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  • Ross Moughtin

Christmas - the whole story


“Our job,” reflects Archbishop Sentamu, “is to lead people to Jesus and leave them there.” I’ve just read these words in Jeremy Duff’s excellent BRF Guidelines as part of my time with God this morning. Over the last six days, preparing for Christmas, his notes has helped me explore the prologue of John’s Gospel, the opening 18 verses, with each day focussed on just one or two verses. It’s always a rewarding experience to savour God’s word slowly and simply allow its meaning to ferment, water into wine. John, of course, is different to Matthew, Mark and Luke, together known as the synoptic Gospels. In his Gospel there is no nativity as such, no angels or shepherds, no manger or wise men. Even so it is all there but it’s not obvious - for John enjoys nuance. “I am always looking for that nuance, that moment of truth,” writes Paul Anderson “and you can't really do that fast.” He’s right and for that reason uncharacteristically I’ve been reading this week’s readings from John in the original Greek. It slows me down. I focus on individual words. Bethlehem does not seem to appear in John – but it does, but only much later. Jesus is teaching in the temple and people are trying not just to understand what he is saying but more importantly, to understand who he is. “Some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah’” (John 7:40). The problem for his listeners is that Jesus of Nazareth does not appear to fit the expectations of the Old Testament prophets. He comes from, of all places, Galilee of the Gentiles. So some say “Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (John 7:42) They’re right of course. Jesus should come from Bethlehem – but John does not tell us that this was the place of his birth. He simply reports: “So there was a division in the crowd because of him.” And that’s it. He relies on us the readers to make the connection. He does not spell it out. And again, the remarkable conception of Jesus through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. There seems no reference to the virgin birth in John’s Gospel. But there is. On Tuesday I read “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12f) Quite a long phrase in the original text with three negatives when one would just have easily have done. Clearly John is making a point here, helped by the fact that you just have easily translated “or of the will of a husband.” Again, John is going in for nuance in helping us to see below the surface. For Christmas is much more than the traditional nativity story. There is a big picture. And the big picture is that God is committed to us. The Word has come flesh. As Duff writes in this morning’s reading “That is earth-shattering, turning religion, philosophy and our understanding of humanity on their heads but it is not what matters most. The climax is that Jesus ‘makes God known.” For God to make himself known he could speak through prophets and sages, he could even do a supernatural spectacular. But that would only go so far. We would be here and God would be over there. No – “If God’s aim is to make himself down, the only way is for him to enter into our world, to share our lives, to be alongside us as one us of us.” We need Emmanuel, God with us. And this is what the opening of John’s Gospel is all about as he sets the scene for the coming of Jesus into our world. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) What John is seeking to do, even in this opening verse of his Gospel, is to show that Jesus is God for “the Word was God” while distinguishing him from God, “the Word was with God.” As Duff points out; “Who could possibly reveal God accurately? Only God himself. There can be no mediator. . . The only reliable way of seeing God is to look at Jesus.” As John declares: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:18) This is awesome stuff, well beyond our comfort zone. That God, so to speak, should leave his comfort zone to be with us in our everyday messy lives where distant Caesars impose their will and insecure Herods wreak their havoc. And our response? Very simply, to receive Jesus, to believe in his name.” (John 1:12) And our task, as the Archbishop makes clear, is simply to point people to Jesus. He so-to-speak does the rest. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16). So I can truly wish you a Merry Christmas

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