Oh, for heaven’s sake. There’s that bit from John again. Didn’t we hear that just last week on Christmas Eve? It’s pretty and all that, but for Christmas? Where’s the part about Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem to be taxed? What happened to Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus, wrapping him in swaddling clothes and laying him in a manger… because there was no room for them at the inn? And how about the angels… and the shepherds… and peace to men of goodwill? What about all that? I’ve had a few folks express just a touch of disappointment that we haven’t read Luke’s “Christmas Story” this year. After all, as Linus van Pelt once famously observed, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
And it is, in a manner of speaking. And we would certainly do well to keep the story of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the angels in the forefront of our minds during this season of mercantile madness. But while this story is what Christmas is all about… it’s not all that Christmas is about—not by a long shot! Because, you see, that earthly drama, played out in Palestine two thousand (or so) years ago, was the culmination of a much older story that began in a garden… at the dawn of creation. A story of love and betrayal, loss and separation… and of God’s unending quest to heal the breach that we humans caused between ourselves and our Creator at the Fall. And before Mary and Joseph, and shepherds and tax collectors, before kings and prophets and even before there were angels, there was the Word.
You know, it’s often said that the synoptic gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark and Luke) speak to the questions of what, when, where and how surrounding the Biblical narrative, while the Fourth Gospel, the gospel of John, focuses on the who… and the why. And so, given that paradigm, it’s not surprising that in Luke’s story of Christmas: Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem in around 6 AD to do some tax-related paperwork. Mary was late in her pregnancy. Very late. The baby came and, since the town was full up, they had to rough it. The angels told the shepherds to come and see… and the shepherds told their friends. Bada bing! What else do you need to know? Now, in fairness, Luke foreshadowed the significance of Jesus’ birth when he wrote of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary… and of Zechariah’s prophesy about the coming of a savior: God’s chosen people have gotten themselves into a jam (as they often do) and God is sending a mighty king, who will be known as the Son of the Most High, to save them (as he always does). So, we get some hints about the who and the why, but only hints. Because, I’m sad to say, we have short memories. We know our world’s a mess… we know we are miserable… and we can even admit—on occasion—that we need help. But we are prone to forget what got us into the mess we’re in in the first place. And that’s the back-story… the Christmas back-story.
And it’s the Gospel of John that reminds us of that back-story. Back before the Book of Genesis was written: before Abraham and Noah… Cain and Able… Adam and Eve and the Serpent… back before the first sunrise over God’s new creation… was the Word. The light shining in the darkness. The light that no darkness could quench. Ever. And despite the brightness of that light, which is the source of everything that ever was and is and will be… despite the immeasurable bounty bestowed upon humankind in the Garden, the first man and woman (who are not all that different from you and me, really) just couldn’t seem to bring themselves to trust in God and God’s Providence alone. They just couldn’t do it. And it cost them… dearly. But God never gave up on them, and as the ages of self-imposed exile and travail ticked away, he sent Moses, and a whole raft of Judges and the Prophets to lead the people back to the true Promised Land, the Garden that had been awaiting their return since the dawn of Creation. But the people still balked, preferring instead to plow their own meager furrows, sown with seeds of destruction, in their own shortsighted pursuit of worldly salvation. But God is good, all the time. And so, the Word became flesh and came to live among us. Fully God, and yet (inexplicably) fully-human, Jesus Messiah came to show us a glimpse of what’s in store for us, and for this world, if we can bring ourselves to trust in God and God’s Providence alone. And what that looks like, my friends, is the Kingdom of God.
So, I wonder if we can fully appreciate the Christmas story as told by Luke… without listening to it in light of the Christmas back-story that we get from John: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (1:10). Skipping “In the beginning was the Word,” at Christmastime would be kind of like beginning the Christmas story in the middle, don’t you think? We’ll read Luke’s Christmas story again next year, I promise you. But in the meantime, I want you spend some time reflecting on an eternal moment before the dawn of time… God’s time… when all that existed was the animating power of the Universe… poised to bring about its genesis. And on a Creator who made the world and everything in it for the sake of love, and who loved us so much that he sacrificed himself to show us the way to eternal life (c.f. John 3:16). And after you’re done thinking about all of that, I want you to begin thinking about the rest of the story… the chapters of our Salvation history that remain to be written. Surely, we are saved by Grace, thanks be to God. But we can only apprehend—take hold of—that Grace by giving up our reliance on idols we create for ourselves (e.g., wealth and security and worldly comforts) and by placing our faith in God and God’s Providence alone, and by living into our vocations as Kingdom Bringers… that is, being the Body of Christ to a world in great need of hope. Do y’all ever get tired of hearing me call you to that vocation? I hope not, because I’m not going to stop. Unh-unh. Because that’s the rest of the Christmas story, that’s our story.
In closing, let us recall the words from a Christmas carol we’ll be singing after we share the Lord’s Supper in a few minutes. Please open your Hymnals and turn to Hymn 79, “O little town of Bethlehem.” Will you pray the words of verse 5 with me?
O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord, Emmanuel!