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God’s Christmas Card

December 26, 2016

“God’s Christmas Card” John 1:1-14 © 12.25.16 Christmas Day A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Pity the poor author of the gospel of John. Like the comedian back in the day, he “don’t get no respect,” and like Rudolph left out of the reindeer games, he has to settle for forty readings from his twenty-one chapters scattered over the three years of the Revised Common Lectionary, the RCL. Each of the authors of the other gospels, the “synoptics,” has his own year. Right now we’re in Year A, the year of Matthew, in the RCL. Efforts to add a year D, presumably belonging to John, have generally met with little success.

The developers of the lectionary throw John bones from time to time, but then give him center stage on of all days Christmas Day. How odd, since John has no Christmas story! There are no shepherds or angels, no manger in Bethlehem, no wise men, no star, no virgin birth, not even Mary and Joseph, nothing we can paint or depict with a tableau or in a pageant. In fact, John doesn’t even know the name of Jesus’ mother or if he does, it’s not important, since he’s trying to keep up with a couple of other Marys in his account. The author simply calls her “the mother of Jesus,” though in a couple of places, from the mouth of others, he names Joseph as Jesus’ father. Interesting, as a side note, that it’s only from John that we find out Jesus’ mother had a sister, who stood with her at the cross.

None of this is really as surprising as it sounds to folks like us, used to the importance of Christmas and the birth stories. The fact is that the circumstances of the birth of Jesus were important only to some in the first century Church. Paul, the earliest writer, doesn’t mention anything other than Jesus was born of woman “in the fullness of time.” Nothing unusual there; everybody’s born of woman. Mark, the first gospel from around 65 AD, has nothing but a passing mention of Mary, and nothing at all about Joseph. Jesus is already an adult when the gospel begins. It was the two communities of Luke and Matthew, both writing about 80-90 AD, that wanted details about the birth of Jesus. And even they disagree.

As someone has said, John gives us an “unsentimental Christmas,” without the trappings we have come to expect from the long history of seasonal rituals and customs (David Lose, So we have to stop a moment and really consider how his message fits into the celebration. Amid all the hustle and hurry and stress and travel, we’re invited to slow down, if only for a few minutes, and actually think about the dwelling of God with humanity.

So if we can find some space in our overloaded brains this morning, John asks us first to consider that Christmas began at Creation. Those two events are inextricably linked. The One who came to dwell among us, who “pitched his tent,” as the gospel has it, is the eternal Word, the “Logos” in Greek, the Wisdom of God, through whom everything was created. We don’t need to go into all the history of ancient wisdom speculation this morning. Suffice it to say that the Logos was both God and separate from God. When the Logos became human, he bore the stamp of God, the indelible imprint of the divine. Think of our term that comes from Logos, which is “logo,” short for “logotype,” an imprinted word. On Jesus was the logo of God, identifying him as the One sent. Despite such clear evidence of connection, though, some people didn’t get it. They refused delivery of God’s personalized Christmas card to humanity, the One in whom his grace and truth and beauty and holiness are all made known.

Matthew has a purpose-built star that moves to guide the sages. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit, the same entity that moved over the primeval waters, brought about conception in a virgin’s womb. So in a sense, those two gospels also tie Christmas with Creation. But John makes the connection explicit. When we see Jesus act in this story, when we hear him speak, we have to do with none other than God, the great “I Am” of Israel’s worship, the One who was before the stars were born, in a reality where time does not exist.

Yet this is the One, who in the familiar words of a song, “stepped down into darkness.” The Eternal becomes bound by time, the Word with no body takes on human flesh and speaks in a human tongue. We call that mystery the “Incarnation.” The One who is truly God, the Creator, is also truly human.

To those who think God is only a spirit, without body, parts or passions, that doesn’t make sense. But when we remember that we are made in the image of God, stamped with the logo of heaven, it becomes clear. God and humanity are completely compatible. We have within us the spark of the divine. Jesus came to show us what it means to be God’s children, to give us the power by the Spirit to live as those who embody the Logos as the Logos incarnates God. We show the world what Jesus is like.

Presbyterian minister and professor Jill Crenshaw observes: “…we are the body of Christ. We are God’s flesh and blood. We are God’s love.

“We—God’s body, God’s blood—will carry out into the world God’s Light. We will carry in our bodies, in our bones, God’s promises of hope, peace, and justice. We will live and risk what we must knowing that each word we speak and each action we take each day matters if we want life to return to dying places, if we want to turn back evil with the fierce and fearless, healing and hopeful flames of love. By God’s grace birthed in Bethlehem, we are God’s Light” (“Advent Four: Lighting the Tiny Lights,”

If Jesus the incarnate Word is God’s Christmas card, so are we. We spread the cheer and comfort and peace of the season all year long through our deeds and words that are, like our Lord, full of grace and truth.

But the Incarnation is about something even more profound than that. That God took on human flesh, became a human being, means that God values bodies. Of all shapes and sizes and ages and colors and conditions, all along the spectrum of mobility, healthy or ill. He weeps when bodies are bruised and battered and abused, treated with disdain and cruelty, and killed. He looks with horror on crimes perpetrated by the powerful against the bodies of the vulnerable. Bodies matter to God, and so it matters what we do to and with our bodies.

For so much of Christian history, the Church has been wrong-headed in its attitude toward anything fleshly. No one states the problem better than Frederick Buechner: “‘The Word became flesh,’ wrote John, ‘and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth….’ That is what incarnation means. It is untheological. It is unsophisticated. It is undignified. But according to Christianity it is the way things are.

“All religions and philosophies which deny the reality or the significance of the material, the fleshly, the earth-bound, are themselves denied. Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground…, and incarnation means that all around is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here. And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth but our bodies and our earth themselves….

“One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God” (Wishful Thinking: 43).

For much of my life, I’ve heard that John was the “spiritual” gospel. But if that’s so, his approach is profoundly, distinctively earthy and earthly. Jesus’ first miracle, he says, was to turn water into wine, and not just any wine, the good stuff, so people could party longer in celebration of a wedding. In John, our Lord likens coming to faith to being born. The gift he gives is living water, a metaphor chosen because water is essential to bodily life. He feeds a huge crowd. He weeps at a tomb of a close friend. He kneels down and washes dirty feet. He doesn’t forbid Mary Magdalene to touch him, only not to cling to him. He shows disciples his hands and side, marked with nail and spear wounds. He cooks breakfast on a beach. He even talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This is the Word who became flesh.

The effect of the Incarnation was to consecrate the carnal and the corporeal, the fleshly, the worldly, the material, the sensory. It erases forever the distinction between the physical and the spiritual, the earthly and the heavenly. One is the other, and vice-versa. God came among us at Christmas, and keeps coming among us every day, going with us as we pitch our tents in one place, then another on our journeys.

“No, that can’t be true!” we cry. Where we want to be, especially as we watch the news or deal with our daily problems, is anywhere but in this world. As someone has said, we long for “that sphere of bliss where all is well and pure and good and holy, where all that burdens and weighs us down is lifted. Isn’t this what religion and spirituality are all about: finding God and our eternal destiny above and beyond the prison of fleeting time and suffering? Don’t we all long to be grasped by the infinite, the absolute, the perfect—to gaze upon the true, the good, the beautiful, ­unhindered in peace and glory?

He goes on: “We may indeed ache for paradise. But the gospel, the good news in Christ, is that God lives somewhere else. The true and living God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, dwells and reigns in the dark depths of our existence, here and now.

“No wonder we so readily exchange the mystery of incarnation for Christmas” (Charles E. Moore, “The God Who Descends: Face to Face with the Incarnation”

But if we can enter into the mystery this Christmas, accept and receive our Lord this Christmas, we will find that we are encouraged and uplifted, filled with hope for possibilities in the midst of horror and helplessness. If we are broken people, then that means there is a chance the Light that cannot be overcome will shine into us and out of us. As the late poet, philosopher, and singer Leonard Cohen famously said: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in” ( In this post-truth time, where emotional appeals and personal beliefs are more important that facts, we can and must be people of integrity. Our mission is to embody the Truth of God, which is more than words. It’s a way of living whole and entire. The word “integrity,” remember, comes from “integer,” something complete. We mean what we say and say what we mean. We live our creed. We show what Truth looks like.

Haven’t we had enough of games and deception and fake news and disinformation? If the Church is to stand against, instead of with, the forces that constantly seek to overcome the Light, replacing grace with graft and greed, bearing false instead of true witness, then we need to be people who tell the truth, live the truth, are embodiments of the One who said he was the Truth.

Whether it’s read and appreciated or not, God has sent and still sends his Christmas card to the world. In Jesus. In you and me. In his greeting for the season, he issues his personal invitation to cheer and to charity and gives his assurance of grace and mercy throughout the year.

Thanks be to God whose Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Amen.

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