We’re blessed to have four Gospels that preserve detailed records of the teaching and works of Jesus the Messiah. But it’s interesting that only two of the four incorporate birth narratives. Most of what we read at Christmastide comes from Luke’s Gospel, though Matthew fills in some important details that Luke omits. Mark, by contrast, starts off declaring that “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” is not the birth itself but the witness of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. John, too, begins his gospel narrative with the same two things, though he prefaces it with what we call the Johannine Prologue, one of the richest passages in all of Scripture theologically speaking. Here John begins with words about the pre-incarnate Christ and moves on to explaining how salvation is offered through this One Who was “the Word made flesh.” I actually first came to Christ through these verses, and they always have remained at the very center of my own life, my teaching, my theology, my very faith mooring.
And so this morning we will see that our entire liturgy is filled with words from John chapter one, with references to the Word made flesh, to Jesus as “Light,” to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” Who takes away the sin of the world and to Jesus as the Who most fully reveals to us what God Himself is really like. Our epistle reading from Hebrews tells us that God has moved on from speaking words through the prophets of old to speaking through His incarnate Son, Who is “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.” We cannot hope to get a closer glimpse of God than that afforded by His incarnate Son. Even Jesus’ disciple Peter, just a few decades after Jesus’ earthly ministry, wrote, “Though you do not now see Him (that is in a physical sense), you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory”(I Peter 1:8).
That’s precisely what the joy of Christmas is all about. In our Collect for last night’s Christmas Eve liturgy, we prayed, “Eternal God, Who made this most holy night to shine with the brightness of Your one true Light: bring us, who have known the revelation of that Light on earth, to see the radiance of Your heavenly glory through Jesus Christ Your Son our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”
Later in our Eucharistic Prayer this morning we will offer these words: “In this mystery of the Word made flesh You have caused His light to shine in our hearts, to give knowledge of Your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. In Him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see.” This incomparable vision of God in Christ Jesus is what some have called “the beatific vision,” and it should indeed issue in inexpressible joy. It should not be limited to a once-a-year experience of Christmas joy, but should be a life-changing experience that continues throughout our lives and lifts us far above the challenges with which our earthly lives are replete. It’s a joy that far transcends the joys we experience in our earthbound state, joys that we know to be transitory and inevitably short-lived. But in the preface to our Collect we prayed “that our joy in the birth of Christ will last forever.” The “beatific vision” of God in Christ Jesus brings us the joy of seeing God face-to-face, even though, in this life, this always must be through the eyes of faith.
Aquinas wrote that “man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek.” But he added that this kind of perfect happiness cannot be found in any physical pleasure, any amount of worldly power, any degree of temporal fame or honor, or in any finite reality. It can only be found in something that is infinite and perfect – and that is only God Himself. We cannot attain this happiness by our own natural powers; it’s a gift that must be given to us by God, Who strengthens us by the “light of glory” so that we can see Him as He is, without any intermediary. To seek true happiness from any other source is to miss the whole point of the incarnation - what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. John tells us that “the beatific vision” is possible only through the incarnate God, Jesus Christ. He writes, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). God told Moses that “man shall not see Me and live” (Ex. 33:20). This does not contradict the earlier reference to Moses speaking with God “face to face,” which is a Hebrew figure of speech for being in each other’s presence. And when in Judges we read that first Gideon and later the parents of Samson claim to have seen God, both contexts state that they only saw “an angel of the Lord.” Paul wrote to Timothy that God “dwells in unapproachable light, Whom no one has ever seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:16).
But John is telling us something different: that in Jesus Christ, the One Who is at the Father’s side, we may have a transforming vision of God that is the key to our becoming ever more like God Himself. We may not be privileged to have the same spiritual vision of God that was afforded to John in Revelation, but we have access to all that we need in order to be completely fulfilled, to be complete persons, in this life. Any other pursuit leaves us woefully short and, at the end of the day, even desperately wondering what it was that we may have missed.
How is it possible to discover all that God has promised us in His Son? It begins with recognizing more fully just Who this Jesus really was. John tells us that He was “in the beginning with God” and that in fact He Himself was God. That’s why in our reciting of the Nicene Creed we use phrase after phrase to declare that Jesus was “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through Him all things were made.” And it was on this basis that Jesus could say to Thomas in the Upper Room, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him" (John 14:7); and then to Philip Jesus adds, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not come to know Me? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father?'” “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me” (John 14:9, 11).
It’s a sad commentary on many persons who name the Name of Christ that they keep reaching out again and again for some other path to happiness, for some new way of seeing God, when the means for both happiness and the vision of God are readily at our disposal. We build whole theologies and elaborate practices in our pursuit of God while all the time it’s God Who desires above all to be known by us and to give us abundant life. And this brings us right back to where we started: the incarnation. Of course it was Jesus Himself Who said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). And while there may be many roads that lead us to Christ, ultimately we are thrust at the feet of the One Who said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).
Returning to our Johannine Prologue, John has much more to tell us about this Word Who, as very God of very God, is the Creator of all that is. He’s the Source of life, the Light of men, the true Light, the One Who, coming into the world, enlightens everyone. And He’s the One Who gives to all who receive Him the right to be called God’s own children, simply by believing in His Name. This brings us to what may be the most important verse in this passage, verse 14. It capsulizes the incarnation more succinctly and more significantly than any birth narrative or any sentimental portrayal of the Baby in the manger. John writes, “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.” It took the early Church a long time to beat down all the assorted heresies that tried to diminish the realities of this one verse. Councils were convened, creeds were written and amended and, in the end, these were the truths that were firmly and irrefutably established as orthodox.
First of all John tells us that the very Word of God, the eternal God, became flesh. There is no hint here of the Word only appearing to have assumed human flesh while retaining the Spirit of deity. John simply states that the Word took on human flesh, and so could become both Son of God and Son of Man, both Creator and Redeemer, the fullest revelation of God and the clearest demonstration of how God could take on all that it means to be fully human, yet without sin.
Then John uses language that is replete with Old Testament imagery. When He says that the Word “dwelt among us,” he is saying literally that the Word “tabernacled” among us; He became in human form all that the Shekinah glory of God was in the Holy of Holies, behind the veil in the temple. This lays the groundwork for why the tearing of the veil from top to bottom during the crucifixion was of such compelling significance. In Christ Jesus, God stepped outside the veil never to return behind it again. Just in case his allusion might have been misunderstood, John explicitly adds that this Word, dwelling among us, revealed His glory, the “glory of the one and only Son from the Father.” While God’s glory had long been something on which no person could look and live, now John writes that “we have seen His glory.”
Finally, he adds that this representation of God’s eternal and ineffable glory revealed in His Son, the incarnate Jesus Christ, was “full of grace and truth.” These two words are used with great frequency in the Old Testament to describe God’s essential attributes. God’s grace is the New Testament equivalent of His lovingkindness, His chesed, His covenant favor towards those who are His own. And His truth is His emet, His unchanging and inviolable integrity and faithfulness to His immutable word. And so, when John tells us that Jesus was the very Word of God, he’s clearly telling us that Jesus was fully God and that in Him was the fulfillment of all that the God of truth had promised to His people.
This is why John writes that Jesus was “full” of grace and truth, that Jesus was the pleroma, the fullness, the completeness of God Himself. In this sense we can agree with the much disputed translation of verse 1 in the New English Bible when it says, “what God was, the Word was.” This translation may have been intended to water down the clear statement of John that “the Word was God;” but it truthfully states what John is saying in verse 14 when he equates the Word with the Shekinah glory of God in all His fullness, in His grace and His truth.
All that God was, the Word was. Or, better still, all that God is, the Word is. And in his second epistle, John adds this: “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (II John 9, NRSV). Again, this is what we are celebrating here this morning: that in the coming of baby Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem, we have encountered God Himself, we are offered the best glimpse of Who God is, how God acts and specifically how God has taken the initiative in procuring our salvation. If we are seeking “the beatific vision” of God, and if we are in quest of true joy in this life, we need only look to Jesus, to see both before and beyond Bethlehem, to see in Him the fullness of God, to see all that God’s lovingkindness and truth have guaranteed for us.
What’s required of us in return? Only that we receive Him, not just once, but again and again as He comes to us in so many ways: as we commune with Him at this His table; as we encounter His presence through the Holy Spirit that He promised to send to us from the Father, the one He identified as “the Spirit of truth” (John 15:26); as He comes to us through His holy Word, He Who Himself is the eternal Word, He Who prayed to His Father, “"Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (John 17:17).
He’s here with us this morning, no longer as a newborn Child. The Child of Bethlehem, Who hung on a Cross for our sakes, is the very One Who said in the moment of His death, “It is finished.” For us, what He finished there is a beginning, a fresh start on a path that leads us inexorably to God, that takes us forward to the very moment when we who are now the children of God “will be like Him, for we will see Him as he really is” (I John 3:2). He’s no longer a Babe in a manger; He’s no longer a Savior on a Cross. As the resurrected and ascended Christ, He’s standing at the right hand of God the Father where He waits to receive us, where John himself had the extraordinary privilege of glimpsing Him and seeing “His face shining like the sun in full strength” (Rev. 1:16). He Who was before the beginning of time entered our space and time, and now has resumed the rightful place that He surrendered when He came here for us and for our salvation. In Him is our life, our light and our true Christmas joy. He is the Source of all our blessings in this Christmastide, in the New Year and for all the days of our lives.
And so, as John himself wrote late in his life, “To the One Who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might, forever and ever.”
Come once again, Lord Jesus! Come into our hearts this Christmas Day, and come at last to reign forever and ever. Amen.