Christmas with St. John’s Gospel: no manger scene, no angels, no shepherds

Scripture: John 1: 1-14

Christmas Eve traditionally features Luke’s account of Mary giving birth to a baby in a stable behind an inn in Bethlehem.  Heaven and Earth came into intimate proximity when angels announced the miraculous birth to a group of shepherds .  The shepherds rushed to see the miracle for themselves.  They were the first outsiders to acknowledge the Messiah’s birth.

The logos, or Word, was with God from before time began

John wrote his Gospel more than 20 years after Luke.  Luke perceived that Christ came into the world at a unique time and place.  In contrast, John understood that Christ, the logos, had been in the universe since the beginning of eternity.  John emphasized this point by opening his Gospel with the exact same words, “In the beginning …”, that open the Bible in the Book of Genesis.  

Here is how John expressed this idea.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things were made by him, and nothing was made except by him.”  John saw the Christ figure as not just a mortal being.  He was and is one and the same as God.  John’s Gospel continues with a dualistic comparison, the first of many in his Gospel.  The logos was the Light of the World.  The logos represents the opposite of darkness.  Darkness will never overcome that Light.​​

Who is Jesus for you? for me?

We all have different ideas about the portrayal of Jesus that seems most real to us.   I align myself most closely with Mark’s very human and down-to-earth description of Jesus.  But this morning John reminds me once again not to forget Jesus’ divinity.   That is exactly what Christian teaching tells us.  It isn’t either-or; it’s both-and.   Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  ​​

We don’t know whether John ever read Luke’s Gospel.  If he did, he might have thought of it as just a silly story about angels and shepherds.  “That story’s all right for children,” I can almost hear him saying, “but I have grown-up ideas for grown ups.”

We can see this dichotomy in the well-known carol, O come, all ye faithful

Our version of O come, all ye faithful is a translation of a 5th century Latin hymn.  Verse 1 calls us to Bethlehem.  But immediately, verse 2 switches into what I’ll call divine mode, “God of God, light of light …” The 5th century author then slipped back into Luke’s story.  “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.  Very God, begotten, not created …” The next two verses continue Luke’s story, with “Sing choirs of angels …” and “See how the shepherds …”  Luckily, St. John wasn’t around to read or sing the hymn.  I think that he would have been appalled at this mish-mash, standing with his hymn book open but refusing to sing! ​​

Longfellow’s hymn I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this Christmas hymn in 1863.  It was during the American Civil War.  ​​There was no peace on earth, and no good will between enemies. Longfellow found it hard to celebrate the birth of the Messiah at such a terrible time.  In verse 2, he was sad that peace on earth was absent.

... in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, ​”For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

The year 2018 has not been very successful in the peace and goodwill department, either.  In North America hate seems to be strong.  Politicians refuse to compromise.  Some do not accept what journalists report, disparaging it as ‘fake news’.   But when we look abroad our problems pale into insignificance.  The war in Yemen grinds on.  Children die of starvation and hospitals get bombed. Millions of Syrians have had to flee from their homeland.  Many of them will never return home.  South Sudan, which was created only in 2011, has never had a functioning government.  

Today’s problems are not unique

If we look back 100 years to 1918, the agonies of WW I were finally over. While grieving families mourned their pointless losses, the first wave of the Spanish flu pandemic brought death to millions around the world.  ​

Amid war and death, Longfellow saw a ray of light pierce the darkness of his time.   He experienced hope in the sound of the bells.  God was not dead.  

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;​The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.” ​​

We have not always used Christ’s name for good

Today, we celebrate the birth of the one whom we call the Prince of Peace. But we now realize that many problems and injustices have been wrought in Christ’s name.  This has happened in our own time as well as in earlier generations.   Christians have often discriminated unjustly against people of other religions.  European colonizers frequently treated people of other races with contempt. 

But today, when we celebrate the Light coming into the world,  let’s not focus only on pessimism.  Canadians are getting better at recognizing injustice and discrimination.  Positive things did happen in 2018.  The world even saw 192 countries agree on how to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Accord on climate change. Let’s also consider the positive and lasting effect that Christian values have had on our heritage.  Christ’s life stands as a template for acceptance, tolerance, and generosity.  Jesus showed compassion towards the unloved.  He touched and healed lepers.  He met and ate with sinners and prostitutes.  His life and teaching form the moral foundation of the liberal ideas that we embrace today – social programs like universal health care, pensions, and unemployment insurance; increasing acceptance of diversity of all kinds.  ​​

Why did God become incarnate that first Christmas?

A century or so after the Gospels were written, Clement of Alexandria is reputed to have said, “God became human, that we might become divine.”  At its best, the Christian story is one of ordinary human beings doing their best to emulate what Clement said.  But we don’t always get it right.  Steps forward are often followed by steps backwards.  

Yet the Gospel – the good news – of Jesus Christ is that we ordinary people are called to do what we can to bring God’s kingdom (God’s righteous rule) closer.  Most of us cannot influence matters on the world stage, but every day we have opportunities to show the face of Christ to the people we meet – here, in our families and in our communities in southwestern Ontario.  That is how we can bring to reality, The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.

​​Clement of Alexandria said,  “God became human, that we might become divine.”  May this recognition be as true for us this Christmas-tide at St. George’s as it was for those shepherds two thousand years ago.  This assumes, of course, that your Incarnate Christ is earthly enough for you to believe in them!