“In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. Through him all things were made, and apart from him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and that life brought light to humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it!”
I think it’s remarkable, when you compare the Gospel stories side by side, just how ‘out there’ this passage in John is as a description of the birth of Jesus!
As most of you will know, our New Testament has four Gospels that give us four different accounts of the life of Jesus from four different perspectives – same story (more or less), different authors, different angels, same focus. And yet when you compare the opening narratives in these different Gospels, you could be forgiven for thinking that this fourth Gospel – the Gospel of John – was talking about somebody altogether different from the person the others refer to!
When you read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, for instance, it all just seems so mundane and matter-of-fact, as does Luke’s account, where you get the details about how Bethlehem was over-crowded when Mary and Joseph were there due to the census that was going on, and the consequent scandalous situation that develops where Mary is forced to give birth in the most unhygienic and inappropriate of contexts.
And I think it’s clear, looking at these accounts, that the whole birth situation was something of an embarrassment! And I don’t mean just that it was embarrassing for Mary and Joseph at the time to be caught in the predicament they were, but that it was an embarrassment for the early church!
Evidently there were various stories circulating about Jesus’ dubious parentage and these Gospel writers were keen to set the record straight, so to speak, but there is only so much that the writers could explain away, for there was no getting around the fact that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were tragic.
I read often enough of women living in the vicinity of Bethlehem today who have been forced to give birth at checkpoints and things like that, and you wonder whether the children of these births, as they grow up, ever talk about the circumstances of their birth or whether they deliberately steer the conversation in another direction every time people start discussing where they were born?
What you certainly would not expect from such a person would be to do what we see John do, which is to not only embrace Jesus’ humble origins but to then go on and eulogise about them in such an extraordinary fashion!
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
And yet there is no tension between the Gospel stories, as the key contention of all the Gospels is that these two stories – on the one hand the familiar story of the Nativity scene, featuring Mary, Joseph, the baby, the shepherds, the wise men, and quite possibly the little drummer boy, and, on the other hand, this bizarre account of the mysterious movement of the word of God that becomes flesh- are in fact the same story! It’s all about seeing the infinite in the everyday (as Kierkegaard used to put it) and this is something we are all capable of.
We fall in love, and it is an entirely mystical experience! Rationality and logic take a back seat as we speak in songs and poetry, desperately trying to capture what is on our hearts that nothing seems to be able to explain or express. We sense that we have touched on something that is greater than us.
We sense it sometimes through our children – through a look, through time shared together – we get an unexpected glimpse of eternity.
Many of us will experience it at some time today – though the warmth and acceptance of friends and family, through love shared – a sense that we’ve participated in something that is more than just good feeling.
Maybe some of us will even experience it here in church, as we sing and we kneel and we listen and interact in all those normal human ways, and then suddenly and often quite expectantly we sense the presence of God in it all!
Sometimes we are struck immediately by this sense of the presence of God. At other times we recognise the presence of God only on reflection. We look back at an occasion – one that was wonderful or even more often one that was horribly painful – and we recognise on reflection that God had been with us throughout our ordeal.
However it happens, it happened for John the Gospel writer too, writing many years after the birth of Jesus. He looks back at that all-too-ordinary birth and sees something entirely unique and extraordinary happening. And so he speaks of ‘the word’ – a term deliberately taken from the Greek philosophy of the time that we might better translate as ‘force’ or something like that. And John says this ‘word’ or this ‘force’ which is that basic spiritual reality that all persons grasp in some form or another – this word/force/call-it-what-you-will, this basic divine something that is at the foundation of our reality …became flesh in Jesus, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father.
There is much in human relationships that is mundane and mechanical, and can best be understood through science and logic and economics. And yet there is also the reality of human community that defies simplistic explanation. There is the reality of love and friendship that transcends economics and science. In truth, there need be nothing ordinary about the ordinary, nothing everyday about the everyday. Within the normal realities of human life, there are always the seeds of eternity, waiting to blossom. And nowhere is that more true than in that very ordinary scene at the inn in Bethlehem.
For in that very ordinary scene in Bethlehem we witness God reaching out to us in order to reconcile the world to Himself – the miracle of Christmas! Amen.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, December 2010.