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'THERE was a man sent from God whose name was John’. 

Those words occur in the middle of the passage usually read as the gospel for Christmas Day. Do those words strike you as a bit of an anti-climax, a distraction? We are ready to hear about Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men, but none of them appear in the way the Evangelist begins his gospel, in the way he speaks about the Light coming into the world; and instead he talks about John the Baptist.But if John the Evangelist tells us that John the Baptist has this central role in the Christmas story, then maybe there is some Christmas message in that for us.

The Sundays in Advent have already focussed on John the Baptist; and we already read the passage that follows this one, where John the Baptist tells the Pharisees that ‘there stands one among you whom you do not know’. The Messiah has come, says John the Baptist, but you have not recognized him. Christ is here, but he is hidden. And in today’s reading, the great prologue of the Fourth Gospel, that theme emerges. Listen to these words:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 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.

The Messiah has come, but he is unrecognized by the rulers and religious leaders of his own people (there is the story of Herod and the wise men). Christ is here, but he is hidden except to the eyes of humble, faithful obedience (there is the story of the shepherds). The Son of God is born, not of fleshly desire, but by the Spirit of God (there is the story of Joseph and the Virgin Mary).

But the way the Fourth Gospel tells the story challenges all who hear it. Am I one of those who know him when he comes, or fail to know him? Am I among those who receive him, or those who reject him? Do I believe in his name, and have I entered into my spiritual inheritance as a child of God?And do I, like John the Baptist, bear witness to the Light I have received, that all might believe? Here is no pretty story, told year after year, and set aside until Christmas comes round again; but a story that speaks to me, here, now, urgently, questioning me in the depths of my being, taking no refusal. Every figure in the Christmas story had a life-changing decision to make: Joseph, Mary, the innkeeper, the shepherds, the wise men, Herod the king. Each is challenged by the presence of the Christchild. And in the way the Fourth Gospel tells the story, we too are drawn into the story, we too are brought face to face with the Christchild, and we too have our decision to make.

Peter Atkinson, Dean of Worcester