The Miracle of the Manger
John 1:1-5, 9-14
When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark. Can any of you relate? How many of you were afraid of the dark when you were kids. I was blessed, or cursed, depending on how you view it, with a very vivid imagination. And when the lights went out in the bedroom I shared with my brother Brad, my imagination ran wild. I would imagine all sorts of things coming to get me – giant snakes, monsters, robbers, Darth Vader, ghosts and demons. Even when I got older, much older than you’d want me to be to act this way, if I got home late after being out with friends, if it was really dark outside, with no moon, I’d run as fast as I could from my car, through the back gate, up the porch steps, into the house, and down the hall to my bedroom. Mom always said that she knew exactly when I came home, even if she’d been asleep, because I made so much noise. I don’t think I EVER broke curfew.
As human beings, we tend to rely heavily on our eyes, and in the darkness, our eyes don’t work as well, if at all, and it’s easy to become afraid. But many of us have perfectly good eyes that work just fine, but we live in darkness all the same, especially this time of year. Some live physically in the light but they live in emotional darkness. Many live in spiritual darkness. Darkness takes many forms.
During the 2008 presidential race, John McCain was asked by Time magazine to share his “personal journey of faith.” In his article McCain shared a powerful story of something that occurred while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam:
When I was a prisoner of war in Vietnam…my captors would tie my arms behind my back and then loop the rope around my neck and ankles so that my head was pulled down between my knees. I was often left like that throughout the night. One night a guard came into my cell. He put his finger to his lips signaling for me to be quiet and then loosened my ropes to relieve my pain. The next morning, when his shift ended, the guard returned and retightened the ropes, never saying a word to me. A month or so later, on Christmas Day, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw that same guard approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me, not looking or smiling at me. Then he used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas, even in the darkness of a Vietnamese prison camp.[i] Physical darkness. Emotional darkness. Spiritual darkness. Darkness takes many forms.
The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The word “Gospel” simply means “good news,” and these four books are the good news of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. And each Gospel has a slightly different emphasis, because each was written to a different audience. Matthew emphasizes the kingship of Jesus. Mark emphasizes his servanthood. Luke emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, and John emphasizes the Godhood, the divine nature, of Jesus. And in his description of Jesus’ birth, that’s exactly what he emphasizes, the Godhood of Christ. Turn in your Bibles to John 1. And as you do, will you pray with me. Our Father in heaven, with my finite mind and human lips I cannot communicate the beauty of your coming as one of us, which we celebrate every Christmas season. And with our human minds, we cannot comprehend. So fill our minds with your light this morning, that we may see more clearly the love you have for us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (READ TEXT). No mention is made of Bethlehem, a star, Mary and Joseph, an guest room or a manger, but he is talking about the birth of Christ just the same. He isn’t talking about HOW it happened, but he is describing exactly WHAT happened from a cosmic perspective.
Look at the first three words – “In the beginning …” Sound familiar? They’re also the first three words of what we call the biblical book of Genesis, or beginnings. The Jews typically called a book by its first few words, so they called the book “In the beginning.” John is intentionally taking us back to the very beginning as we know it, the time of creation. In Genesis, the events that follow the words “In the beginning” tell in poetic form the story of God’s creating of the universe, of all that is. And the climax of that story is the creation of humanity, of man and woman. John wants us to know that what God had done in Christ was just as significant as creation itself. In the first, God was creating. In the second, God was not only redeeming that creation, but creating a new humanity out of the old. That is why Paul in 2 Corinthians says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (5:17). That is why when someone comes to faith in Christ, we might say that they have been “reborn” in Christ, or “born again.” In Christ, God was doing something new, and something permanent. In Christ, you and I are not only forgiven, we are in the process of being reshaped, transformed, by the power of Christ at work in us. When you come to faith in Christ, whether you are 5 or 50, the old you dies, and a new you is born. And life in Christ is the process of living into that “new you.” Never perfectly in this life, but always forgiven and steadily growing.
Now, notice the word he uses to describe Jesus – the Word. It’s the Greek word logos, and a ton could be said about it. In fact, a ton more could be said about this entire passage than I can say this morning. We could do an entire 30-40 minute sermon on each verse and still not explore it’s depths completely. Because John says a TON in these verses that introduce his Gospel. But for our purposes, logos was a word that had meaning to both John’s Greek and his Jewish readers. The Greeks observed the order and precision in the universe, noticed their ability to predict the length of days, months, seasons, years, and came to an understanding of logos as the reason of God (or to them, the gods), the principle of order under which the universe operates.
For the Jews, “the Word” was viewed as the action of God. God’s revelation of himself in history, through the prophets, through the Law, the Scriptures. Remember, Jews got to the point where they would not even speak the personal name of God, Yahweh, which means “I Am,” so as to not accidentally break the Third Commandment, not speaking the name of God in vain. And by the time of Jesus, the Hebrew language itself was dead, no longer spoken. In its place, the people in the Holy Land spoke Aramaic, a related language. But in their worship services they still read the Scriptures in Hebrew. But alongside, as they read, they offered a paraphrase, called the Targum, in Aramaic. And in places where Scripture placed the name of God, they often placed the words “the Word of God” in its place. So in Exodus 19:17, where we read that “Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God,” the Targum, the paraphrase into Aramaic that went with it said that “Moses led them out from the camp to meet the word of God.” And in the Jewish world view, words were more than just sounds. Words had an independent existence that actually did things. Words, even human words, could change reality. The same is true today, but we don’t hold this view of words. If I were to stop right now and say, you’re dismissed and walk out of the sanctuary, that would change your reality, wouldn’t it. The words “I love you” change reality, don’t they. What about the words “You’re fired” or “I quit.” In our minds, words don’t mean much unless they’re drafted by a lawyer and notarized and can be used to hold us to something in court. But the reality is, words mean something. They’re active. They change reality. And they reveal something of the one who speaks.
And that is exactly what John is tapping into here. Not just the awesome power of words, but the power of THE Word. In using the word logos, The Word, for Christ, John is tapping into those notions of what the word meant in each culture, and he’s telling them more about that Word. First of all, the Word is eternal, never having a beginning, never ending. Genesis begins “In the beginning God …” When John says “In the beginning,” that’s where our minds go, but he doesn’t say “God” next. Instead, he says “was the Word.” This divine Word was already active when the universe began. “And the Word was WITH God …” Literally, it means “And the Word was continually toward God.” “With” invokes the idea of nearness. “Continually toward” indicates a sense of movement toward God. This logos, this Word, was in perfect relationship with God, moving perfectly in sync with God, so much so that the two could be said to be one. Later, the Holy Spirit is also described in those words, so that we have three in one, the holy trinity. One God in three persons, each unique and yet in perfect harmony and relationship, of one mind perfectly. In fact, John seals the deal by saying “and the Word WAS God.” The logos, the Word, wasn’t just from God. He was, and is, God.
In fact, the Word was God’s agent in creation. Look at V. 3. In Colossians, Paul says “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:16-17). In Hebrews 1, the writer says “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (there’s the concept of the Word), whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (1:2-3). Jesus is the eternal Word, perfectly in step with the Father, fully God. And yet, skip down to verse 14. Here’s the miracle. That God sent the Word to become one of us, full of glory, fully God, and yet fully human. The eternal God. The creator God. Not hiding, but revealing himself, through The Word. And becoming one of us. God in translation. God so that we can understand, as much as our finite minds can, what God is like.
We all have ideas of God, mental pictures of what God is like. Most of those ideas, those mental pictures, come from our experiences in life, things that happen to us and around us. A group of sociologists from Baylor University released the results of a study looking at America’s different views of God. Part of the study was a survey conducted by the Gallup organization, which identified four distinct views of God’s personality and interaction with the world. Baylor researchers outlined the results as follows: They four primary views of God in America. First there are those who believe in an “Authoritarian God” who is “angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs”: That was the most common at almost 32%. Then there are those who believe in a “Distant God” who is more of a “cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own”, almost 25%. Then those who believe in a “Benevolent God” who is forgiving and accepting of anyone who repents: 23 percent. Then those who believe in a “Critical God” who “has his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or comfort”: 16 percent. [ii] Many views of God. Many of them mutually exclusive.
That’s why it’s so important to allow Jesus Christ to correct our incorrect views of God. If Jesus is, as Hebrews says, the exact imprint of the nature of God (1:3), if Jesus is the Word who was with God, in fact was God, in the beginning, then what Jesus reveals to us not just by his teaching, but by the way he lived, the things he did, by his death, by his resurrection, even by his very act of becoming like us, tells us all that God wants us to know about his nature, about his character, about what God thinks about us and feels toward us. The eternal Word “became flesh and dwelt, (literally it says pitched his tent) among us, and we have seen him!”
And what was the result of the Word becoming flesh and pitching his tent among us? Look at V. 4. He came to light up the darkness of this world. Now, think about darkness for a minute. Have you ever been in a place that was so dark that it felt almost heavy, almost oppressive? Like literally that dark. In Mammoth Cave in Kentucky they take you way down in these caves, and it’s a massive cave system, and at one point they turn out the lights for a few minutes, so that you can experience the darkness. It’s a darkness you can really feel. A place where, but for the lights that human beings have carried and installed down there, light would never shine. But what is darkness, really. It isn’t anything, in and of itself. Darkness is simply the absence of light. In a fully dark space, if I turn on a flashlight, the area on which my light shines is no longer dark, is it. The rest of the room may still be dark, but the place upon which my beam falls is full of light. And the darkness can’t do anything about it. That’s a law of the natural world. And it’s a law of the spiritual world. Light and darkness cannot fill the same space. Darkness always recedes as the light grows. That’s what makes Johns words in Vv. 9-11 so shocking. V. 5 says “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” But boy did the darkness try! You see, its absurd to think that darkness can somehow stamp out the light. But that’s exactly what the darkness of this world tried to do. Jesus came into the world to turn on his light, and we keep trying to turn him off!
If you’re living in darkness, it hurts to come into the light doesn’t it? If you’re asleep in the middle of the night and there’s no light in your room and someone comes in and turns on the light, it hurts. We have to squint. It might frighten us. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us squirm. We pull the covers over our heads, trying to avoid the light. Unless we stay in it long enough. Then, as our eyes adjust, we begin to see things clearly, right? It hurts to come into the light when all you’ve known is darkness. That’s why we keep trying to turn out the lights. But life is so much better lived in the light. Biblical scholar N.T, Wright says “The [Person] who walks out of [the pages of the Gospels] to meet us is just central and irreplaceable. He is always a surprise. We never have Jesus in our pockets. He is always coming at us from different angles … If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus. And go on looking until you’re not just a spectator, but part of the drama that has him as the central character.[iii]
Look at Vv. 12-13! The RIGHT to become children of God. Not the privilege. The right. Born not of blood, not of passion, not of a decision by a man and woman to make a child, but by the will of God. By divine decree. That all who come to him in faith, relying on the miracle of Christ’s birth, and the miracle of Christ’s death, and the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, are now, by rights, children of God. We all know darkness. We know physical darkness. We know emotional darkness. And we know spiritual darkness. But we don’t have to live our lives in the dark. We can live them in the light of Christ. Jesus said of himself, “I am the light of the world.” He also said “You are the light of the world.” In saying that, Jesus said “I am giving you my light. Now go into the dark places, the places of shadow and fear and death, and turn on my light. For it shines in you. You are not Christ. I am not Christ. We are not gods and goddesses. But in Christ, we are light bearers. The light is his, and we are his lamps. So if you’re living in darkness this morning, my prayer is that you find the light of Christ today. And if you’re living in the light of Christ, my prayer is that you begin to move into the darkness, the places where shadows reign, and bring the light of Christ. Let us pray.
[i] John McCain, “A Light amid the Darkness,” Time magazine (8-18-08), p. 40
[ii] Cathy Lunn-Grossman, “American’s Image of God Varies,” USAToday.com (9-11-06)
[iii] Marlin Whatling, The Marriage of Heaven and Earth (CreateSpace, 2016), page 129