Christmas according to John
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Today we wrap up our Advent sermon series on “Christmas according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” Yes, it is still the season of Advent, at least for one more day. Apologies if you came to worship today for “Joy to the World, the Lord is come” because that’s not happening until tomorrow night!
For the last three Sundays we’ve spent time exploring the different emphases each gospel places on the arrival of the Messiah: Matthew, with his focus on Joseph and that higher righteousness of love; Mark, with no birth story whatsoever, but with John the Baptist crashing on the scene and proclaiming repentance; and Luke with his focus on Mary, her cousin, her cousin’s baby, and Caesar in Rome and Quirinius governing the province of Syria, and the trek to Bethlehem with no room in the inn and the birth in the family stable with the shepherds nearby—all of that thick with incarnation, with the enfleshment of Emmanuel, God with us.
Our last one is no birth story either, but a soaring, poetic prologue instead. John reaches back before the Baptizer on Jordan’s banks, back before the shepherds gathered around the manger, back even farther than Gabriel’s visit to Mary, back to the beginning of time. Let’s listen…
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.
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. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of [humankind], but of God.
And 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. (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.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Light affects how we experience things.
That might sound like an obvious statement to you, but stick with it for a moment. Consider the following experiences:
- You’re just beginning the process of waking up in the morning. You’re in a mostly dark bedroom and one eyelid creaks open just enough for you to start piecing together what’s happening. You’ve hit snooze a few too many times. It’s time to wake up. But you don’t feel like crawling out of bed just yet, so that eyelid slams shut again. And suddenly, your spouse/partner/parent/friend does that irritating thing when somebody throws open the curtains or yanks open the blinds and sunlight floods the room.
- You’re washing your hands in an airplane restroom or some other public place where fluorescent bulbs hang right above the mirror. And as you’re washing your hands you take a look in the mirror. The lighting is—how shall we put this?—revealing. You might notice the pores, or the blemishes, or the dark circles, or the new grey hairs. Or maybe it’s not all bad; you inherited your mother’s eyes or your father’s smile. Your face reflects years of hard-earned wisdom or several summers out on the lake or lines of laughter, and you’re at peace with that.
- You’re in a 1.66-mile-long tunnel, a former railroad track that has been converted into a bike trail. You and a friend are pedaling through about halfway through the pass when your headlamp flickers off… and his does too. It is pitch black, total darkness. And you dig your iPhone out and turn on the flashlight function and do your best to hold onto the handlebars with one hand and your iPhone with the other. Imagine the relief when you see other cyclists or that literal light at the end of the tunnel.
Ok, that last one actually happened to me on the Hiawatha Trail in Montana. “There’s a sermon illustration in here,” I thought at the time…
The presence or absence of light profoundly shapes our perception of reality. Ask anyone who lives with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or anyone has trouble driving at night.
The writer of John plays with these themes of darkness and light throughout his gospel and so eloquently here in the first chapter. Like the chorus in a Greek drama, these first 18 verses, this prologue, not only introduces some key themes and gives us a sense of the events that are about to unfold, but it also gives us the perspective through which we are supposed to view them.
John’s gospel leans heavily on the symbolism of darkness and light, of seeing and not seeing. It gives us characters like Nicodemus, the lead Pharisee who comes to Jesus in the dark of night. And man born blind but who later sees. And Mary Magdalene, to whom the risen Jesus appears “while it was still dark,” Mary who sees that it is Jesus when he calls her name.
It’s in John where Jesus speaks of himself as “the light of the world.” (9:5) We got a hint of that in the prologue when it said:
“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… And 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.”
What all of that darkness and light imagery points to is this: Jesus reveals God to believers and to the world in a unique, definitive way. Jesus is the spiritual light that helps us to see clearly who God is and who we are.
John’s original hearers, steeped in Jewish tradition, would have heard echoes of Wisdom in all that talk of the Word (Logos, the masculine Greek word; Sophia, a feminine Greek word). Take Proverbs 8 for example:
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
…by me rulers rule,
and nobles, all who govern rightly…
I walk in the way of righteousness,
along the paths of justice…
Yahweh created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth…
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker…
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
Doesn’t that sound like John 1?
John’s bold claim was that the Word that was with God from the beginning, the Word that created the cosmos with God, the Word that was infused into the the Law, the Torah, the Word that spoke through the prophets had at last become flesh. In the life of a person, in his words and actions, that light shone into darkness.
In the discussion at the 8:30 service earlier this morning, participants were reflecting on this passage and some of them shared the ways in which Jesus was God’s light to them. “It was the way he accepted people, including everybody,” one person said. “He shows us how to live,” said another. “His deep, deep compassion,” said another. His integrity. His guts in standing up to power. Those are good questions for each of us to ponder. How does Jesus embody the Wisdom of God? In what ways is Jesus God’s Living Word to us?
“The true light, which illumines everyone, was coming into the world.” That light shines in the darkness and thereby judges the darkness by contrast. That contrast is so stark this time of year as we rehearse the Christmas story. It’s innocence, it’s beauty, it’s goodness is so glaring against all the cruelties of our day. All the ways that we humans hurt one another, all the ways we marr this earth and its inhabitants… The light judges that by its very appearing.
Probably the most famous verse in John’s whole gospel is this—we’ve seen it on bumper stickers, and posters at baseball games, and on pamphlets passed out by strangers in public; and many of us probably had to memorize it when we were young—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That verse has been used to promote all sorts of heinous theology, but it’s essential truth still holds: in Jesus reveals to us that God is love.
I came across this quote from the author Wendell Berry in an article the other day. He once told people at a conference that:
“I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love…
Friends, this is the good news of Christmas, this is what it’s all really about: God loves this world more deeply and thoroughly and completely and passionately than any of us could ever imagine. God loves the world itself—the soil under our feet, the creatures in the sea, the people on every continent. God loves you and me, every part of us down to our marrow, even those we try to hide. And we know this because of Jesus. He is the piercing light that has come into the world. That light that shines around us and within us.
And you know what? The darkness has not and will not overcome it.