Scripture: John 1:1-18
Right now people are in a few different places mentally. For the first group, once it was December 26th, Christmas was over. It was time to get all of the decorations down, packed away, and the house organized for a new year. For the second group, they have high aspirations to get the Christmas decorations down sometime. However, they know that if they actually accomplish this by February 1st, then they have done a good job. The third group, perhaps the smallest group, are the traditionalists. They keep the Christmas decorations up until epiphany, because Christmas is not just a day it is a season. Christmas was originally devised as a twelve day celebration. This goes all the way back to 567 when a council of bishops declared the twelve days between Christmas day and Epiphany to be a sacred and festive season. These twelve days of Christmas is when all of the Christmas celebrating and traditions occurred. It used to be that the big day to celebrate and have parties was not New Year’s Eve but it was twelfth night-the last day of the Christmas celebration. The way Christmas is celebrated as shifted and changed over the years, but I would also argue from a cultural standpoint what Christmas celebrates has also changed. Technically we still have a couple more days to celebrate Christmas, so on this day this morning’s scripture reminds us exactly what we are celebrating and why we should celebrate that more than just twelve days a year.
Christmas is a huge cornerstone of American culture, not necessarily as religious holiday, but as a cultural one. I always find it interesting when pop-cultural/secular sources try to define the what and why of Christmas because they try to do so without Jesus. These movies and TV specials often will talk about the Spirit of Christmas, the magic of Christmas, or the meaning of Christmas without ever really defining in certain terms what this spirit, magic, or meaning really is. One of the key pieces that a lot of cultural commentators point to for helping the shift in how we understand and celebrate Christmas today is Charles Dicken’s a Christmas Carol. So I think it is fitting that the best definition of what the cultural meaning of Christmas is supposed to be comes from A Muppet’s Christmas Carol. In that version of the story, when Scrooge encounters the ghost of Christmas present the spirit breaks out in song and sings a number called “It Feels Like Christmas”. One of the verses of that song states, “A cup of kindness that we share with another; A sweet reunion with a friend or a brother; In all the places you find love, It feels like Christmas.”
Christmas feels like all the places we find love, is probably the best definition of the cultural celebration of Christmas. However, it falls short of what Christmas is supposed to be all about. The true spirit of Christmas is the Holy Spirit; the true magic of Christmas is the incarnation; and the true meaning of Christmas is that God is with us. Even though the Muppet’s song does not quite get it right, I do agree strongly with the chorus, because it states: “It is the season of the heart. A special time of caring; The ways of love made clear. It is the season of the spirit; The message, if we hear it Is make it last all year.”
As this morning’s scripture points out Christmas is the way of love made clear. One of the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith, the belief that makes Christmas worth celebrating in the first place, is the incarnation. This is the understanding that Jesus, the baby born at Bethlehem was fully God and full human. It is the understanding that Jesus was not just destined to be a great teacher that Jesus is more than a chosen one, and Jesus is not some special creation of God. No, we believe that Jesus is God incarnate, that Jesus is God. This morning’s scripture is one of the scripture that best reinforces this belief. This morning’s scripture is how John begins his gospel, and his beginning is radically different than the other three gospels. Instead of beginning with a birth narrative or beginning with any narrative it begins with a theological statement. John seeks to establish upfront that Jesus is worth paying attention to, and that Jesus is different than important religious figures that have come before. John states, in no uncertain terms that Jesus is the word of God, that from before the beginning Jesus was with God and Jesus is God. This truth, that the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, is the heart of the Christmas celebration and John wants to make clear at the beginning of his gospel, that it is a truth that changes everything. As we consider this scripture, I think there three verses with key takeaways for us which will help us realize that God is with us not just at Christmas but year round.
I have noticed on social media this year that people are a lot more subdued about their aspirations going into a new year. I have seen very few “2021 is going to be my year” or “New Year, new me” type posts. Every new year presents a canvas of blank calendar pages to fill, but beginning this year we have a lot more uncertainty what (if anything) we are going to be putting down on those pages. More than most years it feels that people are entering 2021 with a lot less hope and a lot more fear and trepidation. For this reason, verse five from this morning’s scripture is of great comfort to me. In fact, John 1:5 is regularly one of my go to scriptures because it states, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It reminds me that no matter what happens, no matter how distressing, upsetting, or dark the times feel we still have a reason for hope. The light of Christ shines brighter than any evil of this world, and nothing can forcibly separate us from that light.
Like I said, this is a scripture that I always find myself returning to. Especially in times of distress, in times of uncertainty, in times of heartache I personally need the reminder of this scripture. I need to be reminded that the darkness does not last forever. I need to be reminded that night is darkest right before the dawn, and that light always break through, because the light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it. It is at Christmas we celebrate the first coming of this holy light, but it is a message we need to keep in our hearts year round. No matter what we face throughout the year this is a hope we can hold onto, and this is also a reason to be filled with a great peace. Because we can know that no matter how bleak or dark thing seems for us, in the end, the darkness does not win. We do, because in the end no matter what happens God is still with us and the darkness can never overcome that.
We can have confidence that God is with us because of the second verse to focus on, John 1:12. It states, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” The idea of those who believe and receive Jesus is a theme that is further developed in the epistles of the New Testament. It might be language that we are familiar with, but I am not sure we always grasp the full incredibleness of the statement. Verse 13 of this morning’s scripture further develops this ideas and gives clarity that being a child of God, is not just metaphorical but that as believers in Christ we are fully part of a literal family of God.
Again, I do not think we always grasp fully what that means for us. One of the things that is easy to overlook on a basic level, is if God is willing to accept us as part of God’s family, then that means God wants us. It means we are lovable and wanted just as we are. God proved this to us by showing that God so love the world he sent his son, that the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. This is important because there is so much negative messaging out there. Consider a lot of the messaging that surrounds New Year’s resolutions. There is a huge emphasis on self-improvement. We are encouraged to set goals that make us better. There is inherently nothing wrong with wanting to increase physical activity or get better organized. However, one of the unstated messages being communicated is that if we are constantly supposed to work on being better, it must mean we are never good enough. While none of us have likely reached perfection in anything, the fact that God wants us in God’s family communicates that for God we are good enough. Imperfection, mess, and all. That is not an excuse to let ourselves off the hood when we know we could and should make changes, but it is an assurance we are loved even if we fall short of goals and aspirations. There will no doubt be times this coming year when we all fall short, when we mess it right up, or when a goal become unobtainable. During those times though instead of being crushed with disappointment we can hold onto an unquenchable joy because we know in the depths of our soul that God has already declared that we are good enough to be a child of God.
The final verse from this morning’s scripture that I think can really inform our faith throughout the year comes from the end of the reading. Verse 17 and 18 state, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth come through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Up to the birth of Jesus, the closest people could come to knowing God was through following the law that God gave. Through following the law, people could have a degree of confidence they were living a life that God would want them to live. Yet, Jesus made the love of God, the grace and the forgiveness of God known. It is through following Jesus that we can best know God. To follow Jesus where Jesus is leading and then we have to do it. When it comes to where Jesus is leading us, God has given us a great gift in the scriptures. We can better understand what it means to follow Jesus just by reading the gospels. There is a depth there that we will not find the bottom of. I grew up a pastor’s kid, I fully claimed Jesus as my Lord and Savior over twenty years ago, I have attended seminary, and I have served full time in vocational ministry since 2009. I can tell you with full confidence, that despite all of that background and training reading the teachings of Jesus always teaches me, challenges me to grow, and reveals more about God’s love. Too often we only really emphasize Jesus when he is lying in a cradle or hanging from a cross. However, if we seek to better follow Jesus and seek the way of Christ in the scripture daily then I know we will experience the love of God, the love that came down at Christmas every single day of the year.
I know some will drag their feet, but by next Sunday most of us will have our Christmas decorations all packed away. By then, even if we are not sure how much they will be used, most of us will probably have our 2021 planners ready. While the lights and ornaments need to go back in boxes, may you not be so quick to pack away the peace, hope, joy , and love that we celebrate at Christmas. May we make plans to ensure that the message of Christmas is with us all year. We have no idea what is in store for us for 2021, but may it be the year that we are able to say, best of all God is with us.