January 3, 2016
William G. Carter
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Christmas came ten days ago. Pretty soon, there will be some tidying up. The tree will come down, the lights and ornaments will go back in their boxes. The Advent wreath will be dismantled and the base returned to the attic. The candles that were ignited at 6:30, 9:00, and 11:00 were snuffed out, with the stubby ones tossed away and the rest of them returned to a box in the closet.
And now we can ask, “What was that all about?”
The merchants and the malls are tallying up sales to see how they did. Our own people tell me that we had nine more people here on Christmas Eve than last year. I have a good number of my thank-you notes written, and all the gifts under our tree were either relocated or consumed.
Ten days later, we can say, “What has happened?”
These are the days for chasing the deeper meaning of Christmas. The Christmas carols have faded from the supermarket sound tracks, and Big Lots has put out the St. Patty’s day decorations, with a few pink Valentines on the way. Our culture jumps from celebration to celebration, without ever taking much time to savor the holiness in the holidays.
So what happened at Christmas?
No doubt some will quote Isaiah: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (9:6). With that, some will sing of “the little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay.” It’s an excellent word picture. Christmas is the child Jesus, born in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Without the message of the angels, however, the event would only be a child birth. And Christmas is much more than that.
Today’s text is a poem written about ninety years after the first Christmas. John has had some time to think about it. He doesn’t mention a baby or a manger, or sheep, cattle, and camels. In fact, in his entire book never mentions the mother of Jesus by name; simply refers to her as “his mother.” He has other things on his mind. John wants to explore what all this is about.
That’s not going to come quickly. Good theology doesn’t come right away. It needs to cook for a while. And when John dishes up this poem, the church can chew on the rich vocabulary and grammar.
Did you notice where the poem begins? It begins at the beginning: “In the beginning.” John dials it back all the way to the creation of the universe. At that moment, the Word and God co-existed. They were one, they were distinct, and they were together. The same God who spoke all things into existence, declaring “let there be light,” is the God who created by using the Word.
And what did God created through the Word? Life and light: they are the universal gifts to all people. Everybody has life, everybody has light. John says this is a universal story. It’s for everybody… except that some people don’t get it. They should know where they come from, but they don’t. They could welcome God when he goes to them, but they can’t. There’s the human problem in a nutshell: they don’t know God, they can’t welcome God - - and so they stumble around as if they are totally on their own. This is what John suggests, and he will have plenty of stories to prove it.
But what happens on Christmas, he says, is that God doesn’t settle for that. God doesn’t leave people to stumble around in the dark. God comes to the world and lands with human feet. The Word of God takes on skin and bones and breath. The One who gives light and life to all things comes and lives among them. That’s Christmas.
It’s a confusing message for a lot of people. Either they are still in the dark about the Source of their light and life, or they look at Jesus and say, “Are you kidding? Is that it? A first-century carpenter with splinters in his hands?” And to be fair, for most of Jesus’ life, he blended in. There was nothing to distinguish him until he was about thirty years old, and he began to speak the truth, and he began to heal those who were broken – and a world still shrouded in darkness replied, “We can’t have this; we had better turn out the lights.” Which is a way of saying the story of Christmas is still going on.
When you pick up the paper and read about the terrible things people do to one another, it’s because they have a hard time accepting that the light has come. When those who know better lie and distort the truth about themselves, see this for what it is: they are refusing the Light that casts no shadows. When those with the world’s power plunder those who are vulnerable, they are denying that Life is offered to them too. And heaven waits for earth to wake up and see the Light and Life of God have come, right into our midst. We can have it here and now.
But that’s a tough Word to keep straight, even for those of us who are the keepers of Christmas. I noticed a line in a Christmas carol that I had not noticed before. It’s the last phrase of the last verse of “Away in a Manger” – and it says, “and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” That’s not quite right. It makes it sound like Christian faith is only concerned about the afterlife – and that’s not true.
Jesus is born here, lived here, was crucified here, was raised here, and says, “I am with you always,” which certainly includes here. We don’t have to wait until we die to live with him then. We can live with him now, and welcome him now. The next time I sing that carol, I think I might change the words to accurately describe the Christian life: “and fit us from heaven to live with thee here.”
You see, here is the miracle of Christmas: this life matters. Our skin, and bones, and breath matter. The way we go about our business, the way we care for our children – it matters. We don’t have to wait until we’re done around here before we can go to someplace holy. Christmas means the Holy has come right here. The God who is Spirit has taken on human flesh. In Jesus, God has arms to hug, lips to kiss, an appetite for good food and drink, and feet well-calloused from walking. The Word became a physical, temporal body, says John. So what we do with our bodies really does count.
A man I know tells about his wife teaching a year-long study of the Bible. One week, the class was assigned to read the entire book of Leviticus. If you’ve ever read that book, you know somebody had to get bogged down. Indeed, when they gathered, one brave soul complained, “Why is God concerned with how we prepare our meat, what we do with our livestock, and women during their monthly cycles? Does God have nothing better to do?”
A wise old sage in the group spoke up, “I loved Leviticus because of its excruciating earthiness. I’m glad God cares about what goes on in the kitchen, bedroom, and bath because that’s where most of us spend most of our time. God doesn’t just want my soul. I don’t have to be in church to serve God. Even at the kitchen sink, God is with us.”
Can you imagine what that means, that God is with us? That God is so concerned with us that God actually arrives? It’s sobering – because every moment of our lives can be bathed in his light, unless we give in to our natural inclination to recede into the shadows. It means that there is no place we can go to outrun the grace of God, no place so dark that God can’t shine some Light somehow. Christmas means that human life can be blessed and hallowed by the God who chooses to enter it.
Christmas means that, in the great human game of hide and seek, all of us have been found. Our part is simply coming home when Christ calls, “All-ee, all-ee, in free.”
That’s the heart of it, although some have used more elegant words. I think of Saint Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons. He loved the meaning of Christmas. Here is how somebody describes him:
At the very heart of his faith was a conviction that the unseen, unknowable God who had created everything so loved humanity that he had become a human being just like us. By becoming the human being Jesus, God wanted to share with every human person his own, eternal life in such a way that our fragile, contradictory human nature would not be overwhelmed or crushed, but fulfilled utterly. All that we are was designed from the beginning for a fullness beyond anything we could imagine, in and by communion with God.
If there is one sentence from him that I hope you remember, it is this: “The glory of God is a human being who is fully alive and the life of humanity is the vision of God.”
The full life is the life that Jesus has always lived in the joy of eternity. It is the live he comes to live among us. It is the very life that he offers to all who welcome him. So welcome him this day. Welcome him in Word and water, in bread and cup – and get on with living the marvelous life that he sets before you.
Happy New Year!
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.