Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. Did you open all your Christmas presents yet, or are you waiting until after the worship service to do that? We’ve made a dent, but we still have more to open at my brother’s house later today. Speaking of presents, I have a Christmas confession to make: I don’t like wrapping presents. I like giving presents, if I can think up a good idea. But I don’t like wrapping them. It’s too much busywork and too tedious for me. I don’t have patience for it. Besides, I’m not very good at it. I always end up with strange bulges where the paper bunched up at the corners, and I rolled it underneath, tucking it in with extra Scotch tape. Or I use too little paper, so the ends don’t meet in the middle, and then I have to cut a small piece to cover the gap with the result that the pattern is messed up. I’m better off leaving the wrapping to Lisa.
I once had a friend who wrapped everything with the paper grocery sacks and duct tape. With a black Sharpie marker, he’d write “TO” and “FROM” on the brown paper. Still other people I’ve known have used the colored comics section from the Sunday newspaper (if you can still find a newspaper!).
But when God sent his greatest gift to the world, he didn’t use brightly colored Christmas wrapping paper. He certainly didn’t use duct tape. He used skin and bones, wrapping his Son Jesus in human flesh and blood. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Someone has said that Jesus is “God with skin on.” But Christ’s humanity is not just a costume. He’s the real deal: fully God and fully human, “who for us and our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man” (Nicene Creed).
Throughout the Church’s history, various theologians have tried to put into words the wonder of the Word-become-flesh. C.S. Lewis calls this miracle of the Incarnation the “Grand Miracle,” because it is the miracle from which all others flow, including the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. According to Lewis, “In the Christian story God descends to reascend…. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.” Throughout his writings, including his Christmas sermons and the lectures on Creation and Fall, the German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, speaks of how humanity lost the image of God when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. Jesus by his Incarnation, however, restores our humanity so that we can become fully human again—human as God intended us to be in the beginning. Yet perhaps most famous of all is the statement by St. Athanasius that “God became man so that man might become divine.” By this, Athanasius does not intend a kind of theosis by which we become gods and goddesses. What he means is that because Jesus shares fully in our humanity, we are now able to share in God’s life. Or, as the New Testament puts it, we can become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
Theology becomes complicated when we try to explain the greatest mystery of the God-man, Christ Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:1, 14, ESV). The Apostle John uses simple words to convey a message that is nearly impossible to get your head around. I think of that basic philosophical posit that the finite is incapable of containing the infinite, and yet there we have it: “the Word became flesh.” God became man. And not just an archetypal, symbolic man, but an actual, particular man, born as a little baby with little fingers and little toes and hair and eyes of a certain color. Fully God and fully human without losing either nature. God wrapped in human flesh!
The Greek word for “Word” used in our Gospel lesson is logos. It’s the same noun from which we derive the English word “logic.” There is another word for “word” in Greek: rhēma, which means an “utterance” or “the act of speaking.” But rhēma isn’t the word John used. John uses logos. According to F.F. Bruce, “The term logos [word] was familiar in some Greek philosophical schools, where it denoted the principle of reason or order immanent in the universe, the principle which imposes form on the material world and constitutes the rational soul of man.” But John was not a Greek philosopher. He was a Jewish fisherman and a Christian pastor with a background in the Hebrew Old Testament, where the Hebrew word dabar was often translated into Greek with the word logos. There we read strange statements by the prophets about how “the Word of the Lord came to me” (Jer. 1:4, LXX; Ezek. 6:1; Zech. 6:9; cp. Gen. 15:1). Who or what is this Word?
In order to understand the mystery of the Incarnation, we must recognize that the Word is not an idea or a thing. The Word is not even a message. The Word of God is a Person. His name is Jesus. After God’s people refused to listen to his prophets or the written Word, he finally resolved to send his Son, the Word, the divine Logos, the Son of God.
By way of analogy, consider the videogame, Tearaway Unfolded, about someone from another world trying to send us a message. Yet instead of just sending a letter, the postcard becomes a postman, sprouting arms and legs. The stamp becomes an eye, the address line becomes his mouth. As the opening sequence explains, “The message must become a messenger,” a cute, little character called Iota (Tearaway Unfolded).
Something even more remarkable happened with God. He tired of sending prophets and visions. Instead of merely speaking his Word, he would send the Word incarnate. The message became the Messenger. The Word had to become a person. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews put it this way: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1-2a).
None of this is easy to believe or understand. Even the very people who should have recognized most readily the reality of Jesus’ coming—his fellow Jews—John writes, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). Jesus’ countrymen mocked him, ridiculed him, and finally demanded that the Romans kill him. But the coming of God in human flesh is no less unreasonable in our post-modern, “scientific” worldview. We believe only what we can see, and even then we will question if our eyes are playing tricks on us.
However, Jesus holds out a great promise to those who are unwilling to unwrap God’s gift on Christmas.
“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” (John 1:12-13).
If you receive God’s gift, if you believe in Jesus’ name, you will become a child of God. He will give you “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). There is nothing you must do—there is nothing you can do. You don’t even have to ask for it. Just believe him, receive him, and do not throw away God’s gift of grace.
In The Polar Express (2004), my son Benjamin’s favorite Christmas movie, there is a scene in which Santa Claus awards the first gift of Christmas to a little boy visiting the North Pole after a long train ride. When Santa asks him what he wants for Christmas, the boy asks only for a silver bell cut from the reindeers’ harness. “The first gift of Christmas!” Santa declares, as he smiles and hands the bell to the boy. Charmed by the beauty and magic of the little bell, the boy grows old and keeps ringing it every Christmas as a reminder of his miraculous journey.
God offers gifts greater than old St. Nick ever could: eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, and adoption as sons and daughters of the King. Yet Jesus is the greatest gift the world has ever known—God’s first and best. Not only is Jesus the best gift of Christmas—“the reason for the season”—he is also the first Christmas gift of all. The first gift of Christmas! Good things often come in tiny packages, like the Word of God wrapped in human flesh. God came down at Christmas and became a baby boy for you and me. “…And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Alleluia! Amen.