John Chapter 1
I think I can guess what at least some of you are thinking this morning. “Why on earth are we hearing that Christmas reading again?” Others of you are probably thinking “He’s taken down the crib – at last – but he’s forgotten to take down the star!”
Well, you’d be wrong. I haven’t forgotten, you see. I’ve left the star up quite deliberately. Because – I think - that poor old star needs a bit more prominence in the Christian story. As for why we are being asked by the Lectionary writers to think about the Word becoming flesh again….well, let me try to explain.
Everyone loves a story. Stories are powerful ways to communicate – which is precisely why Jesus used parables, and why we all love movies and books. The Christmas Story that we’ve just worked our way through is one of the best. It’s the perfect combination of rustic shepherds, visiting magicians, angels and animals….and there’s a baby in it, just to finish off the ‘Ah!’ factor. At least, that’s all according to Luke and Matthew.
But John, writing his Gospel some decades after Luke and Matthew, is not interested in shepherds and wise men. Scholars tell us that John wrote his Gospel in his old age – after a lifetime of spreading the message of Jesus. No doubt the stories about wise men and shepherds were already circulating widely. John didn’t need to re-hash them. So he goes deeper…much deeper than a typical Christmas congregation is ready to grasp. Such congregations are usually too high on Christmas Spirit (of one form or another) to want to do any meaningful theology. Which is why, I think, the Lectionary writers give us one more bite at the cherry, at this moment in the year.
After a lifetime of teaching and learning, John wants us to grasp the enormity of the Christmas event, the coming of Jesus, what scholars call the ‘Incarnation’. ‘Incarnation’ describes the in-dwelling of God in human form. The ‘Incarnation’ is that moment when God, who is Spirit, takes on human flesh.
There are two words which John especially plays with, in his poetic Gospel introduction. The first is ‘Word’, and the second is ‘Light’. Let me see if we can’t break them down a little.
‘Word’ is the English translation of ‘Logos’ – a Greek word from where we get the word ‘logic’. John is saying that the incomprehensible being we call God is many things – spirit, love, a creative force that binds the universe together. But God is also mind. God has thoughts. He – or indeed she - has desires and intentions for the world that has been created. God’s thoughts, God’s logic, God’s reason – these are the ‘Logos’ – the ‘Word’. “In the beginning was the Word” – the Logos – “and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. It’s one of those great big thoughts that we human beings struggle to get our tiny brains around – that God can be thought of as having different aspects, but each of them is also fully God’. So, God’s reason, his Word, can be part of God as well being completely God. “The word was with God and “was God”.
And, John is saying, that ‘Word’ is the aspect of God which became human and dwelt among us. Again – incomprehensible, isn’t it? How can an aspect of God become human, while not dividing God up into different people? If God is on earth, in the form of Jesus, how can he also be still in heaven? And how come Jesus (God the Son on earth) prays to God the Father in heaven? Is he talking to himself? It’s enough to make your brain explode! And that’s ok. We are limited, created beings. We cannot ever begin to grasp the reality of God – and anyone who tells you that they have understood God is a fool.
So, confronted with the sheer enormity of what he’s trying to say, John chooses a different picture. He uses a metaphor. He has stated the truth as clearly as he can grasp it, by talking about the ‘Word’ dwelling among us. But now he chooses a different tack, and begins to talk about ‘Light’.
Ah! That’s better. ‘Light’ we can understand. We know about Light. We see its effects. We know that even a tiny spark of light cannot be extinguished by the darkness. We know that if this church was completely darkened, save for one candle, all our attention would be focused on that single solitary light.
“In Jesus”, says John, “was life, and that life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.
And that, ultimately, is the message of Christmas, and the good news of the Gospel. Darkness is all around us. The darkness of war, and famine, and poverty, and homelessness and selfishness and consumerism and racism and fear of the stranger and all hatred and rebellion against the reason and logic of God. “But the light shines in the darkness”.
In Jesus, through his teaching, his life, and yes even by his death, life is offered to the world. Jesus’ whole life is offered to us, by John and the other Gospel writers, as The narrow Way to life. His way of living – generously, lovingly, wisely, sacrificially is offered to us as an example of what God’s logic and reason look like. Generosity, Love, Wisdom and Sacrifice. These are signposts for us. Generosity, Love, Wisdom and Sacrifice. Lights in the darkness. Clues to how we too should live, if we truly want to find life. And clues about how we can choose to live if we truly want to shine God’s love into the lives of those around us.
Last week, at the end of our service, we lit candles and held them aloft, promising to be lights to the world. Three times, in response to challenges from David at the Font, the whole congregation said “Let us shine with the Light of your Love”. So let me ask you…how’s it going? Where have you shined God’s light of love this week, the first week since you made that commitment?
Generosity. What new generosity have you shown this week? Who has been touched, or had their life transformed by your gift. Did you remember to bring a gift for the foodbank to church this morning? Well done, if you did. Has the suffering of one Syrian refugee been relieved by your generosity this week. Thank you. Or perhaps you gave a gift to help pay for the costs of keeping this church shining as a light in its community, such as the repair to the West Door. Thank you, if you did.
Love. Who has experienced your love this week? Who has woken up this morning feeling lighter, less burdened, more deeply regarded because of the Love you have shown them. Well, I bless you for showing that Love.
Wisdom. How have you grown in wisdom this week? Which passages of the Bible that you have undoubtedly been reading have struck you with new insight? What wise decisions have you made about the lifestyle you lead, or the consumer-choices you’ve made?
And finally, sacrifice. Sacrifice is more than simple generosity. To sacrifice is to give until it hurts. Sacrifice is what Jesus made on the cross. Sacrifice is the change of mind which knows that nothing I own belongs to me…but everything is God’s. Sacrifice is the act of giving up everything, all possessions, all rights, all privileges for the greater, deeper, mind-blowing privilege of shining God’s light into God’s world. It’s about putting everyone else first, holding nothing back…but being poured out completely for the good of the world.
Stars make that kind of sacrifice. In order to continue shining their light into the heavens, a star must continue to sacrifice itself, constantly. To shine, for a star, is to burn up its resources in the service of the Universe. Eventually, after all the hydrogen in a star is burned up, the Star will die. It will give itself completely to its task.
That’s why I’ve left the star hanging there for one more week. We have Christmas in our memories, and the promises of Candlemass in our hearts. May we also be reminded that we too, like Jesus, are called to give ourselves completely to the task of shining God’s light into our world.