For many people, Christmas is about Santa Claus, the jolly, red-suited man who travels the world on his sleigh to leave gifts in Christmas stockings hung up in people’s homes. Behind Santa is St Nicholas, the fourth century bishop of Myra in what’s now southern Turkey. He was imprisoned during the persecution of Christians by the emperor Diocletian. During the reign of the emperor Constantine, he attended the Council of Nicaea.
The most popular story about St Nicholas tells how he used his parents’ inheritance to provide dowries for three sisters on their coming of age, so they could marry rather than being sold into prostitution. As each girl came of age, Nicholas would ride past at night and throw a bag of gold through the window. On one occasion, according to the story, the gold fell into a stocking that was drying at the fireplace. It was on the third occasion that the girls’ father discovered Nicholas’ identity. Nicholas told him to keep things secret and to thank God for providing the gifts in answer to his prayers for deliverance.
It’s a touching story, but like others about St Nicholas, it originates hundreds of years after his death. In contrast, the accounts of Jesus’ birth and ministry come from those who were alive at the time. St John says, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (v 14).
Now St John doesn’t tell us, as Matthew and Luke do, about the events connected with Jesus’ birth. We’re told nothing about the annunciations to Joseph and Mary of the conception of Jesus. John doesn’t tell us how an angel of the Lord revealed to startled shepherds in the fields at night, the birth of the Saviour. Perhaps you missed, in today’s readings, the familiar story of Jesus’ birth.
Though there are no dramatic stories in John’s Gospel about Christ’s birth, the dramatic meaning of His coming into the world is clearly spelled out here. We’re left in no doubt about the identity of the one who became flesh. The Nicene Creed borrows from John 1 when it tells us that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made”, the One “through whom all things were made”. “The Word was turned toward God, and the Word was God,” verse 1 says. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made”. It’s this One who “became flesh,” that is, a real human being, “and dwelt among us”. Literally, the text says He ‘tented’ or ‘tabernacled’ among us. Just as the presence and glory of God filled the Tent of Meeting or tabernacle that the Israelites took ahead of them on their wanderings in the days of Moses, so with the coming of Jesus, God was present among His people in His body. He continues to tabernacle or dwell in His human flesh that has been raised from the dead and gloriously transformed, for all eternity. The dramatic stories about Jesus’ birth are missing from this Gospel, but the wonderful reality of what Christmas means is fully here.
St John not only emphasises who it is who became flesh, but he also tells us why He did it. Fathers who are present at the birth of their children, especially the first one, invariably say it’s a tremendous experience. Over the months of pregnancy they’ve probably closely followed developments, felt foetal movements, perhaps watched an ultrasound of their little one. At last, at birth, the baby they have been waiting for appears. Though covered in blood and perhaps a little blue, it has an amazingly small yet perfectly formed body. Mothers don’t usually say that giving birth is a tremendous experience, for obvious reasons, but they enjoy the most intimate bond with their new-born. All of creation is amazing, from the tiniest flower to the highest mountain peak. Yet there’s also something terribly wrong with a creation that is characterised by death and destruction, in which one animal pounces on another for food and in which rational people hate and deceive and kill each other.
Did you notice the references to creation as this text was read? The opening words are “In the beginning,” the same words that begin the account of creation in the book of Genesis. Genesis tells us that God created everything by saying “Let there be”. John tells us that God created everything through the Word who was with Him as God in the beginning. The Word Himself was not created. Rather, through the Word all things were made. Genesis tells us that “darkness was over the face of the deep” and that the first thing God created was light. John tells us that the created world is in darkness, but that light shines to all people from the Word. The first creation has been spoiled by sin, as Genesis tells us. The worst thing about the world’s darkness, John tells us, is that it doesn’t recognise the Light that is shining on it from the Word. Even Jesus’ own people, the Jews, didn’t receive Him. Yet miraculously, God is re-creating a people for Himself. The first creation, before it was spoiled by the devil and sin, was entirely God’s doing. Those who are part of God’s new creation have also been made so, solely by God. Verses 12, 13 say, “But to all who did receive him [i.e. the Word-become-flesh] 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”.
Birth into God’s new creation has been made possible by the Word become flesh. This is no legend. Stories about St Nicholas rescuing young women from a life of misery, rescuing sailors from destruction on the high seas and even raising young men from the dead, might or might not be true. Who is to say? Yet there is a kernel of truth behind them, in what the Lord Jesus did. He did rescue His disciples from storm on the Sea of Galilee and even raised to life some who had died. All who believe in Him are rescued by Him from an eternity of misery through the riches of His grace.
“The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory,” John says. He’s referring to Jesus’ miracles, ‘signs’ as they are called in John’s Gospel, like the changing of water into wine (2:11) or the healing of an official’s son (4:54). These things were seen by people like John son of Zebedee. John wrote about them in his own lifetime, in the first century. Even Jesus’ opponents had to admit that He had done some wonderful things, though they said He had done them through the devil (Mt 12:24//).
The Word, however, came into the world to destroy the devil’s works. He came “full of grace and truth”. He showed it by His willingness to bear the sins of all people and walk the difficult way of suffering and the cross. His glory has been shown above all by His cross. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus said as His arrest and trial drew near (12:23). After He gave His life in payment for the world’s sins, He was also raised from the dead and taken again into the glory of His Father. He has received back the glory He had with the Father before the world began (17:5). By His death He has prepared a place for us, so that we might be with Him in glory. Then God’s new creation will be fully revealed, and the story of Christmas will be complete.
For now, we continue to live in the glow of the first Christmas. Sunday after Sunday we confess as John does that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light”, the One “through whom all things were made”. As well, He who became flesh comes to us to give us His flesh and blood to eat and drink, so that we might receive His eternal, resurrection life (6:57).
When He was born, the Word came into His old creation so that He might make of us a new creation. The humble way in which He came—not in Jerusalem, but Bethlehem; not in a palace, but in a shelter for animals—all this amazes us. It is fantastic. It is not fantasy. God coming as a little child, the baby Jesus; God making us His children through faith in Jesus: This is the life-giving and life-sustaining message of Christmas.