This well-known passage from the first chapter of John’s Gospel soars with its majestic prologue, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” And it quickly becomes earthy with the re-introduction of John the Baptist, the unshaven, wooly prophet in the wilderness who testified to the light that came after him. “He came as a witness to the light. He himself was not the light.” Perhaps you thought we were finished with John the Baptist’s haranguing during Advent. We heard his brood of vipers speech loud and clear and we’ve moved on to the main attraction in Bethlehem where it’s more pleasant.

But we will miss the message of Christmas if we get caught up in the beauty of John’s poetry about God’s grand design for the universe without coming back down to earth to a conversation about our part in making manifest God’s grand design. The good news of Christmas does not rest in a distant God or only in the magnificent God of creation, but in a God who loves us so much that God becomes united with us in our humanity so that we might be united intimately with God. St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote, “In this baby, born to Mary and Joseph, we claim to see as much of God as we ever hope to see.”

I think most of us would agree, the gift of presence is always the gift we long for from those whom we love. How often do we receive invitations that have a line at the bottom, “no gifts please, but your presence.” Just like a son or daughter home for Christmas after a long time away brightens the soul, Jesus is the presence of light in our dark, confusing, and lonely world. The problem is after we finish our visit with Mary and Joseph and their baby, the angels, and shepherds, we’re challenged by just what kind of presence this is in our midst. For some, this might not be the gift they want at all!

Reference to John the Baptist brings us back to reality about God’s Christmas gift to us. Isaiah, the great prophet of Christmas, writes in this morning’s first reading, “As the earth brings forth its shoots, and a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” Isaiah also foretells that in the reign of God inaugurated by Jesus, “Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more… The wolf shall live with the lamb and a little child shall lead them… The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” Standing in adoration at the manger, this all sounds plenty good to us. Who is not for the wolf living with the lamb? But back out beyond the stable reality sets in and we figure out pretty fast that in order for any of this to happen most of our present arrangements must be turned upside down and that is just what the sweet baby we’ve just been visiting has come into the world to lead us in doing. No wonder his earthly life ended up on a cross!

But perhaps you welcomed this Christmas season with a hunger and hope like you’ve never known before. Perhaps you entered this Christmas season with a gnawing sickness in your soul about the state of our world. While Christmas lights continue to twinkle, genocide continues in Darfur, apartheid is the way of life in Palestine (I’ve been there and I’ve seen it), people are blowing themselves up in order to kill others, and instead of turning our swords into plowshares, the building and supplying of arms remains one of the biggest components of our economy. Greed, arrogance, fear, and hate run deep.

Such a time as this can make us longingly receptive to the real truth of Christmas that, if taken seriously, does challenge many of the most basic assumptions about the world as we experience it. Surely such a time as we are living through challenges us beyond fairy tale notions of Christmas as a time when all hearts are warm and filled with “good will toward all.” The very first Christmas started right off by challenging some assumptions about the world. This unwed mother and her confused fiancé from the wrong side of town were chosen to participate in God’s greatest act of self disclosure. Funny how the good news came to them and not the powerful with all their authority and weapons, or biblical scholars with their expertise, or religious authorities in the temples of their day; not that it couldn’t have, of course. It’s just that Mary and Joseph were humble enough to actually believe in the possibility of those words from Isaiah, receptive enough that they could actually hear God’s word, while the others were so busy being “realistic” about the ways of the world that they couldn’t hear God’s word to them. John tells us that Jesus came to his own and his own people did not accept him.

Think for a minute about how the Christmas story unfolds. After Mary and Joseph, it’s more questionable types, folks from the margins, shepherds and pagan astrologers who see a star and catch a glimpse of the good news that is indeed offered to all. It is outsiders not insiders, not the who are receptive to God’s in-breaking.

Think back for a minute to Mary’s initial reaction when she heard she was pregnant. Luke says she was “much perplexed.” And then she uttered her famous Magnificat that tells of a world whose fundamental assumptions are challenged not by the hate of terrorists but by the transforming love of God. “He has scattered the proud in their conceit…and has lifted up the lowly…He has filled the hungry with good things.” If only the world would have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to receive such a word.

In a time such as we are living through, we ought to consider that Christmas is a dramatic and quite direct word from God, challenging our basic operating procedures. Because surely our world as we know it is not the world God intends. Anglican bishop and biblical scholar N. T. Wright says, “Christmas is God lighting a candle and you don’t need a candle in a room that is already full of sunlight. You need a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are.”

So Christmas is risky business. It’s an invitation to a new way of being in relationship to the world and to God. Of course, in taking the risk to come to the babe in Bethlehem we’re in good company, not just with the shepherds and astrologers but with a Bible and Church full of folk who had their basic assumptions about the world turned upside down when they were receptive enough to come fact to face with God. This is the risk, challenge, invitation and truth of Christmas that John the evangelist proclaims. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Just maybe this Christmas season, even we powerful ones might be receptive to see the incarnation in a new way and be less resistant to the possibility that God just might be calling us to a whole new way of being that resembles more the words of the prophet Isaiah than the news reports on CNN.

The question that is really before us this Christmas season is: Will I answer the babe at Bethlehem’s invitation to participate in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom with the same receptivity as Mary and Joseph and those other “outsiders” who recognized and followed that star that continues to flood the earth with God’s grace and light—if only we will see it? Or am I so preoccupied and filed up with the stuff of this world, so gripped by seeing the world “realistically,” so locked into basic assumptions about the way the world must be, that I miss the invitation completely? Christmas is about God’s invitation to each of us, shepherds and kings, the lowly and the powerful, the holy and the not so holy.

Harvey Cox writes, “Not to celebrate Christmas would be to concede that bombs and terrorism are stronger than peace and love. The great promise of Christmas in a time of hatred is an act of faith.”

And so like Mary and Joseph we pray, “Lord, here I am, ready to be used in your service for the in-breaking of your reign of peace and all-encompassing love.”

“What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.