Sunday, December 31, 2017
God's Word, God's Lyric, God's Song: Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas B
Here we are in the first full week of Christmas, and many of us are celebrating the joys of the season: the gathering of friends and family; time off from work (unless you are employed by a church!); the pleasures of hospitality and generosity.
And then there are the new beginnings that loom:
the turning of the winter solstice so that finally the days will start to grow longer for those of us who long for the sun;
the beginning of a brand new year, which we hope will bring us peace;
for those of us who are still football fans even after the Rams debacle there is the start of the play-off season and the Chiefs are still clinging to the top of the AFC West by a hair;
and for those of us who are baseball fans there is the fact that pitchers and catchers report for spring training in 6 weeks. SIX! WEEKS!
And there is ALWAYS a new book to read!
But the most important beginning of the season is the one that all too often gets brushed aside: here in the time of darkness, a rekindling of light—the light of God. The joy of the newborn Christ-child, the Son of God entering time, taking on human flesh, opening a new way for God to be revealed to us and to show us the way to live into our full potential as human. For many of us, that is indeed the best beginning of them all.
The very first sentence of our gospel lays out four overlapping images or ideas to explore as we celebrate this joyful revelation. The very first words of our gospel are carefully chosen to remind us of the power of God’s longing to be known to and loved by us, and for us to be transformed by that love ourselves, knowing that, just like Mary, we all, through faith and grace, have found favor with God. Let’s look at what John’s gospel says to us in its first few words.
In the beginning…
It is right and proper to put so much emphasis on the start of things. For 27 years, I spent a large part of my career trying to teach students how to write, and one point I always made was how important it was to get the reader’s attention in one’s opening words. Many a brilliant idea had been lost because the person expressing the idea started off in a nonsensical or pointless way. The first words we say carry a heavy burden to set the story that follows.
Note that the first words of the Gospel of John are the same ones as begin the Bible in Genesis: “In the beginning…” This is deliberate. Thus there is a multiplicity of meaning here. This is the beginning of the Gospel. It echoes the beginning of Genesis, and the word Genesis itself means “Beginning.”
In the beginning was the Word…
This beginning in the opening of John’s Gospel is BEFORE the beginning in Genesis, with the creation story appearing only about the third verse in. It roots God’s word, which we understand as Jesus, as existing before creation and thus before the beginning of time. There is no nativity story here filled with angels and shepherds and cattle. For John, the actual beginning lies in eternity, long before human time was reckoned.
In our time right now, perhaps more than ever, we are reminded that words actually do matter. Words can both build up and words can destroy. Words have a power that lingers long after the voice fades or the page is turned. Many of us have been brought to tears by words of love and approval as well as by words of condemnation and contempt.
The story of the beginning of our relationship with God is grounded in the power of words. The Genesis story makes it clear that creation comes about as part of God’s longing for relationship. After each and every act in the first creation account, God announces and pronounces—announcing what is going to be created, and it is then created. God then pronounces the goodness of what has been created, and is satisfied.
We are meant to remember that God speaks creation into being, and creation answers. From that moment of creation God has and continues to engage in conversation with creation and with all that dwells therein. Creation is ongoing— the words of the New Zealand Prayer Book puts it beautifully in its Night Prayer liturgy when it states: our help is in the name of the eternal God, who is making the heavens and the earth.”
God’s Word itself in that first story in the Bible had the power to create, to create order and beauty and light out of chaos and nothingness. Even before the universe was created, God’s Word already was waiting to join with God in the work of creation. Yet the Word that is with God at the start of our story is no ordinary word, but God’s only Son. This Word is eternal. The Word that is present at the start of time continues to move in our own age, and can only be properly spoken of in the present tense: Christ is born for us! Christ teaches us! Christ loves us! Christ is Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…
This Word shares all of God’s power that we have seen testified to in the Isaiah passage and in Psalm 147. Jesus brings life as light which darkness cannot overcome or vanquish or grasp.
The most powerful thing that moves among us is that which is spoken by God. God spoke creation into being. John’s gospel takes this a step further: the Word itself was the agent of creation of all that is, was, or ever shall be.
Look back at Genesis, chapter 1: at each step, God says, “Let there be….” And then there IS. There is light, sky, land, plants, light in the sun, and moon, and the stars, and then animals, and finally humans. It is the speaking that brings forth existence. It is the speaking that creates. Words are where the power is, and the Word contains all the power of God—and yet becomes finite flesh, and pitches his tent among us. God reveals who God is THROUGH God’s Word.
This is the music and poetry of creation. This is why we are told over and over again to SING our praise to God in the psalms. Jesus is God’s song, singing out into the cosmos, ordering and organizing it through God’s message of love, which is inscribed in our very beings. That Word calls us to join in the conversation that brought all things into being, and be transformed.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.
God is here and lives among us. God is in our standing to sing, in our kneeling to confess and pray. God is in our washing the dishes and reading our children to sleep. God is in each heart that seeks to make a little peace rather than make war. God is in each of us in our laughter and our tears. As Rowan Williams pointed out in a reflection on the first verse of John’s gospel, making the Word synonymous and existent eternally with God has profound implications. It means that we should always be discovering what Jesus does and who Jesus is, not what Jesus DID and who Jesus WAS. God’s action through God’s Word, Jesus Christ, continues eternally—it is not confined to a dusty corner of the Mediterranean, 2000 years ago.
In addition to speaking of Jesus as the Word of God, John’s prologue uses the metaphor of light—light which makes things visible. Jesus came to light the way for us to know God more fully, by making humanity the vessel of holiness God always meant for us to be. Jesus came to point the way to God, our gospel reminds us, and John came to point the way to Jesus. We know that in many cases, Jesus and John were not believed, even by their own followers. And so it is for us today. Far too many people see only darkness.
We are called as disciples of Christ so that we too can point to the Holy One of God, in our words, our attitudes, and our actions. Yet we live in a time when so many do not see the light of God in the world. Sometimes, parts of the Church act as if all that God will ever reveal to us was concluded either 2000 years ago on a cross. Yet we do not worship a poor carpenter who was executed 2000 years ago—we worship a living, risen Savior who continues to seek out the lost and those in need of healing and joyful reconciliation every day.
Jesus is God’s lyric, singing through us to transform the world.
Is that the truth we tell?
Do our own “small-w” words help bring joy and peace and hope into the world?
Do we continue to proclaim the Word of God in all we do?
Do we continue to remember how good it is to praise God, as our psalm reminds us, and to remember that the conversation still continues through Christ’s living presence within our lives right now, and to make room for God’s ongoing creation both within us and in the world around us?
Our Gospel reminds us that God becomes human, an embodied being, so that humans could ourselves embody the life God dreams for us. God’s Son gives us an example and calls us to follow him, so that we can fully embody God’s love and healing power in the world. God loves us too much to want to leave us untransformed. That’s the good news! Even when there is darkness, darkness cannot defeat the light of Christ that shines from each one of Jesus’s disciples—in fact, darkness only makes clear how dear and precious the light is.
Jesus Christ continues to create in us and transform us through the power of love that sang all that is into being. May we echo with that song as well, and point the way to God’s light, the way of life.
Isaiah 61:10- 62:3
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
Preached at Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Lake St. Louis, MO, on December 31, 2017.