Grace Presbyterian Church
January 3, 2016, Christmas 2C
Word and Light
If I had gone looking for a cute title for today’s sermon, it might have been “Yes, This Is Really a Christmas Sermon.” Nothing about infants in mangers, or magi from the East, or any of the usual trappings of the Nativity story as we usually tell it. The story that usually takes up this season is mostly a mashup of Luke’s narrative with bits of Matthew’s story. Mark offers us nothing before Jesus’s adult life and ministry, and none of the other New Testament books – not Acts nor Paul’s epistles or anything else – have anything to say about the birth of Jesus.
This is John’s “Christmas story,” or as close as you’ll get from this evangelist. And while, in A Charlie Brown Christmas, the character Linus doesn’t quote John 1 in response to Charlie Brown’s plea, this passage is a pretty good summation of “what Christmas is all about” nonetheless.
While it can’t necessarily be captured in a cute nativity scene or rendered in a sentimental Christmas-card scene, this passage John offers here is full of theological insight and understanding that is foundational to the most basic Christian thinking about God. Even the very confessional statements we use in worship rely on some of the claims John makes in this passage on behalf of Jesus.
Verses 6-9 and 15 offer an interjection on a key figure, named John (not the gospel author, who after all never identifies himself). John (we often call him “the Baptist,” but this gospel never does) is described as a “witness.” He is not the main subject of this gospel discourse, our author wants to make that much clear, but his witness is considered important enough to be inserted into John’s account of the Word. At the very minimum, this should be a lesson for us. But we’ll come back to that later.
This prologue to the gospel makes three important points about the Christ, the man Jesus, the Word. Each of them is potentially a subject for intense and long-term study. But for us, and for the purposes of a single sermon, we can take a look at these three points a bit more briefly than in, say, a seminary class (and yes, any one of these important ideas about Jesus could be a semester’s worth of study).
First of all, the Word goes all the way back. In a pretty direct echo of Genesis, the first thing this gospel tells us is that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” To those who would argue that Jesus was merely a human son, the gospel places this figure in the beginning, even a vital and inescapable part of creation itself. This is something our confessional statements regularly help us to rehearse. For example, the Nicene Creed (which we will be using today) speaks of the one who is “eternally begotten of the Father,” the Scots Confession describes him as “begotten from eternity.” The Word “was in the beginning with God.” And the life that was in this one, the Word, was “the light of all people.”
But perhaps the most fascinating part of this opening statement is in verse 5. After the succession of past-tense verbs, all following the “in the beginning” setting, we get out of the blue a present-tense verb: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” From all that was, this Word – the Light – still is. The Word that was “in the beginning” is the Light that still shines.
Second, this Word (and Light) was in the world, but “the world did not know him.” Philip Jamieson points out just how profound this alienation is: “humanity is alienated from the very creation of which it is a part.” For humanity to “not know” the Word is for humanity to be cut off from its very place in creation, the creation which God (and the Word) created humanity to be a part of. That alienation did not remain complete, as those who believed were empowered to be “children of God,” but this clearly was, and by all evidence around us remains, only a partial reclamation.
Thus, the third and most deeply inexplicable point of the gospel’s opening statement, in verse 14; “and the Word became flesh, and lived among us.” We use the fancy theological word “incarnation” for this mind-twisting knowledge: the Word, the one who was from the beginning with God, the one who was God, became not merely human – no, this word the gospel uses for “flesh” connotes everything that is earthy and mundane about human existence. This wasn’t a god who put on a skin suit and walked around Earth for a while; this was no less than God born into the humanity that God had created, the muck and mire of physical existence, God eating and drinking and yawning and sleeping and waking and hurting and weeping and laughing (and yes, all the other even more mundane and yucky stuff humans do too) because God was human. God didn’t live like a human being; God was a human being.
This Incarnation, this “Word become flesh,” is the unspoken but indispensible underlying principle behind everything we celebrate at Christmas. The birth of a baby and the placing of that baby in an animal feed trough is no less than God become human, in all the glory of God and the mundane-ness of humanity. This inexplicable act becomes to us the means of the grace of God, extended to us, for us, without which we do not know the Light or the Word or any of God’s salvation for us.
And so, back to John, the witness to the Light.
John isn’t necessarily the most frequently portrayed in art over the centuries. Many portraits of Christ are out there, and Mary also appears frequently. But there are portraits of John, the baptizer, the witness.
But there’s an interesting tendency in those paintings. Virtually always, whatever else John is doing in the portrait, John is pointing. Maybe to his side, maybe up, maybe over, but always pointing, pointing to Jesus. Bearing witness to the Light.
Most sermons encourage to you imitate Christ, to ask “What would Jesus do?” And that’s a good object of a sermon. But today, I charge you with something different.
Point to Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “Angels, From the Realms of Glory” (22); “What Child Is This” (53); “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts” (510); “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” (50)
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