Summary: This Christmas Eve sermon is a celebration God's greatest self-revelation, the "Word made flesh;" a celebration of the story of God in the world, and a celebration of our opportunity for new life because of the birth of the Christ-child.
Words. They seem such a small thing. But a word is far more than a mere sound. Great turning points in history have been marked by the use of words: the first spoken language, the first written language, the invention of the printing press and the rise of widely published newspapers and books. Words not only record those moments of great significance, they also carry great significance themselves. Words can actually do things.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says this about words: "When I speak a word, it is, in a sense, part of me. It's a breath that comes from inside me, making the noise that I give it with my throat, my mouth, and my tongue. When people hear it, they assume I intended it. 'But you said...', people comment, if our deeds don't match up to our words. We remain responsible for the words we say.
"And yet our words have a life which seems independent of us. When people hear them, words can change the way they think and live. Think of 'I love you'; or 'It's time to go'; or 'You're fired'. These words create new situations. People respond or act accordingly. The words remain in their memory and go on affecting them."
Words do things to people. And just as words can carry great significance for us today, they were an important part of Israel's history. Throughout the Old Testament, God regularly acts by means of God's 'word.' What God says happens; this was first true in creation, and many times following. The prophet Isaiah tells us that God's word is the one thing that will last even though people and plants will wither and die. Isaiah also says that God's word will go out of his mouth and bring life, healing, and hope to Israel and the whole creation.
So when John was writing his Gospel about Jesus Christ, he found in his own faith and in his own experience of his people the ordinary word, which is in itself not just a mere sound, but a dynamic thing. The word of God by which God created the world, the word which expresses the very idea of the action of God. This word is the wisdom of God which was the eternal creative and illuminating power of God.
So, John tells us, "In the beginning was the Word...." It seems simple enough, but as you read a bit further, it becomes increasingly clear that this opening to John's gospel is awfully complicated, especially when you think of the stories of Jesus' birth in the other Gospels. Indeed, there is something beautiful about the simplicity of Luke's story that we heard earlier in the service. Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and then a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. As we hear Luke's tale, we are reminded of God's tremendous sacrifice, stepping down from his heavenly throne, and being humbly born into the earthly realm; that he might grow, and walk, and live among us.
John skips this story of the moment of Jesus' birth, but the complexity of his opening passage brings us a message equally powerful; if not moreso. For John, God's incarnation, his coming to earth, isn't just about the birth of Jesus, but about the full meaning of everything he was, and is, and did. Whatever else John is going to tell us, he wants us to see his book as the story of God and the world, not just the story of one character in one place and time.