John 1, in the apostle’s own unique and Spirit inspired way, gives us a before and after picture of Jesus. He sets us up, in fact, for what seems to be a climactic discussion later in the gospel, in John 8. In that chapter, the themes of John 1 come back. Jesus calls himself the Light of the world. His opponents do not receive him. In their sin-darkened hearts they can’t understand him. Worse, Jesus says, “If God were your Father, you would love me…. You belong to your father, the devil.” Then, he talks about the life of men that he brings: “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” “Ah, now we know you’re mad and demon-possessed,” his enemies exclaim. “The greatest of our fathers, Abraham, died and now you say you’re better than him?” Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” They picked up stones to stone him.
Before and after. People losing weight know about this. They take pictures so that everyone can see the results. Home improvement shows give us before and after shots. Now Jesus lets us see the before and after in him, the hinge of which, the central point of which, is the incarnation, when the Word became flesh.
We sometimes forget this before. There was a before for Jesus. Not the man of course. That human nature Jesus received in the conception, but God the Son always existed. He was “before”, which John 1 teaches emphatically and in the Spirit’s way repetitiously.
“In the beginning,” John says, Jesus was “with God.” “He was with God in the beginning.” More than just with, he was. God. “The Word was God.” Apart from whom nothing was made. Separate from him, without him, independent from him nothing. Paul told the Colossians, Jesus made all things visible and invisible. Hebrews said he is the one “sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
Not just sustaining, remember, but also destroying. We find Jesus at the flood destroying all he had made, at Babel confusing languages, at Sodom sending down fire, and in the Sinai desert watching his people stiffen their necks. He had occasion once, and even more than once, to regret making mankind. And yet, yet…
Before he was Mary’s child, he was the Light. “God from God, light from light,” as the Creed confesses. As his cousin John preached, Jesus is the one greater because he came before John, though born after him. Mark this well, Jesus precedes all things, even, especially, me. We forget this. Our egos put ourselves before Christ, as if there was me, and then Jesus. As if I sinned (perhaps) and then God invented Jesus. No, before, when I was but a thought in the mind of God, Jesus was. In the beginning. With God. God. The Word without flesh.
Until that day when the Word became flesh, when in a moment repeated by billions of women, this One before began sketching out his after picture. It began, as Isaiah foretold it, with the Lord laying bare his arm. He rolled up the sleeve of his ineffable beyond understanding nature, his beforeness, and made it something visible and tangible, something, as the apostle John said later we could see, and hear and touch. Something Jesus assures us we can even taste in the sacrament. Pope Leo I, Leo the Great, summed it up well: “Divine majesty assumes human lowliness. Divine power assumes human weakness.”
We can’t help but look in the manger and compare the two pictures, before and after. Before: God from God. After: Mary’s Son. Before: creating and destroying. After: conceived, born, destroyed. Before: sustaining everything. After: needing sustenance. Before: dwelling in the heavenly lights. After: homeless.
But we fool ourselves if we compare Jesus’ before and after to our own. In our own, we are not what we used to be. We used to weigh more. Our house used to be different. Now we are not or it is not. Not so with Christ. This Jesus “after” retains all of his “before.” Always. We heard last night that amazing illustration from Dr. Luther. This keeps God in the balance scales, so that it is God’s life, God’s blood, God’s death, God’s martyrdom, God’s resurrection, God’s ascension. Here is why the great Before became this great After. Leo again: “For the purpose of paying the debt of our condition.”
It could be no other way. Our Lutheran Confessions talk about this before and after, Jesus being true man and true God, this way: “And if you could show me one place where God is and not the man, then the person is already divided and I could at once say truthfully, ‘Here is God who is not man and has never become man.’ But no God like that for me! For it would follow from this that space and place had separated the two natures from one another and thus had divided the person, even though death and all the devils had been unable to separate and tear them apart. This would leave me a poor sort of Christ, if He were present only at one single place, as a divine and human person, and if at all other places He had to be nothing more than a mere isolated God and a divine person without the humanity. No, comrade, wherever you place God for me, you must also place the humanity for me. They simply will not let themselves be separated and divided from each other. He has become one person and does not separate the humanity from Himself.”
We need Jesus before and after – together. Before he is so far from us, God dwelling in immortal, invisible light. After, he is God with us and God for us, the Word made our flesh and blood, yet still God from God and light from light. Again, we would have it no other way. Our confessions again: “[We] rejoice without ceasing in the fact that our flesh and blood is placed so high at the right hand of God’s majesty and almighty power. In this way we will certainly find constant consolation in every difficulty and remain well guarded against deadly error.”
This is Christmas. That the God before became the God after without mixing or changing or blurring and dulling or losing either. Truly God and truly man, truly conceived and born, truly living a priestly life on our behalf, truly dying a sacrificial death, pouring out God’s blood to pay our eternal debts, rising up still my God and my brother, and then pouring that same divine blood upon us and into us, giving us our own before and after. Before, children of the devil; after, children baptized into Christ. Before, starving souls aching for a drop from God; after, nourished on the very body and blood of God made flesh for me, devouring him in his meal, savoring him as he preaches to me through the lips of his servants that the Word became flesh, and yet remains the Word, and remains still the flesh. As Thomas cried out upon touching his resurrected Savior, “My Lord and my God!” We cry out the same, seeing him sleeping peacefully in a manger, knowing that soon, so soon, this Word grows into the man who tears the temple curtain by letting his body, his flesh be torn instead of ours, then walking through the curtain of the real temple, heaven, preparing the way for us, entering heaven not shed, finally of this terrible flesh, this terrible after, but eternally now linked to us, the Word, God, and also the flesh, our flesh, united in one person, one Jesus, one Christ, one God and Lord. Not a poor sort of Christ, but the Christ we need. Before, after, and always, my Lord and my God! Amen.