In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [...] Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. [...] He came to his own, but his own didn't receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who had faith in his name, he gave the right to become children of God [...] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1, 3-5, 9, 11-14)
The story the Bible tells about us doesn't start with us at all; it begins with an eternal God who shows himself as holy love. He doesn't need anything, but he creates a whole universe anyway, through the 'Word' that was always with him1. It's a work of art, a masterpiece displaying his glory. He creates it because he wants to share the life he has in himself. So he creates us to be his image in the world2, and he gives us authority to represent him and to take care of the earth. He gives us everything we have and everything we are, all as a gift. He offers us endless life and happiness with him, chances to grow and learn and explore, and he offers us his love. It's the start of the happiest story ever.
But it's also the start of the saddest story ever. Because we decide that, even though he's given us so much and we should be grateful, we want just a little bit more, and we want it on our terms, not his. And so, whether we realize what we're doing or not, we decide that if his gifts come at the 'price' of gratitude and obedience, we want out. We want to break his rules and make our own, and that's just what we decide to do.
But what happens when we aren't grateful? What happens when we give in to temptation and the easy way out? What happens if we look the one who holds everything together square in the eye and tell him that we'd like him to back off? We told the Way that he wasn't worth following, and we got lost. We told the Truth that he wasn't worth knowing, and we find ourselves in a world of lies. We told the Life that he wasn't worth living up to, and we get hurt and suffer and die. We told the Light that he wasn't worth seeing, and our lives are painted in shades of gray. And because he'd given us the whole world, we dropped it – and it cracked.
We've got a serious problem, and there's no denying it. You know, all of us like to think we're good people. But we aren't the measure of all things3, and we aren't the standard of what's good. God is. And the standard he sets is perfect truthful love for him and for each other. The Bible says, “God looks down from heaven on all humanity to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”4
But thank God he isn't done with us. The Bible says that he chose a man of real faith, and God told that man that his family would be a blessing to the whole world.5 And out of that family, God made a new people.
That people found itself in slavery in a foreign land, but God reached down, broke their chains, and led them out to freedom. But even the chosen people rebelled, and the Law God gave them became a spotlight on their own sins. God's chosen people, more often than not, were God's chosen problem. God wanted them to see him for who he was, and they let themselves be led astray by counterfeits. But they were still God's way of healing a broken world.
Then when the people went really sour, God let another nation lead them off as captives, away from the homeland God gave them. Eventually the people realized where they'd gone wrong, and God brought them back to the land and let them rebuild. But the people knew things weren't set right yet. They were still waiting for God to really set them free.
And then God acted, but not like any of us thought he would. The Bible says that when the time was right, God's own Message came down to save us. No one saw it coming when God's very own living Autobiography came to earth wearing human skin and pitched his tent down here with the rest of us. And that man, God's Word for us, was named Jesus.
He was the Chosen One, the 'Anointed One' – or, in Greek, the 'Christ'. He came to show us in his human life what it looks like to live out perfect love. He came to lead us in a exodus out of sin and into the promised land of new life; he came to bring us home from exile, back to the God we left.
Jesus announced that it's time to give up disobedience and turn back to God, because God is taking charge through him.6 He invited people to turn away from their selfishness and follow him, even if it meant suffering or being an outcast.7 He explained that God didn't send him to condemn the world, but to rescue it; and anyone who trusted and followed him would be saved and live forever with the God who loves us.8 Jesus said we needed a radical change of who we'd become, a change so dramatic that he compared it to being born all over again and getting a new life and identity from a new parent: God himself.9
To address the consequences of what we've done, Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, where he was sentenced to death. And not just any death: crucifixion, a painful, bloody, shameful death called “the slaves' punishment”, a death so awful you just couldn't mention it in good company. And that's how Jesus, God's own gift of Life, died.
He gave his innocent life freely in our place as a display of God's infinite love for each and every one of us.10 The Bible summarizes it in just a few words: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”.11 We should have been punished, we should have paid the price, but Jesus died to save us and set us free.
But at the time, it must have been difficult to see that. Crucifixion was the end of many people who claimed to be God's Chosen One – and weren't. But after Jesus was buried, suddenly his grave was empty. His heartbroken followers didn't understand – and then he showed up again, very not-dead. Alive again, he visited people who believed already and some who hadn't. They were convinced.
The message had so much going against it. It was an offensive story about a guy from the backwoods of the Roman world who gets put to death in the most shameful way and then comes back to permanent bodily life – something no one but the Jews thought was either possible or desirable. The message was a threat to the ruling authorities, and if it wasn't true they could have easily stopped it by pointing to the body. And even though it cost them their lives and their comfort, those who knew the facts for sure spent the rest of their lives spreading the news. And it did spread, and it's still spreading today. The good news is true: Jesus who was crucified, was raised from the dead!
Death didn't have the last word. Jesus wasn't wrong at all; God gave his stamp of approval on Jesus by bringing him back to life. The Jews had long been waiting for God to set up his rule on earth. When God raised Jesus, the message was that it was starting there and then for those willing to follow Jesus, and that it'd come to completion when Jesus came back again. In the meantime, Jesus told his followers to go invite other people to follow him; he told his followers to baptize people as a sign of sharing in his death and resurrection12, and he told his followers to teach them, to gather them into communities that can grow together, and to show them the way to live.13 And we need to live this way if we want to grow to be the people God always planned for us to be, the kind of people who are ready to live with God.
Jesus promised that we'd have God's own Spirit to guide us through life,14 and his earliest followers wrote down in the Bible what the Spirit taught them.15 And what they learned was that we can be forgiven for everything we've ever done wrong, thanks to Jesus. We need to turn from our disobedient ways and start following his ways. He asks us to love him, to trust him, and to obey him, just like we always should have. We can be forgiven if we ask to be forgiven. If we accept Jesus publicly as Lord and we believe that God raised him from the dead, we can be saved.16
It's not a matter of earning it; we couldn't if we tried. It's grace given freely.17 When we receive it, we commit to follow Jesus. That isn't always easy. There's a reason he compared it to taking up a cross and being led off to die like he did.18 But it's the way that brings us to everlasting joy, and I can testify that Jesus has brought it to my own life. It's the opportunity to live with God forever when he raises us up. When we receive and follow Jesus, we become a new kind of people: God's children, destined for a bright future. He's offering a new birth, a new life with a clean slate. Everything else is a matter of learning to live like Jesus, being light to the world just like he's the Light of the World.19
Maybe some of you have never really met Jesus. Maybe you realize that you've never received him and haven't yet had that new birth. If that's you, I want to encourage you to receive him in your lives, to really put your heart and soul into loving him and following him. Come to Jesus. Pray, ask him to take your life and reshape it. Let him be Lord of your life. Accept the gifts he's offering you. Just trust in him, put your faith in him, and he'll lead you and show you how to live. He'll give you the Holy Spirit, and “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God”.20
Or maybe you've received him, but you realize you've been trying to live this life on your own. You don't have to. When a crowd asked one of Jesus' first followers what they had to do, he told them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.”21 And when they listened, they received baptism as “the washing of rebirth”22 and “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”.23 Do that. Turn your back on your own ways; turn to God's instead, be baptized, and join together with other followers on a regular basis. Pray with one another, grow together, and listen to what Jesus has to teach you.
Or maybe you've been baptized, and maybe you've joined a local community of followers, but you realize that you need to follow Jesus more closely and more faithfully. That's where all of us should be, because none of us have grown all we can. Look to Jesus. Turn to him. Ask God for help, and study what the Bible says about how we should live – and live like that, as God's Spirit gives you the strength. Live as a child of God, born again from above. And know that “if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings so that we may also share in his glory”.24 Amen.
1 John 1:3
2 Genesis 1:26
3 Cf. Protagoras
4 Psalm 53:2-3
5 Genesis 22:18
6 Matthew 3:2
7 Matthew 16:24
8 John 3:16-17
9 John 3:3
10 1 John 3:16
11 Romans 5:8
12 Romans 6:3-5
13 Matthew 28:19-20
14 John 14:26
15 2 Timothy 3:16-17
16 Romans 10:9
17 Ephesians 1:6
18 Matthew 16:24
19 Matthew 5:14; John 8:12, 9:5
20 Romans 8:14
21 Acts 2:38-39
22 Titus 3:5
23 Acts 2:42
24 Romans 8:17