Beginning with Light
Genesis 1: 1-5, John 1: 1-18
Good morning and Happy New Year!
Here we are, just a week and a half after Christmas and I don’t know about you but I’ve been trying to make sense of the Christ-child in our midst. I’ve been pondering this presence and then I’ve been trying to imagine myself in the pews with those who are unfamiliar with the Christmas story. I have tried to hear the birth narrative with fresh ears. For those who are new to Christianity – and even for professing Christians – it can be difficult to relate to the stories of the virgin birth, the shepherds in the fields visited by the angels and heavenly host, the magi traversing the land with gifts and warning. This historical Christmas story may leave many of us desiring something more plausible to understand and share about God’s presence in the world. And, then I turned my attention to the lesson for today. Fortunately, the Gospel of John gives us another way to think about it all, another way to understand the light of God entering into the world.
John was the last of the Bible’s four Gospel’s to be written, sometime after 90 AD, and it is strikingly different from the other three Gospels. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke focus on where Jesus was and what it was he did and said in those places, the Gospel of John emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ life. Rather than scrutinize the facts of where Jesus walked on the earth or what conversations he had with whom, John focuses our attention in a more spiritual manner. He engages our hearts, along with our minds, focusing in on the spiritual meaning of Jesus for the world and all those who dwell within it. John focuses on the belief that in Jesus, God entered into human history to save human beings and he describes the purpose of his Gospel this way in chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It is life in God’s name that the Gospel of John is concerned with – engaging our spirituality, making room for the mystery of God’s love to triumph, and exploring the expansive life that can be ours to live.
So, let us turn to the text and listen for what John’s telling of God entering into human history has for us to hear.
Let us pray: Light of the world, illuminate our understanding. Open our hearts and our minds and fill us with your light. Amen.
John 1: 1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And 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.
15(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.’”)16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
So, here we have another description of the birth of Jesus, another description of God’s presence entering the world, entering humanity. The Gospel of John offers us the vehicle of ‘spiritual reasoning’ to begin to understand what it might mean that the presence of God is among us.
The Word [capital “W” Word] that John uses here reflects the communicative nature of God, God’s desire to be in relationship with God’s people, to be one with God’s people. And, the Word is made flesh and blood not only for God to be with God’s people but for God’s people to know more of who God is, know more tangibly the love that God has for us and how we are changed by it. The meaning of the relationship is important here and the imagery is striking. As Shelley Copeland, of the Capitol Region Conference of Churches points out, “the text presents us with the image of Jesus as the light of the world [and],” she suggests, “illumination always makes a difference in darkness. The world we live in is full of darkness, [but with the presence of Jesus], light enters the atmosphere. Without a doubt, light always [makes] a difference in darkness and [light] changes the atmosphere.”
As the Gospels tell us, that light lived among us, generations ago, born in a manger, learning teaching, healing, saving and he was crucified, died and was buried only to be raised again. And, that light lives among us today. And this, I think, is the tough part to understand about the birth story of Jesus as we heard it from Luke on Christmas Eve, because we are aware that we still live in a broken world. We still live in a world where darkness is pernicious and persistent – sometimes, the light is hard to discern among the darkness. It can be hard to articulate the impact of Christmas on our lives in the midst of our broken world.
Earlier this week, I finished reading the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a lawyer and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Alabama. His work has led to relief for dozens of condemned prisoners and he has argued before the Supreme Court against life-without-parole sentencing for youth. In addition to being awarded the MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant, Stevenson has won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color. His book is beautifully written and offers a realistic and still hopeful perspective on the darkness found within the institutionalized systems of our country, which have preyed upon communities of color, the impoverished and the disabled. He speaks about his clients, his cases, his struggles and his humanness. One poignant scene describes the tears rolling down his cheeks as he hung up the phone for the last time with a client who had not been granted a stay of execution. As his client spent his last hour on earth, Stevenson describes brokenness. He says,
“My years struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”
And somehow, this is the realm into which God enters. According to Matthew and Mark and Luke and John, God chooses to enter into human existence. Through the life of Christ, God chooses to enter into the broken existence of humanness and does not discriminate among lived experiences. God did not chose to remain in the celestial realms but rather, the light of life entered in the experiences of the condemned and the experiences of the advocates. Into humanity, into our lives, the light of God enters in. And, this is where we begin to see the evidence of Christmas in our midst.
James Howell, a pastor in Charlotte, NC suggests that: “God created everything by simply speaking. ‘Let there be light.’ [And,] Jesus is the primal utterance of God, the Word behind the words, framed in the triune heart of God before time, yet not content to be sequestered outside of time.” And what he means here is that we are a part of this story, too. We are all framed within the triune heart of God and God’s utterance of the Word wasn’t simply for the time that Jesus walked the earth in the form of a human, but for us today as well. “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.”
For those of us today, to believe in Jesus Christ as God in the flesh means opening up the heart and the mind to believe that God has so much love for humanity that God wants to walk in our shoes – broken as they may be. We are compelled to accept the possibility that God chose to live as one of us – to be one with us. And, remembering that we are not the light, but that the light has come and dwells in our midst, we can’t help but witness the darkness fading away as we, like John the Baptist, point to the light.
A few weeks ago, people of faith throughout the DC area gathered together for a vigil for justice. The slogan was ‘Not a protest, but a promise’ and it was ‘people of faith lighting the way for justice.’ On the cold, crisp evening of Friday, December 12, people of faith from all over lined 16th Street from the White House all the way to Silver Spring during rush hour and stood by the light of luminaries. I was grateful to have had the time and opportunity to assist in the making of the luminaries and it was there that I learned the story of how the vigil came to be. While pouring sand and candles into thousands of white paper bags in the company of members of other churches, I met Susan Burton and her 11 year old daughter Maya. Susan and Maya were the instigators of the vigil and they shared with me the story of how the vigil came about.
Maya, who is African American, had approached her mother, who is white, to talk about what was happening in the world – stories of the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner filling the atmosphere. She would hear the news of violence, of white police taking the lives of people of color, of grand jury decisions not to indict police officers, of riots, of communities of color organizing to protest and she wanted to do something too to speak up for justice. But, she was clear that she didn’t want to protest. She didn’t want to do something that could potentially incite more violence. But, she wanted to do something. So, her mother, who works for the United Methodist equivalent of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, was inspired to brainstorm with some ecumenical partners and they created the Vigil for Justice: People of Faith Lighting the Way.
On a freezing cold night, people of faith stood along a 7-mile path by candlelight pointing to justice, pointing to reconciliation, pointing in hope. A few of us from Western were there – along with other Presbyterians along the blocks of 16th St. between the White House and K Streets. And, nearly a thousand other people from all different faith communities stood side-by-side pointing to the light in our midst.
Like John the Baptist in our Scripture text this morning, we, too, are created, called and sent by God to testify to the light, to the power that the light has over the darkness. We are called, as people of faith, to recognize the light in our midst and bear witness to the power that the light has to change the atmosphere, even in the midst of our brokenness. As people of faith, we are challenged to remember that it is not the darkness that requires our attention – through God’s grace and love for us, we are free to focus on God’s light. Within ourselves, within our families, within our communities, it is not the darkness that we are called to bear witness to – it is the light that we are to point to.
Earlier this morning, I asked the choir to look, all at once, at a particular spot. I’ll ask you now, choir, to look at that spot and keep looking at it. Now, for you in the pews, I want you to point where they are looking.
We, as humans, have the power to acknowledge that we dwell in brokenness. We, as people of faith, we are called to focus our attention on the light and point to the life in the midst of the brokenness. We are called to point to paths of housing for all people, not simply the homeless people. We are called to point to paths of rehabilitation, not simply the crimes that have occurred. We are called to point to healing, point to justice, point to God’s transformative presence in the world. We need not draw attention to ourselves, nor to the darkness in or around us, but we are called to direct our attention to the light of creation, creativity and life breaking forth. We are called to direct our attention to the justice that will be, to the reconciliation that is to come, to the peace that surpasses understanding. A child has been born among us. The light shall not be overcome by darkness. How could we not bear witness to this mysterious and powerful gift of forgiving and abiding love? Where do we see God’s light shining and what will we point to next?