Sunday, January 2, 2022

God's Presence Brings Life: Children of Light

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. --John 1:1-18 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God, our Creator, and from Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Amen.

Welcome to the New Testament! For some of you, perhaps you’re breathing a sigh of relief. The Old Testament, or the Hebrew scriptures, which we’ve been focused on for the past several months, can be hard texts. Perhaps, it feels just a bit more comfortable to be back in the New Testament. Familiar ground for us. More familiar territory.

I listen each week to a podcast called Bibleworm. It features two scholars, who dig into our narrative lectionary text each week, coming from two perspectives, one Christian and the other Jewish. The Jewish scholar in this week’s podcast admitted how uncomfortable it was for her in the New Testament. Similar to our discomfort at times in the Old Testament.

But, today, we move into the gospel of John, which will become familiar territory for us from now through the spring, with the exception of the next two weeks. John doesn’t offer us a birth narrative. So, we’ll take a slight detour into Luke and Matthew in the coming weeks, then back into John through Easter and beyond.

The Jesus we find in John is often portrayed as some far away, highly spiritual, barely graspable Messiah. Karoline Lewis, a preaching professor at Luther Seminary, disagrees with this - claiming that, in fact, the Christ portrayed in John as a relational, deeply intimate Christ. The story of the incarnation itself - of God in Jesus coming to us. 

In the first half of the book, we will hear of Jesus’ miracles - signs are what they’re called in John. Their importance is not the miracle itself per se, but that they point to Jesus as the Messiah. The way in which these signs are interpreted is through dialogue - Jesus talking to people in conversation. So, as we move through John, you and I will be talking more in conversation. Less of a one-way discussion from me and more discovering together what God might be saying to us in these rich gospel texts. So, be prepared for a few questions along the way - questions that are not rhetorical but expecting a response. You’ll have to be on your toes!

Then, before we dig into the Prologue - this beginning poetry that sets out the themes we will hear through the gospel - I’d like to make a couple of background notes.

A key word to remember when reading John is “differentiation.” Here’s your first question. What is differentiation? Wait for responses. We could think of ourselves as teenagers. Differentiation is a process we all go through, when we are trying to find our own identity. Along the way, sometimes, we’re not very pleasant. In the same way, the gospel of John is speaking into a family argument, writing to a community within the broader Jewish family that has been ostracized for their belief in Jesus. They need to hear in no uncertain terms what Jesus means for them. And so, as in family arguments, sometimes we say harsh things we don’t necessarily mean, so, too, we will find harsh words mostly leveled against Jewish leaders as this Christian splinter group tries to understand who they are and where they fit in. Some of the language in John has been used as a basis for anti-Semitism. So, where we read about “the Jews” I will intentionally change this phrase to “the Jewish leaders.” A reminder - we are all ancestors of Abraham. And, as Liam and Lorelei discussed this week in confirmation, of Adam and Eve - one human family. 

Now let’s dig into John, chapter 1. “In the beginning” we read. “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. The author of this gospel was set in two worlds - a Jew fully immersed in the Torah. And a Greek thinker. So, there are references to the Hebrew scriptures and also some references to Stoic philosophy in this text. The word, “Word,” in Greek is logos. It is somewhat ambiguous in terms of gender. In Stoic philosophy, logos was understood as the organizing principle of the cosmos - the principle by which the whole world was held together. 

This is poetry. It requires us to slow down a little to make sense of it. We often read this text on Christmas Eve. But rarely do we take it apart to fully understand what it means. So, understanding the author’s perspective, when you hear these opening words, without using the name “Jesus,” what does this text remind you of and what might it be telling us? 

Continuing on, we read that 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. Do you notice in that last sentence, that the verb used with the word “light” is in the present tense. The verb used with darkness is in a “past” tense. What might that be saying to us?

Moving on, we have a couple of narrative sentences that tell us about John - not the author John, but the one we know as John the Baptist. This John was, according to historical accounts, much more significant than Jesus was in terms of followers. So, perhaps, these few sentences are inserted here to ensure that the listeners understand that John is not the Logos. The author is developing the idea that there is light in the world, but that it’s not always recognized by everyone. 

Continuing in verses 9-14, we read that the world did not know “him.” Kosmos is the world used here in Greek for world. It’s defined as those human structures that come into being through Jesus, but that don’t understand this. These structures of the world - these empires, using another term - think they are of their own origin - self created. Not recognizing that they are part of God’s reality, not their own ultimate reality. This ultimate reality is the kingdom of heaven that is inaugurated in Jesus. You and I participate in the kosmos. When our scripture texts rub up against our modern empires - those we participate in - we are challenged by these words. They can make us feel uncomfortable, angry even. But, perhaps that’s the point. Truth has an edge to it. Yet, grace is very open and accepting. So, where the truth rubs us and we make our best effort to act as children of God, grace fills in any gaps. This is what God’s only Son offers us. The truth. And then grace upon grace.

The Prologue ends with verse 18. Even as we grapple with this text today, the early Christians were grappling with something they couldn’t even fully articulate. That, in Jesus, we see the very nature of God. This is a God who leans more towards grace and away from some of the legalism they were hearing - that we still hear today in the Christian sect. That law matters more than gospel. The Jesus of John’s gospel tells us that this is not who God is. 

So, gathering all of this up, what might this text be saying to us, especially on this last Sunday of Advent? 

One understanding - and there are many ways in which to understand this text - but one understanding is that the Word of God, made present in Jesus is a light that has and will overcome the darkness of empire. That this is about where we live our lives. In the darkness of the human-made structures or in the light of the reign of God - a reign that is characterized by truth and grace upon grace upon grace - all of which opens up for us a new way of being in the world - as children of God.

May we be those children of light. Amen.

Preached December 19, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Advent 4
Readings: John 1:1-18; Psalm 130:5-8

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