Sunday, December 25, 2016
Sermon on John 1:14, for Christmas Day, "John's Christmas Verse"
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Good Christian friends, we have waited and worshipped these weeks of Advent, we have yielded to the call of the messenger crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the Way of the Lord”, we have followed Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds all the way to Bethlehem, to the manger, to the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as the angels told. Baby Jesus nestled in a lowly manger, bringing Joy to the World and Peace on Earth.
But the Gospel of John describes Jesus’ birth with a different phrase. No mention of Mary, mangers, Bethlehem, or shepherds. It’s John’s Christmas Verse: John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” What a deep and wonderful phrase: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the Christmas mystery; a deep and profound truth that does not cease to be a mystery once you know it, but becomes even more mysterious (Kleinig). It’s like the mystery of love, or life—experiencing them does not make them any less wondrous, but more.
Became flesh is plain enough to understand. We all became flesh when we were conceived in the womb of our mother. A new and perfectly unique combination, a singular you, yet inseparably connected with the rest of the human race. Heart, brain, lungs, eyes. Jesus too became flesh, inseparably connected to the rest of the human race. Born of the same genetic material as His mother, the Virgin Mary. But the Virgin mother! No human father conceived Him, but as the angel told Mary, she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This past Wednesday we listened as the angel confirmed the same truth to Joseph, who became Jesus’ adoptive, earthly father. When Jesus became flesh, it was as the only-begotten of the Father—God’s own Son, but conceived in Mary’s womb, of Mary’s flesh also. His true Father was God.
The Word became flesh, in the shortest way possible, communicates that Jesus was human and divine, at the same time. He is God—He did not leave that behind, surrender it, or become some demigod or angel. But at the same time that He is God, He is also man—conceived and born with real human flesh and blood. Back up to John 1:1 for a moment, and look back at who this “Word” is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word was God, and the next verse goes on to say that He made all things. So weigh in another profound truth—the Creative Word of God, is now the Incarnate Word, or the Word made flesh. The powerful God who created the universe, was gently grasping the fingers of Joseph and Mary, with infant hands.
But why do this? Why would God personally become a living man, part of His creation? Why come to His own people, whom He had made, only to be rejected by them, to be treated as unwelcome—no, worse, to be treated as a blasphemer, who must be killed? The second verse of our sermon carol, “What Child is This?” answers our question:
Why lies he in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners here The silent Word is pleading:
Nails, spear shall pierce him through, The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The babe, the Son of Mary!
The Word made flesh came to bear the cross for us—to plead before God for us sinners.
Here is more mystery—God has, throughout human history, experienced all the outrageous sins of the human race—sins against Him. All ten of His commandments that have habitually broken, worshipping other gods, taking God’s Name in vain, neglecting His day of worship and rest, dishonoring parents, murdering, committing adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting what belongs to our neighbors. In every way that we are sinners, God is rightly angered and displeased that we have not cared for one another as His commandments show. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not worshipped Him purely and kept His Name holy.
But the mystery, is that God came and occupied the lowly manger, a food trough for animals. He endured the nails and spear that pierced Him through, and bore the cross. This, to redeem us. To pay off the cursed debt of sin, so that we could be pardoned, so that He could make us children of God and heirs of His promises. For the thankless task of bearing the cross and the sin of the world, for enduring the selfish treatment of human beings rejecting their own Maker—for this we are called to “Hail, hail, the Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary.” Hail Him, bring Him your highest praises and loudest songs. Bow your head in humility before your King, who stooped so low to serve you, to travel from manger, to cross, to empty tomb. For no thanks and praise can ever repay Him—but He demands no payment—only that we receive Him, that we believe in His Name, and thereby become His children. Not by our will or by human flesh, but born of God, in second birth, by the Holy Spirit. The new birth of baptism: water and Spirit.
So far, the Word became flesh. But what mystery is hidden in the phrase, Dwelt among us? Dwelt could ordinarily mean to take up residence somewhere. To live together with us. Yes, Jesus shared an address with humans on earth. First in Bethlehem, then Egypt for a while, then Nazareth, then as an adult various places throughout Galilee, Jerusalem, and Judea. But John means much more than just that Jesus took up His residence with us. His word, for dwelt, is actually to pitch a tent. It’s a word that his readers were sure to notice, and recall another time when God dwelt with His people in a pitched tent.
The assigned Old Testament reading for Christmas Day is a description of the tabernacle, or tent of worship that Moses was instructed by God to build in the wilderness. The Tabernacle would be the movable worship space while the Israelites traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land, and for the 40 years of wandering, while they were prevented from entering because of their sin. For generations afterward, over 400 years, till the time of King Solomon, this tent of animal skins and fine cloths and embroidery remained the central worship site for the Israelites. When the original tabernacle was completed, and later when Solomon completed the first Temple, and prayed for God to dwell there—on both occasions, God visibly “moved in”, by the glorious cloud of His presence. He showed through the miraculous cloud of His glory, that He was taking up residence there among His people.
Now why would that old history matter to John’s audience, and to us? What’s the significance of having God dwell with us in the flesh? First of all, we should note that this is not a “temporary” presence. In the Old Testament, when His people introduced idolatry and abominations into His Temple, God withdrew His presence. He wasn’t going to be bound to this spot if they dishonored Him and sought Him no longer. And Jesus “pitching His tent” or “tabernacling among us”, by becoming flesh, was not like a short vacation in a borrowed or rented tent. Jesus didn’t return or surrender His human flesh, His body, when He died, nor when He rose from the grave, nor when He ascended into heaven. Jesus eternally remains the Word made flesh. Not God dwelling at an address, a tent in a certain city of Judea, or in the Temple in Jerusalem, but God dwelling among us in the person of His Son.
Secondly, the tabernacle or Temple was where the priests would intercede to God for sinners. Where they would offer up sacrifices, according to command, to atone for the sins of the people. It was where they sought God’s mercy. But there is no longer a tabernacle or Temple for us to seek intercession with God, through a priest. Rather, we have Jesus, our Great High Priest, the Silent Word who pleads for our sins, and whose body will become, as you can read in John 2, His body becomes the New Temple of God. All of the intercession, prayer, sacrifice, and presence of God dwelling with His people, are fulfilled, perfected, and realized in Jesus. It is now, and forever that we find God’s mercy in Jesus.
And this means, that to seek God’s mercy for our sins, to seek God’s atonement for our sins, to seek God’s gracious presence for us, there is only one place to find it. In the person of Jesus Christ. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. Seeing the glory of God this Christmas, and every year that we recall the miracle of Jesus’ birth, there is more than enough profound mystery and joy to keep us pondering the depths of God’s love forever. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.