Let me start by reading a poem about Christmas by my friend, Anita, who's a mum of six:
Christmas in my house is bustle and noise;
Christmas cake, mistletoe, tinsel and toys.
Children get hyper, the calendar counts down,
We play Father Christmas,
Will he come to town?
Cards have been written and some have been posted,
Timings worked out so the bird's fully roasted.
Mum and dad budgeted, planned and prepared;
We've written a list, and tasks have been shared.
The tree stands adorned with baubles and candy,
And the cake has been fed with far too much brandy!
Friends come on over to share our mince pies,
And the kids just can't keep daddy's gift a surprise!
At last it arrives, open door twenty-four.
Charades follow Pictionary. Time for one more?
Our little ones, giddy, tie stockings to beds
And lay down with Jingle-Bells filling their heads.
But what's it all for - all the feasting and fuss?
Is it magic for children?
Indulgence for us?
Is it all about family and love and good cheer?
A chance for a party to round off the year?
Amidst the busy-ness and fun of Christmas, it's good to hear the answer to the question she asks. What's it all for - all the feasting and fuss?
The answer is found in verse 14 of our passage from John's gospel:
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us"
Eight words that describe the most remarkable of events that took place on the first Christmas. No doubt, if we had been there, it would have seemed a moment just like any other. But it wasn't an ordinary moment. Something spectacular took place. The word, that is God, became a man.
John 1:1-3 introduced us to the Word – the divine Creator
"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 any thing made that was made."
That same 'Word' became flesh. The one who created the vast universe became a tiny human baby.
"Lo, within a manger lies / He who built the starry skies."
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God has come near. He is not remote, distant or aloof. He came, but not as a king or demonstrating his power and strength. Instead, he came, as one whose first cries were heard by a peasant girl called Mary and a carpenter called Joseph. The hands that first held him were rough and dirty. His welcoming committee were poor shepherds, his first gifts from star-gazing travellers.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God has come near. To think of him as God is right, because he is. But don't rush past the incredible truth of this verse. Be amazed by it. God became a human, one of us.
For 33 years he experienced all the frailty of humanity. For those who find Christmas difficult, it's so helpful to remember that he understands – he knows what it means to suffer.
Don't sanitise what it meant for God to come down and be part of the muck of our world. It's easy to do – to clean the manure from around the manger, to wipe the sweat out of Jesus' eyes. To pretend he never snored or blew his nose or hit his thumb with a hammer. But how can he possibly have been both 100% God and 100% man. Can he have been asleep in the manger and, at the same time, keeping the universe going?
Suppose, just as Jesus comes the world he had created, that Tolkien had written himself into the Lord of the Rings. He enters Middle-earth as a character alongside Frodo and Merry and Pippin and the rest. If Tolkien had done that, he would not stop existing in Oxford where he was writing his book. In fact, his whole existence in Middle-earth depends on his continued writing. And he could be at the same time both in the Lord of the Rings and Oxford, because they are not two different "places" within one realm but two different realms altogether. Tolkien couldn't be Oxford and Cambridge at the same time. But he could be in middle-earth and Oxford at the same time.
Supposing Tolkien in middle-earth is sitting in Frodo's home for a meal; this does not in the least hinder the Tolkien in Oxford from going to sleep, or traveling to India, or putting the book down for twenty years.
Here's how Anita's poem continues:
The wonder of Christmas is deeper than snow;
More moving than laughs at the pantomime show.
More even than sharing our wealth with the poor,
Or welcoming strangers in through our door.
The wonder of Christmas is Massive made Small;
Uncontainable chose to be wrapped in a ball
Of flesh oh so fragile, so finite and frail;
Mystery of incomprehensible scale.
The voice that made mountains and summoned the sun,
Now a shrill baby's cry, calling out to his mum.
Hands that carved canyons, positioned the sky,
Now chubby wee fingers.
The question is Why?
Why leave his splendour, his comfortable throne,
To walk with us mortals and make Earth his home?
Why choose a body with blood and with breath,
And a path that would lead to betrayal and death?
What is the significance of God himself being born as a man? The clue is in the phrase 'made his dwelling among us'. That literally means 'tabernacled' or 'pitched his tent'. And that word is heavily loaded – it's one of the key themes of the whole bible.
John, who wrote these words also wrote the book of Revelation – the very last book of the Bible. Right at the end of the book, John describes a vision.Rev 21:1-3
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God."
And that is how the whole Bible story ends: with a remarkable vision of God coming to dwell with mankind on a new earth.
And what's striking about that is that the Bible begins with a similar picture. Genesis opens by recounting how God creates an earth, into which he places a human couple, Adam and Eve. The purpose of this earth is to be a divine residence: here God intends to live with people. We see that the earth is God's dwelling place among us.
However, the divine plan for this first earth is soon shattered when the human couple, due to their disobedience, are driven from God's presence.
All seems lost, but in Genesis 17 God promises that the earth can, once again, become a dwelling place shared by God and humanity. The rest of the Bible unfolds for us how God fulfils what he has promised. God rescued what became the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and entered into a special relationship with them – God dwelt with them, represented by a lavishly built tent in the midst of their camp. Again, God dwells with his people. Here's Exodus 29:45-46
"I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God."
That tent is later replaced by the tabernacle when they settle in the land of Canaan, and in due course by the temple constructed in Jerusalem by King Solomon. Here was God's dwelling place. Not up in heaven, but here – with his people. God dwelt with his people as ruler and as rescuer.
But, as like Adam and Eve, God's people still rebelled Which is why the eventual Babylonian invasion and destruction of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem was so utterly devastating for the Israelites. For hundreds of years God had dwelt with his people. Now all seemed lost. Yes – eventually they returned to Jerusalem. And the temple and the city walls were rebuilt. But they were never restored to their former glory. Would God do what he promised to do – will he once again dwell with his people? God's prophets reminded them that God would do exactly what he promised. And that's how the Old Testament ends.
Which leads us back to these verses in John – and the coming of Jesus. the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus, as God, tabernacles among human beings. The old testament promises had become a reality as the Word became flesh. As verse 14 continues: "we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
Just as the people in the Old Testament had seen God's glory in the tabernacle and temple, so now God's glory is finally and most fully revealed in his coming as the one and only son, to live among us in Jesus Christ. Now we can know God! Verse 18:
"No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known."
What was still to come at this point of course is the death, and the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus. That will lead to another huge step in the process by which God dwells with his people.
With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God's presence, previously linked with the Jerusalem temple, is now linked to the newly created church. A church which from this point on, includes not just Jews but men and women from every nation. This church is now the temple of God. The temple in Jerusalem is no longer needed. Whenever the followers of Jesus meet, God is present with them by his Spirit. As the church spreads throughout the earth, God's dwelling place is also extended.
Looking ahead, will come the day when all that is evil will finally be removed from the present earth, when God makes all things new and his presence and glory will fill a new earth. Which takes us back to John's vision in Revelation 21.
So, we have seen who Jesus is, and the significance of God coming to the earth as man. All of which makes verses 10 to 13 such a shock because john tell us that he was not recognised and was rejected
Look at verses 10 to 13:
"He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."
It's ironic, isn't it, how the commercial version of Christmas misses the whole point of Christmas. So we have 'Elf on the Shelf' who hides in your home to spy on you so he can let Santa know who is naughty and who is nice. Be good and you will get good things we are told.
You can't get further from the true meaning of Christmas than that! On offer is a gift that isn't dependent on our performance. It is not based on whether or not we've been bad or good. It is for those who simply believe in his name. By the goodness and grace of God, on offer to us is now forgiveness and new life.
Jesus would go on to die for us, as we remember in this communion service. And by doing that he purchased forgiveness for every sin you will ever commit. That is why he came, why he was born as a human baby.
Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Israel did too. And so has every one of us. The good news of Christmas is that he came so that we could receive the right to become children of God - what gift could be better than that.
John wrote his gospel so that those who read it would see who Jesus was and then receive him, accept him, believe in him and so receive eternal life. But a choice needs to be made. Which will it be for you?
Let me end with the final part of Anika's poem:
Has no one told you the danger we're in,
For turning our back on Creator and King?
We've each loved ourselves and have trusted a lie;
Like Adam before us we're destined to die.
Banished forever from God's perfect place,
Unable to gaze on his beautiful face.
Darkness and fire loom large up ahead;
But that's why he came, and that's why he bled.
Clothed in our flesh he could stand in our place.
He gives us perfection and takes our disgrace.
The baby who chose to be born in a stall
Delivered the costliest rescue of all.
But death could not hold him – He rose and he rules,
And all those who trust him (though some think us fools)
Delight in this season of feasting and joy,
For we are God's children through that baby boy.
As you shop and you wrap for this Christmas season
I pray that you'll stop and ponder the reason.
I pray you would see there's a way out of danger,
And unwrap the gift of Love in the manger.