First Sunday of Christmas Isaiah 61:10-62:5, Psalm 147:13-20, Galatians 3:23-4:7, John 1:1-18
A King has been born in Israel. Why should that matter to anyone else?
In Advent we heard the mournful and hopeful oracles of the Prophets of Israel and Judah, who were proclaiming the words of God to the people in those lands 2700 years ago. They were a people beset by violence on every side, trampled by armies and emperors, and in these times messages of a future salvation began to emerge:
The people who have been oppressed and robbed, displaced and despised will witness the downfall of their captors and they will return to their ancient homeland and they will receive in abundance children and crops and goods and buildings and all the things which were taken from them. Isaiah today adds an elegant metaphor to shape the kind of future which awaits the people of God: They will be loved as a bride is loved by a husband, and in that marriage their future will be secure and they shall not be destitute or alone any more.
But these are not words for us, are they?
These are words 2600 years ago to a small nation in a small part of the world, anticipating that their political anxieties would be ended and that they would be able to live securely. Isaiah is one of the main voices in the Old Testament who describes a coming messiah, a savior who will restore what is lost. And this is how Isaiah also interprets one of the contemporary kings, Cyrus of Persia, whose change of policy becomes a kind of salvation for the exiled People of God. Cyrus saved the Jewish people and the hope of Israel was fulfilled.
Why should this matter to us?
Year after year we hear again the oracles and tales of a coming salvation, and we gather and purchase gifts, we celebrate and see friends, we sing songs and wear ugly sweaters, and for many of us the joy of Christmas is found only in these fleeting moments which distract us momentarily from mounting debt, or the loss of our jobs, or the decline of the health of a loved one, or the person who is missing this time, or the fact that were it not for the parties we would be utterly alone. Christmas is someone else’s hope, it is not ours. The magical times with parents and neigbors are a story from a long time ago. It’s not today. It’s a pleasant fable.
So perhaps we delude ourselves every year by remembering other people’s miracles, so that we can muster enough faith to make it through the darkness of the year and allow others to continue to believe that miracles might happen to them.
Yet even Cyrus the Great, who liberated the Israelites from the miserable places they had been sent, was not enough to answer the longings of God’s people. Mighty Jerusalem was never quite the same. The Temple was a faded glory. The kings of Israel were really just servants permitted to rule on behalf of some other emperor. And as the tides of history swept over them, they realized that they were still awaiting a savior. The disappointment at their lot in life, the misalignment of their hope to their experience, led eventually to the well practiced patience which we encounter in the religion of the Gospels. The people of God are truly remarkable – they managed to preserve themselves as a distinct and unique group of people in the midst of the Assyrians, the Persians, the Macedonians and the Romans. The people of God by the time of the Gospels had gained a strength of character which we see in the Pharisees and Sadducees, who despite the disarray of the political realm, commit themselves to living out God’s laws simply because they are what God has asked, not because they think they might gain something from it.
This is what hope becomes when human beings bank their lives on it – hope becomes patience and faithfulness.
And so we, and many others, hear these words of hope:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation
the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
And these words, if we listen carefully, forge in us a patience and a faithfulness.
And yet we hear them differently because of Christmas.
See, these words of the Prophets speak to a broad and yearning desire, the desires of a specific people called Israel but also the desires of all human hearts, desires to be all that we are capable of being, a desire to live in peace and harmony, a desire to have a secure future.
A desire to be someone’s beloved.
We hear these desires differently because of Christmas. We hear them differently because the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.
Because these desires are things which none of us can secure for ourselves or indeed anyone else. It is vain to think that a job, or a house, or a relationship will be able to fill the eternal longings of the human heart, even as it was vanity to think that Cyrus could answer the longing of God’s people for everlasting salvation.
And so when John sets out in his Gospel to tell us about the Savior that he met, and followed, and loved, he sets his readers minds on things that are not quite of this world.
John does not first tell us that Jesus is like one of the Kings or Prophets of old, he does not tell us that Jesus is like a better Moses. John understands that within the all the very specific and particular hopes of the Jewish people is held the desires of all people, everywhere.
The desire to know God.
I know, this sounds very pious. Religious attendance in this country has been in rapid decline for generations, and an increasing number of people identify themselves as Atheists. How can it be said that the deepest desires of people’s hearts is for God?
John tells us about Jesus by telling us about the hope of God’s people, which was his word spoken to them long ago. But the word of a Prophet is always going to fall short of communicating the fullness of God to the darkest parts of a human soul. And so God chooses to communicate himself another way.
We Christians understand that God is perfect and so can do all things perfectly.
This means that God can perfectly communicate his full self. God is not frustrated by language or limited by a body or bound within time. Without the limits of all of these things, God perfectly communicates himself.
And what would such a perfect communication of a perfect being look like? What would happen? John calls this perfect communication of God’s full self, God’s Word. It speaks to God’s perfection that beyond time and in eternity God has communicated himself, and that perfect communication of God’s self is the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. And so there has always been God and the Word of God, or the Father and the Son, both being full persons, the Word being the perfect communication of the Father. And so eternally two people have a relationship and are capable of perfectly loving one-another, so perfectly giving themselves to one-another that the love they share is also a person, the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In eternity there are three persons who are equal in glory, majesty, perfection, beauty, and love.
In Eternity there is all that the human heart desires, the everlasting longing to which all vain and transient hope points.
The Word of God is the light of all people and because that Light is God no darkness will defeat it.
John the Baptist stood in the River Jordan and spoke of someone greater who was to come. In the language and grammar of the Old Testament this person might have been understood to be some deliver like Samuel or David, or Judas Maccabaeus, but John was bearing witness to something greater even than these particular saviors who did God’s work in one age. John, who bore witness about Jesus of Nazareth, bore witness to the everlasting Word of God, the light of all people, God’s perfect communication of himself, which was coming into the world.
Yet the Evangelist tells us immediately about the sadness of this story, for though God has spoken an everlasting Word into his creation, when his people saw him they did not want him. They did not know they wanted to meet God, they believed that they needed only a change of life. They did not know that without him they had no life at all.
So they rejected him, the Word of God who had taken on human flesh but was no less the perfect communication of God, preferring to settle for a far lesser hope.
I suppose it might be the case that faithfulness can become stubbornness too, and stubbornness hopes only for what it can understand, or like a hungry child cries for the nearest snack, having not the patience to await a meal to come.
But the Evangelist John saw in Jesus Christ the true glory which so many hide from, and he fell in love. He realized that all of the true desires to which his hope pointed, had been met in his relationship with the man Jesus of Nazareth, and who can meet the desires of the human heart but the One who made it?
Jesus Christ, the man who was the cousin of John the Baptist, was none other than the perfect word of God who had come to live amongst us human beings.
We read the hopes of ancient Israel each Advent, and perhaps we might wonder why such ancient desires should speak to us so deeply, with names we cannot pronounce and places we have never visited. Yet these stories of pain and hope are the truth of our own hearts, and it seems to me that by letting these old stories lead us to confront our own disappointed hopes, can we see through these vain things to the aching desire to know our Creator.
And the good news of Christmas is that this hope has been met, God spoke himself into our world and dwelt with us, and dwells with us still for he has filled his people with his Holy Spirit, which is his perfect love, so that within the community of the children of God, we need never lack the light which is the true life of us all.
And we are a people who gather to meet the Word spoken into our world in the mystery of Holy Communion. Jesus left for his people this sacrament of Bread and Wine so that those who eat and drink would be united, bodily, here, on this earth, in this room, now, with the same Word of God who shared this meal with his friends in an Upper Room in Jerusalem before he was betrayed.
The Nativity of Jesus Christ, Christmas, exposes the vanity of our small-minded hopes and childish fears, and gives an occasion to decide whether the true gift of God, his being united with us forever, is enough for us. The Apostle John encountered a man who, despite all the ways he failed to be the savior he might have expected, revealed himself to be the salvation for which his soul had longed.
For 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.