It comes as a surprise then to discover that it wasn’t this way in the Church for many years. St Paul, for example, never discusses the birth of our Lord except to say that he was ‘born of a woman’, and the first Gospel we have, St Mark, launches into our Lord’s ministry without any mention of his birth or childhood.
In the 2nd century, Christians even mocked the pagans for celebrating the birthdays of prominent figures. What mattered to them was the significance, not of Jesus’ birth, but of his death. This is easily illustrated by observing how much of each Gospel is devoted to the last week of our Lord’s life compared to the years leading up to it. This does not for a moment mean that we should not today be celebrating our Lord’s birth, but it is a warning not to celebrate it in an emotional and sentimental way: enjoying the story, but failing to see its meaning and its significance for each one of us personally.
Originally, the Gospels circulated separately from each other. And not only the Gospels, but the stories of Jesus themselves. We know that the stories of Jesus were passed on not simply, or even primarily, in written form, but, in a culture with low rates of literacy, they were passed on in oral form, that is, by word of mouth. Very few of these stories concern our Lord’s birth; many concern his death and the events leading up to it.
It is clear from even the briefest of readings of the Gospels that St John’s Gospel is different from the other three. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have much in common and are referred to as the synoptic (=viewed together) Gospels. St John assumes that his readers will already be familiar with many of these stories about Jesus and that they may have read at least St Mark’s Gospel. His purpose in writing is not to tell or retell the stories, but to get behind them and explain the significance of the one who the stories are about and of the one who himself told many of the stories in the Gospels. And in explaining Jesus’ significance, St John wants to show us the significance of Jesus for each one of us personally.
The reading tonight, known as the Prologue, is the introduction to the Gospel. It sets the scene for what is to follow by telling us in advance what the plot is and introducing us to the Gospel’s central character. St John wants to leave us in absolutely no doubt as to who Jesus is. This is to be a theme of his Gospel. Whereas the other Gospels focus on what Jesus did, on his works, St John focuses on the person of Jesus, who he is.
This is the Gospel that has the ‘Great I am’ sayings. It is this person that our reading introduces us to, but St John manages to do it without at first mentioning his name. He tells us the name of John the Baptist who came to witness to Jesus, but he doesn’t use the name ‘Jesus’ until verse17.
The purpose of the Prologue is to introduce us to the Word, it is only once we have been introduced to the Word that we are told who the Word is. We are told that the Word was in the beginning with God and that all the things came into being through him. In this Word was life and light. John the Baptist bore witness to this Light, the True Light. And then, we are told, something amazing: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
If you were reading John for the first time the obvious question at this point is, Who is he? What is his name? It is only now that St John reveals it: his name is Jesus. It is as if he is saying to his readers that this man they may have heard stories about, the one known as Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, the Eternal Word of God through whom everything – everything – that exists came into being.
This Eternal Word came into the world that he himself hand been instrumental in creating!
But what sort of world was it? It was a world dominated by Roman power and by one man in particular: Caesar Augustus. Augustus used to like to boast of his achievements. One he was particularly proud of was the Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome. Rome, he boasted, had given the world peace. But this was simply propaganda. The so-called peace was one imposed by Roman might and power. A peace in which rebellion was ruthlessly crushed and oppression was the order of the day. This oppression found expression in tax. Rome taxed its subject peoples to maintain its power and finance its empire. Tax was not popular then as it is not popular now. But then in those days those taxed saw very little benefit from paying their taxes. In AD6 the people of Sepphoris, a major city in Galilee just 5 miles from Nazareth, revolted against paying taxes. The Romans burnt the city to the ground after crushing the revolt.
It was Roman tax policy that was to be responsible for Jesus being born in Bethlehem. As is well-known, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that ‘all the world’ should be registered for taxation purposes. All had to go to their own town to be registered. This meant Joseph having to go with his pregnant wife, Mary, from Nazareth to his home town of Bethlehem.
Caesar had displayed his power by moving people around at his whim and fancy. Or, at least, that is what he thought he was doing. In fact, he was simply a puppet fulfilling God’s purposes. The Christ had to be born in Bethlehem. The Son of David had to be born in Royal David’s City. Caesar was carrying out not the plan of Rome, but the plan of God.
2016 has been quite a year. It is already being described by commentators as a year in which the world has changed. They point to Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US. It has been a year of mass migration, of the increasing military involvement of Russia in world affairs, and 2017 looks like it will continue where 2016 is leaving off. There will be important elections in France and Germany. And, of course, here at home in Hong Kong, we will have the election of a new Chief Executive.
It is all too easy for us as Christians to get caught up in all of this and focus on the various events and their significance: to see power as residing in the various leaders of our world: in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing with the modern day Caesars.
This is reflected in many of the Churches’ Christmas messages. These talk of the role of the Church in the various events taking place or about to take place in our world. Those giving them seek to explain how the Church should react and what role it should play.
Undoubtedly, the events taking place in our world are important and Christians undoubtedly have a role to play in them - although it may be a different role to the one we are being urged to play. (More about that another time.)
We are wrong, however, if we focus on those who, like Caesar, pretend to have the power and fail to see behind their power. When our Lord was being questioned by Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem, Pilate said to Jesus: ‘Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him: ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…’ (John 19:10-11)
This means, Trump, has no power; Putin has no power, and the new Chief Executive, whoever he or she maybe, has no power unless it is given them from above. One saint said that while still an infant at his mother’s breast, Jesus was upholding the universe with the word of his power. The danger is that by focusing on world leaders and the events of our world, we can end up thinking and giving the impression that it is with the rulers of this world that real power resides and what should concern us most are the various political, economic, and social events taking place at the present time.
In fact, there is more power here tonight in this Church than in all the parliaments or legislatives of our world. It is a power that concerns each one of us and affects us far more than all the decisions of world leaders whoever they maybe.
St John writes about the Word, who we know to be Jesus that ‘he came to his own and his own people did not accept him.’ This is the story of Jesus’ rejection by his people Israel. However, John continues: ‘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.’
We think we have come here tonight to celebrate the birth of Christ, but it turns out that God has brought us here, not only to celebrate his son’s birth, but to ask us questions about our own birth: do we want to be born tonight, born that is, not of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God?
God is giving us the chance to make tonight not simply about the birth of his son some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, but about our birth now in 2016 in Hong Kong.
God does not allow us to be spectators at the Nativity. We have a decision to make. Will we be amongst those who did not receive him? Or will we receive him, that is, will we believe in his name and commit ourselves to him? If we do then tonight will become a celebration of our nativity as well as that of our Lord’s.
So tonight, on this most Holy Night, we all have a decision to make, a decision of far more consequence than we will make in any election. Will we receive him? Will we believe in his name? Will we become a child of God?
Tonight he gives us that power. The only question is now whether we will use it.