A Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day
30 December 2012
Kim Baker Glenn, Parish Seminarian
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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.
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.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Christmas is such a beautiful season, isn’t it? All the candles and lights and decorations are so dazzling to look at. It’s such a visual gift! And we get to see our friends and relatives that we might not have seen for a while. There are lots of Kodak moments that happen at Christmas, for sure. All that visual loveliness got me thinking about the power that pictures have over us. Have you ever thought about how often images show up in your daily life? There are advertisements literally everywhere – in the morning paper, on television, even at the movies these days. And then there are the icons that dot our computer screens; images that point us to where we need to go. Images are powerful things. They have the power to break open hearts and let God in.
In the biblical world, the images are created through story. Words.
Good and gifted writers search for exactly the right words to evoke images in order to help the reader understand precisely what is meant. When the words and the image work well together, they have a profoundly meaningful and long lasting effect; even on us these thousands of years later. The text this morning comes from the first chapter including the first verse of John’s gospel. John was the kind of gifted writer who crafted lasting images.
Each of the Bible’s four gospels has distinct combinations of words and images that identify it as unique. Last week, we were immersed in the scriptural world ofBethlehemawaiting the birth of Jesus. We were drawn into the nativity stories from Matthew and Luke by their familiar words and images. Each year we look forward to seeing Mary and Joseph and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger. The words and images used in Matthew and Luke symbolize Jesus’ complete humanity.
John’s gospel is different. What we see and hear from John seems completely removed fromBethlehem. The change in imagery makes us stop and take notice. It’s kind of like the experience of cruising down the interstate and seeing the image of flashing blue lights just ahead. I think you probably know what I mean. Maybe I’m cruising along at a legal speed; but I pause and check the speedometer anyway to be sure I’m inside the limits. Or maybe I’m cruising at just a hair (or more!) above what’s legal and I take a deep breath – and slow… it …. down. And if I’m wise, I keep it there. I have to make a physical and mental adjustment to stay with the new pace.
For some Christians today, encountering the gospel of John is a little like encountering the flashing blue lights. The change in the words and images is so striking that it catches some people off guard. They see the images but they are hard to interpret. The images that capture the experience John is describing are challenging to our own experience. The experience of John seems miles away from the experience we have in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
The Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke is there in John’s story; but he’s not there, too. Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John’s gospel was written for a community that only knew Jesus through their experience of him as the risen Christ. John’s description of Jesus’ temporal beginning matches his own community’s experience of him. Jesus for them was larger and more far-reaching than Jesus as contained within the Jewish community. In John’s late first century community that was composed of Jews and Gentiles, those who had faith in Jesus experienced a life changed for the better. They had felt the power of Jesus coming from above and beyond them and that power worked to transform them. John could only describe that power as divine.
John’s aim in writing was to make Jesus recognizable as the Son of God. The words and images he used may seem foreign to us as compared to the other three gospels, but they were images prevalent in his time. By the time John wrote, the Hebrew culture that had provided the basis for the Torah had faded in prominence and influence. The powerful reigns of King David and King Solomon had long since passed. The occupation and oppression of theRoman Empirehad led ultimately to their holy temple’s destruction. Inside John’s community there were increasing numbers of Gentiles who had been completely immersed in the Greco-Roman culture. They understood the story of God’s people from a different perspective.
As a skilled writer, John used of vivid verbal images that linked the traditional Hebrew foundations with the influential philosophy of the Greek world. The text for today begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Can you hear the echo of the first verse of Genesis? In the beginning. The first verse of the first chapter of Genesis sets up the story of the creation of the world and the entire cosmos. Genesis chapter 1 verse 1 reads, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” The connection is clear. In his gospel, John was intentionally linking the community’s experience of Jesus to the creation story in Genesis. This story, John’s story, was linked most particularly to God’s divine Word.
In Genesis, God does a lot of speaking. When God speaks, something happens. On the first day, God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light! On each of the first six days, by his speaking God transformed thoughts into created reality. In our text, John has woven this Hebrew concept of divine speech together with the Greek concept of “logos.” Greek philosophers had conceived “logos” as the inspirational logic behind the forces of the cosmos. These two images would have been very familiar to the people in John’s community.
A Jewish philosopher of the period named Philo had first generated the notion of combining the Greek and Hebrew ideas. John aptly applied this concept to his community’s experience of Jesus. I wonder if I might ad-lib a line to add to the Genesis story, sort of a creation story part two. I think it is compatible with John’s intent. The new line would go something like this, “And God said, ‘Let my self be born from the womb of Mary the virgin.’” That’s how John saw it. There, in the form and flesh of the baby Jesus, God’s self was born into the world. Through the tiny human baby Jesus, God had brought his fulfillment of life and light for the benefit of all of creation. And it was good.
But John recognized that there was a problem. In our text this morning John says, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” There were those who did not recognize Jesus as the savior. The people closest to Jesus– his friends, his family, his neighbors – rejected him as crazy or possessed.
What about us? Do we love to love the baby Jesus, who asks nothing of us but adoration; and then doubt the man Jesus who asks much of us, like his own disciples did? Do we really seek and serve Christ in all persons, as our Baptismal covenant asks of us? I for one am grateful for the cyclical nature of the church’s liturgical calendar. It brings us around each year to reassess our commitment to Christ at Christmas and at Easter. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, in the season of advent, we set aside time once again to prepare our hearts and minds to receive Christ; to get ready again to follow him on his journey to the cross. Human frailty being what it is, each and every year we need the chance to try again to get it right.
The challenge before us is to develop our individual relationships with Christ such that we each become more like Him. The challenge is personal and it is for the whole community of St. Mary’s and the world. We are challenged to become individual Christ-bearers and, here at church, a Christ-bearing team. The world we live in continues to contain dark places where Christ is not recognized; not acknowledged; not accepted. Together let’s allow John’s powerful words and images to break open our hearts, exposing them not to the darkness in the world but to the transforming light of Christ. On our own and as the community of St. Mary’s Church, we can transform those dark places to light. Together we can be the light that we hope to see in the world.