I know we’re all short of sleep and high on excitement, but I wonder if you’d join me in a brief imaginative exercise this morning. Due to some utterly and unbelievably cataclysmic event, there is just one copy of the Bible left in the entire world, and now this too is under threat. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to copy out as much as you can, to preserve it for the future. Where do you start? Is there one passage that tells you enough about God and his ongoing love-affair with faithless humanity to suffice if all else vanishes?
To be honest, I’m not quite sure, but I’d put up a spirited defence for the Gospel that we’ve just heard.
It is sometimes called the Christmas Gospel,- which is strange, when you rreflect that it mentions neither baby, mother, shepherds, angels nor any other nativity essentials. Nonetheless, it’s one of those must-have passages, without which it’s hard to imagine our worship at Christmas. John’s words are so dear and familiar that it’s tempting to side-step any attempt to engage with them, and simply allow them to communicate directly with our hearts,- surely the best place of all for the Christ-child to lodge.
Well, yes and no.
In one sense, of course, the Incarnation is too great a wonder, too great a miracle to comprehend.
It beggars understanding. It is indeed a holy mystery....
However, the problem with mysteries is that we tend to sit back and accept them; we’re confident that, if intellect has failed, amazement itself is a sufficient response. This mystery, however, is rather more demanding, for it draws us in as well.
That is the point of it all.
John’s fourteen verses sum up so much, from the cosmic grandeur of creation to the breathtaking immediacy of Christ’s birth.
“In the beginning”…as Genesis, so John. Here, we’re concerned with the roots and origins of all things, establishing beyond doubt the identity of the Christ with God the Creator.
“The Word was with God and the Word was God.”
But existence is not all. Our God is bent on a relationship, on communicating Himself with his creation…He is not only a being, but the Word. However a word (even the Word) can communicate nothing unless someone is ready to receive it, to listen or to read, to get the message…God communicates with God-self within the Trinity, but God also reaches out in longing to communicate his love to us.
So there is something close to pathos in our failure to recognise and connect with God:
“He was in the world…yet the world knew him not.. He came to his own, but his own received him not.”
It’s incredible, isn’t it? The One who framed and formed everything, allows himself to be shut out of his own creation because he wants us to choose to know him. He who needs nothing, puts himself in a place where he needs us, - us!
And, lest the Word be heard once and then forgotten, here He is made real, visible solid flesh. Incarnate. The Word translates himself into a language we can understand, the language of humanity. The glory of God is too vast for us to comprehend, so He sets it aside, and chooses to limit himself to our scale, so that we might have a chance of recognising and responding to him. As Irenaeus put it, writing in the first century of the Church,
“He became what we are, to make us what he is”,- or alternatively, in the words of the singer/songwriter Joan Osborne
“What if God was one of us?”
The message of the Gospels is that there is no “what if?”…God was and is forever both divine and, amazingly, “one of us”. Incarnation. And when we recognise this, when we too glimpse his glory, we become a new humanity ourselves…
“children born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
For the message is not for one time and place only and John’s Prologue does not just look back to the dawn of time, nor confine us to the historic realities of 1st century Palestine. The word WAS made flesh....Yes, the birth of Jesus was an actual historical event, which happened at a specific moment in time, -even if not on 25th December in the year 0.!
For a problem arises if we try to distance the Christ child; to look at him only through the stained-glass filter of history, to keep Him safely at arm's length "Away in a manger".
That Greatest Gift of All was indeed first given in the stable in Bethlehem,-but if we’re content to leave it there then all our joy and celebration is in vain. However, to bring it from history into the present, and ensure that the good news the angels brought to the shepherds, is indeed good news to all people, is to involve ourselves dangerously in the story. No longer can we view the Incarnation as a once and for all event. We have called upon the Holy Child to "be born in us to-day"....
If we really mean that, we are offering ourselves as God-bearers, accepting the responsibility laid on us in John’s gospel for "as many as received Him".
In a few minutes, we will receive Him in the Sacrament of bread and wine,- and that unbelievable blessing should draw forth a response from our whole selves. It is up to each one of us to bring the living reality of Emmanuel, God with us, out of the soft focus of the carol service and into the world He loves so much.
The Word is to be made flesh IN US.
God longs to communicate with us, but having got the message, we are called to live it and show His living reality “full of grace and truth"