Sunday, December 30, 2007

First Sunday after Christmas Day: John 1:1-18

Why do we read this passage – John 1:1-18 – during the Christmas season?

When we think of Christmas, we tend to focus on a single day, on the celebration of the birth of a special baby on that day. There are good and natural reasons for focusing on that day. Yet historically, Christmas has also been celebrated as a season, as a period of time beginning on Christmas day and lasting for a number of days. And there are good and natural reasons for celebrating Christmas as a season. Hence, here on the First Sunday after Christmas Day, we find ourselves still in the season of Christmas.

We come back to the question then, “Why do we read this passage during the Christmas season?” This passage from the gospel according to John is a significant text. It is often described as the prologue to the rest of the gospel, though one commentator remarks that it is more like an overture in a piece of music. Like a musical overture, all the themes that will be developed later in the gospel are beautifully introduced and summarized in this opening passage. This passage is a text worthy of much study, and asking the question why we read it at Christmas detracts not at all from the significance of it.

Rather, the question arises because it is quite different from the gospel passage most familiar to us in relation to Christmas, the gospel passage we most closely and naturally associate with Christmas Рnamely, the story in the second chapter of the gospel according to Luke. In words of great familiarity and comfort, the narrative in Luke tells us about a father, a mother, a baby born in a stable, shepherds in their fields guarding their sheep. The elements of the story are simple, straightforward, concrete, accessible, close to our minds and hearts. Many common symbols, images, and practices come from the narrative in Luke: Christmas carols; paintings of the nativity; cr̬ches and pageants; and Christmas cards. Even when the story gets more exotic Рan angel and a multitude of the heavenly host Рwe still have elements that we can picture in our minds and hold warmly and dearly in our hearts.

Compared to the narrative in the second chapter of Luke, the passage from the gospel according to John may be less familiar and comforting, particularly as a text for Christmas. As noted above, it is a sublime passage – worthy of long and deep study and meditation. Yet it may seem abstract, philosophical, complex, even remote, especially as a Christmas text. It is not a story or narrative in a conventional sense. It may be difficult to picture it in our minds, to warm to it in our hearts.

Why then do we read it in church at Christmas?

We read it in church during the Christmas season because of this astounding statement more than half way through the passage: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us….” In our Bibles with verse numbering, this is verse 14, or rather the first part of verse 14. The Word became flesh and lived among us. This statement constitutes the reason we read this passage from the gospel according to John at Christmas. This statement connects this passage in John directly with the narrative in Luke that is so familiar and heartwarming to us at Christmas. This statement – the Word became flesh and lived among us – connects directly with the baby in the manger. The baby in the manger is the Word made flesh, the Word made incarnate. Therefore, we read this passage from the gospel according to John during the Christmas season.

To grasp the astounding significance of this statement, and more importantly to grasp the astounding significance of the baby born in a manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, we need to examine the two parts of the statement: (1) “the Word”; and (2) “became flesh and lived among us.” In other words, we need to go back in the passage to see what is meant by “the Word,” and then we need to go further in the passage to see what is meant by “became flesh and lived among us.”

What is meant by “the Word”?

What is the Word that is the subject of the statement, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us….”? This gospel, like the rest of the New Testament, was written in a form of Greek that was common in the Mediterranean region at that time in history, approximately 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Greek word for “word,” used in this passage, is “logos.” We find it today in English in various forms – for example, geology, meteorology, archeology, and theology. Even our word “logo” comes from this Greek word.

In the Greek language, “logos” can mean ordinary, individual words. Yet when used at that time in Greek religious and philosophical thought as “ho logos” – the Word – it refers to a profound concept. It means a fundamental, essential, eternal reality or principle of existence, of the universe, of the cosmos. It signifies that reality or principle of reason, of rationality, that underlies existence, that holds existence together so that it is a cosmos and not chaos. This “logos,” or the Word, also resides in human beings, so that the universe is intelligible to us, so that we can understand the universe. In other words, the Word is an abiding, divine or divine-like, essential, fundamental, reality without which the universe would not make sense, without which human existence would not make sense.

The Jewish people at that time also had a profound concept of the Word. For Jewish people, the Word refers to the Word of God. The Word of God indicates God’s creative power, God’s life-giving and life-sustaining power. God said, “Let there be light.” And light came into being. This notion of God’s Word is repeated throughout the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. The Word of God also indicates God’s truth being revealed or made known. The Jewish prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, commonly refer to “the Word of the Lord.” The Word of the Lord consists of God’s truth which the prophets declare to the people of Israel. Through his Word, God gives them truth and moral law. Through his Word, God reveals himself, makes his character and his purposes known to the world, particularly to his people, the people of Israel. The Word of God then is a rich, vibrant concept and reality to the people of Israel, and it is intimately, inextricably connected with the very being and presence of God himself.

We can see then that the start of the gospel according to John, which we read this morning, is packed with meaning, for behind the use of “the Word” in this passage are these profound Greek and Jewish notions. And for Jewish people especially the opening of the gospel would call to mind direct associations with the creative, truth-giving and law-giving Word of God in their religious tradition. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This clearly echoes Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Word in the gospel according to John is the life-giving, life-sustaining foundation of the universe, and of each of our lives. This Word is from God, and of God. This Word is divine.

What is meant by “became flesh and lived among us”?

What we have discussed about the meaning of the Word in the first few sentences of the gospel according to John would not have been that strange for Greeks and Jews. It would not have been that difficult for Greeks and Jews to understand. In many ways, the description of the Word in the first sentences of the gospel according to John would have been relatively familiar and generally acceptable to Greeks and Jews.

But then, in verse 14 in our modern Bibles, the gospel according to John presents this bold, startling claim which is the key to the prologue or overture, and the key to the entire gospel: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us….” The eternal, essential, divine Word entered the world in human form. The Word that created all things took on created form and lived among us as one of us. The baby in the manger was the Word of God in human form. The person encountered throughout the gospel according to John – Jesus of Nazareth – was the Word of God. Not just a good person, not just a brilliant teacher, not just a deeply pious man – but the very Word of God. God with us, in flesh and blood like ourselves. In this passage and throughout his entire gospel, John presents us with a Jesus who must be accepted entirely on his own terms as God-with-us or rejected entirely as a dangerous egotist or lunatic. There really is no middle ground.

This is why this passage from John is so important for us to read at Christmas, just as important as the passage from the second chapter of Luke. At this time of the year, we regularly hear declarations about the true meaning of Christmas. In the end, many meanings get attached to Christmas, some closer to the truth and some farther from it. Often a great amount of sentimentalism is embedded in those meanings. This is understandable because Christmas is a time for celebration, for joy and hope. Yet the baby in the manger of our Christmas celebration is not just a warm and fuzzy idea, although babies sometimes are warm and fuzzy creatures. The baby in the manger of our Christmas celebration is the divine Word in human flesh and blood. This is why we read this passage from the gospel according to John at Christmas, because the Word became flesh and lived among us. This is good news, great news, the absolute best news! – that God loves us so much that he came to us and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth. And we must not let this news get confused or obscured by any other meaning, however heart-warming it may be. We must hear and receive this news clearly for what it is, for it is the most wonderful gift in the world, the baby born in a manger in Bethlehemthe Word became flesh and lived among us.

What then does all of this mean for us?

In concrete terms, what does it mean that the Word became flesh and lived among us? In a real sense it means many things, but we will focus on the fundamental meaning as found in this passage.

It means new life. The gift of the Word made flesh – God’s gift to us – makes it possible for us to become children of God. As God created all things through his Word, so God re-creates us through his Word made flesh. When we believe in Jesus – that is, when we give our lives over to him in trust, allegiance, and devotion – God spiritually remakes us in Jesus. We become newly born. We become new people, at the very core of our being.

And this new life is a rich life, a life rich with the splendor and power of the divine being, a life rich with the love and goodness of God. Today’s passage overflows with a sense of the fullness that comes to us from the Word made flesh, from God with us. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.” “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” “[G]race and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Jesus gives us life, abundant life.

We may not experience this sense of fullness of life every day and in all aspects of life. Sometimes life seems little else than boredom, frustration, disappointment, struggle, trauma, or loss. Sometimes this seems to be the case because of circumstances around us. Sometimes this seems to be the case because of habits, emotions, tendencies, and characteristics within us. Too often life simply does not feel full of the fullness of divine grace and truth.

In one sense, is this so strange? The Word did not become flesh as a fully formed adult. The Word did not live the successful life portrayed and touted in popular culture as the life we should strive for, as the life we deserve, as the life we can achieve. The Word became flesh like we did – as a baby, small and vulnerable, needing to grow. The Word suffered like we do – longing for a better world. Is it so strange that, in Jesus, we are spiritually born as babies, needing to grow, and continuing to suffer the ills of this life?

So it may not be that strange in a certain sense that we do not know fullness of life in grace and truth everyday and in all aspects of life. Yet because of the lack and the contradictions we sometimes know in life, it is often not easy to understand and experience what it means to have new life in Jesus, to live in fullness of grace and truth in our selves and in the world around us.

Nevertheless, the claim in this gospel passage, the claim that lies at the heart of Christmas, the claim that Jesus himself makes by his words and actions, is clear and true: the Word made flesh, the Word crucified, the Word raised from the dead – Jesus of Nazareth – brings new life for us and for our world. In whatever ways it often may not seem like it in our selves and in the world around us, mysteriously yet truly we can become new people in Jesus and begin to live in the splendid fullness of divine grace and truth. We may not be perfectly able to do this today in every way. The question is, “Are we better able to do it today than yesterday?” In the power of the Holy Spirit, are we better able to experience and express in our minds and hearts, in our words, and deeds, in our selves and in our relationships, the fullness of the grace and truth given to us by God in Jesus, the Word made flesh?

In the power of the Holy Spirit then, let us commit ourselves to live in the fullness of divine grace and truth better today than we did yesterday, and let us commit ourselves to do this every day, so that next year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, we are more like Jesus, as individuals and as a community of Christ, than we are today.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reflection on Revelation 1:1-8 in the Christmas Season

Here we are several days after Christmas Day. On Christmas Day and in the season following, we recall and rejoice in the birth of Jesus, his coming into this world. It is a time of great joy, for in this birth we perceive and receive in a new and tangible way God’s tender, abiding care for us and for all creation. A child is born. Alleluia! He is God with us, in mercy and love, and we are graced.

But the story of a child is only part of the story, only the beginning of the narrative of his life. His birth points forward toward his death, his loving and saving sacrifice on the cross. Jesus is born and not only will die but is born to die, for us and for the world.

Yet, likewise, the story of a death is only part of the story, only the beginning of the glory of his life. He died, but he did not stay dead. God raised him to new life, beyond all human imagining, for us and for the world.

Late in his life, John the apostle, long beloved by and devoted to the incarnate-crucified-risen Jesus, wrote down this Revelation. Central to the book is the reality that Jesus is the key to history, to life itself – to John’s, yours, and mine. The child we celebrate at Christmas is the one we mourn on Good Friday, welcome on Easter, and worship at Ascension. This Jesus is savior and lord of all creatures and things, great and small and all between.

During the Christmas season, let us welcome the birth of this child with mirth and merriment! For in his life, grace and glory abound more than all the stars in the sky! At the same time, let us anticipate with sharp pangs in our hearts the death this child will face, for his birth means a cross. Thus, let us both weep and rejoice at his birth then his death, for they create life beyond all imagining for us. The babe crying in Bethlehem is the Lamb ruling from the throne of God. He is our beginning, our ending, and our beginning again, now and ever. To him we give our praise, our love, our life.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Good News of Great Joy for All People?

This is the story of one person searching for wisdom in this season, in this astonishing, amazing event, the birth of a child.

I work in the office of a small church in a congested, semi-suburban setting. Often enough people come to the church office seeking assistance with money or other needs. Their presence creates a dilemma, familiar to most who work in church offices, and familiar to those who live and work in urban and surrounding areas.

Can I be sure of the need? How should I respond?

The dilemma presented itself to me one recent Christmas season quite concretely. Early in the morning, shepherding the bulletin, I saw a man approach the church door. He entered and explained his need for assistance for him and his family. Out of work, he could not provide shelter, food, or Christmas presents for his family, which included two young boys. They were living in the family car, and the nights were cold. “Can you help?”

What to do with this man before me?

“Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” So commanded Jesus (Luke 6:30-31; NRSV), to those who would follow him.

It seems to me Jesus does not give much warrant for concerning ourselves with the question, “Can I be sure of the need?” Jesus does not give us much room for escaping open-handed action to the question, “How should I respond?”

Yet we go through prudential calculations and advice, as if they represent the sum and substance of Christian ethical thought and response to the questions, to the need, to the person. And the Church has thus given over this kind of assistance to procedures and governmental structures.

We tell the person in need we do not have money on hand. We know that the church’s resources are collected through established procedures on Sunday and through the mail, then tidily deposited away in bank vaults. Then the resources are allocated to planned, budgeted items — building, cleaning, salaries, and some charity programs; and paid out by check on a regular basis, controlled and guarded by generally accepted financial procedures.

We refer the person to the county or state social services. In the end our biggest service comes in the form of telling the person the correct government offices to seek, or perhaps even in making the referring phone calls.

Good news of great joy only for those with means to buy and sell? Or good news of great joy for the poor and broken-hearted, the blind, oppressed, and captive?

Good news of great joy for all people. So announced the angel of the Lord to shepherds in fields and to the entire world (Luke 2:10).

Can I be sure of the need? How should I respond? What to do with this man before me?

These questions are not easy, and I certainly do not propose easy answers. I squirm at the questions. I grow silent in seeking answers. But then, asking easy questions and providing easy answers do not seem to be the sum and substance of a child, center of the universe, born by the wayside.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What a Little Light is This

What a little light is this,
born amid deep darkness –
so small, it can but cry and nurse.

Yet so he shares our wintered plight,
our age-long exile into night –
and bears us home to boundless light!

Friday, December 21, 2007

See in All Things Some Beauty and Glory

See in all things some beauty and glory –
see praise in these leaves, fallen and frosty.

And praise with these leaves some beauty of Jesus,
some glory incarnate, strewn among grasses.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Against the Cold and Dark

Against the cold and dark the trees have all retrenched.
Limbs, once lavish, clack and scrape beneath a paring wind.
Earth and sky, to foot and head, seem equally hardened.

Here in the winter of our sin, it is a strange kind of good news
to wrap our loss, our lostness, in one so small, so tender to bruise;
a child in a manger, shunted by the way, stabled with the animals.

Ah, but in him the spring-pulse, the surge, of God’s very heart
courses with us and for us – his hands and feet to take our part,
to love us and save us; home from our lostness, never to depart.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sycamores in December

Like upright skeletons, sycamores stand among the grays and browns of other trees, up and down the bottomland where a cold river courses. Can these bones live? The cycle of the year gives expectation that they will. Still, here in deep December, darkening toward that thinnest and briefest of light and day, a long, hard wait they shall have of it. So we, too, amid the grays and browns and glooms that weight us, stand and wait for light and life. Can these limbs leaf?

Good news comes! For in deep December a child is given to us, to all the earth, and he is truer light and life than any day or sun. Little though he is in this lengthening night, by his living and dying he will surge root and branch. From a barren wood he will leaf every tree and all that watch and wait, that we may rise in his morning to joy and to love in life-greening glory!