Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12)
The opening of John’s Gospel may at first seem like an odd reading for Christmas morning. There is no star in the east, no manger in Bethlehem, no angels, and no shepherds. There isn’t even a mention of Mary, the virgin mother of our Lord or her husband Joseph. John takes us back further. He takes us back before even the foundation of the world was laid, back before time itself. He takes us to a beginning before the beginning, into the depths of eternity, and into the very heart of God himself.
It is fitting that John’s gospel is traditionally represented by an eagle. No other gospel soars to quite the dizzying heights that John’s does, nor does any gospel speak so openly of Jesus’ divinity. Among all of God’s creatures, none is able to gaze into the dazzling brilliance of the sun’s light like the eagle. John pierces deep into the eternal mysteries of God and shares with us what he sees. Many readers find themselves closer to God when reading the gospel of John than any other book in scripture. Tradition tells us that the author of the fourth gospel was the beloved disciple, John, whom we are told would rest his head in the Lord’s breast, close to his heart. These are the words of the one who was so near to the One who was in the bosom of the Father from all eternity.
If we want to understand the miraculous birth of that first Christmas morning, John tells us that we need to understand another birth. Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of the Father. As the Nicene Creed tells us, “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father.” Before Jesus was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he was born from the heart of the Father in Eternity. He was the Word spoken by God before all worlds through whom all things were made.
Words fail us here, however, because as soon as we say “begotten” or “spoken” we immediately imply that there was a time when he was not. Bound as we are by time, we cannot conceive of eternity which is beyond time.
You may have noticed our beautiful Christmas wreath hanging on top of the rood screen. Such wreaths have become synonymous with the Christmas season. They were used by many pre-Christian people as symbols of victory, peace, hope, and renewal. Christians embraced them as a profound symbol of their own faith. The wreath is round; it has so beginning and no end. Moreover, it is traditionally made with the branches of evergreens which persist throughout the changing seasons. In this way, they are powerful reminders of the eternal life of God. Like the wreath, Christ has no beginning and no end, but is always and continuously begotten of the Father in one eternal generation.
John writes “in the beginning was the Word.” Before there was a beginning there was the Word. “The Word was with God,” he says, implying a distinction between God the Father and the Son. Yet he continues, “the Word was God.” Again we are soaring with John above the limits of human perception or understanding, and we must be content to simply gaze at the mystery with awe. What we can say is this: what is begotten of God is of the same kind as God. What is spoken by God is an expression and extension of God’s own being. The Nicene Creed calls him “God from God, Light from Light.”
The image used is one of one candle being lit from another. If you were here at our midnight service last night, you got to experience this in a tangible way. From one light, many lights were lit. They were all of the same kind, though distinct. The first light was not diminished by lighting the second. In the same way the Son is an expression of the fullness of the Father’s deity, distinct while being the same in kind and undiminished.
John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” The same flame that was lit in Christ from the fire of the Father’s own heart has been lit also on the earth to give light to all of us who live in darkness.
This is the promise of eternal life which is to know the only True God and Jesus Christ who he has sent. This is the light that enlightens all who come into the world but which in our sinful rebellion we choose to suppress and deny. Here in the bleak midwinter, in the darkest time of year, Christmas day shines with the brightness of that light, and for however briefly and fleetingly the world sees it and rejoices.
God came down to Earth that first Christmas day. John writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The creator of all things who was begotten before time humbled himself and consented to be born of a mortal woman in a cave in a remote place in the world. In this simple birth, a birth like countless others in the history of the world, God visits his people with his redeeming love. This is a revelation too lofty for human beings to attain. Because we could not rise to him, God stooped to us.
Dorothy Sayers has compared the incarnation to the moment when the author of a play steps out on stage to take a bow. Some have suggested an even better analogy for the Incarnation comes from Sayer’s own mystery novels. Sayers wrote about an aristocratic sleuth named Lord Peter Wimsey.
Throughout much of her novels Lord Wimsey is a bachelor, but eventually he meets Harriet Vane. This heroine bears a remarkable similarity to the author Sayers herself. She too is a mystery novelist and like Sayers one of the first women to graduate from Oxford. Eventually Wimsey and Vane fall in love and marry.
Isn’t that interesting? Sayers loved her creation so much that she chose to become a character in her own novel and wrote herself into his story. Perhaps this was always her intention from the beginning. How could Lord Wimsey know unless she chose to reveal it to him?
This is precisely what God did for us. He became part of our story in the incarnation. He entered into our world to rescue us and knit himself to us forever. He chose to reveal himself to us. Jesus’ birth is a declaration of love and reconciliation to mankind. These are the tidings of the Christmas angels; the song of peace and good will towards mankind on whom God’s favor rest.
Much has been said about the degradation and commercialization of the Christmas season, but for all that seeks to obscure it, the true glory still manages to shines through. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. During what other time of the year can you hear these words sung so earnestly and passionately over the radio in a department store:
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
The Christmas story still captivates people, because it taps into their deepest longing. It is the dear desire of every nation, the truth that they know deep down and which in those special moments of grace they allow to penetrate their heart. We all long to see it because it is the announcement of reconciliation to guilty sinners, the undying grace of God, that is ever green and always in season. We who worship now at the manger in Bethlehem have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father's only son, full of grace and truth.