Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God the Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
So, just before Christmas break, a college professor gave his students a test. It was only four questions, but it was still a challenge for some of them. One of his students came in unprepared, and while he got through the first three questions, the professor knew that he was stumped on the last one. With one minute remaining in class the student wrote “only God knows, Merry Christmas.” on the final answer. The when the professor graded the paper and handed it back to the student, the student saw that the professor wrote “God gets %100, but you only get %75.” You see, for all we might think that we know, there is still more that we can learn or discover, especially about God and Jesus. And it is the surprise and the unknowing that is a part of the divine mystery. You might be able to imagine the response from the friends and family of Mary when she broke the news to them. Then try explaining that not only is the there a child to be expected, but THE child, who God has promised throughout history, who going to be born of a virgin. And now the day has come. A day on which we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. And as we reflect on this day, very much in the words of Christmas Carol “what child is this?” we ponder who Jesus is. It is because of this day that cathedrals have been built, great novels have been written, and even wars have temporarily ceased. So, trying to say what this day means in one sermon is too big of a challenge even for me. If you want to know what this day Jesus mean for all of us, you'll have to come back next week. And the next, and the next.
So, looking at our Gospel text for the day, we notice that there is there is a suspicious lack of certain “Christmas” elements. I think it's fair to say that we are most familiar with Christmas story as viewed by the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which give us historical details, telling us all about shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph and wise men and hillsides and mangers and the Christ Child, Bethlehem. But here in the first chapter of John, we find one of the most important accounts of Christmas. John presents to us the story of Christmas without ever mentioning Bethlehem, without ever mentioning Mary, without ever mentioning Joseph, without ever mentioning an inn or a manger or shepherds or angels or any of those things. But really, this is the story behind the scenes. This is the story that couldn't be seen if you were on the hillside and heard the angels with their proclamation. This is the story that you couldn't know if you stood by the manger and looked at the child and His father and mother, you would have to have a revelation from God to know this element of the story. It is the reality of Christmas not seen historically but seen theologically, that is, in light of everything else that happens in the bible. And it answers the question: who is this child born in Bethlehem? John's gospel takes us into the very mind of God. He takes us into eternity. We leave time and we go out of the world for this for a while, to find out the real message of Christmas. But it is a perspective that we must have if we are to understand at all.
So, I would like to give you a special peek behind the veil at how I usually do sermon writing. I can't just sit down and start typing. I have to take the time to read the gospel lesson, look at the original Greek for interesting words, and then I have to read what others write about the bible topic I'm speaking on. So, please bear with me a moment, there were things I found out about the text that I find interesting, and I want to share something with you all. There is a special way that this text was written, and has what we call “Chiastic Structure”. If that sounds like a fancy term, don't worry, I'll explain it. Take either your fingers or arm and make an “X” shape like this: (Make X shape). Congratulations! You have just learned the Greek letter Chi. So, if you look at the shape of the letter, you'll see that it starts out broadly, but then crosses over in the center. How this relates to the text is that with John's writing, there are similar words or phrases at the beginning and end, and other similarities that match up throughout the text, going towards the center. If you were to take this text, you take the top (place one hand up) and the bottom (place other hand down) and go like this (move hands together to meet in the middle) and find the big point of the text. It works really well when preaching, because you know what the main point to focus on. Add a couple of stories and bad jokes, and hey, I've got a sermon. So, just so you know, I'm getting to the main point, but I have to go though the rest to make this point stand out.
So, you'll notice that the reading begins and ends with God. John echoes the words of Genesis, saying that In the beginning, here's what God did. And we see in John's text that Jesus was with God when God created the heavens and the earth. Now, we like to think of Jesus's starting point when He was born in the manger in Bethlehem, but what we read here is that Jesus was so much more involved before he was born on earth. We also read that it is because Jesus is close to God's heart that we are able to know God, because Jesus has made God known to us. These verses are important because we find that Jesus was not created, and is beyond eternity. He was there in the beginning with God, and he knew God while He was on Earth, and then He was with God again after He ascended into heaven.
Alright, now look at verses 3 and 17. Both of these verse talk about what Jesus has done, saying that all creation, all the plants, animals, and people, came into being because of God and Jesus. It also tells us that while the Law was given through Moses, Grace and Truth came to us through Jesus. So, while God spoke with Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, we know that because Jesus, who knew God, knew how to better tell of God's blessings. There have been many prophets throughout history who have spoken the truth into a broken and hurting world, but now God has come to speak so that the world might really know God. The main blessing that is received is mentioned, saying that we would receive grace upon grace. What we know now is that these would be later described as eternal life.
Continuing the story, we hear about the world that Jesus was coming into. Looking at 9-10 and 14, we see that Jesus, the light of the world, was coming to dwell in the world with us, as one of us. It's a good thing that Jesus did not come as a lion, a tree, or something else. It would have been so much harder to understand God in any of these forms. But Jesus came to us as a person, fully human while still being fully God. But even being a person was difficult. Our passage tells us that even though Jesus came into His own word, the world did not know him. While still coming into what was his own, his own people did not accept him. Now, there are several ways that this can be interpreted. Looking at verse 13, there are three ways, being born of blood, which means how people are born into a family or clan, born of the will of the flesh, which are code words for being entered into a church family, like how the Jews used circumcision, and finally by being born of the will of Man. This means adoption into a family. However, none of these can achieve the family that Jesus sought for all humans. Those who are “born of God” goes beyond any race, or gender, or age, but includes everyone. Jesus faced divisions in his day, just like we do now. But what this is saying is that Jesus came to create a family of believers.
Okay, at this point I have to say thank you. I've been working towards this point, and you all have been very patient. Here's the point of this Christmas story: Look at verse 12. To all who receive him, to all who believe his name, he gives the power to become the children of God. The center of this Chiasm, this X that I was talking about earlier, is that God came down to earth so that we may become Children of God, and experience the fullness of life. That is why we celebrate Christmas this, and every year, is because God so love us, so loved a broken and hurting world, that God would come down as one of us to be with us, to help us know God, and ultimately to make us part of the family of God. I love the story of the nativity, and when I think about the birth of Christ, it's usually my go-to when I want to tell the story. But there is so much more going on behind the scenes that we sometimes miss in all of the Christmas decoration and preparation. John's gospel reminds us that while the birth story of Jesus is beautiful, there is so much more happening because of what God is doing in the world. God coming down in flesh is incredible, but what is even more so is the idea that God did it for you. And for you, and you, and you, and heck, even for me.
This has been an interesting year for me as I have lived and changed throughout the past few months. There have been many events that have made this past year stand out, but I think the ones that I remember most stem from being in this church. Never before have I been so openly welcomed by a church. You brought me in, and have been teaching me, leading me, guiding me, and even help correct me when I stumble. And as I participate in this family of God, I've come to a conclusion that this is a congregation that doesn't just keep “Christ in Christmas”, but one that keeps Christ in December 24, March 15th, and September 28. Do you know why those days are important? Because they're days. Regular, average days is when and how we can and do show that we are a family of God, open to the needs of our neighbors. It's every gift we give, expecting nothing back. It's every kindness we do, each simple little act. And so it's good that we remember that just as soon as we've discovered, the things we do in life will always end up touching others. I have learn that love changes people. It was first Christ's love that came down for us, to make us children of God, and that love has spread out, just like how one candle lights another. Christmas is a reminder of that love, and helps to spread it to others. And for that, we can turn and say “Thanks be to God.” Amen. Merry Christmas!