flooded by darkness and said, “Let there be light!” And the true light that enlightens every person came into the world.
Some saw the light that night. Shepherds watching their flocks saw the glory of the Lord and went to see what the Savior looked like. Wise men from the East were led by a star to the place where the Christ child lay, and they worshiped him.
But most people were undoubtedly too busy with other things to notice the light. Maybe they passed by the stable but they were in a hurry and their thoughts were miles away on supper, on work, on loved ones, on tomorrow. They were so busy they missed the signs, missed the light.
The light has continued, does continue, and will continue to shine in the darkness. But like that first Christmas, many do not see the light still. I think, in fact, that the number is going down in our region of the world. Apathy, skepticism, belief that science and faith cannot coexist, great wealth or abject poverty can all be reasons not to follow the light of Christ. There are also all the ways Christians shoot themselves in the foot and drive people away by their extreme judgmentalism, legalism, hypocrisy, and infighting. When accusations are flying right and left about who is lying and who is misbehaving, it is only by faith that we can continue to believe that the light still shines as John promises.
This morning let’s take time to be reminded of the claims John makes about who Jesus is. He starts out by defining Jesus as the Word of God. This goes way beyond just implying that God is sending a living message, a living Word to us in Jesus, though that is certainly part of it. The Greek word translated “Word” is “logos,” which in the Bible always refers to the creating action of God through his word. God speaks, and it is done. “Let there be light,” he said, and there was light. God’s word brings creation, brings revelation, brings redemption.
John says that Jesus is this Word of God, and always has been. He makes the astounding claim which we have become numb to: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of the world.”
In other words, the story of Jesus did not begin with Bethlehem’s stable, nor even nine months earlier when Gabriel spoke to Mary. The story of Jesus is as old as God. The story of Jesus did not end when his earthly life ended, either. It will continue always.
But at a particular point in time this pre-existent Word of God did take human form, and this was highly important. “The true light which enlightens every person was coming into the world.” Thus would be fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that we looked at a few weeks ago, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…” Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”
What does light do? Light reveals things as they really are. When Jesus, the light of the world, came into the world, our lives were shown to be sinful, coming up way short of what we ought to be. But by that same light, God was shown to be gracious and merciful and loving, and Jesus shone the light to show us the path to God and the way God wants us to live. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” said Jesus. “No one comes to the Father but by me.”
The light came into the world to reveal its darkness but also to oppose the forces of darkness. The light came into the world to reveal God and to point all people toward him and open the door for them. And John says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
So the miracle happened: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” The Greek word which is translated “dwelt” literally means “pitch a tent.” Less elegant, but much more vivid. The Word (Jesus) became flesh and pitched his tent among us. After the Israelites settled in the Promised Land they came to realize that God seemed closest to them back in the days when they were wandering in the wilderness and the Tent of Meeting was pitched in the center of camp each night to house the ark of the covenant.
Eugene Peterson has done a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible called “The Message,” and the way he renders this verse is: “The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one of a kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” I like that idea, that Jesus moved into our neighborhood. We all live in different neighborhoods, but Jesus moves into all of them, not just one type.
Jesus was full of grace and truth. To see him was to see his Father. To know him was to know God. But Jesus was also fully human, and herein lies the rub, the reason for faith’s necessity. For this human being did not fit what lots of people expected a Messiah would look like and be like.
For this reason, believing in the Word made flesh is a matter of faith. Certainly not all who met him believed this. John says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
There is a warning as well as a promise there. Many who met Jesus did not recognize him, did not accept him, but rejected him. Any of us can fall into that group. But the promise is to all who do receive him, who believe in him with a childlike faith – he gives us power to become children of God.
Fred Craddock writes, “God whispered and those waiting for a shout heard nothing. Those who heard and saw did so by trust, without guarantee. To those who will not trust, final proof is never enough; to those who will trust, final proof is not necessary.” (Knox Preaching Guides, John, p. 13)
And so the true meaning of Christmas, whether you talk about angels, shepherds, wise men, animals, stars and a baby; or whether you talk about the Word moving into the neighborhood, the light shining in the darkness, full of grace and truth, is this: Immanuel, God with us. Good news, good tidings, great joy, for all people everywhere. To all who will receive him and believe in him, he gives power to become children of God.
As we come to the finish line of Advent, we affirm the good news that God’s presence brings life through the Word made flesh. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 24, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church