What happens at Christmas? For many, it is when you buy an Advent Calendar, open the appropriate date, eat the chocolate and read a question. The best from last year, that I read, was:
"Who is the warmest athlete at Christmas?
Answer: a long jumper!"
But, of course, as this service reminds us, it is not just the season for Advent Calendars and keeping warm. It is the time when we are to remember what happened two thousand years ago. And that was the greatest miracle in the history of our entire universe.
Our first reading summarized it for us:
"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" (John 1.14).
The Apostle John is there referring to Three Amazing Facts About God. So, first let's consider those facts. They are all in the opening words of this remarkable chapter 1 of John's Gospel.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God."
But by way of introduction I need to say this. John was known as "the disciple whom Jesus loved". So he could make those stupendous claims after living and working with Jesus at close quarters for three years. He, as the other disciples, had gradually come to see, on good evidence, how true those claims were.
For John, his great moment of truth – the ultimate evidence for him - was on the first Easter Sunday. That was when he and Peter visited Jesus' tomb after Jesus' cruel crucifixion on the Friday. They both then saw, in the tomb, the grave cloths of Jesus still lying there. And John himself tells us that seeing those cloths containing no corpse, convinced him that Jesus had truly risen from the dead. And there was confirmation later that day. For Jesus, through locked doors, and, yes, with a body, but supernaturally transformed, met with John and the other disciples. So it is, with years of Christian reflection, experience and persecution, as an older man he tells us these three amazing facts.
Fact one: "in the beginning was the Word [the divine Word]".
So the one who became the baby in Bethlehem, we have been singing about, was there before time began and before the creation of anything – so before this universe or any other possible universes. But then this universe of space and time was created, with all its wonderful sub-microscopic universes. However, John 1 verse 3 tells us that he, the one now a baby in Bethlehem, was God's agent in that creation:
"All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made."
So "in the beginning was the Word" and it was a creative word.
Fact two: (verse 1 still) "and the Word was with God".
That is very important. For the divine Word (now in Bethlehem), as a distinct individual had a relationship with God.
But, fact three – and this is what is utterly staggering – we are told, "the Word was God".
Jesus Christ, the human baby in Bethlehem, was none other than Almighty God himself. So he was both God, but also with God. He was God, but somehow a separate person without there being three Gods!
This is the great mystery of the Holy Trinity (One God, but in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit). As Old Testament Psalm 145 says (verse 3):
"Great is the Lord … and his greatness is unsearchable."
But our gracious God (unfathomable because infinite) gives us sufficient clues to understand as much as we need of all of this. This is one reason why Jesus came that first Christmas. And that is why John introduces Jesus as "the Word". Jesus Christ is "the Word of God".
So do you want to hear God speaking and explaining? Well, listen to Jesus Christ? Where do you find him speaking? Answer: in the Bible where you have Jesus Christ's teaching and what he did, and also the inspired apostolic interpretation of those words and deeds.
Now, secondly, after those three amazing facts about God, John addresses the One Tragic Fact About Our World.
The evidence for this is clear. For why does a survey from Relate reckon that 68% of people expect to row over the Christmas holiday, with 39% citing (I quote), "Christmas Day most likely for a bust up"? Why does Action Fraud report that in this country cyber criminals last Christmas netted 11 million pounds for themselves by deceiving 15,000 shoppers. And, more terribly, why did, last Christmas, an Islamic State gunman, trying to storm a church near Cairo, kill six civilians and a policeman. So 100 Christians were killed in Egypt during the year. And why, if we are honest, do we all do wrong, and fail also to do the good we could do?
The biblical answer is an unpopular word. It is "sin". That means rejecting God's will, with the tragic fact that spiritual death and spiritual darkness result. But the good news of Christmas is that Jesus Christ came that first Christmas to bring life and light to overcome such death and darkness. John 1.4-5 says:
"In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
How we all, very different people, need Christ's life and light in our very different situations! So we should trust and obey him. For he, Jesus Christ, knows all about you and me and our problems. He himself said:
"even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not" (Luke 12.7).
And as you read on in John's Gospel, you see that no one is too bad or too good for Christ, or a problem too humble or too grand. In John chapter 2 you read he was solving a domestic crisis at a wedding reception when the wine ran out, if only people would do what he said. In chapter 3 you read Christ enlightening a member of the Jewish clergy. He told him we all need a radical spiritual transformation by the Holy Spirit because of our sin. To use Jesus' phrase, we need to be "born again" spiritually. And he then told this religious leader that (I quote) …
"… God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16).
Next in chapter 4 Jesus meets a woman at a well who is mixed up sexually having got through five husbands and is now cohabiting with someone else. But she came to trust Christ and, there and then, started to evangelize for him.
So Jesus Christ is the solution to the tragic fact of the world's spiritual death and darkness. That is the Christmas Good News. Perhaps you've come in here with a serious problem. Well, Jesus Christ came to help you. Jesus (in the original) means "Saviour", for he came to save us from the guilt of our sin by dying instead of us. And Christ (in the original) means "anointed" and Lord or King. So as your risen Lord or King he can give you new spiritual life and light for now and eternity, if you trust and then obey him.
We've had three facts about God, one fact about our world; now, finally, consider Two Facts About Ourselves.
The year's end is a time for New Year's resolutions and choices. And our reading from John presents two facts demanding a choice. Verses 10 -13 say:
"He [Jesus Christ] was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."
So there is a choice.
Fact one: either like his own people, you can say "No! I will not receive Jesus, the one who 'was in the world, and the world was made through him'." But fearfully you risk a lost eternity with sins unforgiven.
Or, fact two, you can say, "Yes!" and join "all who did receive him, who believed in his name" and to whom "he gave the right to become children of God." And you become part of God's family, with joy now and a great hope for eternity.
Can I, therefore, simply encourage you to say, "Yes!" So, if we can, may we make the last verse of our next Carol a genuine prayer and apply it personally. Let me read its words:
"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 [Emmanuel meaning 'God with us']."