Christmas Eve, 2014
Well, we’ve told the story again this evening. It’s a wondrous story, a story of angels and dreams and shepherds and jealous rulers. It’s a story of enrollments and journeys and birth. We’ve read it in words, we’ve portrayed it in song. And in past weeks, we’ve seen it maybe on TV and perhaps even on film. We’ve also gotten hints of it in Christmas cards and in lawn displays.
But even in all that, do we really have any idea what it all looked like? As I’ve often said, we all have mental images about such events. And they usually don’t jibe with other people’s portrayals. Sometimes we see a version of this story, and we think “That’s not what it looked like!” As with other movies and stories, the screen portrayal rarely does justice to the story in a book, does it?
This year, I’ve found myself more and more struck by the Jewish nature of the Christmas story. Sometimes we think of it as totally a “Christian” event, and we leave the Jewish part out of our mental imagery. Oh, maybe we see just hints of it in the way people are dressed, or in their words, but we really don’t pay much attention to it. The more I’ve thought about it this year, the more I’ve come to realize that the Jewish part of this story is a huge part of the world into which Jesus was born. There was more of the Jewish influence in this story than there was that of Rome. If we’re reading Matthew’s account, we get even more. Because Matthew wrote his Gospel to be the definitive account of the “coming of the Jewish Messiah!”
Even so, it’s hard to know what this all looked like, despite all the attempts to portray this story over the last two thousand years. Has anybody been to the Holy Land? Has anyone been to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? Maybe you’ve seen it on Television? There are a number of traditions about where the site was actually located, and what it looked like. Some believe it took place in a certain way in a certain place, while others are skeptical. Some think we’ll never really know. (But those things are good because they help us with our mental images!)
So then, as we look at this story, we must also remember that it’s always easier to tell a story if it’s about something we’ve actually experienced. Isn’t that true? We might say “A friend of mine had a funny thing happen to them…” But that’s rarely as meaningful – or as funny – as it is if we say, “A funny thing happened to me…”
Think about these shepherds. They had quite a story! But we can only tell it second hand, or third, or fourth… Something personal, that happens directly to us, is more meaningful, isn’t it?
That’s why I’m glad for John’s version. It’s one of my favorite passages to read on Christmas Eve! And I hope you’ll listen to it carefully in a few moments. Matthew and Luke are the only Gospels that contain actual birth narratives. Mark tells of nothing at all until the start of Jesus’ ministry. He saw that as the most important thing to tell. John, however, chose to tell the Christmas story, but in terms of the big picture. We might even say in terms of the biggest picture.
Think about it. You don’t need to picture mangers or shepherds or camels or soldiers here! John wrote, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Those words are just as important, perhaps even more so, than those about the angels and the shepherds and Bethlehem. John’s is the biggest picture! That’s why we include his words in our Christmas message!
Not only that, but this is where it becomes personal. We can easily become “detached” from Wise men and shepherds, whose actual story took place long ago. But in the big picture we find ourselves! We find ourselves in the words, “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God.” And not in the sense that “all people are God’s children,” but in the spiritual sense where we live our lives in his grace and love.
That’s where we fit in! So don’t let Christmas be just the story of a birthday. Let it be the story of the defining moment in history, where God stepped into our world, and into our lives!
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of Grace and Truth, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father.”
Eternal God, creator of all things, who once came to this earth to tell us of your love, help us to see ourselves as part of the picture of that love. Help us to know of your spirit in our hearts even today. And help us to live as your people, not just on Christmas, but throughout the year. Make this story to be personal to us, so that we can make it personal to others. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen!
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 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.
[There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.]
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power 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.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.