Receiving and Believing the Word that Became Flesh

Receiving and Believing the Word that Became Flesh

In the midst of the sensation overload this season brings—

Christmas muzak in stores by Thanksgiving Day—and Thanksgiving Day Parades;

Salvation Army bell ringers outside of stores;

oversized balloon-like santas and snowmen—we even saw a balloon dachshund last evening!;

long lines at the post office and malls and stores;

travel plans and driving and airports and weather concerns;

yards and houses and trees decorated with lights—and santas—and snowmen—and angels—and elves—and candy canes—all mixed in with nativity scenes of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—and wise men—and donkeys and camels and reindeer—oh my!

In the midst of all of this hustle and bustle it can be oh so easy—and I don’t mean this in a trite way—to miss the Christ in Christmas.

It can be oh so easy to miss the story of Christmas—the story of God coming to earth in the form of a human baby. This particular story isn’t a fairy tale. It isn’t a fantasy. It isn’t a made up story.

No, the story of God coming to earth in the form of a baby, which we are here to celebrate this morning, the day of Christ’s birth, is a true story. It’s the most important story that has ever been told. It’s the only story that can make sense of our earthly lives and give us perspective on them and on our eternal lives and nature.

This story is so important that t he four writers of the life of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—go out of their way to make sure we get the story of Jesus right. So Matthew, who was one of Jesus’ twelve chosen disciples,[1] begins his Gospel with Jesus’ genealogy. After noting that “Jesus the Messiah” is “the son of David, the son of Abraham”[2]—two of the most important figures in the history of the nation of Israel—Matthew then provides a genealogy that begins with Father Abraham[3] and ends with “Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary” who was, of course, “the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.”[4].

Mark—also known as John Mark—wasn’t one of the twelve disciples but he was a fellow-worker with the apostles.[5] He, too, begins his Gospel by grounding Jesus’ identity in the Old Testament, not with his genealogy but with quotations from Malachi and Isaiah about God’s promised messenger whom Mark identifies with John the Baptist. So Mark’s Gospel opens with, “1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[6] the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way[7]a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”[8]And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.…And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Next Luke, who was neither one of the twelve disciples nor an original follower of Jesus but was a later convert to Christianity, has been described as “a man of culture who had searched out the information he needed”[9] in writing his Gospel. He begins by noting the care he’s taken to write a faithful account and then tells of the birth of John the Baptist being foretold to his father Zechariah by the angel Gabriel—who also appeared to tell Mary about Jesus’ birth. Luke begins: “1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account… so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

Last, but certainly not least, John who along with Matthew was also one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples, begins by placing Jesus in the context of eternity, creation, and redemption. He reaches beyond God speaking by means of his prophets to God speaking at the time of the creation of the world.

Again, these men are making sure that they get the story of Jesus right because so much is riding on their testimony and account. As the prophets of old promised that God would send the Christ—the Messiah—the Anointed One who would one day come and make all things right, who would reverse the effects of the Fall and in doing so would bring death to death and life to all who turned to him, the Gospel writers seek to make clear that Jesus, the Son of Mary, is that Messiah; Jesus, the Son of Mary, is also the Son of God.

Last week in our service of Lessons & Carols, we read Scriptures that began with the Fall of our first parents—including the promise of God to overcome that Fall—and ended with our passage this morning.

John, who was part of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, wants us to know that the Jesus who was born and raised and lived and died and rose from the dead and ascended to heaven is also God’s eternal Word.

He wants us to know that Jesus the Christ who was clearly fully man was also fully God.

He wants us to know that the Jesus who came as our Redeemer, our Savior, is the very Jesus who was also our Creator.

So John begins by declaring in the opening verses of his Gospel: “1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This “beginning” that John is referring to isn’t God’s beginning for he is eternal, but our beginning, the beginning of creation. In this first chapter of his Gospel, by connecting Christ to the beginning of the creation of the world, John is hearkening to the opening chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, where we are first told about that beginning. And John picks up on themes that are laid out there and connects them with Christ who came to earth as a baby in the manger in the person of Jesus.

In the very first line of the Bible, Genesis opens with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And soon thereafter God’s creative activity is manifested through God speaking. Each time God spoke, whatever he spoke came to pass; each time Moses records “And God said,” whatever God said then comes into being. So John connects Christ with God and his creative, speaking activity by referring to him as the Word. Because John wants us to realize that before the eternal Christ was made known to us through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, this eternal Christ had ever been the Word who was with God and who was the Person of God. Again John repeats in verse 2 that this Word “was with God in the beginning.” This Word, who took on human form as a baby in a manger, was also the God who created both us and everything that exists. As John puts it in verse 3, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

But John is bringing to mind other themes from Genesis as well for after God created the heavens and the earth, the first thing he did for the formless and empty earth that was filled with darkness was to bring it light. So Genesis 1:3: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” And in verses 4 and 5 of his Gospel John similarly says about the second member of the Trinity who, again, before he was made known to us as Jesus the Christ already existed as the Word who was eternal God, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” So eternal God by means of himself, by means of the Word, brings

the world into being out of nothing;

life into being out of non-existence;

and light into being out of the initial darkness that was.

John is telling us that this divine Person, who has ever been the Word, was made manifest in the life of the very human Jesus who began his earthly life as a baby in a manger. And because he is God, the divine light of Jesus shines in the darkness so brightly that the darkness has not overcome it.

Jesus says as much about himself in his teaching. He tells us not only that he is the life, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,”[10] but elsewhere also teaches that he gives his life to those who are his “27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”[11] The life of Jesus—the light of Jesus—shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The darkness cannot snatch away the life that Jesus Christ is; nor can it snatch away the life that Jesus Christ gives.

Then John turns briefly to John the Baptist, whom the other three Gospel writers also acknowledge as one who prepared the way for Jesus: Verses 6–8, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”

Whereas Jesus was God, John was sent from God;

Whereas Jesus was the light, John came to testify concerning that light. And the reason John, who was both Baptist and prophet of God, testified was so that through Jesus, all might believe and turn to him. For as was true of the authors of the Gospels, John the Baptist was a true witness who wants us to get it right. He wants us to know and believe and receive the true light and life of Jesus Christ.

And with these words, John the Gospel writer has placed Christ, the eternal Word, not only in the context of the creation of the world, but also in the context of the redemption of humanity. For in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord—and that Lord was none other than Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus, God’s Anointed One. John is proclaiming that in the person of Jesus, God has come in human form, to deliver us from our sin—to deliver us from our pain—to deliver us from our suffering—to deliver us from our sadness—to deliver us from our darkness. Which is to say that in the person of Jesus, God has come to deliver us from all of these things, that are the source of our pain, to himself.

However John returns to this theme of light in verses 9–11, by stating a tragic reality: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”—Again, this brings to mind Jesus’ own testimony of himself when he declared: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life….”[12]—This true light of the Word, of Christ, eternal God, John goes on to tragically explain in verses 10–11: “10 …was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Do you see what John is saying here? The eternal Christ, who before he took on human flesh in the person of Jesus was the eternal Word—was eternal God who created and gave light to everything that exists, this very light was coming into the world in human form; in the form of a baby in a manger. And when he did come into the world, this world that had been made through him, didn’t recognize him. When this eternal Word who had made humanity came in human form to his own, his own—whom he had made in his own image!—did not receive him; his own did not receive their very Maker. How can this be?

This would be like a painting not recognizing the painter who had made it;

Or a piece of pottery not recognizing the potter who had formed it;

Or even a child not recognizing the parents who had brought it life.

Yet this is precisely what happened to Jesus Christ. Christ the eternal Word, Christ the eternal God, Christ the eternal Creator, when he took on human form in the person of Jesus, was not recognized or received by the very ones whom he had made.

But, verse 12, there were those who did recognize their Maker. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—” And what is amazing to consider is that the Gospels writers tell us of numerous people who received and believed that Jesus—as both a fetus in Mary’s womb and then as a baby in a manger—was also God.

First we have virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother, who was the first to be told by the Angel Gabriel of Jesus’ miraculous birth by her by means of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.[13] Mary, the mother of Jesus, received and believed him and so was given the right to become a child of God;

So, too, Joseph, Mary’s husband, received and believed the one who was conceived by the Holy Spirit in his pregnant wife, as God.[14] And to him was given the right to become a child of God.

And Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, similarly believed and received Jesus as Lord even while he was yet in Mary’s womb![15] And so she too, was given the right to become a child of God.

This was also the case with Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, who before Jesus was born received and believed that he, for whom his son John the Baptist would prepare the way, was Lord.[16] And so he was given the right to become a child of God.

And there were shepherds in a field to whom an angel appeared and told them the good news that that very day, in the town of David, a Savior had been born to them, the Messiah, the Lord. And these humble shepherds joyously received and believed baby Jesus as Lord.[17] And to them, too, was given the right to become children of God.

And there was dear Simeon, righteous and devout follower of God, who had been told by the Holy Spirit that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. He, too, received and believed baby Jesus as God.[18] And to him, too, was given the right to become a child of God.

Finally we have the aged prophet, Anna, who, as was true with all of these others, received and believed baby Jesus as God[19] and she, too, was given the right to become a child of God.

Again, all of these received and believed Jesus as God either when he was yet in Mary’s womb or after he had been born in a manger. And because of their receiving and believing, they were given the right to become children of God. As one commentator notes, “Membership in God’s family is by grace alone—the gift of God. It is never a human achievement… yet the imparting of the gift is dependent on human reception of it, as the words ‘received’ and ‘believe’ make clear.”[20] And another, “‘To all…who believed…he gave the right’ indicates that saving faith precedes becoming members of God’s family through adoption as his children.”[21]

To be given the right to become children of God, John states in verse 13, means that they became children “not of natural descent”—or “of blood.”[22] You can’t be “born” a Christian. You must receive and believe that Jesus is the Christ—that Jesus is God. Nor is this right “of human decision”—or the “will of the flesh.”[23] Nor is this right by means of “a husband’s will”—or “the will of man.”[24] For “…neither physical birth nor ethnic descent nor human effort can make people children of God, but only God’s supernatural work.”[25] Our salvation comes from God and God alone. He is the One who made us. He is the One who is able to redeem us. He is the One who is able to make us Holy even as he is. God is the One who does the saving. He is the One who calls his children home.

And the means by which God does so is the Word, the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, his Son. So John ends this portion of his letter in verse 14 as he began it, by pointing us to the Word. This Word that was in the beginning; this Word that was with God; this Word that was God, this very Word “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God, who is Spirit that no one can see; God who has ever existed; God who made us and all that is became flesh and made his dwelling among us so that, “We have seen his glory.” We have seen the formerly invisible God. And this glory, this manifestation of God in the flesh is “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Brothers and sisters, we are here this morning to celebrate this day of Christ’s birth.

We are here to celebrate this true story.

We are here because we have received—and believed—Jesus as the Christ; Jesus as God’s eternal Word made flesh; Jesus as our Savior; Jesus as our Lord; Jesus as the only One who can deliver us from our sin—and our sadness—and our darkness—and our despair. Jesus is the only one who can deliver us to our loving and heavenly Father.

For Jesus is the Christ, the eternal light who desires to give his eternal life to any and all who receive and believe him. And if you haven’t yet experienced this receiving and believing of Jesus, know that at the very moment that you do, you, too, will be given the right, by his love and grace, to become children of God, never to be snatched away from him again.

Let us pray.

[1] 12 disciples: (Simon) Peter [1], Andrew [2] (Peter and Andrew are brothers), James [3] (the elder, son of Zebedee), John [4, Gospel, also a son of Zebedee] (James and John are brothers), Philip [5], Bartholomew (Nathanael) [6], Thomas (Didymus) [7], Matthew (Levi) [8, Gospel], James [9] (the lesser or younger, son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus [10] (Jude, Lebbeus; he was brother of James the younger) (James and Jude are brothers), Simon the Zealot [11] and Judas Iscariot [12].

[2] Matthew 1:1.

[3] Matthew 1:2.

[4] Matthew 1:16.

[5] Passages that identify (John) Mark include: Acts 12:12, 25: 12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying…. 25 When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.; 13:5, 13: 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper…. 13 From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem.

[6] Or Jesus Christ. Messiah (Hebrew) and Christ (Greek) both mean Anointed One.

[7] Malachi 3:1.

[8] Isaiah 40:3.

[9] Reformation Study Bible (emphasis added).

[10] John 14:6.

[11] John 8:27–30.

[12] John 8:12b.

[13] Luke 1:26–35.

[14] Matthew 1:20–25.

[15] Luke 1:41–43.

[16] Luke 1:68–79.

[17] Luke 2:8–18.

[18] Luke 2:25–35.

[19] Luke 2:36–38.

[20] Zondervan Study Bible.

[21] Crossway Study Bible.

[22] οὐκ ἐξ αἱμάτων

[23] οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος σαρκὸς

[24] οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρὸς

[25] Crossway Study Bible.

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