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This Advent season we've been letting the Gospel writers prepare us for Christmas. Matthew showed us that Jesus was descended from King David, just as the prophesy foretold. Mark reminded us how repentance prepares our hearts to receive Christ. Last Sunday Luke laid out the many miracles that happened around Christ's birth and so emphasized that Christmas is not about what we can do, but about what God has done for us.
Today we turn to the last of the four Gospels, to hear from the apostle John. The first three Gospels focused our attention on events that happened in human history. But John's scope is greater. At the beginning of John's Gospel, he brings us all the way back to eternity. John begins his Gospel with these weighty words...
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1-2 ESV).
Now, God uses many different names for Himself in the Bible. Names like, Yahweh, the Lord, the Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I'm sure you could think of half a dozen more without much trouble. To these names John adds another referring specifically to the second member of the Trinity. John calls God the Son "the Word".
And so John invites us to throw our minds back to the beginning. Before anything existed, there was God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Glorious. Eternal. Radiant with power and majesty. And then in verse 14 John writes the following. This is the main portion of our sermon reading for today.
John 1:14-18 (ESV)
14 And 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. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
One of my favorite books is a series by Stephen King called, "The Dark Tower". The stories in this series are built around a quest to reach the Dark Tower. But not much is known about this tower. The people who seek it don't really even know which world it's found in. They believe the tower to be a sort of nexus holding infinite parallel universes together, binding existence together like an immense linchpin. Everything is said to be tied in to the tower.
The main character of this story is a man named Roland who wants to find the tower in order to climb its steps to the top. If possible, Roland would see what, or who, is in the tower's highest room.
Whether he intended to or not, Stephen King has written into the fabric of this story many of the questions and hopes of the whole human race. Questions about existence, about reality, questions about God.
One of the characters in the book expresses the desire to find the tower, but maybe not to enter the top room. He says that perhaps he is afraid of some sort of accounting that might come when you enter the presence of the almighty Dweller of the tower's highest level.
Every culture of mankind has longed to reach God. The religions produced by these cultures have come up with different methods to climb the stairs, but each one has had the same goal - to see, to know the Almighty Creator, the source of all things.
But John, a humble fisherman from the region of Galilee doesn't offer us one more story cut from the cloth of human longing. His story is altogether different from the concept of human beings climbing their way to the top. John says that idea is all wrong. Something else has happened which allows us to see God.
God Himself, the Word, became flesh and lived among us.
The way that John writes may make him seem a bit like a dreamer and a poet. But John had a difficult task laid on him when he began this Gospel. He had to choose his words carefully. He had to help his readers imagine what we cannot fully comprehend. Someone once said, "As the ant understands the man, so we understand God".
But even against such odds, John endeavors to make us understand what he saw when he met Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Son of God.
He uses three main words to describe Jesus: glory, grace and truth. In verse 14 John says...
"...we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1:1 ESV).
What do you think of when you hear the word "glory"? I'd guess a lot of people think of light. Like the way that the daytime sun shines when it's noon. Or like the way the setting sun shines differently, more condensed and powerful as it sinks below the rim of the horizon.
Perhaps light is part of what John is thinking of when he says that he saw the glory of God's Only Son. Once John saw Jesus actually radiating light from every pore of his body. On a mountain where Jesus had taken a handful of disciples to pray He was changed, and became as bright as the shining sun.
But there were other times when the glory of God shone out through Jesus in other ways. How about all the times when Jesus healed people of diseases with a touch of His hand, or with a simple word? That was God's glory radiating from Jesus as well.
Or how about every time when Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the people through His teaching. Not adding new things to the Bible, but reaching into it and opening it up, helping the people to see what it had always meant, but they had failed to grasp. Each time Jesus showed His complete understanding of the Word, God's glory was shining.
Or think of how Jesus knew the minds of men. Not just the fact that He understood how people think. There were times when Jesus knew the actual thoughts of individuals and told them so. Each time Jesus revealed the thoughts of people or the events of their pasts, the glory of God glimmered in His words for just a moment.
One of the other main words John uses to describe Jesus is "truth". John and everyone else who heard Jesus speak noticed that He didn't speak like the other religious teachers of the day. His words weren't offered as possible understandings of God. His words were offered as the only understanding of God. And this isn't just to say that Jesus spoke confidently while others spoke with reservation. When Jesus spoke the things He said were self evident. His words held the weight of "right-ness". Even if you didn't like what Jesus was saying, even if you spoke out against what He said, inside you still knew that what He said was true.
Jesus was unique. He was not merely another man teaching his own ideas. Jesus was the only Son of the Father, teaching the unshakable truth about the way things actually are. And this too, was a glimpse of God's glory.
But John would say that above all these other flashes of glory were the moments of grace that came from Jesus. That's the most important word John uses to describe his experience with the Son of God - grace. In verse 16 John says,
"For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (John 1:16 ESV).
The word "grace" refers to a gift given without the recipient deserving it in any way. John saw Jesus give many of these gifts. Lunch for thousands from a few loaves and a couple fish. Healings. Demons cast out. Leprosy cleansed away. Spiritual insight granted. The dead raised back to life.
But above all these "little" graces, John saw Jesus offer His own body and soul to be beaten, mocked and crucified to death. And when all was said and done, it came out that all of this was allowed by Jesus in order to save sinners from the eternal punishment that our sins deserve.
The glory of God shone out from Jesus in all the little gifts He gave people. But the glory shone most brilliantly in the dark on the cross of Calvary. There Jesus suffered hell on earth in order to do away with the eternity of hell that our sins had piled up.
In verse 17 John says...
"For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17 ESV).
One of the reasons John spoke so reverently of Jesus was that He saw clearly that Jesus was not just another teacher offering another method for climbing the steps to God. Those teachings all led to a dead end. Even Moses, who received the Law from God Himself on Mt. Sinai could offer nothing more than another dead end. If you take the Ten Commandments and try to use them to climb the ladder to God, you're going to be disappointed. Trying to keep the commandments as a staircase to God is a slippery route. One wrong step and you tumble down to the bottom. God's standard is perfection, and no one who has ever committed even a single sin can approach God on his own merit.
But the Word didn't become flesh to repeat the commandments. He came to give us Grace with a capital "G". The gift of gifts, the gift of freedom from what we deserve. The gift of forgiveness.
Later in his Gospel, John records the words that Jesus spoke to a religious teacher named Nicodemus. Jesus told this man...
"...God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16-17 ESV).
On that first Christmas day, the door at the top of the tower opened. And down those slippery steps a sure footed figure came. Down the endless flights His footsteps echoed quietly. And when He stepped out of the tower, His earthly mother laid Him in a manger - a newborn human Child.
The Scripture tells us that later He re-ascended those steps, and that all who hold His hand by faith, cannot tumble to the bottom any longer.
Let me tell you one more story. In our country, about a hundred and fifty years ago, a slave by the name of Booker was born on a southern plantation. He was later released from slavery by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and became an important leader for African Americans in the late eighteen-hundreds. But in his early years, Booker didn't foresee greatness in his future. Listen to the following excerpts from his book, "Up From Slavery".
"From the time that I can remember having any thought about anything, I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read. I determined when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers" (Up From Slavery, page 34).
"I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. The pleasure of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression upon me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise" (Up From Slavery, page 14).
Booker longed to simply read. But nobody close to him knew how to read. He could get books if he tried hard enough, and he did, but unless a teacher could be found, it just wasn't going to happen. Without a teacher, reading would simply remain beyond his grasp.
The human condition is the same when it comes to knowing God. You can't truly know God without knowing His grace. Sure, you can learn from the creation that He is powerful. Sure, you can learn all about His rules and commandments from your heart, conscience, and from the Bible. You can learn about His stern justice from the same. But that's only part of God's character. In order to really know God, you have to know His grace. And you can only know God's grace through knowing His Son. That's why God's Son was born on the first Christmas - that we might truly know God.
In the final verse of our reading John writes...
"No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known" (John 1:18 ESV).
John invites us to the manger this Christmas with these thoughts in mind. Here lies our Teacher. Not just a teacher of kindness and good behavior. Not just another moral leader. But a Savior full of glory, truth, and above all - grace. A teacher who offers to show us all that the Bible really means. A teacher who offers to show us what the Father really looks like. A teacher who says first of all that He has erased our sins, and who then offers to hold us tightly, and introduce us to the Almighty.
May the Holy Spirit fill our hearts with wonder as we gaze down into the humble manger this year. May the Christ Child fill us with peace and with faith. And may the Father be seen in our hearts as He is, full of glory, grace with a capital "G" and truth. Amen.