Christmas Eve rolls around, and this year (2017) it falls on a Sunday. So, I have two messages to bring for this Christmas Eve—one in our regular Sunday morning worship service and another at our annual Christmas Eve ‘Carols and Readings’ Candlelight service. The morning service calls for this passage from John.
I have often preached this passage around Christmas Eve...many times at that evening service, so I come to the passage with a little reluctance—is there anything new for me to preach? I can preach a well-known, well-used passage, but it’s always better if I find something new or discover a fresh approach. So, I come to John 1:1-14 hoping to find a nugget not seen before. Of course, something new is not always what’s needed. I have long argued that what we really need to do in a sermon, in a preaching moment, is respond to the world around us, provide answers to the questions people are asking (see this article). So, even if what I find is not new or fresh or clever, may it be something that speaks to the needs, fears or hopes of the people.
I’m wrapping up a sermons series ~ The Songs of the Prophets ~ that began on Nov.19. We have followed the prophets of the Old Testament...all the time preparing for the One who was to be born. John, I argue, is the last prophet...at least the last “Old Testament” prophet. And, as any good prophet, John comes to reveal the mind of God, to call the people of God back to faithful living, and possibly to foretell some coming event. Yet, his task is bit more focused—John comes to proclaim the arrival of the Promised One...Isaiah’s “child” (Isa.9), Jeremiah’s “hope” (Jer.29), Ezekiel’s resurrection (Ezek. 37). In this Word, we find the fulfillment of 700 years of prophecy.
What do we find in this passage?
v.1-5 – "In the beginning...." This echoes the opening words of Genesis, the beginning words of Creation. John wants us to know that God is doing something new, creative in Jesus. And, this Jesus is no ordinary person—he is the pre-existent one, he was there at Creation, he is the Creator...he is life so needed in our dying world, and he is light so craved in the darkness of this broken world.
Word. Besides being a pastor, I’m also an English teacher. I focus on teaching writing, and writing is all about words. One of the first topics I tackle with my students is, ‘What is a word?’ It’s a joyful time as the students—who use words all the time—wrestle with actually articulating what a word is. Some say a group of letters (dfslexa!?), some say a sound (pron. ‘rumflrtzy’). We all have some good laughs until I finally bring them to it or until someone in the class begins to catch on—a word is an aural or visual symbol of an idea. From there, we go on to discover that ideas function in our minds in the forms of images (when you hear or read ‘pizza’ – do you hear a sound or see letters in your mind? No—we ‘see’ a pizza pie...round, steaming, pepperoni...). Words are important. The best words allow us to visualize most clearly. So, to say that Jesus is the ‘Word’ is to say that Jesus is the visual/aural representation of God...the idea of God made real, experiential for us. I really like the way that Spanish translators of Scripture have rendered this passage. In English, we say, “In the beginning was the Word....” In Spanish, this passage goes, “En el principio ya existía el Verbo….” They use the word “Verbo”…and, yes, we actually translate that as “verb” (the Spanish for ‘word’ is ‘palabra.’) So, the translators elect to use that active word...not just any ‘word.’ I like that!
v.6-8 – John clarifies that he is NOT the One...he’s just someone announcing the One.
v.9-13 – The light coming into the world “gives light to everyone.” Even though he is co-Creator, the creation and the creatures fail to recognize him. But, for those who do recognize him and put their trust in him, they are welcomed into the family of God, made “children of God.”
v.14 – This is the message of Christmas right here. The co-Creator, the Word, the Idea of God, God...became one of us. How do we wrap our minds around that?
Imagine a watchmaker...a person who painstakingly pieces together a time-piece, getting all the ratchets, swivels, weights, springs, pins and jewels in place to form a watch. Then, that person magically becomes a watch. They want to experience what it is like to be what they’ve created—no more arms, legs, eyes, mouth...no longer able to move on their own...strapped to someone’s wrist, tied there...bumped into furniture...covered for extended periods with a long sleeve...seemingly forgotten, taken for granted...then changed out with another watch, thrown in a drawer until the owner decides to pull this watch out again for some occasion.
Or, think of the carpenter who makes the fine pews or benches we sit on. He planes the wood, sands it...cuts and fits together the pieces with glue, screws, finishing nails...stain is carefully applied...and varnish over that. Finally, the pew is ready. The carpenter magically becomes one of his pews. Placed in a sanctuary, he sees people two or three hours a week; the rest of the time he sits in silence. He cannot move, cannot turn. Kids play under, over and around him before the service starts. Sometimes no one sits on him; sometimes Mr. Gordo and the whole Gordo family sit on him...and it strains his joints. Finally, someone stands before the congregation and decides it’s time to replace the pews with chairs...and he’s stacked in the basement until someone can figure out what to do with him and the others.
God—the Creator of all things—becomes a creature within the Creation. All is given up—unlimited freedom, incomprehensible power, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience...all given up. Suddenly, God experiences something new for the first time. Before this moment, God had never known what it was like to be a human. God does something completely new in the person of Jesus...and history is changed forever. Now, we know that God—who often seems far, distant, different, other—this God knows what it is like to wrestle with very human decisions, to deal with family and friends...and enemies, to experience hunger, exhaustion, and stress. Suddenly, we have a God who truly loves us and who truly knows us and our lives. In the coming of Jesus in the manger on that first Christmas, everything changed—everything. And, this is good news for us....