Jeremiah 31:10-14 | John 1:1-14
And so we begin a new year, and say farewell to 2014. And I guess most of us, over the past few days, have spent at least a little time wondering about what the year ahead will hold for us. We might have made resolutions for the new year – we might already have broken them
For some, of course, 2015 will see radical change. Before the year is out Oscar will have changed out of all recognition – from a baby to a toddler. But the one inevitable prediction for all of us is that 2015 will see things change – just like every year before has done. And the other inevitable prediction is that things will not turn out the way we expect as we look ahead.
So what is it that our faith, and the story of Christmas, has to say as we look forward into the unknown of a new year? I guess it would be summed up in the single word: hope.
No act of God at any point in history gives us more reason to hope in any age or any human condition than the Incarnation. In the most undeniable and unforgettable way, God stepped into our world of sin and sorrow to break the grip of evil and to save us – to save us from ourselves and all the forces, social, political, economic, psychological, that deface the image of God in us. On one night God entered our world as an infant.
But just as Oscar will not remain a baby for long, nor did Jesus. We focus at Christmas on the child in the manger, but this child was more than he appeared to be. In adulthood it became increasingly obvious that he was more than just a man. He looked like us. He grew up like any other child of his time, but he had a reason for being here that not only required him to be human, but more. In him we got a permanent glimpse of God, and in him we came to know more about God than has ever been known, before or since. In this man Jesus, we saw, and see, the face of God.
It would come as no surprise to the religious community of Jesus’ time that God was showing up in some manner to influence people and events. The Jewish people lived in a story which was inhabited by – almost haunted by – the presence of God. Throughout their history, God had been actively involved in the nitty-gritty details of their individual and community life. God spoke to Abraham, came to Jacob and Joseph in dreams and sent word through the Prophets to the leaders and people of Israel. In the ups and downs of his mercurial life, Israel’s favourite King, David, had a life-long divine dialogue.
The Jews in Jesus’ time were not surprised that God would show up, but they did not expect God to show up as he did – a child of peasant parentage, without royal credentials, without power as they understood power and with a human face. A speaking God would fit comfortably into their tradition, but God in human form did not. The proclamation that God had become flesh and blood, with the feelings and features of any other man was to them beyond strange.
Which, I just note in passing, since all of the early leaders in the Christian Church were Jewish, makes this declaration: that in Christ the word, the creative reality of God, had become flesh and dwelt among us, so astoundingly unlikely; any attempt to play down the Biblical description of the divinity of Jesus as an invention or interpretation of the early Church flounders on this – it is literally the last thing a Jew would expect, imagine, or invent.
Of course, one striking thing about John’s description of the birth of Christ is that it contains none of the scene that we are so familiar with: no shepherds, no magi, no manger, no angels. John, writing at least a generation after the events of that first Christmas, perhaps has no interest in those things; or perhaps more likely, the stories were so well known that he did not need to write them again.
Instead he writes the commentary, the theology, the poetry, to share the revolutionary announcement that God has come into the world; that God has become like us in Christ so that we can become like God. In this transaction we come to an understanding of the nature of God that exceeds any previous understanding. In Jesus, we are able to see all of God we need to see.
And this gives us a whole new way of reading the whole of our scriptures. From the strange, pre-scientific creation story, to the tangled lives of the patriarchs, the blood-thirsty stories of the establishment, rise and fall of the nation of Israel, the weird pronouncements of the prophets, we see the story of a people who are gradually learning what the God who has called them is like, what the God who has called them wants them to be like.
And if we are honest as we read, we have to admit that the image of God portrayed in much of the Old Testament scriptures – and some of the New – is not one that we are comfortable with. Perhaps we try to ignore the bits of the Bible where God is portrayed as commanding genocide, or condoning rape or slavery, or treating women and children as property. Maybe we skip those bits, and get selective in our reading.
William Barclay tells the story of a young girl who had a more creative response to the less attractive parts of the Bible; when she was confronted with some of the more bloodthirsty and savage parts of the Old Testament she offered her interpretation: “Those things happened before God became a Christian.”
John’s gospel offers us a slightly different answer: God did not become like Jesus; God always was like Jesus. But we didn’t realize it until Jesus came.
Until Jesus came, the world was understood through the images of God that were available to the people of his time: the limited, local tribal Gods of the ancient world; the capricious Gods of the popular Greek and Roman pantheons; the aloof Gods of the philosophers; Gods who might be bribed or begged or persuaded or bargained onto your side, but whose support was always contingent.
But then Jesus enters the story; and with him a whole new insight, a new revelation, into what God is like.
God is like Jesus.
And that changes everything. Because that means that whether we read the Old Testament or the daily paper, we read with a whole new image and understanding of God. Of a God who is not distant and aloof, but present with us; a God who is not the abstract author, but a character in the plot; a God who is not driven by any need other than the desire to love creation and to be loved by it.
Which is why I suggest that the single word that the gospel story brings to 2015 is hope.
For if God is like Jesus, we need not be afraid.