One of the ironies of modern history is that the majority of people who celebrate around Christmas have never really heard the real Christmas story. Oh, many have heard the storyline, and many can even name the characters in the storyline—Mary, Joseph, an angel named Gabriel, some shepherds, some wise men from the East, Caesar Augustus, Herod the king, and of course the infant Jesus. But the majority of people who benefit from this storyline have never really heard the real story.
The story is told in narrative form by the tax collector named Matthew and by the medical doctor named Luke. And the story is retold in poetic form by the fisherman named John in the opening section of the Gospel that bears his name. His account goes like this:
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 any thing 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 as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 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.
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. (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.'") And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.
Wow. I have often wondered if any of the people who played a part in the original story understood what was really happening. Did the angels who announced the birth even begin to grasp what stupendous thing was taking place that night? Did the shepherds who ran to the stable in response to the angels' announcement realize how appropriate it was that they would bow down before this baby? Did Mary who gave birth to the baby and held him in her arms know what had taken place that night? Luke tells us that after the shepherds left the manger scene, "Mary pondered all these things in her heart." Did Mary get it? And if she did, how was she able to handle that realization?
In the beginning was the Word.
So here's what really happened. The One who made the world entered the world in person. The One who created the world became a creature, a human being. God became a Man. That is the real story that seldom surfaces above the holiday celebration. That is the good news that is worth printing on the front page of every newspaper. That is the arresting news that ought to be sweeping through the Internet tonight. Every person on this planet ought to hear this news at least one time. Twitter it throughout the globe: the living God has become one of us.
All I can say is unbelievable. Not in the sense that it's not true, but in the way sportscasters use the word. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that would happen. Unbelievable! I can believe that there is a living God. That the living God created the universe out of nothing I cannot prove, but I can handle it. That the living God did all kinds of miraculous acts the Bible claims God did, like parting the Red Sea, I can handle. I can get my mind around such acts. But this—what the living God did on Christmas Eve? That when Caesar Augustus was the emperor of Rome and a certain Quirinius was governor of Syria, the living God entered into the full orb of existence—and did so as a baby? Have you ever heard anything so utterly fantastic? The Creator became a creature. God became a man. Unbelievable.
Do you see now why I said that most people who celebrate Christmas have never really heard the story? Oh yes, most have heard about the special little Jewish boy born to a special Jewish couple on a starlit night. And, yes, many have heard that this special Jewish boy was claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. Millions even flock to hear Handel's Messiah around the holidays. But most have not heard that the little Jewish boy was, in fact, as Dorothy Sayers puts it in the most exact and literal sense of the word, "the God by whom all things were made."
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. All things were made through him …. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The Word moved into the neighborhood and took up residence among us. Unbelievable. The word for word that John uses is the Greek word logos. And logos comes into the English language in words like logic and logical. One is logical who lives by logic. One is logical who lives by the logo.
Why does the fisherman begin the story this way? Why begin the story about Jesus calling Jesus the logos? Why not use the term son? John will make much of the term son in the rest of his Gospel, so why not use that in the opening poem? In the beginning was the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was God. All things came into being by the Son, and the Son became flesh and dwelt among us. Why not begin that way? Or why not begin with other terms that people were calling Jesus, like Son of Man, Messiah, Lamb, or Lord? In the beginning was the Lord, and the Lord was with God, and the Lord was God. All things came into being by the Lord, and the Lord became flesh and dwelt among us. Why not say it that way? Because John wants to reach as wide an audience as possible.
John wants to begin the story about Jesus on a note that will hook into as wide a scope of humanity as possible. The word logos does that. logos rings chords deep within every culture John knows. Not that John affirms everything that every culture means by logos—it's just that logos gives John an entrÉe into the minds and hearts of the full scope of humanity of John's day. John ends up saying a whole lot more than anyone was ever saying about this logos. But this term enables him to meet people on common ground.
For the Greeks of John's day, logos was a much used word. For the philosopher Heraclitus, the logos was the rational principle behind the universe. The logos was the source of life—that which gives life its reasonableness. For the stoic philosophers, the logos was the integrating principle behind the universe—that which makes for the laws of nature, that which maintains order and gives nature its unity and coherence. In the beginning was the rational integrating principle, and the rational integrating principle was with God, and the rational integrating principle was God. All things came into being by the rational integrating principle, and the rational integrating principle became flesh and dwelt among us.
For the Jewish philosopher Philo Alexandria, logos was the agent of creation, the medium of divine activity in the world. Even though for Philo the logos was impersonal, he called the logos the "captain and pilot of the universe." In the beginning was the captain and pilot of the universe. "I agree," says Philo. And the captain and pilot of the universe was with God. "I agree," says Philo. And the captain and pilot was God. "What?" And the captain and pilot of the universe became flesh and dwelt among us.
For most of the Jews of John's day, the logos was that by which the living God communicates with humanity. The logos was not personal by any means, yet it was the vehicle by which the personal God communicated and created. Genesis 1: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and God said …." The logos, the word, is the means by which God acts in the world—creating, revealing, and redeeming. In short, the logos or the word is God's way of expressing God's self. In the beginning was the self expression, and the self expression was with God, and the self expression was God. Of course. How could it be otherwise? God's self expression can be nothing other than God's self. My self expression is me. Your self expression is you. When the living God expresses God's self, that expression is nothing other than and nothing less than God. In the beginning was the self expression. The self expression was with God. The self expression was God, and the self expression became flesh and dwelt among us. Unbelievable.
What if we had been chosen to compose this prologue, this poem that begins the real Christmas story? What term would we use that would have affinities with our world? What about higher power? Now, we might not mean by this term higher power what everyone else means by it. But it would be a good place to start. In the beginning was the higher power. "Okay," say the majority of our contemporaries. And the higher power was with God. "Okay. Okay." And the higher power was God. "Whoa." And all things came into being by the higher power, and the higher power became flesh and dwelt among us. Or we could use the term grand unified field force: In the beginning was the grand unified field force, and the grand unified field force was with God, and the grand unified field force was God, and the grand unified field force became flesh and dwelt among us. Unbelievable.
The Word became a human being.
John begins on this mind-boggling note to make sure that we read the rest of the story correctly. He wants us to realize that Mary's Child, the Man from Galilee, who walks with, eats with, and plays with real flesh and blood humans is none other than the Maker of the Universe. The Man who laughs so hard that the religious establishment concludes that he is drunk, the Man who weeps so deeply at the grave of his friend Lazarus, is none other than the ground of all being. The Man who gets so tired and thirsty he has to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink of water is the One who in the beginning made the first hydrogen and oxygen atoms and determined that two hydrogen and one oxygen make water. Nothing in all human literature, nothing in all the myths that we use to make sense of human experience, can compare with the real Christmas story.
By conservative estimates there are 10 billion trillion stars in the known universe—10 billion trillion. That's 10 followed by 15 zeros. By him, by the logos, all things were made. At the center of our solar system is the star we call the sun. Every minute the sun pours out six billion quadrillion calories of heat. That's six followed by 27 zeros—every minute. "By him all things were made." Yet the energy produced by our sun is nothing compared to that of a galaxy recently discovered by astrophysicists. Three hundred million light years away it shines with two trillion times greater energy than that of our sun—two trillion times greater! The numbers stagger the imagination.
Get this: When Caesar Augustus thought he ruled the world, the One who spoke all the galaxies and their stars into whirling space lay speechless in a cattle trough. When Quirinius was the governor of Syria, the Starmaker himself entrusted himself to a teenager girl. When Herod the Great was strutting his power across the scene, God the logos needed a mother to feed him and change his diapers. Unbelievable.
The term that the theologians use for this grand miracle is incarnation. It means "in fleshness." Christmas is celebrating the enfleshment of the Creator. And this is the sign: "You will find a baby lying in a manger." Forgive me for saying it again, but unbelievable. Many people have tried to express the wonder. St. Augustine of the third century tried: "He it is by whom all things are made, who was made one of all things. The Maker of the sun made under the sun. Author of the heavens and the earth sprung under the heavens out of the earth, utterly wise in his wisdom, a babe without utterance." Charles Wesley of the eighteenth century tried: "Veiled in flesh the godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity, Pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel." CS Lewis of the twentieth century tried in his Chronicles of Narnia: "In our world, too, a stable once had something in it bigger than the whole world." Musicians Keith Getty and Stuart Townend of Ireland have tried: "Hands that set each star in place shape the earth in darkness, cling now to a mother's breast, vulnerable and helpless." The poet Luci Shaw has tried. She has Mary say:
… Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe.
He sleeps whose eyelids have never closed before ….
Older then eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.
Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable.
The Word transforms our world.
The implications of all of this are huge—staggering. Let me name a few. If the real story be told, then we humans have been granted unbelievable dignity. God did not become an angel. God did not become an eagle or a deer or a whale. God became a human being, forever dignifying our flesh and blood. God so loves us that God became us—us.
If the real story be told, we discover the unbelievable depth of the love of God. God so loved us that God changed—he altered the mode of his own being. Before Christmas the living God was pure spirit, all persons of the Trinity were all spirit. In Bethlehem one of the three, the second Person of the Trinity, changed his mode of being, taking upon himself our humanity, changing the relationships within God. God became what God was not. God the logos changed the form of his existence forever that we might be free—so that we might become fully human. This is the unbelievable depth of the love of God.
If the real story be told, we have unbelievable comfort in our suffering. Christmas expresses the unbelievable empathy of God. Most human beings believe that God can sympathize with our pain but wonder if God can empathize with our pain. The Word became flesh. God became humanity in pain. God became humanity in grief. What does Christmas declare? It's God who hangs on a tree. It's God who experiences firsthand human violence and injustice. Indeed, no one knows human suffering more than the humanized God.
If the real story be told, we have unbelievable hope for the future. We have unbelievable certainty that we shall be made whole. For in the stable on Christmas Eve, God forever wedded himself to our humanity. God forever tied up God's future with our future. The future of humanity is as secure as the future of God. The enfleshment of God is the guarantee that one day all flesh will be redeemed. Jesus would later say, "Because I live you shall live also."
If the real story be told, the unbelievable claims of Jesus have unbelievable believability. Shall I say that again? The unbelievable claims of Jesus have unbelievable believability. If Jesus, Mary's son, is in fact the living God in our humanity, then it is quite logical, quite rational, for Jesus to say things no one has ever said. Of course he can say, "I'm the bread of life." Of course he can say, "I'm the light of the world." Of course he can say, "I'm the way, the truth, and the life." If Mary's boy is the God to whom we must one day give an account, and he says, "Your sins are forgiven," then they are forgiven. If Mary's boy is the Creator wrapped in our flesh and he cries out from the cross, "It is finished," then it is finished. If the Almighty has come to earth as one of us and he says, "Follow me," we can know that he knows where he's going, and we can know that the smartest thing we can do is follow.
And if the real story be told, we realize how unbelievably right it was for shepherds to fall down before this baby and worship him. If the real story be told, we know how unbelievably right it was for wise men in the East to leave their work and travel thousands of miles across the Arabian Desert in search of this Child and fall down to worship him. If the real story be told, we realize how appropriate it is that millions and millions of people on this globe tonight are worshiping Jesus.
A favorite Christmas card says it well: "The Word did not become a philosophy to be discussed, a theory to be debate, a concept to be pondered. The Word became a Person to be followed, enjoyed, and loved."
In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. You came into being by him, and the logos became flesh and dwelt among us.
Unbelievable. But that is the real Christmas story that ought to be broadcast all over the world tonight.
Darrell Johnson has been preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel for over 50 years. He has served a number of Presbyterian congregations in California, Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, and the historic First Baptist Church in the heart of Vancouver, Canada. He has taught preaching for Fuller Theological Seminary, Carey Theological College in Vancouver, and Regent College in Vancouver.