Some texts are so clear that I look at them and wonder, “How will I ever expand on this or show people something new from this?” And some texts are so exalted and wonderful that I look at them and wonder, “How in the world will I ever say something coherent and useful about this?” The Gospel for Christmas Day is one of those texts. I’m not the only one who’s felt that way– for a long time it was the last thing people heard recited at Mass, and for that reason it was called the Last Gospel. Superstitious stories and legends grew up around it — of three men riding in the woods in a storm, two were hit by lightening but the one who had heard the Last Gospel was spared, that sort of thing. Soldiers would wear amulets containing the passage inscribed on a little scroll as protection in battle. (Pure superstition and magical thinking, that’s all that is.) Anyway, many have sensed the high and lofty topic that St. John deals with here in such simple but beautiful language…even if they haven’t always responded appropriately.
The sermon of Martin Luther that I read on this text was very helpful to me. Luther commented that many scholastics and professors had convinced people that this text was subtle, deep, and great, and therefore beyond their understanding. Just look at the plain words as they stand, and you will draw out all their comfort and all that they mean to teach, he advised. He encouraged me that I could actually preach this text and do a good job of it. (That, and he found many of the same ideas that I did in it, which never hurts.)
I had a first occur while preaching this sermon — I shed tears in the pulpit. I’ve gotten choked up before, but never had actual tears run down my face. The Incarnation is certainly moving, and St. John the Evangelist’s words are beyond doubt moving, but it’s been a long December too. Lots going on, and my tank’s nearly empty. Praying the Daily Office has been one of the few things keeping me going, but through all of it God is good, and He promises never to leave us. The proof of that promise is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger.
May Jesus, our newborn King and the Light of all men, grant you and yours a blessed celebration of His birth this Christmas.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.
3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood[a] it.
6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.[b]
10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent,[c] nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only,[d] who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (john 1.1-14 niv)
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” All things were made by His Word, and today we gather to celebrate the birth of that Word in time – Jesus Christ, come in the flesh as a little baby in Bethlehem. Jesus is not just a little baby in a manger. He is the true light that gives light to every man and the world’s only Savior. Today, as we ponder these words from John 1, we will see just how Christ is the true light that came into the world, and why we needed that light. Christ is born – the true light has come into the world!
John begins his Gospel with words that deliberately recall Genesis chapter 1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If you’ve ever wondered how the Old Testament teaches us about Jesus, or about the holy Trinity, look no further than John’s explanation. John lists several ways that the Word, Jesus, is truly God. He says that the Word was in the beginning. He was there before the beginning, so He must be eternal. He must be God. John says as much: “the Word was God.” John also says that the Word was with God. He is true God, He’s of the same essence as God, but He’s not the same person. They are two separate persons but one God. That’s how the Word can be with God and at the same time be God. John says that all things were made through Him. Jesus is the Word the Father sent out that created all things. Without Him nothing was made that has been made. Through Him God made the universe. So Jesus is eternal, He is true God, and He made all things.
This is the baby we see in Bethlehem. This is the newborn who can do nothing for himself. Jesus created all things, and yet He can’t hold up His own head. Jesus sustains all things, and yet He depends on His mother for food and warmth. Jesus is God lying in the manger, and yet He seems very far from being God. The world doesn’t understand this. It doesn’t comprehend it. It doesn’t accept it. It reacts violently to this light, because this light exposes their sins and their misdeeds. The world is sunk in the darkness of sin and has no other light except this Child.
If you’ve ever witnessed a complete power outage, you know how total the darkness can be. Once the power goes out, the darkness closes in around you. You can’t escape. Places that seemed familiar at night are no longer familiar; they’re strange and scary, because the darkness has taken over. You stumble around because you can’t see where you’re going. So it is with everyone lost in spiritual darkness. We too were once part of the darkness of this world. We were lost without this Child. We had no way of knowing God – no way of knowing where we’d come from or where we were going. We neither received Christ nor understood who He really is.
Yet we have escaped that darkness.“To all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” We believe that Jesus Christ came from God and is the Son of God, and that faith makes us God’s children. God makes His own family. Being a part of God’s family doesn’t depend on who you’re related to. It doesn’t depend on who your father was. It doesn’t depend on your own wanting or wishing – there’s no such thing as “I asked Jesus into my heart.” It doesn’t depend on your own drive or commitment.
God makes you a part of His family. He gives you the right to become a child of God, and He does that through faith in His Son. Christ gives us life because He is the source of all life. He created all things – He gave all things life. He gives life to us, because He has life in Himself and He chooses to give it to His own. So we are born of God. Our life, real life, life that death cannot kill, comes through trusting in Jesus, the Baby born in Bethlehem and yet God’s Son. John tells us that Christ is life, and that life is the light of men. He says this because Christ is the only light there is. There is no other light by which we may see God. Christ is the only way. You must believe in Christ, the Baby born in Bethlehem, if you wish to be saved.
In Hawaii there’s an extinct volcano where people go to watch the sun rise. It’s called Haleakala. People start driving up the volcano at two or three in the morning. At the top they crowd together under blankets, shivering because it’s so cold. The cold wind whips right past you and chills you. People huddle together and wait for the dawn. Slowly the sky begins to lighten to the east. Gradually, so gradually you almost can’t tell, light begins to fill the sky. Then comes the moment everybody’s been waiting for: the first rays of dawn shoot over the horizon. The light is so clear and bright, it feels like it’s shining right through your eyes. The entire sky lights up with the glory of the rising sun. You finally feel warmth begin to seep into your skin as the sun rises and shines on you. People smile and laugh; they’re glad because they’ve been privileged to witness such a beautiful sight.
The same thing happened that first Christmas, in a dark, cold stable that smelled like animals. The light began to shine in Bethlehem, unknown to most and unremarked by nearly everyone except for a father who was more of a guardian, a mother who was also a virgin, and a handful of shepherds. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world, and that light has brought us light, life, and every blessing besides. That light would spread and grow throughout Christ’s life on earth until no sin was left unpaid for, no hurt was left unhealed, no sinner was left unredeemed. That light dimmed one Friday and went out, but then it sprang back into glorious life on Easter Sunday, and now it will never go out. It shines for you and it shines for me. Look into the manger and see: this is God’s glory. That baby lying there is the salvation of the world, the special sign of God’s love – come in the flesh. This is the height of His love, that He would choose to come to a soiled and broken world such as this, for sinners such as you and me; that He would take on human form and become flesh of our flesh to save us.
I don’t know if you’ve taken a look at our Nativity scene we have in front of our church. Half of it is buried under the snow. The wise men are starting to look cold. When it’s not buried under the snow, you can see Jesus. He’s lying in the manger, of course, and something about Him really caught my eye. He looks like He’s tied up. I guess it’s the way the manger is constructed, but baby Jesus looks like He’s securely tied into place on the manger. His arms are bound, His feet are bound, and He’s not going anywhere. That’s appropriate, because that’s why Christ came into the world: to save sinners by His life and perfect death. He came to give Himself for us as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Our manger scene has something that most manger scenes miss. Babies, shepherds, cows, and sheep are all cute. The stable is often depicted as being warm and cozy and full of light. Everything looks comfortable and snug. What those manger scenes don’t always show is the end of Christ’s coming to earth: to die on the cross on Good Friday. And yet that was why He came, to go to Calvary’s cross and to bow His head in blood, to give up His spirit — for you and me. He didn’t come just to be a cute baby lying on soft straw getting His picture painted. He came down to our dirty world to touch the dirt, to get right down into it, to come down to us in our sin and our shame and to bring us up. He came to rescue us and make us God’s children. Because of Him, we are clean and pure and whole again. We belong to God. We are God’s. Let’s not forget that this Christmas, among all the presents and the treats and the time with family and friends. Christmas is not just the biggest holiday of the year. For us it’s the birth of salvation – of our Savior.
“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Christ the Savior is born! Alleluia! Amen.