Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
I often counsel couples not to try to read each other’s minds. When we think we have understood another so well that we can predict the next words to come out of their mouths, or the next thing they will do, we run a serious risk of taking them for granted. Only as another voluntarily reveals her or his intentions, or shares thoughts with us, can we truly come to understand. This is true of God. Even though we can guess something of God’s power and artistry from the material world around us, we would not know God’s love apart from Jesus Christ. It was God’s plan from the beginning to embody the essence of what God is up to in this person. Everything we do or think as individual believers or as congregations or larger bodies of Christians, stems from our understanding of God’s intentions as we study and interact with Christ. That we are called to be servants, that we are called to forgiveness and peace, that we are challenged to live non-violently, that our neighbors are loved by God, all these central ideas stem from the life we see in Jesus Christ. That we live, not for our own glory, but for the glory of Christ, is based on our comprehension of his selfless life (Eph 1:13-14).
Perhaps worshipers should arrive to a dead and darkened sanctuary, and as the gospel passage for the day is read, the lights should gradually come up, candles be lit, and the sanctuary flooded with light by the end of the reading. We should make an impression not just on the minds of worshipers, but on their hearts and senses as well. Perhaps, in the darkened sanctuary, people could be seated by flashlight. Perhaps a hymn so familiar, like Open My Eyes, could be sung from memory, so no light would be necessary. Perhaps stories could be told about the importance of light, stimulating the development and nurturing of life, vitamin D, photosynthesis, photography, and other processes that need light to work. The close relationship between light and energy could be explored.
I often refer to the prologue of John as the “cosmic Christmas story,” because it lets us in on what was going on in the ground of being before the tangible creation happened. Projecting some Hubble space telescope photographs would be of great visual impact, perhaps blended with images of Byzantine dome paintings, because in the Eastern Church, Christ as “pantokrator” is the governing iconic image. Christ Pantokrator is a term based on the Greek “Pantokratoros,” or “all powerful,” clearly a name of God in God’s essence. It is a Johannine word, found only once in Paul (2 Corinthians 6:18), but found numerous times in the Apocalypse of John, where it is customarily translated into the English “Almighty,” or “all powerful.” Such a “cosmic Christ” lifts the Christmas story from its familiar Christmas card stereotypes, and carries the preacher into the realms of cosmology, a very hot topic now in popular literature. The literature of science, with names like Stephen Hawking, Timothy Ferris, Brian Greene and others who are exploring the ultimate nature of the universe, and coming up with some rather exotic, even metaphysical, ways of writing about such matters.
The eternity and primacy of Christ in his pre-incarnational being is revealed in the prologue, where John’s first image of Christ is as the pre-existent “logos,” a word much in vogue in 1st Century C.E. Judaism, for example, as used by Philo of Alexandria., whose allegorical interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures were well known in the 1st Century C.E. The term Logos translated “the Word” in most English translations of John’s gospel, was a popular term in Greco-Roman culture in the Hellenistic world. It was taken up by Philo, in his synthesis of Greek philosophy and Hebrew theology, as a translation of the Hebrew “davar” (speech, discourse, saying, word, matter, thing, word of command, advice, counsel, word of God). As this word passed into the world of Hellenistic thought syncretized with Hebrew theology, it took on serious metaphysical implications. The logos in John’s prologue is an identification of Jesus as this pre-existent Word of God, who then became enfleshed, incarnate, as the Jesus who was baptized by John.
The eighteen verses in the gospel reading are rich with images for Christ. He is not only the logos, the pre-existent Word through whom all of the cosmos was created, he is the phos, “light” and the phos to aleithinon, the “true light” which was coming into the world (words reminiscent of Messiahship). He has a glory “like that of a father’s only son” (vs. 14), and ranks ahead of the prophet John the baptizer, because he “was before him” (again reference to the preexistent being of the Word). From his “fullness” (pleiromatos) we have received many gifts and graces, “grace upon grace.” He is the revealer, the one who, since he alone is “close to the Father’s heart,” has made know the true nature of God.
This is one of the most magnificently composed texts in all the scriptures. It is a challenge in that it tells the “Christmas Story,” the story of the incarnation, in such lofty and referential terms, unlike Luke’s shepherds and Matthew’s Magi. Here we are taken to the primal realities of the cosmos, and we see Christ in his pre-existence, in his creative power, before he was enfleshed as Jesus of Nazareth. When preaching this text, I like to enrich it with plenty of references to contemporary studies of the nature of the universe. If visual projection is available use of some of the stunning photographs readily available from the Hubble research, and NASA sources. Images that use light, or indeed the judicious use of laser light while this text is being read, would also be stunning.
Jeremiah 31:7-14 is a hymn of redemption, a word of hope spoken in the midst of despair. The prophet can see the intent of God to restore the people, indeed the whole nation of Israel, since Jerusalem was formerly the capital of a united people. on the heights of Zion, all the restored people will rejoice, and indeed, God calls the listeners to sing with gladness. Restoring the exiles to Zion will be a cause for rejoicing for everyone; redemption will have occurred. Clearly hope and redemption are the themes for this first Sunday of the new year. It is often challenging for preachers to speak of hope in trying times. Many in our congregations may feel a degree of despair about the current world political situation. Many will have tragedies in their own lives with which they are struggling. Yet, in these times it is more important than ever to preach the positive words of hope and redemption as elements of God’s good news in Jesus Christ. The millions of refugees around the world, in Chad (from Darfur, Sudan), in other parts of Africa, among Palestinians, Albanians, Kurds, Bosnians, and the list goes on and on, remind us that being safe at home is something that should never be taken for granted. Imagine the challenge to the prophet to speak words of hope to exiles, refugees, captives in a foreign land. The Spirit of God speaking through Jeremiah had brought first words of challenge and judgment, but then words of redemption, restoration and hope. Our God is a redeeming, reconciling, restoring God. It is easy to say that in hindsight. It has always been a challenge to proclaim God’s steadfast love and hope in desperate times. Sometimes we think of “prophetic preaching” only in terms of judgment and condemnation. We must remember that truly prophetic preaching also brings the word of hope in seemingly hopeless situations. Condemnation is never God’s last word: redemption, resurrection, refreshment, restoration, renewal, these are also prophetic words, and we dare not preach without them, or we run the risk of losing our balance, and misrepresenting God’s intentions.
Ephesians 1 returns us to the prologue to John’s gospel, in its cosmic setting. Here the imprisoned Apostle Paul reveals God’s intention as not to condemn, but to redeem and restore, and that in fact that has been God’s intention throughout the length and breadth of salvation history. While English translations do not reflect this, in Greek this passage is one long unbroken sentence! Have you ever been so excited by something that your joy and enthusiasm just poured out? It seems clear that as Paul dictated to his secretary, he never even took a breath before, in this long sentence, he described as fully as possible God’s plan to gather up all things in Christ. Here, Christ becomes the fulcrum on which the lever representing all creation is balanced. Across the reaches of time and eternity, all things are summed up in Christ. What Christ embodied of God’s nature, God’s intentions, God’s purpose for all creation, that love incarnate is the central truth of all existence.
The great theme of John 1, the Word, could be emphasized. The power of a word, and the creative power of The Word, could be illustrated. The powerful images of John 1 as they describe the person and work of Christ will deepen a believer’s appreciation of the gift we celebrated at Christmas. Christ will light our way into the new year. The creative Word will bring us wisdom and power as we seek to faithfully worship and serve.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
The Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 was fought after the peace treaty had already been signed! Because the word, the message of peace achieved, could not be instantly transmitted to the battlefield as it can be with modern technology, the peace was unknown and many lost their lives. Getting the word is crucial!
The universe, even the universe we can see with our current astronomical instruments, is almost incomprehensibly vast. Dr. Timothy Johnson in his book Finding God in the Questions (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004, p 31), repeating information from Timothy Ferris in The Whole Shebang (New York: Morrow, 1988), points out that a single galaxy can be many thousands of light years in diameter (the Milky Way, our own galaxy, is 90,000 to 100,000 light years in diameter); a cluster, which can contain hundreds or thousands of galaxies, can be millions of light years in diameter; a supercluster can be a few hundred million light years across; and walls or sheets (sometimes called supercluster complexes) can stretch for a billion light years. Such numbers are beyond human comprehension. Yet this vast reality is a reflection of the even greater vastness of God. And that’s on the macro dimension.
Thinking of the “internal universe,” that which takes a microscope rather than a telescope to explore, the dimensions and realities are just as stupendous and mysterious. Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything (New York: Broadway Books, 2003, p 145) speaks of our growing understanding of the structure of the atom: “The electron doesn’t fly around the nucleus like a planet around its sun, but instead takes on the more amorphous aspect of a cloud...The cloud itself is essentially a zone of statistical probability...This atom, if you could see it, would look more like a very fuzzy tennis ball that a hard-edged metallic sphere.”
Light is a powerful symbol of life. In virtually all “near death experiences,” survivors relate a tunnel of light, or “moving toward the light,” or a light of unimaginable beauty or brilliance that fills them with great calm and peace. Could this light be Christ?
We love to feel the warmth of sunlight on our faces. Why? Too much of it, and we burn. Too little, and we feel depressed and deprived. But just the right amount elicits a feeling of well-being, and in some, even euphoria. Light not only induces feelings of tranquility in us, it also makes it possible, through vision, to orient ourselves, to read, to paint and sculpt, and to care for the necessities of life. Blindness can be isolating and crippling, until the blind person finds a way to heighten other senses to compensate for the loss. Light in the scriptures becomes a symbol of the presence of God, of wisdom, of enlightenment, of creative power. Light in John becomes a metaphor for the presence of Christ.
The spectacle of light known as “fireworks” or pyrotechnics is known to Americans at their annual Independence Day celebrations, but in many other nations it is much more common. In Italy, I would venture to say, fireworks go off somewhere virtually every day, since they are a regular feature of saints days. One morning my wife and I were sitting down to breakfast on the balcony of a hotel, when we heard a huge explosion from the center of town. “No war,” our gracious host immediately explained when he saw the shocked looks on our faces, “San Vito day!” The pyrotechnics went off at intervals throughout the day, culminating in a spectacular display after dark. The beauty, noise and bright light and intricate color of fireworks add much to celebrations all over the world, including China where they originated. Light thrills!
Many congregations have had to modify older buildings to conform to today’s accessibility standards, “that all may enter.” One of the most prized documents, in addition to a building permit or loan papers, is a set of “as built” plans for the building. Knowing the plan behind a structure reveals many secrets hidden under the building’s walls, secrets which must be painstakingly discovered without the plans.
Artists and architects, photographers and film makers, know that light is the medium that communicates. Before the invention of the incandescent bulb and the arc light, natural light, torches and candles were used with great effect inside large enclosed spaces. The placement of windows and the use of reflective tiles in the mosaics of ancient Byzantine churches such as those found in the Italian city of Ravenna, and the great cathedral of San Marco in Venice, brought a brilliant light into the worship spaces. Christians have always known and loved the beauty of light, and sought to fill their places of worship with it, symbolizing the presence of Christ, the True Light.
For those of us who decry the commercialization of Christmas, type the words “Cosmic Christmas” into your web browser. The first item to come up on mine is this note: The Cosmic Christmas – Compare Prices! Compare prices from over 30,000 stores at www.bizrate.com.” Sigh!
Writing in the introduction to “On the Incarnation,” C. S. Lewis makes this point: “When I first opened De Incarnatione I soon discovered that I was reading a masterpiece. I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; only a master could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.” The incarnation is like this. If we allow John’s gospel to speak to us without the ‘help’ of modern interpreters, we will be met by another ‘master mind,” the mind of God speaking eternal truth. It is only when we try to ‘interpret’ the Master’s mind on the mistaken assumption that the common person will not be grasped by John’s prose that we get ourselves – and our congregation – into trouble. (Athanasius On the Incarnation, http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm#ch_0)
I remember a friend who soothed his soul while going a divorce by purchasing a telescope. He set it up in the back yard of his new apartment and started scanning the heavens. One evening he invited me over to look through the telescope at a faraway galaxy. Wanting to be supportive, and also having an interest in astronomy, I went. “First I want to show you what we’re going to look at,” he said. He went to the website of NASA, typed in a few letters and brought up the photo of a distant galaxy. “Breathtaking,” I said. “Yeah,” he said. “You’ve got to prepare your eye to try and grasp what you’re about to see,” he added. John’s prologue is like that NASA website: it helps us prepare the eye of our heart for what we’re about to see as we contemplate this most holy of nights.
The purpose of the incarnation was to impart a new and deeper knowledge of God to the world. Desmond Tutu says that he often likes to think of our relationship with God as being like sitting in front of a fireplace on a cold day. In order to experience the fire, we don’t have to do anything. All we need to do is just sit there in front of the fire and gradually the qualities of the fire transfer themselves to us. We feel the heat of the fire. We sense the fire’s flickering light. Tutu says our knowledge of God is obtained in much the same way. As we take time to be still and to be in God’s presence, the qualities of God are transferred to us. (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time [New York: Doubleday, 2004], p 100)
The imparting of truth was a key function of Jesus’ incarnation. Truth in our day, however, seems to be rather subjective. An old saying declares, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” That adage was coined by Hiram Johnson, a Progressive senator, who uttered those words in 1917 as the United States was beginning its involvement in World War I. The senator was referring to the way that the truth is not necessarily lied about, but it is colored in such a way that the truth remains hidden. For instance, when French troops launched mutinies against their officers in 1917, news reports described those incidents as “acts of collective indiscipline.” Journalists who were covering the battles on the Western Front were instructed to use the phrase “brisk fighting” to describe any engagement where more than 50% of a unit was killed or wounded. (Geoffrey Nunberg, Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times [New York: Public Affairs, 2004], p 67)
While Jesus sought to bring truth into the world, many people today are less interested in truth and more interested in what might be called “guidance.” That, for example, is what people tune into Dr. Phil and Oprah for. In a secular society, such as the United States has largely become, many people in search of direction for their lives don’t turn to the church and seek out what the truth is. Rather they turn to psychoanalysts and counselors to give them guidance. Many clergy nowadays feel so abandoned nowadays that they are attempting to follow the crowd and get into the guidance business as well. (Robert Coles, The Secular Mind [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999], p 114)
We often can be rather selective about what kind of truth we want to hear. According to the BBC (3/26/04), a Muslim preacher in eastern Turkey got himself into some hot water with his congregation when he told the men that they should be helping their wives with the housework. The cleric noted that women seem to do all the work in the village. He thought it would be appropriate for the men to at least carry the water from the local well. The men responded to that unpopular message by refusing to return to his mosque and demanding that he be replaced. One critic in the village of Kotanduzu said that the cleric should be teaching them about Islam and not talking nonsense. On the following Friday, usually the mosque’s busiest day of the week, no more than three men gathered for the ritual prayers.
Just as Jesus was not welcomed, there are other religious leaders that are not readily accepted. Reuters (3/18/04) reported that police in the Italian town of Trasacco had to break down the church doors in order to let a new priest begin his work in the congregation. For the preceding six months church members loyal to the previous pastor had set up a barricade to prevent the new cleric from entering. In particular, the local people were upset that their Capuchin monk was being replaced by a non-Capuchin. Indeed, the change was a definite departure from tradition, because Capuchin monks had been serving that particular church for the last 430 years. The parishioners even went so far as to brick the last Capuchin monk into his monastery so that he could not leave to take his new post. The newcomer priest realized that he would have his work cut out for him, especially since it took an armed police escort to install him. The Capuchins are a branch of the Franciscan order, and they are known for their long white beards.
John’s Gospel begins with foreshadowing the fact that although Jesus should have been welcomed with open arms by the world, and especially by his own people, he was rejected instead. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, observes that “repeatedly, John’s theme is that those who consciously identify themselves as the ones who really believe or really know are also those who cannot bear the light that comes from Christ.” (Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], p 74)
Just as Jesus came from heaven to speak a word to the earth, the heavens continue to speak—or, more accurately, sing—to us. Reuters (9/10/03) reported that astronomers have detected the deepest note that has ever been produced in the cosmos. It is an extremely deep B-flat. But don’t expect to hear it with the unaided ear, because it is many octaves below the lowest octave on a piano. The note was detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The sound seems to be emanating from an area of heating gas in the Perseus galaxy cluster. The dancing of the gas atoms is yielding that deep drone. Astronomers calculate that since sound travels decidedly slower than light, the sound from that distant galaxy took somewhere around 2.5 billion years to reach the earth.
Debate over whether the earth truly Jesus’ is “own” continues today. Reuters (7/15/03) reported about a controversy at the Grand Canyon when park officials removed three bronze plaques that were inscribed with Bible passages for fear that the religious content might violate the U. S. Constitution. The plaques in question contained three verses from the book of Psalms. One was inscribed: “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.” The other two markers quoted Psalm 68:4 and 66:4. The plaques were returned to those who had originally contributed them 35 years ago, the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Phoenix.
The people of Jesus’ day were not able to readily see that Jesus belonged in this world that he had made. The irony is that even ducks are able to tell who belongs and who doesn’t belong. According to Reuters (6/7/04), researchers in England have found that ducks can be differentiated by the dialects of their quacking. They found that ducks from urban London tended to be noisier and more raucous than ducks from the quiet, rural areas of the nation. The scientists attributed that difference to the fact that the city ducks probably have to quack louder out of necessity to be heard over the din of police sirens, airplanes, trains, and other noises.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Jesus found it so difficult to be accepted by the religious leaders of his day was that he refused to conform himself to their understandings of what proper etiquette involved. Jesus was constantly disregarding the rules that many of his peers felt bound and determined to enforce. Etymology tells us that “etiquette” originally meant “ticket.” In essence, knowledge of etiquette was the ticket a person was supposed to show that he or she belonged to the elite class. Those who displayed an ignorance of etiquette were denied admission. (Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America [New York: Picador, 1999], p 30)
People even today ponder how it is possible to say that the person Jesus Christ, who walked the streets of this earth in the first century, was at the same time in existence before anything else in the universe. Although they are not debating the position of Jesus as the first in creation, a town in southeastern Connecticut is attempting to challenge that assumption that George Washington was the first president. According to the Associated Press (1/27/04), the Norwich Historical Society believes that the title of “first president” properly belongs to Samuel Huntington, the Connecticut native who served as the president of the Continental Congress at the time when the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781. The society contends that the Articles of Confederation marked the beginning of the new nation. In addition to Huntington, there were nine other men who served as president of the Continental Congress before Washington was elected president. The group, however, is finding that there is not too much enthusiasm for stripping Washington of the “first president” title. Undaunted, the group insists they will continue to educate the public about the correctness of their cause. Was George Washington “in the beginning” (of our nation) or not?
The wonder of the incarnation is not only that Jesus came into the world and was present to people long ago, but that Jesus continue to be a real presence in our world today: “The mystery of the incarnation continues in the power of the Spirit: ‘Today is born a Savior.’ Not two thousand years ago. Not ‘someday God will come on our behalf.’ Today—here and now—God offers light in the midst of all our darkness.” (Mary Catherine Hilkert, “Two Fingers under the Door,” Just Preaching: Prophetic Voices for Economic Justice, ed. Andre Resner [St. Louis: Chalice, 2003], p 84)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Come and worship! As we begin this new year, come and worship the Lord!
People: May God’s blessing be upon us! May God grant us peace!
Leader: Come and worship! As we begin this new year, celebrate the wonderful love that God has for us!
People: In this new year and always, may God be with us! May God’s presence fill all our lives!
Almighty God, during this Christmas season we have celebrated the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. We have listened to the voices of angels, and we have heard the carols announcing the Savior’s arrival into the world. But now that Christmastime is soon ending, we tend to set aside the news of the Incarnation for another year. We quickly forget that the Word that was spoken to us at the time of Jesus’ birth is a Word we need to give heed to throughout the entire year. Forgive us, O Lord, for the ways we turn aside from Your Word. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.
Creator God, everywhere we look, we see the work of Your hands. You formed the stars, You fashioned the planets, and You filled our world with life. All things come from You, and You continue to sustain and uphold all that You have made. As a sign of our gratitude for all Your bounteous blessings, receive our gifts. We ask this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Heavenly Father, in the beginning You created light, and that light continues to shine even in the midst of the deepest darkness. And in the person of Jesus Christ, You sent that light into the world in a most amazing and unique way. For throughout the ages, Jesus’ light has shined upon us without fail, illumining our paths and beaming forth the eternal hope to which we are called. So even when the darkness of evil and suffering invades our lives, we trust that the ultimate victory belongs to our glorious and radiant Lord.
Therefore, with confidence we remember in our prayers this day all those who feel the specter of darkness creeping in upon them. We pray for those who live amid the darkness of war and violence. We pray for all who endure the gloom of poverty and hunger. And we pray for the many people in our world who feel engulfed by the shadows of despair as they deal with problems with their health or with their family or with their work.
Wherever Your people are this day, O God, whatever struggles they face, send forth Your light to shine upon them, enabling them to see for themselves the new dawn that has entered our world through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.