Isaiah 42:1-9, John 1:1-14
In my mind, and in the mind of many Christians through the ages, there is no more profound part of the New Testament than these words that we read from John’s gospel this morning, this prologue to the gospel, as it is often called.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it. 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 14 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.
It says so many things, in a way it explains so many things, yet it does not explain them at all. It is like a great work of art hanging on the wall there in the museum, for all to see, and every time you pass by, every time you gaze upon its colors and its form you see something that you never saw before. It offers so many images that give us insight to the Christian faith, to who God is and to who we are. For example, there is the image of the Logos. “In the beginning there was the Word”, we read, but in the Greek it says in the beginning was the Logos. The logos was for the Greeks the organizing principle of all things, it was that principle, that force, whatever you wish to call it, that held things together, so to speak, and kept them from falling into chaos. And the Gospel seems to say that there was this principle that made sense out of all things, the perfect idea in the mind of God about what ought to be. It was that idea that brought the world into being in the beginning. And that idea became flesh, that idea took on human reality, that idea took on reality for us in Jesus. And though John does not mention the birth of Jesus, that’s what he is talking about.
Of the prologue of John uses the idea of the word of God, a very good and ancient Hebrew notion. Words in the Hebrew language are never mere words. All words are constructed from verbs, so all words are active things. They have movement and substance. The same three letters are used in the Hebrew language for Word and for Thing, so that a word is a thing. So that John is telling us that the thing of God, the Word of God became flesh, took on the corporeal reality of Jesus. And though John does not mention Christmas, that’s what he is talking about.
Or the prologue uses the idea of light, light that shines in the darkness. We know from modern physics that light is something and darkness is nothing, but there always seems to be a struggle between light and darkness as if darkness were trying to shut off the light. Human beings are creatures of the light, as Harold Perry reminded some of us the other day. We come out of the forest when it gets dark and huddle around the light. Light is something that we do not need to gaze upon it. It is something we walk by so that we will not stumble. And in Jesus that light became flesh so that darkness could never overcome it and so that we might walk in the light.
Today is Christmas Day. It is a day when you have left your family celebrations to come here to worship. Wow… we can celebrate Christmas day here at the church by examining the meaning of Christmas, trying to see if we can grasp the meaning of Christmas. But my guess is that on this day, of all days, you are not here for that kind of intellectual exercise. Besides, grasping the meaning will never remove the mystery of it. No one ever really explains Christmas. We are living in a post enlightenment age, when we are more willing than we have been in a long time for there to be complexities of causes and effects for which we cannot completely contain or control. We are finding that our own inner selves are not to be explained so much as they are to be enjoyed. We are coming again to appreciate our own feelings and emotions, not to be ashamed of them, to be able to enjoy the delight and mystery of them, and perhaps even a little magic.
So that I want to suggest to you this morning that we celebrate Christmas by allowing the light to shine in our hearts, and maybe in our eyes, that we allow the Word to sing in our ears and the idea to organize our lives. The Christmas story is our story, not just a once upon a time story. It is not our story because we possess it, but because it possesses us. It is explained and understood in our lives, as we walk in the light and have confidence and hope alive in us.
I am a story person. That is not an apology so much as an explanation. The New Testament is a story, a story that burrows its way into our lives and makes us come to life. Stories have a way of doing that. So this morning, I want to tell you a Christmas story about a Christmas gift. I tell it not to be cute, but as a commentary on the text today which comes from the Gospel of John, “The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Like John, it deals in images, like how you become real.
There is a story called The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real.
There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with satin, On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the stop of the Boy’s stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming.
There were other things in the stocking, nuts and oranges and a toy engine, and chocolate almonds and a clockwork mouse, but the Rabbit was quite the best of all. For at least two hours the Boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.
For a long time he lived in a toy cupboard or on the nursery floor, and no one thought very much about him. He was naturally shy, and being made only of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon everyone else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real. The model boat, who had lived through two seasons and lost most of his paint, caught the tone from them and never missed an opportunity of referring to his rigging in technical terms. The Rabbit could not claim to be a model of anything, for he didn’t know that real rabbits existed; he thought they were all stuffed with sawdust like himself, and he understood that sawdust was quite out-of-date and should never be mentioned in modern circles, Even Timothy, the Jointed wooden Lion, who was made by the disabled soldiers, and should have had a broader views, put on airs and pretended he was connected with the Government. Between them all the poor little Rabbit was made to feel himself very insignificant and commonplace, and the only person who was kind to him at all was the Skin Horse.
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
“The Boy’s Uncle made me real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It last for always.”
The Rabbit signed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
There was a person called the Nana who ruled the nursery. Sometimes she took no notice of the playthings lying about, and sometimes, for no reason whatever, she went swooping about like a great wind and hustled them away in the cupboards. She called this “tidying up,” and the playthings all hated it, especially the tin ones. The Rabbit didn’t mind it so much, for wherever he was thrown he can down soft.
One evening, when the Boy was going to bed, he couldn’t find the china dog that always slept with him, Nana was in a hurry, and it was too much trouble to hunt for the china dog at bedtime, so she simply looked about her, and seeing the toy cupboard door stood open, she made a swoop.
“Here,” she said, “take your old bunny! He’ll do to sleep with you!” And she dragged the Rabbit out by the ear, and put him into the Boy’s arms.
That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy’s bed. At first he found it uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe. And he missed, too, those long moonlight hours in the nursery, when all the house was silent, and his talks with the Skin Horse. But very soon he grew to like it, for the Boy used to talk to him, and made nice tunnels for him under the bedclothes that he said were like the burrows the real rabbits live in. And they had splendid games together, in whispers, when Nana had gone away to her supper and left the nightlight burning on the mantelpiece. And when the Boy dropped off to sleep, the Rabbit would snuggle down close under his warm chin and dream, with the Boy’s hands clasped close round him all night long.
And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy – so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail coming unsown, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.
Spring came, and they had long days in the garden, for wherever the Boy went the Rabbit went too. He had rides in the wheelbarrow, and picnics on the grace, and lovely fairy huts built for him under the raspberry canes behind the flower border. And once, when the Boy was called away suddenly to go out for tea, the Rabbit was left out on the lawn until long after dusk, and Nana had to come and look for him with the candle because the Boy couldn’t go to sleep unless he was there. He was wet through with the dew and quite earthy from diving into the burrows the Boy had made for him in the flower bed, and Nana grumbled as she rubbed him off with a corner of her apron.
“You must have you old Bunny!” She said. “Fancy all that fuss for a toy!”
The Boy sat up in bed and stretched out his hands.
“Give me my Bunny!” he said. “You mustn’t say that. He isn’t a toy. He’s REAL!”
When the little Rabbit heard that he was happy, for he knew that what the Skin Horse had said was true at last. The nursery magic had happened to him, and he was a toy no longer. He was Real. The Boy himself had said it.
That night he was almost too happy to sleep, and so much love stirred in his little sawdust heart that it almost burst. And into his boot-button eyes, that had long ago lost their polish, there came a look of wisdom and beauty, so that even Nana noticed it the next morning when she picked him up, and said, “I declare if that old Bunny hasn’t got quite a knowing expression!”
Now stories that must be explained are not good stories. But there are all kinds of lessons in this one.
“Does real mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.
“Does becoming real hurt?” “Sometimes”, said the Skin Horse for he was always truthful.
“Becoming real doesn’t happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges or have to be carefully handled.”
And how about the fact that “generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” Remind you of anybody you know?
But I suppose that the lesson for me is in the words of John. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and loved us until we became real.
This sermon was preached on December 25, 1977 at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas. (As a personal side note from Tim Crouch, this was the first time that Christmas had fallen on a Sunday since 1966. In 1966, Bill Crouch was an associate pastor at University Park Methodist Church in University Park, Texas. The senior pastor was W.E. Trice, who during the Sundays of Advent emphasized in worship that Christmas on a Sunday was very special and that it wouldn’t happen again for eleven years. And for that reason everyone would want to be in worship Christmas Sunday 1966. As an 8 year old in 1966 it has always stuck with me that a Christmas Sunday is a very special Christmas and as this sermon eleven years later reminds us there is a magic that makes it real.)