The Word in the Manger
by Jack Wald | November 29th, 2015

John 1:1-5

Jesus spoke to his closest disciples the night he was arrested. (John 14:1–3)
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

We read that in 2015 and ask, “When will that happen? When will Jesus return?” In the first centuries of the church followers of Jesus read this and asked themselves the same question, “When will that happen? When will Jesus return.”

Throughout the centuries of church history people have not been content to ask the question, they have examined the scriptures and predicted when Jesus would return. So far they have all been wrong.

Hippolytus of Rome, Sextus Julius Africanus, and Irenaeus all predicted Jesus would return in the year 500. One of these predictions was based on the dimensions of Noah’s ark.

Pope Sylvester II and several other clerics predicted Jesus would return on January 1 in the year 1000. When that did not happen, they predicted he would return 1,000 years after his death in 1,033.

The mathematician Michael Stifel calculated that the Judgement Day would begin at 8AM on October 19, 1533.

(You can see a pattern here. Every 500 years and then 33 years afterwards there are many predictions of the return of Jesus. This assumes that God tells time using the earth’s rotation around the sun and has a fondness for five hundred year increments.)

Joanna Southcott, a 64-year-old self-described prophet, claimed she was pregnant with the Christ child, and that he would be born on Christmas Day, 1814. She died on the day of her prediction, and an autopsy proved she was not pregnant.

The Seventh-Day Adventists came out of the failed prediction of William Miller that Christ would return on October 22, 1844.

Jehovah’s Witnesses arose from the prediction of Charles Taze Russell that Christ would return in 1874.

Hal Lindsey predicted Christ would return in 1988 and now Kenton “Doc” Beshore has said that Lindsey made a mistake in saying a generation was only 40 years when it really is 70-80 years. So he is predicting Christ will return by 2021.

When Jesus does come, will he come before, during, or after the period of tribulation referred to in the Bible? Will Jesus come before or after the thousand years of peace also referred to in the Bible? Will there be an actual tribulation and thousand years of peace or are these referring to something else?

When I was a young Christian I found this postcard of an artist’s visualization of the rapture. You can see the followers of Jesus being raised to be with Jesus while the plane they were flying, the cars they were driving, crash. I bought twelve of these and mailed them to friends, including to a magazine, The Wittenberg Door, which published it. On the back of the cards I wrote, “Having a great time. Wish you were here.”

There is no agreement among followers of Jesus about when Jesus will return, how he will return, and what will happen on earth before he returns. This was also the case for the years preceding the birth of Jesus.

In the four hundred year period between the last of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, and the birth of Jesus, there was lots of speculation about the Messiah who was to come. One of the possibilities was that the Messiah was a myth that held some metaphorical meaning. Some thought the Messiah was the faithful remnant of the people of Israel. Another possibility was that the Messiah was not a man but a spiritual being.

The Messiah had been promised to Israel and so he was firmly attached to the fate of the Jewish people and their political history. Because of this, most scholars were agreed that the Messiah would be a man and they did not view the Messiah as a deity. He was thought of as a ruler who would be thoroughly familiar with the law and whose faithful observance of it would set an example to the whole nation. Thus he would be worthy to be the king and judge of God’s chosen people.

There were many theories and there was never any complete agreement among scholars about who the Messiah was and what he would do. The whole Jewish literature agreed on only one feature of the Messiah: he would be a political ruler and national hero. He would deliver Israel from its oppressors and restore the authority of the law. So the only point of agreement completely missed the mark.

This is how it is for us today as we anticipate the return of Jesus. We are in the same vat of confusion that surrounded the birth of Jesus. We are rich in theories and opinions and poor on accuracy and agreement. The greatest minds in the world got it wrong the first time and I am certain we will get it wrong the second time.

In this season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas Day, we are going to focus on the opening verses of John’s gospel as we take a look at who it was that was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago and who it is we are waiting for to return.

John begins, intentionally, with the same opening words we read in the book of Genesis. (Genesis 1:1)
Genesis: In the beginning God
John: In the beginning was the Word

In the beginning. What was there before the beginning? This is a question I often asked myself when I was a child and I still ask it although now I know there is no answer to this question. All I know is there was a beginning. Was it the beginning of the physical universe we inhabit? Was there a beginning before that? We are limited creatures and not up to answering these questions. All we know is at the beginning, whenever that was, God was present. Before the first nanosecond of the universe, God was present.

God is eternal. God is more than the time we know in our universe. Scientists can go back in time and think they know when the universe began but cannot go back beyond that. Before that was God.

Genesis says, “In the beginning God.” John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word.” The Greek word for “the Word” is logos (?????). Jesus is the logos, the Word that makes God known to the world. God has always been revealed by his creation and God specifically revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and others. We learn of the character of God by reading about these encounters. But it is with the birth, life, and death of Jesus that God became known in a way that he had never before been known. We still do not know him completely and I am certain that we will never know him completely, even in heaven. God is the preexisting creator and will always be greater than our ability to comprehend. But when he became flesh, we took a giant step forward in our ability to know him.

In John’s account of the Seder meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night he was arrested, Jesus told them, (John 14:6–9)
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.

Jesus came to die for us, so we could be rescued and taken into his eternal kingdom, but he also came so that we could know who God is.

The God who is revealed in the Old Testament is the same God who is revealed in the New Testament. The difference is that God became intimate with his creation in the New Testament. God was loving in the Old Testament and showed his mercy and grace. But there was a distance between God and his creation. God met with Moses on Mt. Sinai to receive the Law and there was thunder, smoke, lightening, and the earth shook. The people of Israel were terrified of God. They had seen the power of God as they were rescued from slavery in Egypt, but they were not able to get over their fear of him.

With the birth of Jesus, God became intimate with humankind. God became approachable. God took on flesh, became one of us, lived among us, taught us, died for us, rose from the dead, and gave us hope of eternal life.

The writer of Hebrews talks about the difference between the Old Testament Mt. Sinai and the New Testament Mt. Zion, the new Jerusalem talked about in Revelation. (Hebrews 12:18–24)
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant,

Because of this the writer of Hebrews tells us, (Hebrews 4:14–16)
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Because God became flesh, because Jesus was born as a man, we are able to look to God and call him, “Papa.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,

In the beginning there was community. God was not alone. In the relationship of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed in a relationship that is so unified that there is one God, not three gods. Once again we speak of a mystery that is so far deeper and greater than our minds can conceive. We think about this and we see contradictions. How can three persons be one God? How could one God be the Father in heaven and Jesus on earth at the same time? How is it possible that Jesus could be abandoned by God at his crucifixion? We are limited creatures, confined by the four dimensions of our world: width, length, height, and time. The answers to these questions are beyond our ability to comprehend.

This is comforting to me because it tells me that what we believe is not human truth but divine truth. If we were capable of understanding all we believe, our faith would be shallow truth. But the truth we believe is eternal truth and it is so deep and profound that we will continue, for all of eternity, to learn and explore and go deeper in our understanding of who God is when we get to heaven.

Jesus was present with God at the beginning. Was Jesus a created being? Someone God created so he could have someone to talk with? No!
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Jesus is not a representative of God. Jesus is not a messenger sent by God. Jesus is God. This is why he is called Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God with us.” God in the flesh.

This is again a great mystery and while I will be sharing this again during the season of Advent, let me read the poem taken from one of Augustine’s sermons. (Augustine was a 3rd century Berber from North Africa and Bishop of Hippo in present day Tunisia.)
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother’s bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
And small in the form of a servant.

Augustine is proof that we have not gotten smarter over the centuries. I would love to have listened to him preach.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.

John wants to emphasize that Jesus coexisted with the Father in the beginning and so he repeats himself.

In the early church there was a false teaching called the “Arian heresy.” Arius, the father of this heresy, was a priest in Alexandria, Egypt. He taught that Jesus, the Son of God, was not eternal but was created by the Father. Therefore, Jesus was not God by nature. This created controversy and was debated at the Council in Nicaea in 325 AD when the Nicene Creed was adopted. The controversy raged until it was finally defeated at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.

The church has always had difficulty in holding on to the mysteries of our faith. So people have emphasized that Jesus was man or that Jesus was God, rather than accept that he was fully God and fully human.

A paradox is something that is made up of two opposite things that seem impossible but is actually true or possible. Jesus being fully human and fully divine is one of the paradoxes of our faith.

The problem that comes with not accepting two truths that stand in opposition to each other is that we are led into heresy. One modern example is Jehovah’s Witnesses who claim that Jesus was a created being who earned divine qualities that are attainable by the rest of us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

In Genesis 1:1-2 we read:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

It gets confusing when we try to sort out who, in the relationship of the Trinity, does what. Here, in Genesis 1, we read that God created the heavens and the earth and that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And then in John 1, as well as in Colossians 1, we read that all things were created by Jesus. Once again, we need to take a deep breath and accept that we cannot understand how the Triune God works. What seems clear is that in the creation of the world, there was not one person of the Trinity working hard and then coming home at the end of the day to find another person of the Trinity sitting at home reading the paper. The unity of the Trinity means that what one person of the Trinity experiences is experienced by all persons of the Trinity.

Jesus was not created to be born in Bethlehem, Jesus was present at the beginning, was with God, and was God. Jesus was present at the creation of the universe. In a discussion with his Jewish critics, Jesus talked about being present with Abraham. They asked him, (John 8:57–58)
57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

Jesus claimed to be divine and for this reason his Jewish critics picked up stones to stone him. Jesus was present before creation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life,

To read through the gospels is to see the life Jesus brought. He raised the son of the widow of Nain from the dead. He raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead. He raised Lazarus from the dead. But he also gave life to the woman who had lived as an outcast, separated from her family for twelve years because of her bleeding. He gave life to lepers who were healed and able to return to their community. He gave life to prostitutes who were caught in the misery of their profession. He gave life to those who were blind and to those who were lame. He gave life to those who were demon possessed.

Job despaired because of the meaninglessness of life. He sat in his pain and misery, grieving for the loss of his children, aggravated by the advice of his wife and friends. He cried out (Job 14:1-12)
“Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.
2 They spring up like flowers and wither away;
like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.

7 “At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
8 Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
9 yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
or be roused from their sleep.

We were born facing the grave and moving every day closer to it. But then Jesus was born. (Luke 2:10–11)
the angel said to [the shepherds], “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

What difference does this good news of great joy make? Paul wrote in (1 Corinthians 15:55–57)
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Because of Jesus death is no longer our powerful enemy. Death has been defeated. Jesus gives us life.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

In the Messianic passage read this morning, Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 9:2)
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

Jesus used this passage to speak of who he was. (John 8:12)
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

In the darkness of the world, light shone in the manger in Bethlehem. In the gloom of the misery and suffering of this world the light of Jesus came to give hope to a world that was without hope.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The world has never been a safe place to live. Because of our sin, people in the world have always suffered. The story in the beginning of Genesis tells of one brother, Cain, murdering his brother, Abel, because of jealousy. Because of technology Cain can now murder hundreds at a time. Because of technology we are able to see, almost instantaneously, the suffering of the entire world. Shootings in the US, bombings in Paris and Beirut, sex trafficking of women and children, extreme poverty, ethnic cleansing and genocide, people trapped in the world of alcohol and drug abuse, the abuse of power in government and in the church, people who hold the word of God in one hand and abuse with the other. All the garbage in the world is dumped on the light of Jesus and it still shines. Despite all the accumulated garbage of the past two thousand years, the light still shines. Despite all the accumulation of sin and suffering, despite all the evil that pours its filth into the world, the light of Jesus still shines.

The light of Jesus will not be overcome. The love of God in Christ Jesus is more powerful than all the sin of the world.

This is whose birth we celebrate this Christmas. Jesus in Bethlehem was less than what was expected. Israel looked for an earthly Messiah who would restore Israel to the days of glory it experienced under King David. At the resurrection of Jesus they discovered he was far more than they could have imagined. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us, God in the flesh. Victory over death. Eternal life.

Even the disciples did not understand who Jesus was until he was revealed to them after his resurrection. Jesus is not a mere baby in a manger. Don’t make the mistake of over sentimentalizing the story of Christmas.

See Jesus for who he is and draw hope in whatever circumstance you find yourself. In the darkest corner of this world, in the darkest point of your life, the light of Jesus shines, giving hope to all who look to him.