Sermon on John 1:1-18 for January 5, 2014, the Second Sunday after Christmas Year A
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.
The Gospel of Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus with foreign Magi presenting royal gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the story he tells is not about a powerfully connected family, but about a family of political refugees, fleeing the country to escape king Herod’s brutality.
The Gospel of Luke tells the story with angels singing in the sky about “glory,” but they sing to shepherds – men who never passed the GED exam, who cannot find any better work than to play night-watchmen to sheep. They find the baby in an inglorious place fit for animals.
John has time to think about it – probably writing his gospel sixty years after Jesus’ physical presence. The result of his reflections amazes us.
The source of all creation, John says, the divine “Word” as he calls God, “moves into the neighborhood,” pitches his tent on our campgrounds; puts on human flesh, complete with tear ducts and a tummy.
John speaks in conundrums: Jesus is both flesh and blood, and at the same time, John says, he is life itself; he is light shining in the darkness.
He has family, kin, “his own” people; he is so human, so normal. And yet from him we receive “grace and truth” in ways that even Moses the law-giver himself only hinted at.
He is a person who sweats and sleeps, and yet his presence comes as radiant “glory” – “the glory of an only son.”
He gets hungry and eats food, and yet from him we receive “fulness.” What are we to make of this?
Who is God to Us?
The questions John is struggling to answer are these: How are we to know God? How should we imagine God? What is God to us?
These are our questions.
John came from a Jewish tradition that forbad picturing God. God could be encountered – like Elijah encountered God – but not in something you could see, not even in the overwhelming power of a tornado, or an earthquake or even a raging fire. After all the sound and fury, Elijah encountered God, we read, in “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19).
Is that helpful? To say that God is known in “the sound of sheer silence” tells us almost nothing. “Hints and guesses” perhaps is all.
John’s Jewish tradition has a hero – Moses – who has several encounters with God. In the first, he learns God’s name. We read about Moses approaching the mysterious, eerie bush that burns perpetually without being consumed, and from it hears a voice. God’s name, says the voice is “I am who I am” – in Hebrew, “Yahweh” – pure being; source of all being. Existence itself.
Pictures of our history
Before we went abroad to be missionaries, Michelle and I were told to take with us pictures of our families – our parents, our brothers and sisters. So we did. But I wasn’t sure anybody would want to see my personal family photos – it seemed like a certain way to bore people.
In fact, it turned out to be good advice. As I saw people looking with interest at the pictures, I remembered the reason they gave us for bringing them. They told us that pictures of our families would vouchsafe our history to them.
There is something deeply human and wonderful about that. We don’t know each other really at all, until we know each others’ histories.
How do we know God? John admits that “No one has ever seen God.” We know God by knowing God’s history. Only, the problem we have is that our God has no history. No history apart from our human history, that is.
God has no back story. There is no Mount Olympus where God lived in mythic time; no wife, no children like Zeus or Apollo. There is no epic war story we can tell, about the battle in the heavens, the cosmic conflict, the defeat of the forces of chaos like Marduk had.
The only history God has, starts with human history. “In the beginning,” God makes a world and human persons to inhabit it. God’s story, as told in the bible, is co-extensive with the story of humanity.
The way John tells it, the story of the God whose history begins with our history reaches its climax when our story and God’s story combine into one. God becomes flesh; human.
But that way of saying it is helpful to us, only when we say it the other way, from the other side: we humans come to know God in Jesus. From now on, we come to understand God as the God who values humans so much that God embraced every single experience of our humanity: “the Word became flesh” and lived as a person. God embraces every aspect of what it means to be what we are: people.
“No one has ever seen God,” John tells us, but, he continues, “It is God the only Son…who has made him known.”
So the gospels tell us that John the baptist started gathering people to prepare them by repentance, for the coming of Jesus. They went down to the Jordan, confessed their sins and felt the water of baptism wash over them. It was into those rinse-waters that Jesus also went, identifying with humanity in all of its darkness, ugliness and brokenness.
When we gather, as we do today, to encounter and to see the risen Christ among us in the Eucharist, let us remember that we do not see Christ in the bread. Rather, we see Christ in the breaking of the bread. Broken bread, representing a broken body reveals God as Jesus revealed God to us: as a human, who could and did suffer as we suffer, bleed as we bleed, and even die as we all will die.
When we affirm, as John tells us, that “God so loved the world that he sent his Son” we mean that God loves the world of real people – like us; without the make-up, without the shower and clean change of clothing. People with histories – some of which are very dark and broken indeed.
The God whose history is bound up with people, who became a person changes our entire perspective. We can never look at other people the same after embracing this story.
We can never be content to be passive when we become aware of human pain and suffering. We can never turn away from people who are hungry, people who spend nights like these outside. We can never turn a blind eye to the harm that people suffer at the hands of others.
We are the people of the God who became a person. The God who showed us how important it is that we care for other people, just as he did; just as he does, tear ducts, tummies and all.
People Who Take Care
I would like to end with a poem entitled “People Who Take Care” by Nancy Henry from Hard. (© MuscleHead Press, heard on Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, 11 Feb. 2006) (punctuation added)
People who take care of people
get paid less than anybody.
People who take care of people
are not important to most other people,
– are not respected by many other people,
– come and go without much fuss –
unless they don’t show up when needed.
People who make more money:
– tell them what to do,
– never get [filth] on their hands,
– never mop vomit or wipe tears,
– don’t stand in danger of having plates thrown at them,
sharing every cold,
observing agonies they cannot tell at home.
People who take care of people
have a secret
that sees them through the double shift,
that moves with them from room to room,
that keeps them on the floor;
sometimes they fill a hollow no one else can fill;
sometimes through the [filth]and blood and tears,
they go to a beautiful place,
those clean important people
have never been.
We are here today because of Jesus, who did not come as a “clean important” person. We come together because Jesus came among us through “blood and tears,” to join us in that beautiful place, that hollow, in which we are human. That broken, dark place, that we long to be flooded with his light and life; that hungry place, needing to know his grace and truth in its fulness.
We come because “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”