First Sunday After Christmas
TEXT: John 1:1-18
Christmastime is an occasion for people to get together. Family. Friends. People you haven’t seen since last Christmas … or for many years. And of course, when people gather together it’s a time for remembering and reminiscing.
But have you ever noticed that when you start telling stories about when you were growing up—or what happened years ago—the same events sound quite different as various people tell the same story?
Depending on who is describing the case, the next-door neighbour was either a saint or a psychopath. Moving from one town to another was either a disaster, or a wonderful escape.
Apparently, some 86 years ago, my mother—who was about four at the time—took a trip out of the second floor window of her home, then staggered into the kitchen to announce to my grandmother that she could “fly like a bird.” According to my mother, her sister—my aunt—threw her out the window! But according to my aunt, my mom jumped out the window on her own because “even then she was crazy.” This was an often-aired disagreement between them, often told at Christmas family gatherings. I never did figure out which was the true account … but I could easily believe either version.
Same event. Different storytellers. Different points of view.
Consider the opening verses of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1, 14a).
This is the Christmas story, the third time the Bible tells it. Luke’s version includes the familiar story of the manger and the shepherds and the angels. In his gospel, Matthew records Joseph’s dream, the visit of the wise men, and the escape into Egypt. However, John’s point of view is rather different. In his account, there are no shepherds or angel choirs. Neither do we hear about dreams nor Magi nor a jealous king. There is no overcrowded inn, and no manger for the baby to sleep in.
Why? Because John has a different perspective—so different, in fact, that most people see no connection between John’s account and the more familiar birth-stories in Matthew and Luke.
But, you see, each gospel writer has his own unique perspective—as well as his own special priorities.
For example, Luke—as well as being a physician—was something of an historian. He was very concerned with getting the dates and times right, and with locating everything geographically. He was also clearly very interested in those who were regarded as outsiders. That’s why Luke is eager to include the shepherds in his account of Jesus’ birth.
Shepherds were social outcasts, and Luke is happy to memorialize them. But the “kings of Orient” are left out entirely. Not only that, but Luke tells the story from the perspective of Mary—a radical move, since at that time women were even lower on the social ladder than shepherds.
Matthew, however, is more traditional. He may even have been trained as a scribe. Matthew wanted to make it clear that Jesus fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. So, shepherds did not interest him as much as the (possibly) royal wise men from the East.
In Matthew’s account, the Christ Child—Christ the King—is surrounded by his peers. And Matthew paid a lot of attention to the flight to Egypt because he saw a parallel between the Exodus and Jesus’ own return to Israel from Egypt. Also—more conservative than Luke—Matthew tells the story from a man’s point of view. He describes Joseph’s dream, but never mentions Mary’s conversation with Gabriel.
And then … there’s John. John probably knew about the stories in Matthew and Luke, and perhaps he felt no need to repeat them. However, the main thing to remember about John is that he’s neither an historian nor a Jewish royalist. John is a theologian and a mystic. So he writes about the meaning of Jesus’ birth. He writes from his theology, and he writes from his experience. But he is telling the same story as the others. All three are talking about the same birth.
Mind you, John does begin the story much earlier. He reminds us that Christmas really begins where Genesis begins: “in the beginning,” with God, in creation. John starts off by talking about the Word of God—God’s active, creating, revealing Word. This Word was with God, and this Word was God.
In one short sentence, John tells the Christmas story: “The Word became flesh, and lived among us.” The One who was with God in creation—the One who is God, revealing himself to humanity—this One took on our flesh and blood, becoming as completely human as you and me. This was not God in human disguise; not a really good person whom God rewarded and made special; not a super-angel God created early and saved up for Bethlehem.
No. This was a genuine, human person. And at the same time, he was the incarnate Word—God’s very own self. Soaring language, John uses. Exquisite poetry … to describe the very down-to-earth occurrence of a human birth. However, it is still the Christmas story, the same story Matthew and Luke tell: the story of the birth of Jesus.
For all of their differences in perspective, Matthew, Luke and John do share one thing in common. There is one image, one symbol—and only one—that they all use.
They all talk about light: the light of the star; the light that shone around the shepherds; the true light that enlightens every person. When Christ appears, witnesses talk about light. They have to. There’s no better image to describe what’s going on.
“The light shines in the darkness,” John proclaims. Somehow we understand this, and we realize that this truth cannot be expressed in any better way.
Perhaps we understand this because we all know about darkness. We know what it’s like to live in and with darkness. Most of us remember being afraid of the dark as children. Or recall the experience of wandering through a completely darkened room, feeling for the light switch.
We know what it’s like when we don’t know where things are, or what we’ve just tripped over, or whether we’re even going where we want to go. We understand how easy it is to go around in circles in the dark, and to get turned around and disoriented.
Yes, we know about darkness. But we also know (don’t we?) what it’s like to live just this same way in broad daylight—to be confused and frightened and lost, even while the sun is shining.
What John, Luke, and Matthew all say about Christmas is this: in Jesus, a new light begins to shine. And if we allow ourselves to be drawn to this light—whether it shines from a stable, or burns in the sky, or surrounds us when we pray … If we embrace this light, then—gradually or suddenly, quietly or accompanied by an angel choir—this light grows brighter. It increases in brilliance until, finally, we can see everything as it truly is.
By that light we can begin to see who we are—and who we were created to be. Because, in Jesus, we see not only the fullness of God—but also the potential fullness of ourselves.
In the person of Jesus, what it means to be human finally becomes clear. In him we see that our lives become whole only as we surrender in love and service. In him, we see that eternal life—really being alive—means risking everything for the love of God and for the Kingdom of God. In the brilliant light of Christ, we see that hope need never be abandoned. As Jesus illuminates our way, we discover ourselves capable of more than we ever imagined.
Also—by that light that has come into the world—we begin, for the first time, to paint a picture of God. “No one has ever seen God,” John reminds us (John 1:18). But God is made known to us in Jesus. This means that everything we ever imagined about God—everything we thought we had figured out, everything that we were sure we knew about God—all of this is put to the test in Jesus.
Who God is—in relationship to us—is fully and finally revealed in Jesus. In him. In he, himself. Not in one saying or one parable, or one miracle, but in all of him—in his life, his ministry, his teaching, his death and his resurrection.
In all of these things together, we have, at last, the light we need in order to see holiness. In Jesus of Nazareth, true humanity—and true divinity—are made clear.
The light of Christ—the Word made flesh—this is what comes among us at Christmas. What we celebrate as believers is the coming of this light into our world. On that first Christmas, the light shone brightly. To this very day, it continues to shine. Through that light, we have become children of God. And in that light, we shall take our places.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out. This is the Christmas story. This is our story. Thanks be to God. Amen.