When we hear the Christmas story, it’s usually the version from the Gospel of Luke (2:1-20). That’s the one we used at our Christmas services, and we’ll hear it again at 10:00 as part of Lessons and Carols.
Luke’s Christmas story features the holy family, with baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Luke tells the story of the angel of the Lord bringing shepherds good news of great joy, and a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and blessing us with peace. Everybody loves Luke’s Christmas story, and rightly so.
We all love Matthew’s Christmas story, too. Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah about the virgin conceiving and bearing a son who shall be named Emmanuel, meaning God with us (1:23). Matthew gives us the wise men from the east following the star to find the one born king of the Jews (2:1-12). At 10:00 we’ll also hear Matthew’s version of the Christmas story as part of Lessons and Carols.
I love the Christmas stories of Luke and Matthew. I love creches, which usually combine the two stories. I love Christmas carols about the baby Jesus. I love all the other things we do to celebrate Christ’s birth. I am glad that we have versions of the Christmas story accessible to children, who often grasp the true meaning of Christmas better than adults.
But I sometimes worry about how sweet and sentimental our Christmas celebrations can be. Because behind the sweet story of the baby Jesus and the angels and shepherds and wise men is one of the great mysteries of our faith: the incarnation of God.
For that, for the mystery of the incarnation, we need John’s version of the Christmas story. That’s the one we just heard as our Gospel reading for this morning. Unfortunately, John’s Christmas story is not part of Lessons and Carols.
John’s Christmas story about the incarnation of God is not as cute as the baby Jesus, surrounded by his parents and farm animals. A creche can’t show the Word becoming flesh. But John is the Gospel writer who does most to communicate the divine mystery at the heart of the Christmas story.
Now, I didn’t always recognize the opening verses of John’s Gospel as a Christmas story. After all, the Christmas part of this passage is not even half a sentence. All we get is, “The Word became flesh.”
And a lot comes before we get to the Word becoming flesh in John’s Gospel. As John tells us, John begins his version of the story at the very beginning, before creation.
“In the beginning,” says John, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That’s who Christ is even before creation. That’s who Christ is from all eternity.
After telling us who Christ is, John tells us what Christ does. “All things came into being through him,” through the Word. Without the Word, “not one thing came into being.” Christ, the Word of God, is the creator and Lord of the cosmos.
Throughout history, John continues, prophets came, speaking the word of God, testifying to the one through whom the world was made, pointing to the life and the light of God made available to us. The line of prophets culminated in John the Baptizer, who “came as a [final] witness to testify to the light” of Christ.
But we were too thick-headed to respond to God’s word through the prophets, even in the ministry of the Baptizer.
And so, at last, we get to the good news of Christmas: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
John reminds us that, standing behind the sweet story of Christmas, is the mystery of the incarnation. God the Word, who is all powerful and all knowing, loves us enough to accept the limitations, the vulnerability, the mortality that goes with being human, with becoming flesh and dwelling among us.
It is not easy to absorb the full significance of what John is teaching here.
As many of you know, I am ready for grandchildren. Sadly, my children are not ready to have children of their own, so I remain on indefinite hold. We’ve not had a baby in the house for over two decades.
But I still remember the shock that came with being a new father, with having a newborn in the house. When we first brought him home, baby Benjamin couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t hold his head up. He couldn’t focus his attention. He couldn’t smile. All he could do, as best I could tell, was cry. Thankfully he didn’t do that too much.
I assume the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in manager on that first Christmas was about the same: totally and utterly dependent on Mary and Joseph and the other people around him for absolutely everything.
But in the case of the baby Jesus, that dependence is an amazing thing to think about. The difference, of course, is, that helpless baby was also God incarnate, the omnipotent creator and sustainer of all things. That helpless baby had been all-powerful, but chose to become helpless.
Think of the humility of God, who was willing to become totally helpless and needy, out of love for us.
That is a LOT of humility. I, who have plenty of reason to be humble, hate feeling helpless and needy. And I’m not talking about the total helplessness of infancy. I’m talking about the relative helplessness we sometimes experience as adults.
One of the many reasons I could never learn to speak a second language was the fact that I couldn’t bear to sound as stupid and childish as I sounded every time I tried to speak Spanish. And I was only seventeen at the time. I was stupid and childish. But I was not willing to humble myself for fear of revealing my incompetence. So I stayed incompetent.
God, on the other hand, willingly accepted the total helplessness of an infant out of love for us.
In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul gives us his version of the Christmas story, emphasizing the point I am trying to make here. Paul says, “Christ Jesus…, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (2:5-7).
Emptied himself. God the Word effectively emptied himself of all his power and dignity in order to be born as one of us because that was what we needed.
And thanks to Christ’s willingness to empty himself, thanks to the humility and love of God for us, revealed in the incarnation, we, who start with nothing we have not received, are filled up by God. John tells us that from the fullness of the Word of God who became flesh to live among us, “we have all received, grace upon grace.”
We live in the grace of God because God was willing to become flesh, to be born as one of us, to submit to the human condition in all its weakness and frailty.
That is the good news.
That is the good news proclaimed in Scripture. That is the good news we celebrate in worship. That is the good news we sing about. That is the good news at the heart of the Christmas story. That good news is what the baby Jesus means for us.
And so, on this first Sunday of the Christmas season, I give thanks to God for the gift of Christ taking flesh and dwelling among us. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan