Christmas Eve

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I wonder if you've ever stopped to think how important words are. A few days ago I played my first Pictionary game of the Christmas season – where you have to draw – without words – the title of a film or book or something for your teammates to guess. And whereas Call The Midwife was pretty easy – with the help of a pregnant-looking sticklady, It's a Wonderful Life had us completely stumped. Because life without words is difficult. After all, words are how we reveal ourselves. (So I just have to speak to reveal that I'm no Geordie.) And words are also how we relate. So ten years ago, at the front of church here, I said just two words to Tess – 'I will' – and we're now related for life.

And when John sat down to write his Gospel, and wanted to sum up at the very start who Jesus is and why he came, he decided to do it by saying that Jesus is God's Word to this world. Because he wanted to get across that Jesus is: the ultimate way God has revealed himself, and the only way you and I can relate to him. So it's an attention-grabbing start, designed to make you read on and say, 'OK, show me the evidence for that.' Which John then does in the next twenty chapters – he gives his own eye-witness evidence of Jesus' life and miracles and death and resurrection.

But today we're just going to look at his attention-grabbing start – that classic Christmas reading we had earlier. So would you turn in the Bible to John 1. And I've got three headings –and the first is this:

1. The Backstory to Christmas

The story is told of a boy whose teacher asked the class to find out about their family tree. So he asked Mum, 'How did I get here?' And she didn't want to go into the birds and the bees, so she said, 'The stork brought you.' So then he asked his Dad, 'Daddy, how did you get here?' And not wanting to explain the details, he also said, 'The stork brought me.' And since granny was staying, he asked her as well – 'Granny, how did you get here?' And she said, 'The stork.' So next day he began writing his project: 'There hasn't been a normal birth in our family for three generations…'

To every birth there's a back-story, isn't there? So biographies often start with the parents or grandparents of the person they're about. And that's how Matthew starts his Gospel – tracing Jesus' family tree back to Abraham. But John doesn't trace the family tree back before Jesus birth. He traces the person himself back before birth. Which for any of us would only take you back nine months – before which we didn't exist. Whereas, with the person born in Bethlehem, John says you can trace his life all the way back through time – and even before time began, forever. So look down to verses 1-2:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God."

And later John tells us that 'the Word' is his codename for God the Son. So he could have said, 'In the beginning was God's Son, and the Son was with God his Father, and the Son was fully God.' But instead, remember: John decided to sum up Jesus as God's 'Word' to the world. So he starts,

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God."

Now John wrote this for his fellow Jews who didn't yet believe in Jesus, so that they could. So originally, it was an evangelistic booklet. And like any good evangelist, John thought, 'What misunderstandings and objections do I need to tackle?' And the big objection many Jews had was Jesus' claim to be God. Because they believed in one God. So when Jesus came, talking and acting like he was God, they thought it was blasphemous: they thought he was claiming to be a second 'God' – a rival to God. And Muslims today have the same objection to the Christian message.

So John begins by saying (in effect), 'Look, I believe there's only one God, as well. But you need to realise God is more complex than you think. God is not just a solitary being. God is more than one person in relationship: God and his Word – in other words, God the Father and God the Son.' And later in the Gospel you find out there's a third person, as well – God the Spirit. And that's why John says, twice, 'the Word was with God'. It's like when we say, 'Have you heard that Jill's with Bill?' It's a way of describing a relationship.

Now we struggle with this truth that God is one God but three persons in relationship. But there are two things worth saying about that. One is to ask ourselves: do we really expect God to be fully understandable to us – when often we hardly understand ourselves or people close to us? And the other thing to say is: doesn't it make sense of the way we are? Because we are profoundly relational – loving and being loved is more important than anything for us. And that makes perfect sense if we were made in the image of a God who himself is profoundly relational. Whereas the idea that we're here simply through chance and evolution, in a purely material universe with no Person behind it, makes very little sense at all of the way we are. Well look on into verse 3.

"All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made."

So like a son working alongside his father in the family business, God the Son worked alongside his Father in creation. And coming to us, verse 4 says,

"In him was life, and the life was the light of men [in other words, mankind, men and women]."

Now ask a biologist, 'When have you got life?' and they'll say, 'Well, to qualify as being alive, you need to be moving, respiring, sensing, growing, reproducing, excreting and imbibing nutrition.' (Not necessarily all at once, obviously.) And we certainly owe our physical lives, moment by moment, to the person born in Bethehem. But John uses that word 'life' to mean more than just physical existence. Because, after all, you can be moving, respiring, and all the rest, but still saying to yourself, 'This isn't much of a life. Is this really all life's about?' I wonder if that's you this morning.

A Christian friend, Giles, was on the London Underground and got off at one of the stations with a long lift ride to the street. And he was waiting with a few others in the lift when this man joined them. And he was obviously in a bad place because he was extraordinarily aggressive and rude. So in fact the others got out to wait for the next lift. And the doors closed. And Giles would say he doesn't often get a strong sense that the Lord wants him to say something specific. But he just felt the Lord wanted him to say to this man, 'I think you need Jesus in your life.' And Giles said he stood there saying to himself and the Lord, 'I can't do that.' But he just felt he had to. So he commended his soul to God and said to this man, 'Look, I'm a Christian, and I don't usually say this sort of thing, and I'd say it about myself first and foremost… but I really think you need Jesus in your life.' To which this man said, 'I think you may be right. Because I've tried virtually everything else.' And that's verse 4:

"In him [in the person born in Bethlehem] was life"

And that means not just physical life, so that you exist and go to work and pay the bills. But life in relationship with God. Life where you know you're valuable – before anyone else gives you value through exam results or job offers or whatever – because God made you and values you. Life where you know you're loved – before anyone else loves you – because God loves you. And life where you know what you're here for. That's the 'light' bit in verse 4:

"In him was life, and the life was the light of men."

And light stands for God metaphorically shining meaning and purpose on your path. Because only in relationship with God can you discover that you're here to live for something bigger than your own needs and little dreams. But then comes the first reminder in John's Gospel that the world is not in relationship with God as it should be – verse 5:

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

And 'the darkness' is John's metaphor for the human race turned away from God. In other words, it's his metaphor for sin – for how, by nature, we all say to God, 'I don't want to live by your light, by you telling me what I'm here for and what's right and wrong. I'll live by my own light, thanks very much.' But, verse 5 says that,

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

So since the fall, the human race has been living as if God wasn't there. But he is. And far from him being defeated by sin, he had a plan from the very beginning to save us from it. So onto heading 2:

2. The Purpose of Christmas

Look on to verses 6-8:

"There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light."

So verses 1 to 8 are John's summary of the whole Bible up to Jesus' coming. So he's just saved you 800 pages of reading. And the last main event before Jesus was the ministry of this man John the Baptist. And he was the last in a long line of prophets who all said that God had a plan to save us from our sin – and that it would hinge on the coming of his Messiah or Christ (which roughly means his 'Saviour-King'). And John the Baptist's job was to say, 'I am the end of the line of prophets, and next up is the Saviour-King himself – Jesus.' So verse 9:

"The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world."

And then here are the shocking verses in this passage. Verses 10-11:

"He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. [In other words, the world didn't recognise its Maker – but rejected him.] He came to his own [in other words, his own people the Jews – who'd had all those prophets, and the Old Testament, and should have been expecting him] and his own people did not receive him."

I said John originally wrote to evangelise his fellow Jews. And another big objection they had was the fact that their leaders – supposedly the brightest and best in Israel – had rejected Jesus. Far from believing his claim to be God, their leaders had thought it blasphemous and got him crucified for it. So what were they to make of that? And what are we to make of the fact that so many people around us – including many of the apparently brightest and best – reject Jesus?

Well, there are two possible explanations. One is that the evidence for Jesus being the Son of God is simply full of holes – so that we shouldn't believe it. But the other possible explanation is that the evidence for Jesus being the Son of God is fine – but that we don't want to believe it. And that second one is the explanation John goes for. Because he would say to us: remember the darkness. Remember that since the fall the human race has been, by nature, turned away from God. So that when God actually came into the world to re-establish relationship, people didn't want it – and still don't. But that's not the whole story. Look on to verse 12:

"But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he [Jesus] gave the right to become children of God"

So, right from the word 'Go', against the background of the world rejecting Jesus, people down the ages have come to believe in him – including many of us here. And as a result we've gone from being people out of relationship with God and deserving his judgement, to people he loves as his own children.

And if you're just looking into this, can I say: that was the whole purpose of Christmas. The whole purpose was God sending his Son into the world so that you could come back into relationship with him. So one Laura Ashley Christmas catalogue I saw completely misses the point. It said (quote):

"Christmas is all about roaring log fires and cold misty mornings, comfort and relaxation, reading and dreaming, high hopes and high spirits. Friends, family and children. But most of all, it's about coming home."

And John would say, 'Laura Ashley doesn't know a thing about the real purpose of Christmas. Because it's actually all about coming home… to God.'

And if you've done that by believing in Jesus, just look at what verse 13 says. It says you only did that because you:

"were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."

In other words, just like you didn't give birth to yourself physically – but your mother gave birth to you – something similar is true of your coming to trust in Jesus. You didn't cross that line by yourself. God had to do something to you, to overcome your resistance and draw you to himself.

Some of you will remember John Chapman, the Aussie evangelist who spoke here on two mission weeks. Back home in Sydney he took RE lessons in a local school. And he had one really tough class – who spent the year picking holes in everything he said. And they were studying John's Gospel and read this verse. And one of the lads said, 'What does that mean? And John said, 'It means you can't become a Christian whenever you want. You can only become a Christian when God wants.' And this lad said, 'That's rubbish – I could become a Christian if I wanted to.' And John said, 'Say that again.' And he said, 'I could become a Christian if I wanted to.' So John said. 'OK. All year you've been trying to make me look a fool. Here's your golden opportunity to prove me wrong. Go on. Do it.'
And this lad said, 'Do what?'
And John said, 'Become a Christian.'
And he said, 'But I don't want to.'
And John said, 'Well, want to want to.'
And he said, 'I don't want to.'
And John said, 'And nor will you unless God does something in you first.'

So if you do believe in Jesus, don't just thank God this Christmas for sending him into the world. But thank God for bringing you to trust in him, as well – which you'd never have done under your own steam. And if you don't yet believe in Jesus, but want to – at least half-want to – then as well as looking at Jesus more in the Bible, pray and ask God to help you believe in him.

But what exactly does John want us to believe about Jesus? Well, that's my third and final heading:

3. The Mission of Christmas

Just look back to verse 1 for a moment:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

And now look on to verse 14 and try to take in the enormity of what it's saying:

"And the Word became flesh [human, fully human] and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."

So John's saying: the person born in Bethlehem was fully God and fully human. And some people say that must mean he left behind his powers as God – at least, some of them. But that's not right. Because verse 14 isn't saying the Word became flesh instead of being God. It's saying the Word became flesh as well as being God. So he certainly left behind the recognition and glory he had in heaven, and swapped it for rejection and all the vulnerability of humanness. But he didn't leave behind any of his 'God-ness', if I can put it like that.

So, for example, further on in John we read how Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people by multiplying five loaves and two fish. And he did that through his God-ness, to reveal his God-ness. So he didn't leave any of his God-ness behind. Instead, he submitted it to the mission his Father had given him. So you remember when Jesus was fasting and hungry and Satan tempted him by saying, 'Well, if you're the Son of God, turn some of these stones into bread.' But Jesus said, 'No.' Because he'd submitted his powers to the mission his Father had given him. And the mission was to become fully one of us – so that at the end of his life he could take our place on the cross and face the judgement we deserve instead of us, so we could be forgiven. And that's why he said 'No' to using his powers to look after himself and protect himself from suffering – and ultimately from death on the cross. And that's why he said 'No' to staying in heaven in the first place, and 'Yes' to being born as a man.

And there's a poem I came across which puts that into words in a way that's hard to beat. It's called Mary's Song and it imagines her speaking to the newborn Jesus:

"Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms.
(Rest, you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world.
Charmed by dove's voices, the whisper of straw,
he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed
who overflowed all skies,
all years.
Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn."

(in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation, Eerdmans)

Just look at verse 14 again to end with:

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we [that is, John and the other eye-witness apostles] have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."

And they saw glimpses of Jesus' glory – his God-ness – in the feeding of the 5,000 and the healing miracles, and the calming of the storm, and the bringing of Lazarus and others back from death. But if you read right through John's Gospel, Jesus keeps talking about the hour when people will see his glory most clearly. And it turns out that he's talking about his death on the cross. Because, according to John and the whole Bible, that's where you see what is most glorious about God most clearly. You see it in the Father giving up his Son out of love for you, and in the Son willingly submitting to that mission, out of love for you.

And that's why verse 14 says the supreme thing about God, that you see in Jesus' coming, is his grace – which means his totally undeserved, completely unexpected, all-forgiving love. And that is God's ultimate 'Word' to the world. It's that, in Jesus, God has said to each one of us, 'I want you back in relationship with me. And if you do come home to me, I will forgive you and have you back, whoever you are, whatever you've done, however long you've kept me at arm's length.'

That is God's Word to you. What's yours, to him?

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