The pastoral ministry deals with life and death. The longer I serve in the Office of the Ministry, the more I am struck by this. Pastors deal with life as it begins. The second floor at Memorial Hospital in Carbondale is the only part of a hospital in our area that I like to visit, because that is where babies are born. I recently visited there as I saw Austin Mallow and his new born son. I was reminded again about how tiny human beings start out as I looked at little Grayson.
Much of the ministry deals with death. Pastors care for people in the midst of physical conditions that bring the threat of death. We usually stay very well informed about the situation of members with a serious illness like cancer. Because the wages of sin is death, we know that apart from the return of Christ, these congregation members will eventually die. It is not a question of if, but rather when. Often the pastor is there at the end, or very close to it. Then the final act of pastoral care takes place in the funeral service and the committal at the cemetery.
At the same time, pastors deal with life and death in another way. We encounter people who are dead – they are spiritually cut off from God. Through the word of God and the waters of baptism they receive new life. They are born again. And then on the other hand, we see people who have received new life in Christ slip back into spiritual death as they cease to be fed with the Means of Grace and adopt the world’s view of Christ.
The Gospel lesson for Christmas Day speaks about life and being born as a child of God. It also speaks about those who do not receive Christ and believe in him. These are people who are trapped in death. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, John tells us the incredible truth about the baby in the manger. He teaches us to recognize that how we view this child – who he is and what he has done – is a matter of life and death.
Our Gospel lesson begins with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” John starts the Gospel with words the recall Genesis chapter one. He speaks about the second person of the Trinity and refers to him as “the Word.” This is a term that has a rich background in the Old Testament for it describes God’s powerful self-expression in creation and revelation. At the same time, it was a word that was used in the Greek world to describe the ordering principle of the universe.
John says that this One was in the beginning and was with God. More than that, he was God and all things were created through him. John’s language brings us into the mystery of the Holy Trinity, because we learn that there is a complexity to God. There is only One God, and yet we hear about relationships within God himself. John can refer to the Word separately, and then at the same time tell us the Word is God.
Then the apostle tells us, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In the Word we find life. He has brought life as the Creator. We learn in the Gospel that he also brings life as the One who rescues us from the devil and sin. This life is described as a light that shines in the darkness.
John says in our text that, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” That is what we celebrate today. The Word – the true light that brings life – came into the world. Yet he did it in the most mysterious and unexpected way, for John tell us at the end of our text: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
We learn that the Son of God – the Word who made the creation – entered into that creation as he became flesh and dwelt among us. In these words, the Holy Sprit expresses the mystery of the incarnation. God is spirit. And yet, God took on flesh – he became man without ceasing to be God. The baby lying in the manger on Christmas morning was not just a baby. He was the Creator of the universe.
The Son of God did this to rescue us from the devil and sin. He did it to rescue us from death. The Father sent forth the Son to be incarnate by the work of the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary. He acted in this way because of what sin had done to us. Jesus says to Nicodemus in chapter three, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodeus is confused and asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Flesh here does not refer to created humanity as it does in our text. Instead, set in opposition to Spirit, it means the sinful, fallen nature. Sinful fallen people give birth to sinful fallen people. This means that all people are born as slaves of sin. All people are trapped in death because of that sin. The only thing that can change this is new birth – new life that comes from God.
That is why the Son of God entered into the world – why he became flesh. He was in the world in order to rescue us from sin, the death, and the devil. Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus was in the flesh in order to be the sacrifice that has won forgiveness for us. John the Baptist declared when he saw Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The Son of God became flesh to be nailed to a cross. Our Lord said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Lifted up on the cross in the flesh the Word that created the world – who created life – died in order to free us from sin. He died to make real life - life in fellowship with God - possible.
Dead and buried in a tomb, on the third day Jesus rose from the dead. Crucified in the flesh, he rose from the dead in the flesh. The risen Lord invited Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.” Because of his death and resurrection, Jesus is now the source of life. He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Because of Jesus we already have eternal life now instead of God’s judgment. John’s Gospel states in chapter three, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” And we will also have resurrection life on the Last Day. Our Lord declared, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
You are here this morning because God has given you new life through Christ. John says in our text, “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, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” God has made you the children of God. He has called you as his own. This had nothing to do with your own reason or strength. Instead, it is God who did this. He gave you new life as you were born again of water and the Spirit.
Because this is true, we are able to say the words from First John at the beginning of the Divine Service with confidence: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We live in the assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life with God. We have a life that not even death can stop. And we also know that we will have the final and complete life God intends on the Last Day, for Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
This is the love that the Son of God has revealed for us. He was willing to enter our world and become flesh. He was willing to take our sin, and to suffer and die as the sacrifice for us. He served us. And now he calls us to share this love with one another – especially with fellow believers. Our Lord said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love – caring for others and putting their needs before our own becomes the defining feature of our lives as Christians. As John states in his First Epistle: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
On this Christmas Day we give thanks for the baby in the manger. He is the Word – the Son of God who created the universe. But he is the Word become flesh, for he has taken on humanity, and is true God and true man. He became flesh to give us life by his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Because of this, we are now able to be the children of God. We have been born of God as we were born again in Holy Baptism. Forgiven and having received life from God, we have eternal life now, and the assurance of sharing in Christ’s resurrection on the Last Day. Because this is so, we live in the present sharing the love of Jesus Christ with those around us.