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Christmas Day, 12/25/2017

Unwrapping God’s Christmas Present
Sermon on Johannes 1:1-18, by Hubert Beck

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

            There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

            The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

            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. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.


Unwrapping God’s Christmas Present


The Unseen God


John reminds us that “No one has ever seen God.” We have yearned to see him many times over, though.


We pray to the unseen God and wonder if he hears us – or even cares about us. If only we could see him / hear him directly we would feel so much better.


We look around us, seeing the horrors and terrors sweeping across the face of the earth, and we long to see God bounding down out of the heavens to straighten things out. If only he would appear, bringing heavenly peace and order to earth with him. What a wonder that would be.


We feel ailments of every sort within us – physical, psychological, spiritual – and we pray for relief and healing from them. If only he would become present to us, laying his hands of restoration upon us. How that would establish our confidence in him.


But, alas, “no one has ever seen God.” Nor have we – to our chagrin!


If only he would make himself perceptible to us, visible to our eyes, hearable to our tongues, sensitive to our touch. If only . . . if only . . . if only.


God Made Visible Among Us


“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”


Look! There in the manger! A child of flesh like our own flesh. A cry of need such as we all cry! A baby whom we can touch!


Wonder of wonders! Christmas is about the Unseen God becoming flesh like our own! The unheard God is being heard – first of all through a cry of his own need for food and caring hands to minister to him – and eventually the God who hears the cries of others in their time of human need, feeding hungry people, caring for them as he once had been cared for by Mary and Joseph!


Here a bundle of flesh wrapped in swaddling cloths. Then a brother in a family. Then a carpenter. Then a man with a message; a man with health-restoring hands, And then a man stirring up all the pious orderliness that has been established by the religious authorities who try desperately to maintain those regulations.


God’s Self-revelation is Rejected


“The world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” No man had seen God, the people of his time reasoned, so why or how should they believe that this man born in Bethlehem was such a self-revelation of God, the Hidden One – even though his birthplace was known as the city of David, the honored king of old?


Why or how could he be a prophet – if he was even that – after four hundred years of prophetic silence? John, who baptized people in the Jordan River, was a better candidate for the title of prophet than was this Jesus whose home town had become Nazareth. Even Nathanael, who eventually became one of his disciples had first asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”


So they rejected him. In fact, they had him crucified by Gentile hands.


So the Child born in Bethlehem became the man on the cross. The flesh of him who was cradled there in the straw was declared guilty of wrong-doing by a joint decision of Jewish and Roman authorities and delivered over to a criminal’s death. The manger bedding a child with straw became a cross holding fast the gift of God offered to the world at that first Christmas!


Bethlehem the birth place. Jerusalem the dying place. Calvary – the place where God’s Son died for the sins of the world.


The Child. The Man. The Rejected One!


Wonder of wonders! The unseeable God became visible in a mantle of glory on a cross – an instrument of torture deserved by mortals but now holding fast the one who alone did not deserve such torment and agony.


In the most unexpected place to find him through whom the world was made we, who now look with Spirit-enlightened eyes on that cross, beholding the flesh of God’s Son bearing hope and salvation for all who believe in him.


“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”


The Rejected One Among Men is the Accepted One of God


God’s glory on the cross!?!? “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.” With these words this Child of Bethlehem, glorified by angels, by shepherds hearing those angels in the fields outside Bethlehem, and by Magi traveling from the east prompted by a star in the heavens, proposed that he was about to exhibit his greatest glory on the night before he was to be crucified.


These words were the introductory words to his long farewell speech to his disciples before going to Gethsemane and Golgotha. “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” The “now” is the time of his passion and death.


“Now,” Jesus declared, God is to be glorified, for his son was about to embark on the final steps in his journey to the cross where the ultimate redemption of the world would take place.


“We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father,” John wrote.


The Cradle is Joined to the Cross


This cross toward which Jesus was about to set his steps couldn’t have been possible without Christmas, of course -- that time when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Birth and death are marks of our humanity. Whoever is born must also die. That is relentless truth. Apart from birthing there is no dying – and there is no dying without birthing!


Mary and Joseph’s delight at Jesus’ birthing focused on the first breathing of the child lying in the manger of Bethlehem. But, as the carol puts it so poingnantly, “Mary, did you know . . . ?”


How could she have known to what end this little newborn who had nestled in her womb the nine months previous would eventually come? She knew, of course, that any and all dying brings grieving. What she did not know, however, was that the grieving she would endure would come by beholding this child, joyfully brought forth from her womb in Bethlehem, cruelly dying on a cross.


What she did not know, however, we do know. We see the shadow of that cross hanging over this feeding trough within which the child was now laid.


That shadow brings such sadness with it, for its brutality is almost beyond our imagination.


Yet that same shadow brought with it a thankfulness beyond measure, a joy beyond all telling, for we know that which those who stood under that cross did not know at the time of their mourning. Jesus bore the agony of that cross, the cross for which he was given flesh in Mary’s womb, in order to save the world from the penalty that came with sin. That penalty, imposed by the Father upon the world when it so shamefully separated from him in a self-seeking search for independence from its Creator, was now being paid in full by none other than God’s Son! Matthew put it this way: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”


The cradle had become a cross – but it was a cross of redemption! It could not have taken place without the incarnation we remember on this day when God became the Man of Redemption!


On This Day, Therefore, Rejoicing is Joined to a Grieving that Gives Birth to Eternal Joy!


“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That is how John spoke of this day. It is a day we celebrate in a world that is miserably shadowed by hunger and thirst and warfare and the homelessness of refugees and cancer and untold other sicknesses and dread and hopeless despair and all the other miseries of this world. In short, it is a day sadly darkened by sin and death. We who gather with shepherds and Magi and the hosts of heaven come out of that terrible darkness for a moment’s reprieve from the heavy hand of the darkness that surrounds us and threatens to swallow all who live in it as we seek the light that no darkness can overcome.


And just when we lament all this, we remember also that an equal or even worse darkness hovered over and around this child whom Herod threatened with death from the time of his birth and that continued to the time when he had grown into the one known as Jesus of Nazareth whom death finally claimed at the hands of his enemies. It was a time when it seemed to those who laid him in the grave that hope, itself, had died!


But we also remember that he emerged out of the darkness of that tomb as the Resurrected One, the Ascended One who sits at the right hand of the Father. He was the light breaking apart the darkness of sin, death, and eternal condemnation of whom John spoke, telling us that it was Mary’s son who was the “true light, which enlightens everyone.”


Raised from the dead, ascended into the heavens, revealing him whom nobody had ever seen before! This is he in whom alone we dare to place our lives, our future, our hope, our salvation!


We trust that no matter how disturbingly the darkness seeming to impenetrably surround us may be, in this child we see with certainty that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” We are convinced that “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” All this we know because “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”


Wherever this one encounters us, there light is also! It is often seen ever so dimly in the darkness surrounding us. We are tempted to ask if it is a sure and certain light. But it is as sure as a lone match shining in thick darkness. It is there, and the darkness cannot put it out. Even the darkness of death cannot squelch it. He shines in spite of the darkness. He is a bright flash bursting through the horrifying darkness of the universe. His light is an undeniable beacon in the darkness, drawing us to himself with full assurance that “the darkness has not overcome it.”


New Life Comes With This Light


“To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” It is “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” We behold him who, even while he was still wrapped in Mary’s womb, was recognized by Zechariah as the one in whom God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us.” Already then he also saw with a clarity given by the Holy Spirit, that through him “we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us . . . that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”


This is the one whom the angels announced as “a Savior who is Christ the Lord” and as Simeon described as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”


Even at that, he cautioned Mary as we have also been cautioned, that “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.”


The Word in Whom was Life and Light Has Been Unwrapped


“From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” John declared.


Is it possible to imagine a greater Christmas gift than this child? As children shake and rattle and weigh the gifts under the tree, hidden from their sight by beautiful Christmas paper until they are unwrapped, so the world had shaken and rattled and weighed the hopes and dreams, the promises and the potentialities that God had planted in one way or another into its very heart. It has shared with the psalmist the longing he described as “a deer panting for flowing streams.” It has shared with Augustine that plaintive cry, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”


Then, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”


Here, at this manger in Bethlehem, the hidden became visible! “No one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”


Throw away the wrapping paper and the bows, but by all means keep the Gift that has been unwrapped in the City of David. “The only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”


In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ordained Minister of the Lutheran Church, Retired Hubert Beck
Austin, TX USA
E-Mail: hbeck@austin.rr.com