Sermon on John 1:1-18 for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, Year B, Jan 4, 2015,
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.
For many people, 2014 was not the best of years. Facebook’s “Year in Review” was not welcomed by everyone. Year-end news reviews list international items including the ebola outbreak, ISIS militants, conflicts in Syria, Gaza, Russia and Ukraine, trouble with North Korea, and Malaysian airplane crashes. Here at home, the news has been filled with political deadlock, mythical conspiracy theories, and racial tensions at levels unheard of for decades.
On a personal level, we all have our own struggles. We have lost people we loved this past year too; some quite unexpectedly.
But there were some really good things that happened this past year too. In our family there were graduations and births to celebrate. I read some fantastic books last year, and made more progress in eliminating clutter in several areas from the closet to the email in-box. I am making space available for some new beginnings.
Here at the church we receive a major bequest that enabled us to take the bold step of adding full time staff, and we are already beginning to see the lasting fruit God is producing through the new ministries that have begun.
This is the beginning of 2015. Beginnings are good. They provide an opportunity to pause, to look back, to reflect, and to think about the future. A beginning is a chance for a fresh start. My prayer for all of us is that we will make use of the opportunity of a new year to pause and reflect and ask ourselves what new beginnings God wants for our lives this year.
John starts at the very beginning just like Genesis does. In fact John is consciously echoing the creation story. “In the beginning” is how it starts. In the beginning there was nothing ordered, nothing life-supporting until God spoke the words, “Let there be”. That is the word John begins with: in the beginning was the Word, the divine Logos.
By the way, just to be clear, I believe in God as creator, but I do not believe that the Genesis story was ever intended to be read literally. That being said, however, over the holidays I have been reading articles and hearing a number of lectures by scientists discussing theories of the origins of the universe and of life. Long story short: scientific theories are sounding downright metaphysical to me (a multiverse produced by vibrating strings?!), though as a non-scientist, I am not in a position to evaluate it.
But anyway, biblical accounts of origins are about theology: they invite us to a way of understanding God and humanity, and how we relate to each other.
So, in the beginning was the creative Word of God. That creative word spoke a life-sustaining, bountiful, healthy, harmonious, peaceful, world out of the formless void of chaos. God spoke the word, and created light where there had only been darkness before.
And in the original story, on the climactic sixth day, as a crowning achievement, God made humans in God’s own image, male and female. With another word, God blessed them with fruitfulness – well-being, human flourishing, eudaimonia. Our understanding of who we are starts here.
This is exactly what God wants for all of us. This is the place to start to understand what God is like: God is good, God’s physical world is good, and people like us are the special objects of God’s good will. God wills our life, our shalom, our well-being.
In that first creation story, there is a pristine state of closeness between God and humans. God walks and talks with Adam and Eve at the time of the evening breeze. People understand God’s word to them. They are in a state of communion. This is also what we were made for, and what we long for.
Of course that perfect world does not last long. The biblical story is completely open and honest about the tragic aspect of life. We humans have a remarkable capacity to mess things up. We all do. We make choices. Like Adam and Eve in the story, we are easily seduced. We blame others.
We wind up way outside the Garden. God feels distant – we all sense that. God’s word grows faint. We all long to re-establish contact. We sense that there is more for us; we want to hear the word, to know God, but we seem unable.
God’s Presence in the Word
As our Jewish ancestors reflected on the human condition – on both the blessed and tragic aspects of it, they thought about God’s presence in evolving ways. In the stories of the ancestors, God was in the distant heaven, communicating at a distance, often through dream states. Jacob dreams of a ladder on which angels go up and down to deliver God’s word to earth.
Moses gets closer to a direct experience with God, first at the burning bush, and then, up on the smoking Mount Sinai where he saw God’s glory from behind. He comes down with Torah, God’s word now written on tablets of stone.
Moses orders a tabernacle tent-shrine made as the people wander in the wilderness, and he deposits God’s written word inside it. This will symbolize God’s presence among the people. The tabernacle and the word travel with the people to the promised land. People in those days spoke of God’s presence as a tabernacling presence.
Eventually Solomon builds a permanent temple so God’s word moves from the tabernacle tent into its new home in the holy of holies, inside the holy place, inside the concentric temple courts. Only the high priest may enter, and only on the one sacred day, and only after elaborate rites.
But God’s word and presence is more dynamic than that. Jewish people knew that God’s creative word could not be contained in a human box in a man-made temple. God had things to say to people that needed to be said at a far deeper level than words on stone could go.
So, in the Jewish tradition, prophets emerged who spoke the word of God in new and fresh ways – often confronting the people in control, speaking truth to power – even to the kings and priests. The prophetic word broke out of the box and demanded that a new light shine onto the man-made darkness of evil, injustice and corruption.
Prophets cried out, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like and everflowing stream.” They pictured a new day, a new beginning on which God’s anointed would come, full of grace and truth.
The God who was high and lifted up, enthroned, as in Isaiah’s vision, and the Chariot vision of Ezekiel, would one day do a new thing through an anointed one, a Messiah, one like a human, a son of man.
The Jewish Wisdom Tradition
In the Jewish tradition, after the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Babylonians, a new concept developed. God’s word also took another form. God’s creative word could call out to ordinary people outside of temples and apart from priests and prophets. God could be known in common and ordinary life, if a person was open and humble.
Like a lady calling out to people, God’s word was wisdom, sophia, inviting people to find life and favor; grace.
At the end of a poetic hymn to lady wisdom, who was with God and part of God’s means of creation of the world, she says,
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the LORD; (Prov. 8:35)
As wisdom, God’s word was immanent; present to ordinary people. God could touch life directly. To walk in wisdom is to walk with God personally, intimately.
The Jesus Path
“In the beginning was the Logos, Wisdom the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He, the Logos, the Word, was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him (the Word), and without him (the Word) not one thing came into being.”
The Logos-Word not only brought the world into existence, it then enlightened the world:
What has come into being” in him (the Word) was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
And, amazingly, John says this word showed up among us in the flesh:
“And the Word became flesh and lived (literally “tabernacled”) among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Is it now possible to see God? John says,
“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.”
People who encountered Jesus, encountered in him, the living union with God they had been longing for. In Jesus, God has been made known.
They saw in Jesus a life lived in communion with the Creator. They witnessed a life lived in the light so immediately present that no amount of darkness could overcome it. They came to understand that Jesus’ way was the way of wisdom, the way of walking in the presence of God, the way of life.
A New Beginning Moment for Us
Here, at the beginning of 2015, we have come to a moment of newness – at least an opportunity to make this moment a new beginning.
The message we need to hear first is the message of Creation: God is Good. God created each of us in God’s image to live in communion with God. God desires our blessing, our fruitfulness, our well-being.
The second message we need to hear is that God is present to us. God is not confined in a box, and God’s dynamic word is not limited to letters chiseled on stone. God is not contained in a temple’s inner sanctum, but is present with us, among us, in every moment.
God’s presence comes as a light in the darkness. God’s light brings insight into our human condition and shows us that in spite of our human tendency to mess things up, God is here to give us grace upon grace, in fact, full of grace and truth.
The path to transformation, to newness, is the Jesus path. It is the path of a full-hearted embrace of God, as Jesus did, without fear or shame or guilt. The Jesus path leads to knowing “I and the Father are One.” “That they may be one as we are one” Jesus prayed.
The Jesus path is the journey-inward of spiritual practices of prayer, meditation and silence, of communion and worship.
And then the Jesus path leads outwards to God’s people – the ones who are sick, the untouchables, the hungry, and the lost sheep.
So, here, at the beginning of 2015, let us pause for a time of reflection. Where in our lives is newness needed?
Let us all ask: What are the practices and disciplines we need to make space for in our lives in a new way this year?
How can we follow the Jesus path and experience enlightenment in new ways?
Come! Make a new start. Follow the Jesus path to God.