And the Life Was the Light of All People
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
Now that the euphoria of opening Christmas gifts is over, how are you feeling about those gifts? Doubtless we will treasure some—others we are grateful they came with a gift receipt so they could be exchanged. Did any gift surprise you? On the “uncommon goods” website unusual items were offered for the discriminating purchaser like a Scotch Infused Toothpick set or a Himalayan Salt BBQ Plank. Did any of you get one of these? We must admit that it does not take long for the excitement of Christmas and its gifts to dissipate as the actualities of day to day life press in upon us again.
1. And what about the anticipation and excitement of Christmas Eve? Once each year the church celebrates Christmas. We read Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth. Here at Central three Christmas Eve services are held. Throughout the month of December we sing carols and reflect on God’s coming among us in the Babe of Bethlehem in anticipation of Christmas. Choirs rehearse and deliver wonderful Christmas music. It culminates in the crowded services of Christmas Eve; the baby is born—God’s gift is unwrapped, in a manner of speaking. And now the euphoria is over. What do we think of the gift now?
When the Apostle John writes his gospel many Christmases have come and gone. The birth of our Lord was not highlighted in the early church as we do today. The followers of Jesus have found themselves in a world hostile to their faith in Jesus Christ. Some of the Apostles have been executed in a purge lead by Rome’s Emperor. John himself will be exiled to the Island of Patmos—an effort to render his influence mute as the Bishop of Ephesus. As he takes up the pen to write, the wonder and glory of God’s Christmas gift floods his mind and imagination such that he writes of this gifts’ magnificence in a way that is, for me, unparalleled in all of scripture. For John, God’s gift in Jesus Christ has only grown in its wonder as the years have passed and John has more fully appreciated the fullness of the identity of the Babe of Bethlehem.
John knows the stores of Jesus’ birth. He, after all, was the one who took Mary, Jesus’ mother, into his own home following Jesus’ crucifixion. No doubt they had many conversations about those days. By the time John writes the gospels of Matthew and Luke have likely had wide circulation in the church. John knows those stories of Bethlehem but he begins his gospel from another point, from eternity, from the place out of which time and creation were called into being.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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.”
When the movie Awakenings (1990) was about to be filmed Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who wrote the book (Awakenings), spent much time with two superb actors, (the late) Robin Williams and Robert de Niero. Sacks was startled and more than a little frightened at the ability of these two actors, since he noticed that they could take on any role, any identity, and act it with perfect consistency for as long as they wanted. But of course none of the roles, identities, they took on were they themselves; none of their roles reflected their innermost heart.
“The Word was God,” writes John. What about God? The “face” that he “puts on” for us in Jesus Christ; the Word come among us: is this “face” only skin-deep, or does it reflect depths in God that are so deep they couldn’t be deeper? Does it reflect the innermost heart of God?
As we answer this question you will have to bear with me as we make a short detour into the Greek dictionary. There are two Greek words for word. One word for word is hrema, while the other is logos. Hrema means “that which we utter”. Logos, on the other hand, means “outermost expression of innermost essence”. When John speaks of the Incarnation as the Word becoming flesh, he uses logos. John is plainly telling us that what looms before us in Jesus Christ isn’t merely an act or action of God (as though God could act differently if he felt like it); what looms before us in Jesus Christ is the outermost expression of the innermost essence of God himself.
God doesn’t keep his promises to us just because he feels like keeping them, his promise-keeping telling us nothing about his heart or nature. God doesn’t keep his promises today, the implication being that he might not tomorrow. The consistency God displays isn’t the consistency of actors like Robin Williams and Robert de Niero. Rather, in Jesus Christ we are beholding the heart of God himself. God will never do anything other than what he has done in Christ and is doing now simply because he cannot do anything other.
To say the same thing differently, when John writes that in the Jesus we see the one “full of grace and truth,” grace and truth are not roles that God acts superbly; grace and truth are the Word, the outermost expression of the innermost essence. God will always be — can only be — what he is for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Put the other way around, what God is for us in Christ he is in himself eternally. It is the innermost heart of God that has invaded our world of distortion and deception and depravity.
The writer to the letter to the Hebrews wrote is a similar vein as that of John. “…in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:2-3) Believers have found in every generation that as they probed the wonder of God’s gift to us that its glory increases as it grips mind and heart with his reality. Think of the Christians in the Roman Empire to whom John writes; John knows that their lives could be turned upside down in an instant by the cruel whim of local governor. God’s gift is not diminished by any circumstance.
2. In one of King David’s psalms we read: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) In another of the Psalms attributed to David he writes of God, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” Connect that with the parallel here in John’s gospel—“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
John went on to say that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The implication of the gospel is that humanity is in the dark. Since it is God who comes among in Jesus to bring us light humanity is in the dark about God. We are blinded by something the scripture calls sin and the worst part of our blindness is that it blinds us to the fact that we are blinded.
We humans may think of ourselves as quite reasonable able to discover the nature of our existence using our cognitive skill. Long ago the writer of Ecclesiastes made this observation. “When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.” In other words, the human beginning from herself can never discover the meaning of her existence.
I can recall the day sitting in a university philosophy class; we were studying existential philosophers. AS much as I enjoyed the discipline of philosophic study it became apparent to me that at the end of the discussion we were still left in darkness about the nature of existence. As I reflected to myself on the meaninglessness of life in existential thought I had this palpable sense of darkness. If I really believed the philosophers I could feel the pointlessness and it was frightening.
I am ever so grateful for the gospel that witnesses that God has not left us in the darkness but has come among us. It is true we cannot reach to God but he has reached out among us in Jesus Christ making himself known. He makes himself known to us today. In his light I have known nothing but light. As I have studied the word of scripture that bears witness to the Word come among us I have come to experience the assurance that he gave me life. I don’t have to stumble around for meaning. Life is his gift. Yes, it is mystery how he makes himself know in word and sacrament, but that he does if sheer joy and peace.
The fifth stanza of the Christmas Carol “O Come all Ye Faithful” speaks beautifully of this joy. Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning: Jesus, to thee be glory given; word of the Father, now in flesh appearing; O Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
3. The light shines in the darkness. There is plenty of darkness in our world. The good news of the gospel is that the darkness did not overcome it. Clearly the Apostle John has the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in mind when he says that “the darkness did not overcome it.” It may seem at times that the darkness has overcome, but in Christ we are assured it is not.
Christian faith, like Judaism before it, is relentlessly realistic. The Biblical story is gritty, messy, bloody, the chronicle of the great contest between Gods’ purposes and human rebellion. So much of what our culture has to say about Christmas is sentimental. As if its purpose were to remind people to be kind and make the world a better place. But human salvation isn’t so easily achieved; it will cost God everything. The darkness will try to extinguish the light.
In 2010, the then Pope Benedict confessed that as priests “we spend so much time preaching about making the world better that we forget to preach about the better world.” The better world is the other theme of Advent—our Lord’s promised return for final consummation of his victory at the cross to set all things to rights. Yes, efforts to make this vale of tears slightly more livable are not unwelcome but are inadequate to the task. It’s often the best we can do. Which is rather the point, for the work of building an entirely better world is God’s alone. In Jesus, the light shines in the darkness.
As I think about my task each week of writing sermon I realize I possess no great wisdom to dazzle or amaze. I have few clever insights to offer. I am with John Wesley on this; after preaching he wrote in his journal “I offered them Christ.” My role and our church’s witness is to point to Christ who in the blaze of his light will put darkness forever to flight. What a Christmas gift God has given!
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.