Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So begins the Gospel reading for Christmas Day. The Word, the Son of God before He took on human flesh, was with God in the beginning and was God. Everything that was made was made through Him, John tells us here. He was there in the very beginning with God.
But then, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” So ends the Gospel reading for Christmas Day. The Word that was there in the beginning, the Word that was with God, the Word that was God, became flesh taking on our humanity in every respect and came to live among us.
These two phrases, “In the beginning was the Word…” and “the Word became flesh…”, are kind of like book ends on our Gospel reading today. In just 14 verses we move from God the Son being with God the Father in the beginning to God the Son coming down from heaven above to take on human flesh and win salvation for all mankind. These are truly some of the most loaded verses in the entire Bible. It is also important, however, to take a look at the verses in between these two monumental book ends. In particular this morning I would like us to consider verses 11 and 12 where John says this, “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”
The first part of that is quite troubling. “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” Imagine that, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us and His own people did not receive Him. To be clear, that is not simply referring to Jesus own people, the people of Israel, it is referring to all of us who were created through Him. All of us did not receive Him. That statement, as baffling as it is at first, invites us to consider how we receive Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.
When company comes at to visit at Christmas time we receive them by rolling out the red carpet (at least figuratively) and welcoming them. I remember as a kid all the work that we would do to get ready for family, friends, and other guests who would be stopping by this time of year. We treat our guests to special meals, comfortable beds, deserts and drinks, and anything else we think we might like. Receiving guests becomes about what we do for them to make them feel welcomed and loved. That is how we welcome ordinary human company, but how are we to receive the Word made flesh (God Himself in human skin!) who comes to us in the manger at Christmas time?
Well, if we think we ought to treat Jesus like human company by rolling out that figurative red carpet then we have it all wrong. Jesus emphatically insists in the Gospel of Mark that, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.” Jesus comes not to be served by us, to be welcomed by us, or received by us, but to serve, welcome, and receive us. He comes to die on a cross where, by His death, we will be served with the forgiveness of all of our sin and the certainty of life everlasting. He comes to serve by taking our wrongdoing upon Himself and suffering the death that is rightfully ours so that we would never suffer that death ourselves. He comes not to be served, but to serve.
Martin Luther once famously quipped in a Christmas sermon that everyone always thinks that they would have done a better job than all those good for nothing Bethlehem folks who could not have been bothered to do anything to make Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus more comfortable. Surely we could do better than to offer them a place with the animals. Surely we could do better than a manger. Surely we would find a place for them and bring them a nice hot meal! Not so fast, Luther said. We look back with hindsight and say that we would have done much better, but the reality is that we would have done the same thing. How did he know that? Because we have people all around us who need homes, shelter, food, clothing, and all kinds of other things and we don’t bother to help them. If we can’t muster up the effort to help those in front of our own eyes what makes us think we would do any better than the people of Bethlehem welcoming this little family, even the family of the Word made flesh? No, our hearts are too self-focused to see those needs, too self-consumed to welcome Him, and too distracted to receive Him.
But again, the Word does not become flesh so that we can receive Him by our actions and deeds that show Him our love. The Word does not become flesh so that we can serve and welcome Him. The Word becomes flesh so that He can serve us.
Our Old Testament reading provides us with a mental picture that can help us understand how we are to receive the Word made flesh. Isaiah speaks to us about a ruined and destroyed city. The “waste places” of Jerusalem. A city left in a heap of rubble. A city where most of the population has been forcibly removed and taken away to a foreign country. A city where those who remain pick through the garbage in the streets looking for something to eat. A city where the once busy markets that used to be full of people are now full of cats, dogs, and all kinds of rodents scampering around. A city where everything is in ruins. This is the kind of city Isaiah portrays for us in our Old Testament reading. The city of Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed the place in the year 587 BC. To this kind of city Isaiah says, “The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.”
To the people living among the ruins Isaiah says “Listen to the voices of your watchmen. They have great news to tell. A visitor is coming. The Lord returns to you, His people, living in the midst of this broken, run down, and dilapidated city. He is coming. So rejoice, you waste places of Jerusalem. Rejoice. He is coming.”
Jerusalem, the heap of rubble that it is, has no red carpet to roll out for the Lord as He comes to them. They have not great home or room where He can stay. They don’t have the finest foods and drinks so that they can dote upon Him. They have nothing. All they can do is rejoice at the one who comes to them.
Christ, the Word made flesh, likewise comes to us. We have nothing by which we can properly greet Him. We have nothing that we can offer Him to make Him feel more at home. We have nothing to give in response to His coming. Instead we receive Him by literally receiving from Him the gifts that He gives. We receive Him like the people of a ruined city who hardly have enough food for themselves. We receive Him like people who have nothing to offer. We receive Him empty handed and poor in spirit. We receive Him as a gift to us, freely given, and we rejoice in Him.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us a midst the ruins of this world, a midst the ruins of a world and a life destroyed by sin He comes to live. And you and I we receive Him in the brokenness, in the midst of the ruins, by simply receiving what He gives. By coming with open hands and open mouths to His altar to be fed by Him. By coming empty handed to Him and kneeling before Him. By coming and hearing promises that we could never imagine apply to us. By coming and being forgiven through His death for us. By coming and trusting in His love for us in the midst of this brokenness.
To those who did receive Him, to those who received Him empty handed and open-mouthed, to those who received Him empty hearted and broken, He gave the right to become children of God. To those who received Him in emptiness He gave the fullness of being a son or daughter of the most High God. To those who received Him this way, to us who come before Him today, He gives this tremendous and unimaginable gift, a gift we by no means deserve, to be called children of God. And that is what we are. Come, let us receive Him. In Jesus name. Amen.