In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 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.
(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, the weeks of waiting and anticipation are almost over. While I invite you all to gather here tomorrow evening as we celebrate the holiest of nights, this morning, the word of the day is incarnation.
We read that “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The gift of light comes into the darkness of a broken world. Incarnation means that the God who stands outside of time enters into time, the God who is infinite becomes finite, the God who is all-powerful becomes all-vulnerable. God comes to us in a tiny baby.
At Christmas, the ways of the world are once again turned upside down. In a world consumed by seemingly unending wars, vitriolic partisanship, and abusive rhetoric, at Christmas the soft cries of Mary’s child are more deafening than the bombast that so often fills our ears. Those gentle sounds are a sacred reminder that power is not displayed in political showmanship or government shutdowns. Those soft noises belong to the vulnerability of a newborn baby. No longer does the world bow to Caesar Augustus, or to Herod, or to anyone in our time who normally commands the world’s attention. At Christmas, the world bows before a baby.
So many of our days are spent living according to the standards of this world. We compete with ourselves and each other, climbing the ladder of success, and trying to prove our worth – to our parents, our bosses, our colleagues, our friends, even our children. We strive to be successful at work, at home, in the classroom and even in the amount of time we give back to our church. If we only try hard enough, we’ll earn the love and approval of our family and friends. If we only study long enough, we’ll make the grade and validate our sense of self-worth. If we only pray long enough, we’ll earn God’s love and blessing.
In the face of this earning- and competing-mentality, the child in Mary’s arms calls us to stop and remind ourselves that we’re not in charge of our own salvation.
Jesus’ birth reminds us that we can’t work our way up to God. Instead, God comes down and becomes small, for us. As we read in our scripture passage, “He came to what was his own.” God became a living, breathing, tangible means of grace wrapped in a young girl’s arms.
The King of kings is born in a stable with some shepherds and some groaning and grunting animals as the guests of honor. He emerges with tiny fingers and toes. Presumably, soon after come smelly poops and some spit-up. The gift of Christmas is the baby Jesus, God’s love for the world. And that gift is flesh and blood.
We are human. Many of us have been hardened by the endurance that our humanity demands. We’re faced with broken joints, failing organs, as well as all manner of illness and loss, which only increase over the years. We struggle to simply keep afloat in a world where the shores of economic safety seem to be constantly changing. We’ve been bruised and scarred by broken hopes and shattered dreams. We’ve learned to steel ourselves against the brutal stories of the world around us.
But now, we bow before a baby.
When we’re saddened by the dark places in our lives, exhausted by our efforts to stay afloat, or discouraged by our aging bodies, we need this gift of God becoming one of us. We need this gift of tenderness and mercy delivered in a manger.
Like shepherds in the dark night, we look for any signs of hope, for the promise that this world isn’t all there is. So it’s with joy that we hear the words of John’s Gospel, about the light that shines in the darkness, which has never, and will never, put the light out.
As the Christmas season winds to an end, many of us may be worn out by the work of trying to be the successes that we had hoped to be. We may be discouraged by the failure that comes when we realize we’ve been chasing after false gods. At Christmas, we come face to face with the way God works in the world. God comes to what is God’s own. God becomes one of us, and God knows what it’s like to be human.
Baby Jesus comes in truth and grace, to a world overcome with darkness, to be the light that will shine forever. He comes to a world overrun by senseless yammering, to sing the melody of peace. The Christ Child comes to us in all the small and quiet ways God goes about redeeming creation in a world consumed by the big and the powerful. He comes to your life and my life as a priceless gift — the only gift that really matters.
I want to close with a story that was written by the Biblical scholar J.B. Phillips:
Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendors and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored. He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns… and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally, he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.
“I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
“Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel. “What’s special about that one?”
“That,” replied his senior solemnly, “is the Visited Planet.”
“Visited?” said the little one. “You don’t mean visited by—”
“Indeed I do. That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps overclean, has been visited by our Prince of Glory.” At these words he bowed his head reverently…
The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust.
“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?”
“I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.”
The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.
“Close your eyes for a moment,” said the senior angel, “and we will go back in what they call Time.”
While the little angel’s eyes were closed and the two of them moved nearer to the spinning ball, it stopped its spinning, spun backward quite fast for a while, and then slowly resumed its usual rotation.
“Now look!” and as the little angel did as he was told, there appeared here and there on the dull surface of the globe little flashes of light, some merely momentary and some persisting for quite a time.
“What am I seeing now?” queried the little angel.
“You are watching this little world as it was some thousands of years ago,” returned his companion. “Every flash and glow of light that you see is something of the Father’s knowledge and wisdom breaking into the minds and hearts of people who live upon the earth. Not many people, you see, can hear His Voice or understand what He says, even though He is speaking gently and quietly to them all the time.”
“Why are they so blind and deaf and stupid?” asked the junior angel rather crossly.
“It is not for us to judge them. We who live in the Splendor have no idea what it is like to live in the dark… But watch, for in a moment you will see something truly wonderful.”
The Earth went on turning and circling round the sun, and then, quite suddenly, in the upper half of the globe there appeared a light, tiny, but so bright in its intensity that both angels hid their eyes.
“I think I can guess,” said the little angel in a low voice. “That was the Visit, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, that was the Visit. The Light Himself went down there and lived among them…Open your eyes now; the dazzling light has gone. The Prince has returned to His Home of Light. But watch the Earth now.”
As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times, little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died, but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow…
“You see what is happening?” asked the senior angel. “The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow, and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth.”
“Yes, yes,” said the little angel impatiently. “But how does it end? Will the little lights join up with one another? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?”
His senior shook his head. “We simply do not know,” he replied…“The end is not yet. But now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it… “
“Yes, I see, though I don’t understand. I shall never forget that this is the Visited Planet…”
“…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Thanks be to God. Amen.