In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Some years ago a lady appeared at the Vicarage for an appointment and as soon as the door was opened she said, “Oh! You’re taller than you sounded on the phone.” Ever since that moment, I’ve found myself wondering just how tall I sound on the phone…
I do, sort of know what she meant though. Sometimes when you know someone by voice or from a photograph, you form an impression of them and when you actually meet them, you get a bit of a shock. You have to reimagine completely the person you thought you knew. I first came across the the tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, from his recordings which were so energetic and passionate, I imagined a vigorous, handsome young man. As you can imagine, when I finally saw this vast Christmas pudding of a man, I had to reimagine completely the person I thought I knew. I simply couldn’t equate this enormous and slightly effete physical presence, literally filling the stage, with the person I had come to know through his voice.
Something similar is going on in the Christmas story. We are finally getting to meet God after years of imagining what he might be like. People have all sorts of images of God. For many children, it is the image of the old man in the sky. For many adults, God seems to be some kind of disembodied spirit.
And some have formed an image of God from hearing his voice. The pages of the Old Testament contain the images of God formed by the ancient Jewish people who attuned themselves to God’s voice and heard him speak to them repeatedly through their history. It is an image of God that appears sometimes as a man walking in a garden, sometimes as a fire in a burning bush, sometimes as a pillar of cloud, sometimes as a vast presence, filling the Temple until its foundations quake, and sometimes as a still, small voice.
And the prophecies that speak of his coming to be our king and judge speak of him coming as fire and power. Yet, when he actually comes, when we finally get to see him, it is a complete surprise that causes us to reimagine completely the God we thought we knew. For he turns out not to be fire, or some vast presence. He turns out to be none other than one of us – a human being. In that manger in Bethlehem, God revealed himself as something completely surprising, yet utterly recognisable. The God who made us in his image, is born bearing our image.
And this is the wonder and surprise that John is describing so poetically at the start of his Gospel, that the great Word which made everything, has appeared in our own flesh, that we have seen him and known him as someone very familiar, yet who overturned everything we thought we knew and allowed us to see clearly in the midst of our darkness. It requires us to rethink everything we thought we knew about this God and to accept him in a new way.
So as we come to terms with that shock and begin to reimagine who this God might be, I want to share a few ideas to encourage you to carry on being surprised and to keep on exploring.
Firstly, I think this tells us that being holy and being human are not mutually exclusive. In fact they are one and the same thing. People often think that turning to God means cultivating a kind of other-worldly holiness. Vicars used to do this, adopting a kind of vacant expression and speaking in a vicar-voice that no normal person would ever use. But Jesus didn’t. When God came to us, he looked completely and fully human. People were first attracted to Jesus, not because he was more of a religious maniac than anyone else, but because he was somehow more human than anyone else. And once they had got to know this amazing human being, they realised that they had also met God.
People have this idea that being a Christian is about becoming a religious weirdo. There are, of course, religious weirdos who are Christians. I love them, of course, they are my brothers and sisters, but I don’t think Christianity made them like that. I think they were probably always weird. Being a Christian is about allowing God to make you more fully human. The birth of Jesus tells us that to become more godly is also to become more human.
Secondly, this story tells us that God inhabits the full experience of human life. It’s easy to confuse God with a kind of genie in a bottle, who just grants wishes and makes life happier for us. And when life turns round and bites us, we come to the conclusion that God either doesn’t care about us or does not exists at all. But God reveals himself to be something very different from a genie in a bottle. On the contrary, he warns us that life is tough and dangerous and that is precisely why we need him. And far from being absent in the midst of human suffering, that is precisely where he is most present.
Behind the Christmas-card cosiness of the manger scene is the brutal reality of a God born into squalid poverty, with terrifying levels of infant mortality and a life destined to be cut short violently, just at the point when it begins to flower. God deliberately takes on flesh in the darkest places of human existence. If to become more godly is also to become more human, then we also meet God most fully when we meet him in the full range of human experience, even in the darkest of places, and find that his light still shines.
Thirdly, if God inhabits the darkest places of human existence, then he can also inhabit the most difficult places in our own lives. It is one of the strangest aspects of humanity that we are so ashamed of ourselves. We struggle to look at ourselves in the mirror. I, for one, hate to look at photographs of myself. So many of us have a poor self-image (and increasingly this seems to be the case). And many of us who seem to be confident are only confident when we can hide behind some kind of mask of our own making. Yet God is not ashamed to bear our image. He is willing to be the person we are too ashamed to be. In fact, it is by coming to know Jesus that we come to know the person we truly are. If the birth of Jesus tells us that to become more godly is also to become more human, it also tells us that the key to becoming more human, is to become more godly, at least more like the surprising God revealed in Jesus.
Because the God how bears our image allows us to face the truth about ourselves, down to the deepest depths of our sin and failure and realise that it is okay, that we are loved, forgiven, restored and born again, able to face the world afresh, unashamed to bear the image of the God who was not ashamed to be born in our image.
The more we peer into the manger, the more we find an unexpected God. But it seems that we can only meet the true God if we are prepared to be surprised. John made it clear that when God came to his own people, his own people did not accept him. They thought they already knew him too well. They couldn’t accept the surprise. But to all who do receive him, he gives power to become children of God, to become like Jesus himself: to become at the same time deeply holy and fully human, able to face all the darkness of this world and find that the darkness never overcomes their light, able to face the full truth about themselves and to rejoice that they bear God’s image in their own flesh, and able to see God’s image in each and every one of their brothers and sisters, thus finding peace and goodwill which only God could bring us.
So in the words of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace and goodwill, to all you, his people, who bear his image.”