Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 5 January 2014: Year A, Second Sunday of Christmas
So the decorations will soon be down. The last farewells have been made to family and friends who came to visit. We are beginning to return to work, to normality, when we once again can remember what day of the week it is. There may be some few reminders of Christmas left. In our house, still we’re eating Christmas pudding this week, bought cheap after the New Year because on Christmas Eve I bought too much brandy butter, and it seems a shame to put it to waste! But what other reminders of Christmas will you take with you into the coming year?
There was an old pop song which once cried, ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day‘. For Christians, in a way it is Christmas every day. We live in the knowledge that the Christmas stories point us toward the hear of our faith. It is a faith which is about the incarnation- God coming among us and living as one of us in Jesus Christ.
Today I want to ponder what that might mean by looking closely at the Gospel text for this second Sunday after Christmas. It is a slightly strange Gospel text, because usually the Gospels tell us stories about Jesus. But the first chapter of John’s Gospel is more poetry than prose. It acts as a prologue to what is to come. John’s Gospel has none of the Christmas stories which we are familiar with from Matthew and Luke. Instead he gives us his prologue- a reflection on who Jesus was. Let’s hear the first nine verses of it.
First Gospel reading: John 1.1-9 The light of the world
John’s Gospel was written some time after the life of Jesus. John is very much pondering what the life of Jesus meant- who was he, what does he tell us about God? He uses various images and ideas to try to express what- who- it was he saw in Jesus. Not all of these images and ideas are very easy for us to understand. I’ve often struggled with John’s concepts. But as time goes on I have found the Gospel of John, and the three letters of John which are also preserved in the New Testament, have resonated more and more with me. Different images and ideas seem to work for different people, and at different times of their lives.
This first passage includes two images or ideas- metaphors, if you want to be technical. First he talks about Christ being the Word- but we’ll come back to that mysterious idea later. But he also has another methaphor which I suspect most people can relate to better. He speaks briefly of John the Baptist, who was not himself the light that was coming into the world, but, rather, ‘came to tell about the light’. John points the way to the divine light in Christ- the light that comes into the world in Christ and shines on everyone. And of that light, he says: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’.
I was watching a costume drama over Christmas- ‘Death comes to Permberley’- in which they were preparing for a ball in a grand country house in the eighteenth century. The housekeeper remarked to the mistress of the house that she would use ‘the eight hour candles, the best of wax’. Lighting up your house in those days was a very expensive business. Today we live in the world of articificial light.- for the invention of the light bulb changed the world. Today we can stay up all night, and many of us probably suffer from sleep deprivation. Our cities, especially at the Christmas and New Year period- seem to never sleep. It is as if we have banished darkness, and we no longer have to be afraid of it.
Yet there is a loss related to all this bright light. Astronomers now complain of light pollution- we cannot really see the stars very well with our street-lamped cities. I’ve been living in Inverness for nearly 10 years, and I’ve still not seen the Northern Lights, because I live in the city.
Jesus told a couple of parables about light. He talked of a householder who lit a lamp and placed it high up, where it would give lots of light- she’d never put it under a bowl, that would be pointless. Today we don’t need to prepare oil lamps or candles. We hardly notice putting on the light- unless the bulb fails. And our electric light fills the whole room. I once saw a TV documentary about the national grid, in which an old Highland lady spoke of when she finally got electricity in her house. Not long after the light bulbs went in she repainted her rooms, for now all the murky corners were shown up as never before.
Our may seem like a bright world. But all that brightness sometimes dazzles us. We fail to see the night sky, so we lose an appreciation of heaven and the eternal. And so often our modern lights simply dazzle us. Christ comes into the world and lights up dark places we’d rather forget. And he continues to shine, even when the darkness threatens to overwhelm. We ought not to be deceived by the glitzliness of our world. There is still much darkness in our world. But for many of us, the light of Christ shines and cannot be overcome. Like the star which led the wise men to the manger, his is the real light which illuminates everything else for us.
Hymn 317 Before the world began verses 1 and
1 Before the world began,
one Word was there;
grounded in God he was,
rooted in care;
by him all things were made,
in him was love displayed;
through him God spoke, and said,
‘I am for you’.
2 Life found in him its source,
death found its end;
light found in him its course,
darkness its friend.
for neither death nor doubt
nor darkness can put out
the glow of God, the shout,
‘I am for you’.
‘In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. This first verse of John’s Gospel is deeply mysterious. The idea of the Word is also taken up in the next few verses we hear now.
Second Gospel reading: John 1.10-14 The word which became like us
‘The Word’ in this verse is logos in Greek. It’s a term from Greek philosophy has a range of meanings, including explanation or reason. It’s carried on into English as the suffix -ology. For example, biology is the science of life, geology the science of rocks. And theology, of course, is the attempt to understand and reason about God. Logos is a difficult word to translate, but translating as ‘The Word’ in English is quite a good translation, because it suggests to us the idea of speaking. Through the logos, the Word, God speaks.
John says that through the Word God made the world. ‘From the very beginning, the Word was with God’ says John. So at the beginning of John’s Gospel, he hearks back to the very beginning of the Bible, to the first chapter of Genesis. In that ancient story about creation, God speaks and things are created. God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. It is enough for God to speak for the various parts of creation to come into existence- land, the sun and moon, birds and animals, even human beings. Through the Word of God- the logos– all things were created. ‘The Word was the source of life’, John tells us early on in the prologue. So John is making the astonishing claim that in Jesus Christ, the creative force behind the universe is among us.
Someone who’s listened to my sermons said to me a while ago that they thought I must vote for the Green Party (I don’t!). But what that person had noticed is that there is, perhaps, a green tinge to my concerns as a Christian. If Christians are environmentalists, it’s because the Word which created and sustains the world was, according to John present in the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth. So there’s no apologizing for a green tinge to our faith. We Christians care for creation because it came into being through the Word which became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth.
In what is perhaps the climax of his prologue, John writes, ‘The Word became a human being, and, full of grace and truth, lived among us’. John reckons that he saw God’s Word, the logos, in Jesus: ‘We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father’s only Son’. When we translate logos as the Word of God, it reminds us that in Christ, God has something to say to us. But it is not a Word which everyone wants to hear.
‘The Word was in the world, and though God made the world through him, yet the world did not recognize him. He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him. Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God’s children’. John is giving a hint of what is to come in his Gospel. Jesus comes as the fulfilment of the age-old Jewish hope for Messiah, a saviour, for Israel. Yet his own people- the Jewish people- did not recognise him. And neither did most of the rest of us: ‘the world did not recognize him’. Still, today, the world does not recognise him when he comes. We have just celebrated the birth of Christ- yet for many people in our society, it’s Santa Claus who is more important. Our flashy over-confident society has little time for Christ. We Christians are finding it hard to cope with the fact that the world, nowadays, is even more explicit about its rejection of him. But even although he is the Word of the Creator, the world largely rejects him.
And yet, although Christ often has words of judgement, his fundamental message is one of love: ‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’, John says a little later on. For those who do listen, there is a wonderful destiny: ‘Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God’s children’. We who accept Christ as God’s gracious Word to us are now God’s children- we are in a special relationship to God, for we have listened to the Word God spoke in the life and words of Jesus, and that has become the standard by which we measure all other words.
Hymn 317 Before the world began verse 3
3 The Word was in the world
which from him came;
unrecognised he was,
unknown by name;
one with all humankind,
with the unloved aligned,
convincing sight and mind,
‘I am for you’.
Third Gospel reading: John 1.15-18 The Son who reveals his Father
In the beginning was the Word, the source of all life. And this Word has come into our world bringing light which cannot be extinguished. Those who heard the Word in Christ and accept it know it as God’s gracious Word to us- a word of love and forgiveness and grace. As the hymn puts it, God’s word to is ‘I am for you’.
There are lots of words in the world. There are many philosophies, faith and religions, political systems and ways of living. Yet so often we seem to leave people on their own to discover, among all the cacophony, how they are best to live. I have a lot of respect for the youth organizations which give so much to our communities, including the Girl Guides. Recently the Guides changed their promise. In a society where fewer and fewer young people have much conception of God, it was perhaps inevitable that they would drop God from their promise. They replaced ‘I ‘I promise to love my God’ with ‘I promise to be true to myself and develop my beliefs’. Now, I don’t know about you, but I suspect that is not much more understandable for the average, say, 10 year old. For what on earth does ‘be true to myself’ mean? Children are developing themselves. It is as if they are being told that it’s up to them to discover how to be good people. Saying you will always be true to yourself is often the opposite of a Christian morality. Jesus calls us, not to be true to ourselves in the first instance, but to be true to God. We are to love God and our neighbour as we love ourselves. For Christians, other people come first. For Christians, we learn how to live by listening to the Word as find it in Christ.
And when we do so, we see in the life of Jesus how he put his God and the needs of others first. And that he taught that if we love God we can learn how to love our neighbour. And our sense of self? Well, we are children of God- what a wonderful status to have! That’s a great grounding for us all, children and adults. Jesus says that having faith in him brings life in all its fullness.
We hear lots of words around us. Words that tell us that we are to put ourselves first, words which claim that there is no ultimate truth, words which promise light but often seem to threaten darkness. Which words should we listen to? There is a Word which we can compare them all to: the Word which was in the beginning, and which has become flesh and lived among us, the logos of God as we find it in Jesus Christ.
For John tells us, ‘No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is the same as God and is at the Father’s side, he has made him known’. Now, this can be misunderstood. Sometimes people think that means that Jesus, on earth, was some kind of demigod, floating along 2 inches above the ground dressed in glowing clothes which never needed washing. But as a wise man once said, ‘It is not that Jesus is like God, but that God is like Jesus’. Jesus has made God known to us. And it turns out that God loves us and wants us to know that he is our Father and we are his children. John says, ‘Out of the fullness of his grace he has blessed us all’. For if we can believe that the child in the manger, the healer and teacher of Nazareth, and the one who faced even death on our behalf is like God, then indeed we have nothing to fear. The light shines in darkness and the darkness can never put it out.
Hymn 317 Before the world began verses 4
4 All who received the Word
by God were blessed;
sisters and brothers they
of earth’s fond guest.
So did the Word of Grace
proclaim in time and space
and with a human face,
‘I am for you’.
John L Bell (born 1949) and Graham Maule (born 1958)
© 1987 WGRG, Iona Community, 4th floor, Savoy House, 140 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland
6 4 6 4 6 6 6 4
Used By Permission. CCL Licence No. 970971
Copied from HymnQuest 2013: CLUE Version
HymnQuest ID: 50936
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo