Christmas either means that, or it means nothing. It is either the most devastating disclosure of the deepest reality in the world, or it's a sham, a nonsense, a bit of deceitful play-acting. And most of us, including most Christians, can't quite cope with saying either of those things, and so we condemn ourselves to live in the shallow world in between, with its presents and its puddings, and, yes, its prayers as well. Are you really content with that? I'm not, and I suspect you aren't either. But what are we going to do about it?
This question forces itself on our attention right now for reasons very different from the usual ones. The West has had three years of euphoria following the collapse of the Berlin Wall; the East has had three years of horror. They had misery before; now they've got chaos as well. Misery and chaos is a recipe for crisis. And unless the Christmas message has got something to say about that, we might as well stick to our presents and our puddings.
Of course, it isn't only in the East that there is misery and chaos. Unemployment here in the UK may be down marginally, but the statistics still speak of a country where thousands wake up each morning, including Christmas morning, and feel the dull mental thud of believing themselves to be failures, unwanted, unneeded.
Homelessness and poverty make some of our cities look almost Dickensian: the rich drive to Harrods in their Volvos while the poor look on from their cardboard shelters. The Bible has a lot to say about exactly that situation, not least in the prophets; but perhaps the most important thing it has to say is that God was born in an outhouse, spent his early years as a refugee, spoke of having no home to call his own, and was executed as a dangerous outcast.
So is Christmas simply a way of making us feel guilty? Am I trying to suggest that as you open your presents and eat your turkey you should feel bad about it? Of course not. God is the creator, who gives generously to his creatures; he wants us to enjoy his good gifts, and if we can't do that on his birthday, when on earth can we? No: what he wants us to do is to become Christmas people ourselves. He gave himself to all of us at the first Christmas. He now wants to give us to the world as Christmas people. What might this mean?
In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through Him; in Him was life, and the life was the light of the human race. The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
What is a word? A word is a breath that comes from within us; it is a breath that makes a noise; it is a breath whose noise is not random, like a snore or a sneeze, but is shaped by the mind, the will, the tongue and the teeth; it is a shaped breath that is intended to do something - to express, to communicate, to act, to love. Our words sometimes wound and hurt. Our words sometimes lie.
We live in a world of greed and anger, where we are even greedy for greed because it's become our way of life. We live in a world of lies, where we even tell lies about lying, calling it 'being economical with the truth'. But God's word, his eternal self-expression, his breath shaped by his own creative will and purpose - God's word is full of grace and truth. And this word, this rushing mighty wind, this fiery breath, this gift, this reality, this living message of God's love, became one of us; and the world of greed and lies was decisively confronted by grace and truth. The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We are invited at Christmas to celebrate that great fact.
But how is the light to go on shining? The really remarkable thing about John 1 is that we are called not merely to look on in amazement at the truth of Christmas, at the Word become flesh, but we are called to become Christmas people ourselves: to become living words from a loving God; to become living signs of grace and truth to a world full of greed and lies; to become lights that will shine in the darkness, which the darkness will not overcome.
You will have opportunities this very week, this very night perhaps, to make that small but all-
important decision between greed and grace, between lies and truth. Watch for the moment, and, when it comes, grab it with both hands. You are to be Christmas people, God's Word become flesh once more.
And if everyone in church tonight did that, in their professional as well as their personal lives, this town would be a different place. And if a thousand people in every town in the country did it, and made their voices heard where it mattered, we would together roll back some of the darkness in this sad old land. And if that happened then maybe our leaders would recapture the nerve to act with grace and to speak the truth, and to be a beacon of light and hope to the whole world.
But we won't be able to do this without constantly returning to adore and worship the God we see in Jesus himself. Don't be fooled. Human beings as they are can't shine as lights all by themselevs. To that extent, we are like the moon. We can only shine with borrowed light. Trouble is, most of us choose to remain in a state of eclipse: we can't see the sun because the world we are supposed to be illuminating gets in the way. The only way to shine to the world is to gaze long and lovingly on the true light, the life which is our light, the baby who is God's own breath, God's living Word. That's what we're here for tonight.