Second Sunday After Christmas

TEXTS: John 1:1-18 and Ephesians 1:3-14

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 1:14)

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will … (Ephesians 1:11)

The Word, who was with God in the beginning—the Word who is God—this Word became flesh. The Word took human form—with a real, material body—and made himself at home as one of us; flesh and blood, the same as us.

Perhaps this idea is easier to accept at Christmas than at other times of the year, because it is so easy to idealize and romanticize babyhood. We can speak of God becoming a baby and wax lyrical about the innocence of babies, and the purity of babies, and the beautiful trusting bond between a baby and its mother. We can safely think of baby flesh as all chubby and unblemished and cute, and fall into being quite sentimental about the idea of God becoming flesh. And—in our low-infant-mortality society—we may even manage to avoid facing the problem of flesh being so very fragile.

Now, of course, as the parents of babies or toddlers will readily point out, such idealized views of babyhood are just that: idealized views which ignore as much of the truth as they proclaim. Sure, babies are innocent and trusting and cute, but they also spend much of their time ejecting bodily fluids and screaming blue murder. Try telling a sleep-deprived new mother with bloodshot eyes and frazzled nerves that babies are pure and lovely and a source of constant joy and happiness, and see what sort of response you get!

Yet that exhausted mom may be lot closer than most of us are to understanding the shocking news of Christmas: the Word, who was with God in the beginning—the Word who is God—this Word became flesh … infant human flesh, screaming, dribbling, smelly human flesh. God became one of us, dirty diaper and all. God became—truly—one of us. If we begin to take that idea seriously, one of the first things it should warn us against is falling for versions of Christian spirituality which hold the human body in contempt and pretend that the goal of our spiritual journey is to be released from the flesh in order to find some sort of out-of-body spiritual fulfillment.

The God we worship became flesh. God honoured the human body by making himself known to us in a human body. As our gospel reading tells us, no one has seen God in any other way than in the body of Jesus the Son. When God determined to make himself known to us as fully as possible, God came to us in a human body. Christian spirituality then, is about spirit becoming flesh, not about spirit being liberated from the flesh. Everything of consequence in our faith must become incarnate—must “become flesh”—and be lived out in the here and the now, in real-life bodily ways.

But this shocking news of God becoming flesh challenges more than just our attitudes toward humanity. It also challenges our images of God. We often describe God in contrast to ourselves:

  • We are finite, God is infinite.
  • We are weak, God is all-powerful.
  • We are fickle, God is unchanging.
  • We know only a little, God knows everything.

And while such statements are certainly true, I don’t think they can possibly be the starting point of a Christian understanding of God. No. We must begin with what we can know of God made flesh in Jesus.

… 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 … 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. (John 1:14, 18)

Our image of God begins with a human life, lived with the same human limitations that the rest of us face. When we want to talk about the power of God revealed in Christ, we don’t speak of a power that ends all violence and hostility at the flick of a finger, but of a power that is able to keep on loving even while suffering through the worst of that violence and hostility. We don’t speak of a power that magically eliminates hatred and torture, but of one which is able to absorb this world’s evil and transform even the most horrendous suffering into the source of hope and salvation for all who suffer. It is God the only Son—Jesus with all his human limitations—who has made God known to us, and our understanding of God must begin with what we see in Jesus.

You know, the biggest shock to emerge from this Christmas news may be the message that begins to take shape when we hold together these two truths: (1) that God honours human bodies by becoming human flesh; and (2) that what we can know about God is revealed to us in human flesh. Because when we hold together these truths about what we are and what God is, they beg the question of what we may become.

And what is it that we may become? Paul hints at it rather broadly in his Letter to the Ephesians. He speaks of God choosing us to be “holy and blameless before him in love” (1:4). He said we were destined for adoption as God’s own children, and that we have obtained an inheritance in Christ.

When I hear all that, it seems to me that what Paul is trying to tell us is this: in Jesus, God became what we are, so that we might become more of what God is! And perhaps this is the shocking news which from our celebration of Christmas we most need to carry into the new year. God became one with us, so that we might become one with God.

In Jesus, we have not only seen what God is, but also what we can become. We have seen human life lived to the fullest. We have seen the destiny for which we were created: human life lived to the glory of God, full of grace and truth. This is the great reconciliation of which the gospel speaks. This is the gathering up of all things in earth and heaven—all things of spirit and flesh.

John speaks of us becoming children of God, not by processes of conception, gestation and labour, but by being born again in Christ. Through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we are enabled to become children of God, also. In Ephesians, Paul says we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit as a pledge towards our inheritance as God’s own people.

And so here is the gospel—the ultimate good news—lying in a manger. Here is the promise, and here is the challenge. Here is the destiny for which we were created, and the truth that sets us free. God has become a human child so that human beings may become children of God.

This is certainly no promise of a picture-perfect, lovely nativity scene. It is no guarantee of a blissfully happy life. The One who is our promised destiny—and also the leader we follow—was born into poverty, and later died upon a criminal’s cross. But that’s the point! It is into the reality of our life—with all its pain and struggle and anxiety—that God has come. And it is from within the reality of our life—with all its pain and struggle and anxiety—that we can catch sight of our promised destiny.

In the reality of the here and the now, we can begin following in the footsteps of the One who will lead us all the way to the promised land—to the place where our deepest hungers are fulfilled and life is lived, full of grace and truth, to the glory of God forever.

Now, that’s a Christmas story worth believing in! Amen.

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