‘The most unexpected thing’, said Major Tim Peake from the International Space Station ‘was the blackness of space. We always talk about seeing the view of planet earth and how beautiful it is, and so you come to expect that. But what people don’t mention that much is when you look in the opposite direction and you see how dark space is. It is just the blackest black and you realise how small the earth is in that blackness.’
He could see a contrast between light and dark which you just don’t get on earth. A higher perspective had brought understanding. Something similar is happening in St John’s gospel, from which we just had our reading. The gospels of Matthew and Luke have a more earthly perspective. They interpret and explain the facts and events around Jesus’ birth – the familiar stories we all hear at the Nativity and Crib.
But if all we had was John’s gospel, we wouldn’t know any of that. Shepherds, angels, wise men, no room at the inn – none of that appears in John. If all we had was John’s gospel we wouldn’t even know Joseph’s name. For John’s gospel has a more heavenly perspective. It is written to complement the others – I think it assumes we’ve already read them. The fourth gospel reflects deeply on who Jesus is and what he means. Like an astronaut on the space station, looking down, John has the time and the distance to see the big perspective.
And he marvels at three wonderful mysteries. Word. Light and the Son of God. Firstly Word. Jesus makes God intelligible. That’s the heart of verses 1 + 14 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ What is a word if it’s not communication? And what is communication if we can’t understand it? John says that we can understand God because of Jesus.
That’s a pretty big claim to make. You might expect that God would be unknowable, completely beyond our understanding. If God is God, even the best human mind is feeble and darkened compared to him.
And it’s true, if it were just down to us and our guesses, we could never even begin. But what if God decided to reveal himself to us? If God took the initiative in communicating, as our Hebrews reading says he did through the prophets, it would be utterly reliable. It is better for a perfect and powerful God to stoop low to us than for us to try and think our way up to him. The message of Christmas is that this has happened in Christ. Because it is God taking the initiative, we can trust what he says. God’s self- revelation in Jesus is reliable.
As Hebrews puts it: ‘In the past he spoke through the prophets, but in these days he has spoken to us through his Son, who is the reflection of God’s glory.’ Like breath condensing on a wintry day, Jesus makes the invisible God visible. In Jesus God condescends to make himself known. The infinite is encompassed within a mortal span.
How that happens is a mystery. We will never fully grasp the wonder of what occurred that first Christmas. How God became man. God reveals to us what we need to know, and we can trust him. But He does not reveal everything to us – we know that the Word became flesh but not how – and at times like this we just bow in awe and worship.
One of the most amazing things that happened to me this year is seeing my son Jonathan find his voice. If you don’t know Jonathan, he has such severe cerebral palsy that he can’t speak. He can’t control his movements enough even to push a button, so for nine years of his life we’ve had to guess what he’s thinking through his smiles and frowns.
The breakthrough came this year when he began looking at letters on a Perspex board. By standing the other side of the board, and noting what letters he looks at, you can write down the words as he spells them out. And you know, he has the most wonderful character and amazing mind. My proudest moment was when he won the prize letter in Aquila magazine – it took him three and a half hours to compose. Finding the right communication has unlocked his personality.
I mention that because when many people talk about God, they talk as if God’s unknowable. If he exists, they say, he must be so far off, so distant, so much greater than us that we cannot know anything about him for sure. Many talk as if our attempts at faith are just grasping at clouds. But you know, that leaves God’s initiative out of the picture. It doesn’t allow him to act. God does not have locked in syndrome. God communicates with us. That’s the beauty of Christmas – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
In doing so, the difference between the darkness and light becomes clear. The presence of Jesus throws the darkness into sharper relief, even as he banishes the night.
So I wonder how many different forms of light you have experienced today? Perhaps you have had lively children in the house, full of joy and excitement at the fairy lights. When they were eventually persuaded to go to bed, did you curl up on the sofa enjoying the comforting warmth of a log fire, reading a book by its light? Surely when you ventured out you were guided on your way by street lamps or the headlights of a car? And entering the church the candlelight speaks of hope and promise amidst the dark.
Jesus the light of the world reaches us in body mind and soul. His light guides us, heals our emotions, restores the spirit, gives hope. ‘That light was the life of all people’ – if we ask him to, he will meet our deepest need – which is for him. When we know him – and he responds to all who ask – we can find a profound fulfilment that goes further than anything else.
He can do this because he is God’s Son; who shares God’s nature and makes him known. The most wonderful thing is that he invites us to be God’s children too. Surely you’d think it would be enough for God to communicate with us? For him to forgive and heal and meet our deepest need? But that is not enough for our loving God.
He would also make us his own children! Love, cherish, honour us as his own! So the Son of God became like us that we might become like him.
What amazing depths of love God has for us! What an astonishing invitation to receive! What a wonderful Saviour to celebrate today! Amen.