The set readings are Isaiah 52:7-10 and John 1:1-14
The end of December is always a dreary time in the gardening year. The fruits of Autumn have long since gone, and now the trees stand bare against the winter sky. Though through the wet and muddy soil a few bulbs may be pushing through, on the whole there aren’t many signs of life. Piles of rotting leaves and fallen branches are waiting to be cleared and the overall scene seems one of peaceful desolation.
Yet if you look closely there are signs of life. Blackbirds and thrushes rootle through the rotting apples. On the birdfeeders coal tits and sparrows swoop down for food. A robin hops along the back wall, while in the front, if you are really fortunate, you may just catch a goldcrest flitting amongst the photinia.
And as you watch the birds of the air (which is something, incidentally, Jesus encourages us to do), it’s only natural to ask: why do we have so many different birds? Where did they come from? To which one popular answer is that they are all a product of evolution. The birds just happened over millions of years, each adapting to their own particular conditions, and dividing into the different species we see today. But when I see the birds, I see a beauty and a variety which is more than a simple work of chance. And indeed when I talk with my daughter who is a biologist she tells me that the way that birds or any other living creatures have been so finely and precisely defined, from the cellular level upwards, that they point not to random variations, but to the work of a Creator. However all the different birds came into being, each of them in their own way point to the reality of God who made the world.
So day by day I watch the birds in my garden, and I know that over the next few weeks and months the days will gradually grow longer, and new life will reappear. As the light of spring warms the soil, seeds will germinate, our winter visitors will migrate and the leaves on the trees will begin to bud and blossom. Now again we might ask: where does the light come from? To which, again, another popular answer is that our life is simply the product of a Big Bang that happened billions of years ago, and what we see around us is just the outcome of that one single cosmic event. But again from all I have read about life on earth, it seems that the exact conditions for there to be such abundance and beauty on this planet are so precise that ultimately they must have been fine-tuned by someone greater than ourselves.
To me, it requires a greater amount of faith to believe there is nothing more to our existence than evolution and the Big Bang. Of course the word on the street is that science has somehow disproved religion. What that fails to take into account, however, is that for many scientists their work in studying the world and its origins has led them not to unbelief, but a deeper sense of wonder and awe at the one who is the Creator of all things. So, for example, one of my fellow students at theological college was an eminent astrophysicist who now leads an institute that helps to make connections between the world of science and the world of faith.
Of course, if there is a God who made us and gave us life, how we know what He is like? That’s one of those big questions which many people struggle to answer. We may have a sense there is a God, we may spend much of our life trying to find Him, but somehow all our efforts in discovering who He is don’t seem to get us very far. We may try religion, we may try meditation, we may try living a good, moral life, yet somehow this God, whoever may be still remains remote and distant. What we really need is someone who can clearly and lovingly show us the way back to Him, to tell us where we can find Him, and to reveal who He is actually is.
This is where our reading from John’s gospel comes in. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Now when you first read these words it may not be immediately obvious who John is talking about. But as you go on through John’s gospel it becomes clear he is talking about Jesus Christ. You might well ask why he doesn’t tell us from the beginning, but there’s a good reason why he starts his gospel as he does. He wants us to understand exactly who Jesus is. He is the one who can tell us what God is like. When we come to Jesus, He will make God known to us. Because His role and function is to communicate God to us, and that is why John calls Him the Word.
But how do we know that we can trust Jesus to give us the understanding we need about God? After all, there are plenty of people who claim to give us insight and spiritual understanding. History is littered with teachers, prophets, philosophers making bold statements about God, inviting us to follow them. What is it that’s so different about Jesus?
Let’s go back to John 1, verse 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. What marks Jesus is out is that He was and is God. The reason why He can tell us what God is like is that He has a unique and special relationship with God the Father. No other teacher, prophet or philosopher has healed the sick, brought new life with a simple touch or indeed and most importantly been raised from the dead. Jesus is the one who has the capacity not only to inform us about God but to transform us by the power of His living presence. So if we want to know the God who brings us light and life, then the place we need to start is by turning to Jesus.
So, you might then ask, why don’t more people look to Jesus for the answers they are seeking? John gives us the reason in verse 5: The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. Despite the fact God has made the world full of beauty and colour, despite the fact He has created the perfect conditions for life on earth, there is a certain spiritual darkness that means we do not appreciate the One who has made it all. You see, in order to make us fully human, God gave us the choice whether we would love and serve Him or not. And sadly, we have chosen not to live as God intended. We have filled the world with violence, with greed, with hatred. We have polluted our land and our seas. We have ignored the plight of the poor and the needy.
But the wonder and the mercy of God is that, even though so many times we turn our back on Him and worship other things instead of Him, the light still shines on the darkness. There are moments when the wonder and beauty of God still breaks through – for example, when you see a beautiful sunset over a range of hills, or you marry the one you love. However we might try and explain away our responses, we still cannot quite shake off the sense there is something more to this life than mere molecules of matter in a random universe.
Yet even though secretly we might still hunger for God, as I said just now, all our attempts to find Him never quite seem to be enough. By our own efforts we never quite manage to communicate with the Word of Life through whom all things were made. What we need instead is for God to make Himself known, to reveal Himself to us, and lead us back to Himself.
And this is where the Christmas story comes in. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
Now by the time John wrote his gospel, his hearers would have been familiar with the story we know and love so well. They would have known from Luke’s gospel about the angel’s visit to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger and the angel appearing to the shepherds. They would have known from Matthew’s gospel about the angel appearing to Joseph and the visit of the wise men. John’s purpose in writing is not to remind them of all these details, important as they are. His purpose is to alert them to the wonder and mystery of the Christmas story. Because that baby born in the manger is none other the Word of God. He is the one through whom all things were made. His mission is not to provide us with a sweet tale we can tell on a dreary December morning, but to communicate all that we need to know about God, through word, through deed, and indeed through suffering and dying for us on a cross.
Of course we may well wonder why Jesus, the Word of God, chose to come into the world this way. Wouldn’t it have been better if He had come as some sort of king who could put to right every wrong and every injustice? Well, one day this Jesus will come to do precisely that. But in the meanwhile He has emptied Himself of all His power and glory and allowed Himself to be born as a weak, helpless baby out of sheer love for us, for you and for me.
Because just as God originally gave us the choice whether we would love and serve Him, so Jesus came to His earth in such a way that we would be free to decide whether we would own and worship Him as the Son of God. The thing about Jesus is He loves us so much He gives us the freedom to choose. After all, faith that is forced upon us isn’t really faith. And what God longs for above all else is that we have a relationship with Him that is based on truth and love and grace.
Sadly, even while Jesus walked this earth, there were many who chose to ignore and reject Him. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. You can almost hear the pain in John’s voice as he writes these words. And the sad fact is, that despite all the evidence in front of them, there are still so many people today who choose to turn their backs on Jesus as their Lord and their Saviour. As John will write later in John 3:19: This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Coming to Jesus, you see, involves recognising and being sorry for all the times we have failed to believe and trust in Him, for living as if He is not there, for dishonouring Him in what we think and say and do. And sadly, that is a step that many are simply not prepared to do.
But of course it is easy to criticise other people. What about us? If Jesus really is the Word of God, will we allow Jesus to touch and transform us? Because let’s be clear – believing in Jesus is more than simply accepting He was born in a manger 2000 years ago, or mentally assenting to the fact He died for us. Believing in Jesus is about taking on a new identity, about as John describes it, being born again by the power of Holy Spirit, where we enter into a new relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. Listen carefully to John goes on to say in verses 12 and 13: Yet 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.
Now in a little while we will go back home. We will give and receive presents. Many of us, I hope, will be enjoying the company of family and friends. But before the festivities of Christmas begin, let me ask whether you know you have received the greatest gift of all, the right of becoming a child of God. Can you say you have believed in the name of Jesus and been transformed by the living presence of God Himself? Because unless we make that step of faith and commitment, the Christmas story remains, well, just a story. It is a nice tale about angels and a young couple and a manger which in twelve days’ time we can pack away for another year.
And I guess that’s fine, if you are prepared to carry on living in darkness, still seeking for God but still unable to find Him. But if you want to experience the light of Christ in your life, if you want to discover the love of God your Heavenly Father, there’s something more you need to do. Reflect on the manger as the place where the Word of God Himself chose to enter this world. Understand that He came in weakness and humility for you, so that by His birth, His death and His resurrection you might become a child of God through the power of His love. And then turn that understanding into a prayer, as you ask this same Jesus to live in your heart by faith, so that you might be born again and be restored to that life with God you were always meant to enjoy.
Let us pray…