Rev Peter Lockhart
(A Sermon prepared for 96.5 Family FM)
There are essentially two different versions of how Jesus was born in the Bible. The one found in the gospel of Matthew tells us a story entailing Joseph’s dream and wise men following a star. Matthew also tells about the massacre of infants and the flight of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus into Egypt. On the other hand Luke’s story is about visitations: the angel visits Mary; Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth; Mary and Joseph visit Bethlehem; angels visit shepherds and the shepherds visit the Christ child.
It is from these two stories that we get most of the images on our Christmas cards and in the Christmas story books and the nativity plays. Many of which confuse the stories with one another overlapping the different elements and sentimentalising them.
Whilst these stories about Jesus birth are important my favourite reading for Christmas day is neither of these. Rather, I am always drawn to the beginning of John’s gospel which taps into the very first story found in the Bible, the story of creation. In fact in most English translations of the Bible the first words of the book of Genesis and of the Gospel according to John are exactly the same “In the beginning...”
So, let listen to the words of John 1:1-14 as they reveal to us the essence of Christmas:
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 came into being through him,
and without him
not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God,
whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He himself was not the light,
but he came to testify to the light.
The true light,
which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
who were born,
not of blood or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man,
but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.
The wonderful imagery of this passage lets us into the wondrous secret that the man Jesus was and is also the eternal Word of God. The Word of God which was spoken at time of creation, through who all things came into being.
The word that the church has used to describe this amazing choice of God to become human through the centuries is ‘incarnation’.
For me when I use this word rather simply say that Jesus was born I feel somewhat confronted by the amazing mystery which unfolded in this event, the Word became flesh! Incarnation!
In Matthew’s version of the events the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that the child to be born will be called “God with us”. Whilst, in Luke’s telling of the story when the angel appears to Mary she is told that the child she will carry will be holy and will be called the Son of God.
This claim that Jesus is God among us is what I believe is completely unique about Christianity.
In my study of history and of world religions I can find claims of virgin births, demigods and even reincarnation and resurrection. The uniqueness of the Christian faith revolves around this claim: the Word became flesh and lived amongst us.
When we begin to unpack the implications of this it really is quite astounding.
Most of us would agree that to have any concept of what our lives are like means engaging closely with them.
This is exactly what the mystery of the incarnation is about: the Word became flesh. God comes to a walk a mile in our shoes in the person Jesus.
Yes Jesus may not have shared the specific experiences that you or I will live through but we certainly know that he experienced the whole spectrum of human existence joy, love, loss, grief, rejection, torture and even a sense of being abandoned by God in the moments before his death.
What the mystery of the incarnation does for me is remind me that God does not stand aloof, separated from our existence by time and space, and God’s downright divinity, no God chooses to show how much God loves what God created in the beginning by sharing our existence.
God walked a mile in your shoes and mine so when we turn to God and cry out in joy or in sorrow, in hope or in despair, in gratitude or in grief we know the one who is listening understands what it means to be human.
One of the most significant things about the incarnation is that it is God’s answer to our misapprehensions about love. I suspect a large portion of our personal pain and problems as human beings stems from the concern that ate not loved. We don’t believe we are loved by God and we don’t believe that we are loved by others.
In the book 1 John we read that ‘God is love’ and so Jesus is God’s love in the world. God seeking to transform how we understand and feel about ourselves – we are loved, you are loved and I am loved. In fact God loves everything that God has made.
There is an old carol which captures this true Spirit of Christmas in its words:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all of us,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
In 1 John it goes on to say that we love because God first loved us. Christmas and the Christmas Spirit is about celebrating this love of God in which we find God giving us himself to share our life. God loves us and the world that God made so much that God becomes part of it.
When we understand this story, the story of the incarnation, the things we do for one another at Christmas should move us beyond our own needs and wants and into loving others just as we have been loved. It means trying to understand what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes and reach out just as God has reached out to us.
It is my hope and prayer that this Christmas beyond the pressure for gifts and cards and celebrations that sometimes weigh us down that you will encounter something of the joy and mystery of the Word become flesh: that you will encounter God’s love come down to you this Christmas and that you will know that God is with you, now as then.
May God bless you all and may you have a happy and holy Christmas.