Updated: Jun 30
The other day I was listening to the radio and the presenter of the show decided to read out a letter that they had written to Santa. It was truly fascinating to listen to what they put in the letter. The letter could almost have been described as a prayer. I can’t repeat the letter word for word, but it included things like, “Dear Santa, please could you bring peace on earth and could you give us hope.” I especially remember that a petition for hope was the final part of their letter. Isn’t that interesting that a person’s hope for deep and poignant things like peace on earth could be placed in a mythical character like Santa Claus?
Is Santa the answer to the brokenness of the world? Is that the good news of Christmas? I fully recognise that for some people, the idea of there being a God is as mythical as contemplating the existence of Santa Claus. One of the biggest questions that we can ever consider is the question, Does God exist? The question is of course multi-layered because there’s a whole set of other big questions which accompany it. Questions like:
How can we know whether there is a God or not?
If it turned out that God did exist, what is He like and how would we know what He is like?
Even if there was a God, does He want to have anything to do with the world?
Should all these questions about God even matter to us?
The Christmas story, which lies behind our festive celebrations at this time of year, claims to have answers to all these big questions. Those who knew the person of Jesus 2,000 years ago, made the most astonishing assertion about Him in their writings which are recorded for us in the New Testament of the Bible. The people who spent time with Jesus, travelled with Him, talked with Him and watched what He did, came to the conclusion that all our big questions about God could find an answer in the person of Jesus because Jesus was God in the form of a human being.
One of the people who knew Jesus first-hand wrote down his reflections in what we call John’s Gospel. And this contains some of the most astonishing descriptions of who Jesus is. The author of John’s Gospel believed that God wanted to say something profound to the world through the person of Jesus. And this is what John’s Gospel says about this:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14
Because this friend of Jesus expressed their belief that God wanted to say something to the world through Jesus, he described Him as the Word. Now we are all very familiar with the expression, “to have a word with someone.” Whilst it can mean speaking to someone in a critical way, it can also simply mean to talk with someone. Someone might say, “I was feeling a bit unwell so I had a word with my friend who’s a doctor and they said I should get some antibiotics.”
“I had a word with my friend” – that just means I spoke with them.
Christmas is about God having a Word with the world. And when God wanted to have a Word with the world, the Word that He spoke was Jesus. What kind of a Word was it? John’s Gospel says, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” Another English translation puts it like this, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.” The idea is of pitching your tent and being present in a very physical way. The Word God had with the world was none other than a flesh and blood human being – the person of Jesus. God’s Word to the world was pronounced in syllables of physical humanity.
But what was God trying to say to the world through Jesus? The author of John’s Gospel answers this question as follows: “The one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” And he also wrote that Jesus communicated grace and truth (John 1: 14, 16).
I like the way that author Philip Yancey tells of an experience that helped him to understand what God was trying to do when He came into the world in Jesus at Christmas-time. We call this the Incarnation – a word which means to take on human flesh.
“I learned about incarnation when I kept a salt-water aquarium. Management of a marine aquarium, I discovered, is no easy task. I had to run a portable chemical laboratory to monitor the nitrate levels and the ammonia content. I pumped in vitamins and antibiotics and sulphur drugs and enough enzymes to make a rock grow. I filtered the water through glass fibres and charcoal and exposed it to ultraviolet light. You would think, in view of all the energy expended on their behalf, that my fish would at least have been grateful. Not so. Every time my shadow loomed above the tank they dove for cover into the nearest shell. They showed me one emotion only: fear. Although I opened the lid and dropped in food on a regular schedule, three times a day, they responded to each visit as a sure sign of my designs to torture them. I could not convince them of my true concern.
To my fish I was deity. I was too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible. My acts of mercy they saw as cruelty; my attempts at healing they viewed as destruction. To change their perceptions, I began to see, would require a form of incarnation. I would have to become a fish and “speak” to them in a language they could understand.
A human being becoming a fish is nothing compared to God becoming a baby. And yet, according to the Gospels, that is what happened at Bethlehem. The God who created matter took shape within it, as an artist might become a spot on a painting or a playwright a character within his own play. God wrote a story, only using real characters, on the pages of real history. The Word became flesh.” (1)
At Christmas, in Jesus, God came down to our size to speak in a way that we could understand. In the Christ-child of Bethlehem, God had found a mode of approach that means we need not fear Him. No longer was God an abstract concept. He was now a flesh and blood human being, able to be described in words of human language.
When God had a Word with the world, His Word was of grace and truth. God was not a scary character with a mean look on His face and an out-to-get us attitude. In Jesus, God was showing us He was characterised by grace and truth. Both qualities are vital for a healthy balance. Grace alone is insipid and truth alone can be harsh. But the medley of grace and truth is a mellifluous sound indeed.
And that medley of truth and grace is seen at Christmas when the all-powerful God willingly takes on the limitations and sufferings of being human and living in a broken world. Author Dorothy Sayers puts it like this:
“For whatever reason God chose to make people as they are – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – He had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can extract nothing from people that He has not extracted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restriction of hard work and lack of money, to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.” (2)
At Christmas we also see the total sense of commitment that God has for our world, because God had to give everything when He stepped into human history as Jesus. This wasn’t a half-hearted commitment. This was full-bloodied stuff. Spiritual writer Thomas Merton put it like this:
“In emptying Himself to come into the world, God has not simply kept His reality in reserve, in a safe place, manifested only a kind of shadow or symbol of Himself. He has emptied Himself and is all in Christ. Christ is not simply the tip of the little finger of God, moving in the world, easily withdrawn, never threatened, never really risking anything. God has acted and given Himself totally, without division in the Incarnation.” (3)
And this total commitment of God is also seen in the way that Jesus’ humanity was not a flash-in-the pan event. It was a one-way road in the sense that once Jesus took on a human body, He would never surrender it. Christians believe not just in the birth of Jesus which we celebrate at this time of year, but also His life, His death on a cross, His resurrection from the dead and His return to heaven. Even now, in the heavenly space, Jesus retains His humanity. He now has a glorified resurrection body, which will never grow old or die. It’s the prototype of what resurrection hope looks like for everyone who trusts Jesus. So the Incarnation shows God’s unswerving commitment because Jesus would embrace humanity, not just for a time, but for eternity.
But if God has spoken to us through Jesus with ways of grace and truth, what does this mean for us? Why should it matter to our lives in the 21st century? John’s Gospel again provides a response to these questions.
“He [that is Jesus] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” John 1:10-11
This reading recognises that not everyone in the world chooses to have God in the frame of their lives. The honest picture of our world is one that has turned its back on God or any concept of a God, a world that prefers to keep God at arm’s length and to live our lives however we think is best. God had a Word with the world to show that there is a higher and more fulfilling destiny for the human race. Jesus came to do everything that was necessary to connect us in relationship to God so that we might become members of His family, so that we might be called His children.
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” John 1:12-13
What did Jesus do to make it possible for us to become children of God? He came to give His life out of love for us. That’s what the cross is all about and that’s why the cross became THE symbol of the Christian faith. We are all familiar with the fact that with our cell phones we have to pay something to be connected to a network. Whether we’re on some kind of monthly rolling plan or a pay-as-you-go arrangement, something needs to be paid for us to be connected. On the cross, when Jesus gave His life for us, He paid what was necessary for us to be connected to God in relationship and to be called His children.
All those big questions about God that we cited at the start of this article, all these questions matter because the claim of the New Testament is that only in relationship with God can we experience the fullness of life that is intended for us. We can live without God in the picture and we can believe that our life is fine and that we need nothing more. But those who knew Jesus 2,000 years ago put forwards the audacious claim that there is still something more to be experienced in relationship with God.
Each of us has to consider whether there is a source of authority beyond us who can offer true wisdom for what life should be like. If there is a God, then there can be no better source of wisdom. The first Christians came to realise that in Jesus all the big questions of God got answered and that true life would be discovered in relationship with Him. If Jesus really is God in human form, then we have the answers to those big questions about whether there’s a God and what is He like.
The new life that is offered to us through Jesus is a gift that simply needs receiving. The gift of life is held out to us; we only have to take it with thanks. The early Christians described Jesus by saying He was the Word. Will you let Jesus be the last Word for your life? To welcome Him in so that His light and life can lead you into the fullness of life that is promised for those who know Him?
When God wanted to have a Word with the world, the Word that He spoke was Jesus. That’s what Christmas is all about. And the Word God spoke was a message of truth and grace that beckons us into relationship with Him.
1. Yancey P, The Jesus I Never Knew, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1995, p38-39
2. Sayers D, Christian letters to a Post-Christian World, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1969, p14
3. Merton T, The Intimate Merton, New York, Lion, 1999, p193