I don't know if you saw the story in the CBC News about the data from NASA that was recently published. This data shows that in our galaxy, in the Milky Way, there are about 8.8 billion planets the size of earth that are orbiting around stars much like our sun, and these 8.8 billion planets are in what scientists call the goldilocks zone. That is a zone that is not too cold and not too hot for life to flourish. Scientists say that the next step is to invent really powerful telescopes to take a closer look at these planets to see whether there is life on these planets or not. You know, if we discovered that there creatures on some distant planet, it would be in our nature to try to communicate with those creatures, to connect with them. Kind of like Elliott in the classic movie ET. The reason we want to communicate and connect with other creatures is because the Scriptures tell us that we were designed in the image of a God whose nature it is to communicate, to express, to reveal, and to connect. We are now entering into Advent and that time of the year when we look back at the time when God arrived on our planet as a baby, as a human being, as one of us.
I want to explore how God became one of us, how God took on took on skin so we might know who God is. I also want us to explore how God took on skin so that he might more fully know who we are. Then finally we will look at how God became one of us, took on skin so that we might become like him.
God takes on skin so that we might know him
John says—one of Jesus' closest students—"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." So we read in this text that this mysterious Word, with a capital W, becomes flesh, takes on skin, moves onto our street. We're going to look at how God took on skin so that we might know God.
John, in this passage, is using the word logos, which is being translated as "Word" with a capital W. When he uses that word it sounds a lot like some words we know, like logic or logical. When the Greeks heard the term logos they would have thought of the logical rational principle that they believed governed the world. The Greeks believed that there was this invisible, intelligent, integrating force behind the universe, holding it together. John is nodding to the Greeks and he's saying, "There is such a Power in the world. If there was not such a Power in the world then our being here would simply be the result of some kind of cosmic accident." If we're the result of some cosmic fluke then the meaning of our life is well summarized in Shakespeare's character, Macbeth, who says of life, "Out, out, brief candle, life's but a shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour on the stage and then is heard no more. Life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." If our life is simply the result of some cosmic accident a gazillion years ago, then our lives are nothing more than "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Not very inspiring but a fair conclusion. And John is saying, "No, no, no. There is this logical, rational, intelligent Power behind the universe." John understands this Power as God, and John is saying that logos, that force became one of us that first Christmas, became a human being with skin, so that we might know who God is.
You know, some people don't quite understand the meaning of their lives. They feel like their life is like a book with a missing chapter, and John is saying that the logos, the invisible power that holds the world together, became a human being named Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is the missing chapter that will make the rest of the book of your life make sense if you will embrace it. God takes on skin so that we might know who he is. The Greeks heard the word logos that John is using here as the logical, rational principle behind the universe.
When John's fellow Jews heard the word logos they would have thought about the Word, capital W. They would have thought of the One whose very nature it is to communicate, to reveal, to express, to connect. They would have thought of the One, in the words of John Calvin, who is and was and always will be the Divine Speech that seeks to make himself known to us.
You know, if you have some kind of invisible thought in your mind, some kind of concept or idea, how do you express that idea? Well, maybe depending on your mood you might act it out as in charades or the game Guesstures. Or you might draw, as in Pictionary. But for most of us the most natural way for us to express our invisible thoughts and ideas is by using words, spoken or written words. The Divine speech, the living Word that John is speaking of here, is the One who has always sought to communicate with us. 2,000 years ago that first Christmas, the Divine speech, the living Word, the rational principle behind the universe, became one of us, took on skin so that we might know him.
Now, if you've heard this message, the true message of the Christmas story from the Bible before, this storyline may not stun you, but it would have shocked and scandalized John's fellow Jews as he wrote about it and talked about it for the first time. The Greeks in John's world would have been more okay with this story because they had their gods like Zeus, Apollos, and Aphrodite, all of whom were depicted in statues. But not John's fellow Jews. John's fellow Jews had been forbidden to depict the living God in any kind of concrete way, as in a statue or even in a drawing. In fact, John and his fellow Jews regarded the living God as being so holy, so other that they even refused to pronounce God's personal name, so they took the vowels out of God's personal name and reduced it to four consonants—Y-H-W-H—because they were afraid that someone might speak the name of God irreverently or misuse it. They were that afraid to in any way see God misrepresented. The reason why people wanted to kill Jesus Christ during his lifetime was because Jesus Christ claimed to be God. He claimed to be able to forgive sins. He said before Abraham was—Abraham lived 2,000 years before Jesus and his contemporaries—I am. In other words, Jesus is the preexisting One. When his fellow Jews heard that, they were so scandalized that they picked up rocks to stone him to death.
Have you ever been really offended by someone, so mad at someone that you wanted to spit on them, punch them, or kick them? Maybe, probably. Have you ever been so offended and scandalized by someone that you wanted to pick up rocks to execute them on the spot? Your blood had so curdled that you just wanted to kill them. That's how Jesus' fellow Jews felt about him. Why? Because Jesus claimed to be God and for a Jew the idea that God would become a human being was blasphemy. It was the worst possible disgrace. And even among the raving fans of Jesus, people who considered themselves his followers, many of them who believed that Jesus was God because he did things that only God could do—like open the eyes of the blind, make the lame walk, turn water into wine. He had this sublime, incredible teaching that could have only come from God. Many of his followers who believed he was God doubted that he was actually a human being. So some of his followers, his Jewish followers, were saying, "He's God but he's not really a human being, He just seems like a human being." This idea persisted for about three centuries.
So in the year 325 AD at the important Council of Nicaea, our spiritual forebears hammered out the Nicaean Creed, part of which affirms that Jesus Christ was God, but part of which also affirms that Jesus Christ was mysteriously human. And in the Nicaean Creed we have these words about God: God was, "incarnate," "of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary." What do these words mean? The word "incarnate" comes from the root word carne, and con carne means "with meat." Now, if this sounds really kind of theologically abstract and hard to follow, I want you to think of chili, as in chili con carne. What does that mean? It means spicy stew with meat. What does God con carne mean? It means God with meat. God with flesh, God with skin. This is more than some kind of abstract theology that makes no difference in our lives, this very truth can change our lives and our eternity. How so?
The Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ mysteriously was 100 percent human and 100 percent God. Why is this really, really important? Here's why. If Jesus Christ was only 100 percent human, and let's say he was a sinless human being but just human, then it would follow that Jesus Christ could die as a sacrifice for someone else's sins—say, mine or yours—pay for our sins so that we would be absolved and forgiven. If he's just human he could pay for one other person's sins. It wouldn't make sense if he could pay for the sins of the whole world. But if Jesus Christ was both 100 percent human and 100 percent God, if Jesus was both a finite human being and the infinite God then you add to humanity mysteriously infiniteness—I'm sure that's a word. You multiply humanness with infinity and then you have someone who could die, not only for one other person's sins but for the sins of the world. That's why John says, "Whoever comes to him, whether your name is Angel or something else, you can have your sins washed away and you can actually become a daughter or a son of God." That's why we celebrate the true Christmas story, because God has become a human being. He's taken on skin so that we might know who he is. So the rational principle, the Word, becomes flesh con carne, with meat, with skin, so that we might know who God is.
My friend, Darrell Johnson—he's the minister at First Baptist downtown, he's an expert on the gospel of John—says, "If John were writing this gospel today, instead of using the word logos he might have used the expression Higher Power. Because that's a term that a lot of people use today. John might have said, "In the beginning was the Higher Power, and the Higher Power was God, and the Higher Power took on flesh, took on skin and moved onto the street, that we might know him."
Dale Bruner, one of my favorite commentators, says this, "God is saying this to us, God is saying, 'All that I have ever wanted you to know about me, all that I've ever wanted to reveal about myself I have made known in Jesus Christ.'" So God is saying to us, if we want to know him, get together with Jesus. God is saying to us, "All that I have ever wanted to express, reveal about myself, I have made known in Jesus Christ, so if you want to get to know me, get together with him." The living God has taken on flesh con carne, with meat, with skin, become a human being so that we might know him.
God takes on skin so that he might more fully know us
The living God also took on skin so that God might also know us. Amazingly, the invisible God 2,000 years ago for the first time became visible. At first barely visible as a single, fertilized egg, an embryo hardly visible to the naked human eye. Then as John describes, the Light of the World voluntarily enters into darkness for nine months, then is born. The One who designed the eye, as a newborn baby can't focus his eyes. He sees in black and white and then eventually in color. The living God of the universe cannot feed himself, he learns to breastfeed. The God of all things cannot control his bladder or bowel so God is wearing diapers. Can't walk. When he's about one he is able to take a few steps, about two is able to say a few words. Will fall, will scrape his knee. As a toddler will grow bored of his toys and walk away from them. He will go through the emotional ups and downs of adolescence because he also is going through all these hormonal changes. As a junior apprentice carpenter he'll have splinters in his fingers, and as he's learning to hammer a nail he'll occasionally miss and hit his thumb, maybe saying things that John is too embarrassed to record in the Gospel. Jesus isn't born knowing that he is the unique Son of God. That is a discovery that he makes in time, mysteriously. We don't know exactly when, but Jesus Christ was fully human.
When I was in seminary I read textbooks about the problems that people go through. I read case studies based on true stories. I become a pastor, I sit across from people that I am getting to know who are telling me about the deep pain that they are going through. So I feel like because I've read about problems, I'm listening to them from people that I'm growing to know and care for, I know a lot about people's problems and their pain. Then I experience some of that pain for myself. I'm engaged, I go through a horrendously heartbreaking breakup, lose a baby, go through pain. I realize it's one thing to read about pain, it's another thing to listen to someone else's pain and to even empathize. It's another thing yet to go through it yourself.
And here is what we know. Jesus Christ was fully human and he knows what it is to be hungry and tired, he knows what it is to be broke. He knows what it is to feel all alone. He even knows what it feels like to have his prayers unanswered and to feel abandoned by God on the Cross. He said, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Jesus knows what it is to be abused, to be tortured, to be paralyzed. He knows what it is to be tempted to sin with the very real possibility of actually sinning. And though he didn't sin, he knows the feeling of shame that comes from sin because on the Cross he absorbed your sins and my shame, and the sins and shame of the world upon himself. So no matter what it is you're going through, no matter how depressed you feel and even suicidal you may have felt or may feel, Jesus understands because he has been through it and he stands with you in your pain, tribulation, or hardship. You see, because God took on skin so that we might know him, but he also took on skin so that he might more fully know us through human experience. God also took on skin so that we might become like God, so that we might become like him.
God takes on skin so that we might become like God
Our text says, "To as many received him, to those who believed in his name, Jesus gave the right to become the children of God." When you hear that expression, receive him or receive Christ, if you've heard that a few times you may envision a one-time deal where you welcome Christ, receive him into your life. But as is true of our closer friendships, and if we end up with a partner or getting married one day, we know from experience that we don't just receive and welcome a person once but we can do that again and again as we share experiences, meals, go through things together. So it can be with Christ. We can receive him for the first time and that will begin to change our life. But we can welcome Christ again and again and see our lives changed more and more.
You know, Christmas is maybe the best season to savor the greatest gift we've ever received—the gift of God coming for us in skin. But for many of us Christmas is the busiest time of the year, ironically. The truth is that for a lot of us the song Silent Night doesn't reflect what we're feeling. A song that might better match our spirit would be Rock Around the Clock Tonight. You know, that song from Happy Days. It's a busy time of year and yet it's a great time of year to try and simplify our lives, to slow down a little bit, and to savor the greatest gift of all—the gift of God becoming one of us, taking on skin that he might know us, that we might know him.
In John's gospel we also read that, "To those who receive him, to them he gives the right to become the children of God, children born of the Spirit." When we think of a child, we think of them in relation to their biological parents or their legally adoptive parents, and in John's world when people talked about children and their parents they thought of biological offspring or adoption or both. But they also had a different concept of child, being the child of a father or a mother. The expression, son of so-and-so, or daughter of so-and-so, also signified that that person was like their father or like their mother in some way.
John, the writer of this Gospel, was a brother to a person named James. They were called the Sons of Zebedee. They were also called the Sons of Thunder. Why? Because they were hotheads. They had anger issues, and therefore they were called the Sons of Thunder because they were like thunder in terms of their temperament. They received Jesus Christ into their lives, they welcomed God, and they become the sons of God and they begin to take on the character of their Father in heaven. They become more patient, kind, and loving. In fact, they become so beautiful that they are part of the reason why Christianity goes viral in the first century. One of the great promises of the Christmas story is that because of his birth, because of his death on the Cross for our sins, if we come to him humbly, then not only can our sins be washed away but we can become the sons and daughters of God. We can become people who resemble our Father in heaven.
Not long ago my brother and I were visiting my parents in downtown Vancouver. My brother had his laptop, we were asking my parents questions about our family tree. We get to my grandpa on my mom's side, and Mom says something that I've never heard before. She says, "You know, when Grandma met Grandpa, Grandma thought Grandpa was this virtuous, really honorable, principled man, but then Grandpa became really successful professionally. He became quite wealthy and he became proud and he became unfaithful to Grandma. And at least on one occasion he was physically violent toward her, abusive." Then at 86 years of age, my grandfather receives Jesus Christ, becomes a son of God at age 86. He does not become a saint, but according to my cousin who lives in Tokyo, he begins to change, he becomes kinder, gentler. He even starts to help with the dishes for the first time in his life. It's about time after 86 years, right? But this is Japan, he's a patriarch, he's a former CEO, and that is very unusual in Japan. Even my Grandfather changes as a result of becoming a son of God.
I don't know if I'll ever have grandkids or great-grandkids or if my brother will. I don't know if they'll ever talk about us if we have them. But if they talked about us I don't know what they'd say but maybe of me they might say something like this. "Our great grandpa Ken, we hear he was a really mean guy in high school, that he would not let anyone that he thought was uncool hang out with him. And then he met Jesus and he became more welcoming and he tried to build a church that would welcome everyone."
I was thinking about my wife's family tree as we were working on ours. My wife's name, Sakiko, actually means "early" - Sa, Ki - "Christ," Ko - "child." Her name literally means "early Christ child," and she was the first person in her family tree to ever follow Jesus. Her parents, who weren't Christians, unknowingly, prophetically named her "early Christ child." When she gives her life to Jesus in Japan her parents are shocked, they are upset. They say, "We are Buddhists, this is not part of our family tradition." But here is what they told me later. I didn't know this backstory before we got married, and not in this much detail. But they said, "You know, Sakiko, growing up she was really good at school, really good academically in a country where that matters. And she worked hard, but not, like, super hard with gritted teeth, not with clenched fists. She just naturally exceled. She was naturally good at sports and art, popular with girls, popular with guys." She goes to an elite university, flourishes in her career, and her mom said, "She was also really proud and judgmental in a quiet kind of way. She meets Christ, we're upset but we can't deny that she is changing, she's becoming humbler, less judgmental, kinder, and more loving." So as a result, her mom gives her life to Jesus, then her sister, and then her grandmother, her entire immediate family with the exception of her father who is an admirer of Jesus but not a follower. Sakiko becomes more like Jesus, as a daughter of her heavenly Father.
I've been thinking about Nelson Mandela. I have so much admiration for him. He recently died, as many of you know. When we had Michael Cassidy speaking here from South Africa, I couldn't resist the temptation to ask Michael about Mandela because he had regularly met with Mandela. I said, "Michael, is Mandela a follower of Jesus?" Michael said, "Absolutely, he is a believer and follower of Jesus." I am of the view that whether Mandela had believed in God or not, he still would have been this remarkable person, but part of what made him this incredibly wise, forgiving, luminous, loving person was that he was a son of God. I'm not saying that if you become a son of God you'll be the next Mandela, but you will become wiser, you will become more forgiving, you will become more loving. You will become more like Jesus. We celebrate the gift of Christmas because the Christmas story tells us that God became con carne, he took on skin so that we might know him, he took on skin so that he might know us. He took on skin so that we might become the children of God, people who begin the bear the image of our Father in heaven.
St. Augustine said, "The Son of God became a Son of man so that we might become the sons and daughters of God." People who bear in our very being, as John says, "the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, people full of grace and truth." And that is reason to celebrate Christmas.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything