Monday, December 25, 2017

The story goes on

A Sermon preached on 25th December 2017, Christmas Day, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

The latest Star Wars film has just reached the theatres: The Last Jedi. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will, I’m a fan! This is the eighth main movie in the series. First, we had the three original films ending with the – seeming – triumph of the Force of good. As at that time at least George Lucas felt the original story was complete, so they were not followed by a sequel, but instead by a prequel: 3 new movies explaining what happened before the original story. Where the characters came from, how they became who they were. 

I suppose we could also call the text we heard this morning from the Gospel of John, his prologue, a prequel. It is a prequel to Matthew and Luke’s birth stories because it tells us what happened before the birth in Bethlehem. Who are the characters? Where are they from? What are they here for? 

The story of Jesus did not begin in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. The story of Jesus begins, John tells us, before time itself! Jesus, called the Word in the prologue, is the instrument of creation, the creative Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ….  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3) This idea is not unique to John’s Gospel. As we also heard, the author of Hebrews has a similar explanation: God “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) 

So, Jesus is not simply a human being adopted by God, or someone given a task like a messenger or a prophet. That is the role of the other character introduced in the prologue: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (John 1:6-8) John the Baptist is a human witness who brings a message from God and who points to the light that is God in Jesus. And light, as we know from the Genesis creation story, is the first thing God calls in to being: Let there be light. 

John’s prologue, or prequel, next tells us that this light was coming into the world. God becomes human. This is the Christian answer to the age-old question that Jewish teachers had long grappled: “How can the one true God be both different from the world and active within the world? How can he be remote, holy and detached, and also intimately present?”[1] The idea of God’s Word, already instrumental in the creation story, things are only created when God speaks, and of the character of Wisdom, who we find for example in the Book of Proverbs, were their ways of answering this question. They were the means by which God acted in the world. 

But the Word as we understand it is not some abstract principle, but a real person. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14) The word for flesh, sarx does mean that – flesh or meat – it also stands for a living creature. And in the Greek original the Word, now a living, breathing human being does not just live among us, but makes his dwelling among us, puts up his tabernacle. The creche we put up at Christmas is one image of that dwelling, as temporary as the tent that God occupies in the Exodus story. In it Jesus is venerated by people from near and far, by poor and rich, by shepherds and kings or wise men, and also by animals – representatives of all creation. They are not just cute figures, they symbolize Jesus’ power and importance, they remind us at all things came into being through him.   

What are they here for? John as we have heard is a witness. His role is to testify to Jesus so that all might believe through him. In his short life, tragically cut short by the jealousy of Herod’s wife and by Herod’s own insecurity, he was certainly successful – multitudes made the hazardous journey through the Judean wilderness to the river Jordan to see and hear and be baptized by him.
What of the Word made flesh? Why did God come into the world in this way?
First, as we have heard, to bring light. Light’s function is to show us the way. Light lights up paths, a light is something we can aim for in darkness. In this sense the light that Jesus brings is the truth about God, God’s desire for us, God’s love for us, God’s longing for reconciliation.

But Jesus does not just talk about God, Jesus reflects God.  When we see Jesus’ glory, we see God’s glory. Jesus’ character, is God’s character. Jesus is described as being full of grace and truth. A phrase that reminds us of the Old Testament descriptions of God as being rich in kindness and fidelity or full of mercy and loving-kindness. We can know God: through the father’s only son.

Finally, Jesus empowers us. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:12) St. Paul uses the term children of God too in his letters, we are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26), and through the power of God’s Spirit within us (Rom. 8:14, 16). And Paul often combines this with the concept of being heirs: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” (Rom. 8:17) So to be children of God is on the one hand an extension of the blessing God had given to Israel to cover all of humanity. No one is excluded from this offer. On the other hand, to be children and heirs, together with God’s only Son, is not something passive. To be an heir encompasses responsibility and a duty. We are empowered with a purpose. 

In the story that John goes on to tell in his Gospel, a story the prologue already hints to, Jesus demonstrates his power again and again in a series of signs, and yet is often rejected: the world did not know him … his own people did not accept him. But many did, and as we also hear in the Gospel were renewed and transformed by the process. Then Jesus is killed, the ultimate rejection, but his light is not overcome by the darkness of death, and his death is not the end of the story. Nor is his resurrection the end of the story, because the story was not and is not over yet. We do not just have a prequel, and a main story, we have innumerable sequels. For every Christian, for everyone who receives Jesus, the Word, the light, this becomes our story, ours to live in the light of God’s word.  What might that be? Here is one version of how the story must go on, in Howard Thurman’s poem “The Work of Christmas[2]

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

[1] Tom Wright: John for Everyone
[2] Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

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