Text: John 1:1-18
This past week, Nora and I went to see the movie Wild. Based on a true story, the movie is about a young woman, Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon), who is driven to the edge by the loss of her beloved mother, the dissolution of her marriage and a headlong dive into self-destructive behavior. She makes the decision to halt her downward spiral and put her life back together again. With no outdoors experience, a heavy backpack and little else to go on but her own will, Cheryl set out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail—one of the country’s longest and toughest through-trails. If you miss the movie you can read Cheryl’s memoir: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I highly recommend it.
When Nora and I got home Karla asked us about the movie. Nora, without hesitation, responded: “It was about a woman who was trying to do what her mother wanted her to do.” I was a bit taken aback by her response given that I would have started in a number of different places with my own interpretation and description of the movie. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong or untrue about Nora’s take-away—in fact, I think there was a lot of truth in her statement. However, I probably would have said something like: it was about a woman who decided to hike over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone as a way to heal herself and focus her life following the death of her mother, her divorce, and falling into drug use. As the night went on, I kept thinking about Nora’s response as well as my own and how it seemed quite possible that each of us interpreted the movie and placed meaning where we most connected with the story.
And so it is with the story of Christmas for the gospel writers. In Matthew and Luke, the Christmas narratives that we are most familiar with, Jesus’ birth is detailed with angels and shepherds, with stars and star-gazers, with a young maiden and her soon to be husband, with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and with animals gathered around a lowly manger where the new babe was laid at birth. Matthew and Luke tell the story with rich images that capture our imaginations. They give us props with which to retell the story over and over again. They make the story come alive in ways that would make any Hollywood producer envious. The writers of Matthew and Luke spare no details in the telling of Jesus’ birth.
In stark contrast, stands the writer of John’s gospel. John’s “Christmas story” dallies not with angels or shepherds and seems to know nothing of a young mother or magi. Indeed, John’s story is hardly about the birth of Jesus at all but instead focuses on the difference that birth makes for all of us. John is focused on meaning, not detail. He cares not about the descriptive essence of the story but rather goes straight to the definition—the meaning behind the birth of Jesus.
There are, on the whole, just two crucial lines that deal with Jesus’ birth and what we call the Incarnation. John 1:1 is the first: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” “In the beginning”—whether that was an audacious claim by John to be writing a new Genesis or simply familiar words to John it is a profound theological statement: the creative power of God has always been present in the world. The second comes at verse 14: “And the Word” — that was with God and is God — “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The logos—the word—has become real and now that realness dwells among us in the human flesh. And that is it: John’s Christmas story, the story of God becoming human, taking on our lot and our life that we might live and love and struggle and die with hope.
John’s Christmas story reminded me of one of my all-time favorite children’s stories, The Velveteen Rabbit. You know the story well I imagine. For those of you who don’t, it chronicles the story of a stuffed rabbit and his quest to become real through the love of his child owner. The heart of the story takes place between the velveteen rabbit and another old-fashioned toy in the nursery, the skin horse, as they discuss what makes something real. Listen as I read to you their conversation about what it means to be real.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
John’s Christmas story deals with the same question that the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse were dealing with. What makes something real? For the writer of John’s gospel it was the birth of Jesus that made God real in the world—Emmanuel, God with us. John’s Christmas story reminds us of God’s decision to become one of us, to take on our lot and life that we might have hope; that no matter how dark this world might get there is still a light that shines and the darkness does not overcome it.
But what really makes something real? Again, the Skin Horse answers. Love, love makes something real. But as the Skin Horse said, “It doesn’t happen all at once…You become. And it takes a long time.” John’s Christmas story is not merely a moment or even a season. It is not about angels and shepherds and stars and magi. It is, rather, a promise—a promise that requires our active participation every day of the year. Through love, God came in to us in human flesh so that God might be made real to us. The birth of Jesus was a profound act of love that not only made God real to us but it also makes us real to God and to each other. When we love, we become real. When we love one another, we embody the realness of God in the world and in our lives. When we love, the light does shine on in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
So what makes God’s love real in our world today? Howard Thurman answers that question in his wonderful poem “The Work of Christmas.” And so I leave you with his words.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
And so, for us, the work of Christmas begins today and every day: to make real God’s love in the world by living as this Christ-child taught us to live: with love, full of grace (grace upon grace), and with the light that comes to everyone—to make music in our hearts. On this second Sunday of Christmas, we can be thankful for John’s Christmas story for it makes real God’s profound and unending love for us.