“From Heaven to Earth” (John 1:1-5, 14-18)
December 24, 2017
We from John’s gospel, chapter 1. You are aware that there are four gospel, four ancient writers who set pen to paper to tell the story of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We read John1, but, which of the four is the best to read on Christmas Eve?
All the action happens in Luke chapter 1. An angel comes to the priest Zechariah as the old man gives the annual offering in the inner sanctum of the temple on the Day of Atonement. The Heavenly messenger tells the aged holy man that he and his childless, post-menopausal wife will have a son. Miraculous! Then it happens. That baby grows up to be John the Baptist, the prophet who prepares the way for the coming of the Messiah – Jesus.
Zechariah’s wife who had the miracle pregnancy, Elizabeth, the mother of John, is the also the cousin of a young betrothed woman, not barely more than a girl, named Mary. Mary was soon to wed Joseph, but they had not yet been together. She was a virgin. An angel comes to her to tell her she will have a son, before her marriage, before intimacy with her betrothed. Another miracle!
Newly pregnant, she journeys to see her cousin Elizabeth who is farther along in her pregnancy. Elizabeth’s baby, still in the womb, leaps with glee at the approach of the mother of the Lord. Luke chapter 1 is full of encounters with angels, miracle pregnancies, and people who respond to overwhelming news by worshiping God joyfully.
Upon flipping the page to Luke 2, the narrative become prosaic.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
If anything, Luke’s description of the actual birth of Jesus is understated. Movies depicting this are much more dramatic than the actual Biblical account. The film The Nativity Story from a few years ago depicts an exhausting, harrowing journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In one scene, Joseph is guiding the donkey ridden by a very pregnant Mary. They have to forge a waist-deep river that’s moving quite quickly. As the water beats against them and Joseph stumbles trying to keep stable as he walks the rocky river bed, Mary sees a large, poisonous snake slithering through the water toward them. The nervous donkey bucks sending Mary flying. Joseph doesn’t hesitate. He viciously grabs the snake and flings it. Then he heroically lifts his pregnant wife out of the cold water, carries her to the safe river bank and retrieves the traumatized beast of burden so they can continue their journey. That might have happened. That or some episode like.
Luke doesn’t give us anything about the journey. He just tells us there was a tax imposed by the imperial overlords: Rome! Rome says move, and you move. Like every other beleaguered Israelite, Joseph had to comply with the census by returning to the village of his birth. Though it might not have seemed wise, he took his pregnant wife with him. They made the 3-day walk. Thus Jesus, the Messiah, was born, in the city of David, Bethlehem, just as prophecy hinted he would be. Luke’s narrative of the actual birth is void of drama.
The action resumes in verse 8 of Luke 2. An angel terrifies a group of shepherds. The divine messenger begins, “Do not be afraid.” He then tells the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:10-11). That angel is joined by a multitude – 100’s? 1000’s? The night echoes with their angelic praise songs. When they finish, then shepherds run to Bethlehem waking everyone until they find the grotto where a baby was born.
Right away these men of the field know they have found the one. Mary realizes she’s part of the biggest story in the history of the world. She’s right at the center of it. Luke must have known her, in her later years. He probably wrote this gospel after he talked with Mary many times and after she had died. Either he knew her, or he talked with people who had known her quite well. He was able to tell us that she took it all in, quietly rejoicing in her heart and treasuring all that took place.
There is nothing quiet about those shepherds. They thunder into the quiet village looking for the baby. Once they find him, they thunder through the quiet village waking everyone to tell them what had happened. Then, they thunder back out to the field so recently filled with angel-song. Now that same hillside pasture is filled with the voices of shepherds as they praise God.
Luke is where the action is. Much of what we think of as the Biblical Christmas story comes in Luke. Matthew Gospel doesn’t have any of this. In Matthew, the angel visits Joseph in his dreams. Matthew is not concerned with why Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem. He just puts them there and he doesn’t mention a stable at all. Matthew tells us that angel convinced Joseph to stay with Mary even though she was pregnant and he had nothing to do with it.
Luke says nothing about visitors from the East. The wise men are only in Matthew and by the time they arrive, the baby Jesus is probably closer to two and toddling around. He and Joseph and Mary are in a house in Bethlehem. The shepherds have long since exited stage right. Yes, our tradition has the shepherds and the wise men all together at the stable nativity scene. It’s a lovely tradition that my family maintains in our own nativity sets. It is not Biblically accurate, but that’s OK. It’s a tradition that blends the stories from Luke and Matthew.
Do not go searching for the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Mark. Mark begins with Jesus at about age 30, getting baptized. John’s gospel also does not mention the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem or angels visiting shepherds or a virgin birth or wise men from Persia visiting the child Jesus. None of those aspects of the story are in John. John gives us the theology behind the birth of Jesus.
“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. … All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing was made” (John 1:1, 3). This is the cosmic Christ. The second person of the trinity, God the Son, who in the incarnation becomes Jesus, is the agent of creation. This picture of the cosmic Christ, also found in Colossians 1 (v.15-20), is the opening of the Gospel of John. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but God the Son always existed. In Jesus, God the son came to earth in human form.
John’s initial way of referring to Jesus, God the Son, is the Word. In chapter 1, verse 14, John says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s 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” (v.18). In that last statement John uses hyperbole as a part of his presentation of Jesus as the only path to God. He wrote Gospel with the goal of showing who Jesus is so that readers will surrender their lives to Jesus and accept Him as their Lord and Master.
Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and a few others in the Old Testament had seen God and lived to tell about it. The parents of Samson are on this list. So too are Noah and Enoch. The thing is in all these cases, God made a special appearance to a specific individual for a specific purpose. The specific purpose in the coming of Jesus was accessibility to God for all people. In Jesus Christ crucified, Jesus Christ resurrected, the way to God is opened for all people. With the ascension, reported in Acts 1, Jesus departed bodily, but then the Holy Spirit came as his lasting presence with all people in all places. Christmas is the story of God come to earth so that you and I can know God, worship God, have forgiveness of sins, and follow God the rest of our lives.
Luke gives the main story. Matthew fills some details not in Luke. Luke gives us Mary’s perspective. Matthew gives us Joseph’s. John lays out the theological significance of what God has done in Jesus. God is with us, God the Spirit, active among us. As John’s Gospel winds down, we read this in chapter 20, verse 30-31. ” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” When we recognize the work of Christ among us, at work in the Spirit in our lives, then more signs are performed that point the world to God. In other words, God did not stop doing new things at the close of the final book of the Bible. God continues to be on the move, creating new life in the world. God does this work through His church when His church is responsive to Him. In us, the story continues.
A new year is about to begin. As we celebrate Christmas, remember the year that was, 2017, look forward to new horizons, and as take the next steps in our lives, think about what it does say in that final book of the Bible, Revelation. The mistaken notion is that Revelation is all about Heaven and the Gospel is all about how we get to Heaven. Listen to what Revelation actually says. “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among [women and men], He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them’” (21:2-3).
If the first act, the birth of Jesus, is God come to earth, the Word made flesh, then the second act, the book of Revelation, is the second coming of Jesus. He comes. We don’t go. I love the Brad Paisley song, “When I Get Where I’m Going.” The feeling of the song is lovely and sometimes brings me to tears. But the Biblical message is ‘when Jesus gets where he’s going,’ and where he’s going is here. It’s called the Second Coming. The end of the story is Heaven, made new, joined with Earth, made new. Christmas is the preview of the eternal joy we will have as sons and daughters of God living forever in God’s presence.
We step to that ending when we put our trust in Jesus. We trust him to remove our sins. We trust him to rule our lives. His will for us is better than our own. Gospel means “good news.” The Good News is that in Christ all sin is forgiven, all people are united in love and in a new community, the Kingdom of God.
I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year. If you have never given your heart to Christ, I encourage you to do that. Email me if you have questions about how to become a Christian (firstname.lastname@example.org). I would love talking with you about this.
If you have been a Christ-follower in your life, but lately have turned away from Him, you can turn back to Him tonight. That’s what repentance is, turning from sin, turning away from a destructive path, and turning to the Lord. He’s waiting to receive you in love.
If your relationship with God, in Christ, is great, if you are walking with Christ already, praise God. He’s got new things instore for your life too. As you move into 2018, open yourself to him afresh, seeking new mercies every morning.
This sermon was done at our church’s Christmas Eve service. We closed singing ‘Silent Night’ by candle light.