Friday, January 7, 2011

Sermon for New Year's

The reading for this sermon is John 1:1-18.

Merry Christmas! That’s probably not the greeting you were expecting, is it? I mean “Happy New Year,” or, “Good Morning,” are probably more appropriate, aren't they? It is still Christmas, though—the Second Sunday of the Christmas Season, to be exact. If you played along, chances are it’s because you perhaps noticed that the cloths are still white in the church…or that the pastor announced it…or that I am the Intern here so you think I’m going somewhere with this.

The thing is, though, if I wished you—or anyone—a Merry Christmas outside of church, you or whoever it is would probably look at me like I was crazy. And why not? Christmas is over, decorations back in their boxes, all nice and tidy, right? Time for the next occasion—Valentines Day? Epiphany? The Super Bowl? Someone’s Birthday?

Truth is, it is still Christmas, though. The church calendar has a full twelve days allotted to the season, with our new calendar year starting almost right in the middle of it. And why not? In celebrating the coming of Christ to the world, we enter into a new year, a new phase of life, often full of hope and promise and mystery. We can make plans, start over, dream dreams, and still have no real clue what this year will bring. That’s the excitement in it. It’s a vague, almost transcendent idea that contains all of those things we can’t really put into words.

Well, what better day for these readings? Transcendent, abstract, full of excitement. A week ago, we talked about a baby in a manger, and now we have this. In one week, we’ve come from the very tangible, concrete story of a family in Bethlehem to this conceptual description full of abstract metaphor with a sort of mystery and promise to it all. There’s no real storyline we can track through anywhere here, but there is a message under it all, one so amazing that, if we look very closely, we can only just grasp at its real power.

We have the Word. To American ears, this is something that seems extremely…ordinary. Words. We use them every day. Little squiggles on paper or sounds uttered in a particular order that stand for something else. Okay, stop right there. A bunch of squiggles and sounds and we can suddenly communicate our thoughts and ideas to pretty much anyone? That in itself is a phenomenon beyond our understanding if we really stop to think about it. The fact that we can all look at this thing over here, spell out C-A-N-D-L-E and all know that candle is that piece of wax that holds fire and gives off light and warmth is a miracle in itself.

The phenomenon of language is not something lost on us, and it would have been even more powerful to John’s audience. “Word” to the Greeks who would have been reading this also meant wisdom or reason. All knowledge came through words. Take that audience a little further, and understand that to the ancient Hebrews, a word actually was the thing. The word for “word” meant word as well as deed. The vocabulary of their language was small, and words were used sparingly due to the power they held. If you said something, you did it. In Genesis, God speaks, and things happen. Words are powerful, and this is the Word, the one Word.

And here we have the Word, which is there in the beginning, and is with God and is God. The Word is eternal (there in the beginning) and divine (is God) and in relationship (with God). From time not recorded, the Word is present. The Word creates—as in Genesis—and all things from plants to people are created through the Word. The chairs we sit on as well as the stars we might gaze at in these early evenings of winter have been brought through the Word.

Okay, moving on—in the Word was life. Life. Breath. Light. True light. Light that the darkness cannot overcome…cannot comprehend. Darkness cannot comprehend light, because darkness is the absence of light. Introduce light to the darkness and there is no more darkness. Introduce light, and paths are made clear, obstacles are plainly seen, and signs and words are able to be read and understood. This is what is in the Word we read about here.

What happens to this amazing Word? This light that illuminates all paths, gives life to all things, and brings light to the world? This being—this incomprehensible being—becomes flesh. Becomes human. Becomes one of us. In this action, God—that transcendent being beyond comprehension, that fullness of everything around us—becomes human, experiencing humanity in all possible ways—pain, suffering, joy, happiness, sorrow. God chooses to do this, become one of us, and through the Word, grace is given to us.

God pours Godself out in love in this action, and in so doing says to anything we could experience “me too.” In Jesus, God says, “I get it—I’ve been there,” and really means it. What’s more, God comes to us in a concrete way we can understand. Jesus reveals what had been hidden and unknowable to us. Jesus communicates in words—human words and concepts—with the people who surround him, who retell and record it so it may be communicated to us as well. Grace upon grace is given to us, and we are made children of God.

To be clear, we are reminded that only Jesus is the light. Even someone as faithful as John was not the light. John was sent to testify to the light. In the same way, we have to remember that Christians are not Christ. It’s very clear that humans are powerless here. The light enlightens all, but we cannot enlighten ourselves. We can only try to reflect, to follow, to be pale imitations of the real thing—and we often even fail at that. Christians are not Christ. We, like John, can only point to the light. We can only try to express what deeper understanding we might have of that moving power, that driving force, that is God. Words—our little words now—can’t really capture that essence anymore, can they? Like the age-old question of how to describe a clear blue sky to someone who has never seen, or the song of a bird to someone who has never been able to hear, we consider our own dilemma. How do we describe the mystery that is God in something as incomplete as human language?

I’m half convinced that part of the reason we have things like music, poetry, and art is to express what we cannot convey in simple, straightforward English. When the music strikes up again in a few moments here and that chord progression builds up to the first note of the hymn, we might begin to feel that deeper expression that words just fail to describe. When we listen to a songbird, feel the brush of the wind, or catch the scent of a flower, we are reminded something deeper…something beyond that which we see and hear and smell and speak of. We are reminded of something behind the creation we see—the Creator.

The words of John are poetic—some scholars even say it may have been a hymn—and they try to capture the fullness of the meaning of God and to express what it really means that God walked this earth as one of us. In this season of Christmas, this text reminds us that Jesus’ coming to us is more than the simple story of a smelly little stable. It is that, yes, but something so much more, so much deeper. Today, we are invited to reflect that meaning, to point to it, and to live it out in our lives—describing it any way we can. That is the message we can take into this New Year. Jesus has come to us in the Incarnation, and we may point to the light he brings. The Word is made flesh. Merry Christmas.

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