Christmas 2c, January 3, 2016

January 5, 2016

The Big Picture
John 1:1-18

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 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. 15 (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.'”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 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.

I’m sure many of you have used the phone or computer app called Google Earth. It’s sort of amazing that you can enter an address or a place name and it will take you on a visual journey from somewhere in outer space to the very spot on earth that you are wanting to see. It’s like visually travelling to the spot you have identified from thousands of miles away down to about 50 feet away in a couple of seconds. I don’t know how those Google people have managed to do this, but this app allows you to get a close-up view of every address or named place on earth.

Google Earth is a powerful tool, and it gives you some interesting perspective both on how large the earth is and also how small it is. The truth is, we humans are parked on a pretty small speck in the universe, but having a life on earth is a pretty big deal. There’s an interesting contrast between the powerfully strong individual experiences we all have and the infinitesimally small space we actually occupy. I don’t wake up each morning thinking about what a small creature I am on this small speck of a planet orbiting one of the billions of stars that make up the universe, but I know I am that small. We are all that small, but we usually wake up to face seemingly large challenges and opportunities each day.

This prologue to the Gospel of John sort of reminds me of this experience of going from a really grand viewpoint of reality down to a curbside view of how God chose to step on to the earth. I see in these verses the contrast of the grand scale of God’s glorious design of the universe with the unique desire of God to touch each of our lives.

John uses about five verses to describe what God and the word had been doing from the beginning of time. He doesn’t get caught up in the details of creation. It’s a very general description of what God had been doing for an unfathomable length of time, and then he says: There was a man sent from God named John.

John’s first pin-point focus was on John the Baptist, not Jesus, but I think John the Baptist was someone who had gotten a lot of attention, and John the Gospel writer wanted his readers to understand how John the Baptist fit in the big picture. John the Baptist had gathered a lot of attention, but there was to be no confusion about his role. He was not the light – he was the one who pointed to the light. John the Baptist played a large role in the plan of God to redeem the world, but he wasn’t to be the primary object of our attention.

In some ways I think John the Baptist is a more knowable man. John the Baptist was more disciplined and righteous than average people are able to be, but we understand discipline and order. John the Baptist knew how to follow divine rules, but he didn’t fully embody the grace and the love that would come in the life of Jesus Christ, and those are things that aren’t so easy to comprehend. John the Baptist was remarkable enough to get divine attention, but he wasn’t the one we are to focus our full attention upon. What we see John the Baptist doing is pointing to the one who fully embodied the light of life.

What John the gospel writer wanted us to understand is that Jesus Christ came in to this world to totally transform our understanding of God. Our understanding of God was going to go from being unfathomably general to incredibly specific. This unknowable logos that was with God from the very beginning was going to become a man and dwell among us. God’s way of thinking became embodied in a man, and to meet this man is to have your understanding of life turned upside down.

John provides us with an interesting introduction to the story of Jesus. He brings our attention to that which is most essential, and I think it’s a good passage for us to read as we begin a new year. Just as John invites us to get the big picture in mind I think this is a good time for us to be reminded of that picture. It’s an invitation for us to consider how our own specific lives fit in to this drama that has been unfolding since the beginning of time. There’s no way for us to get our minds around how large this story really is, but by looking at Jesus we can gain an understanding of how the light that was present in his life can shine in our own lives.

And it’s important that we embrace this light because there’s this other reality in this world that we have to deal with – darkness. John doesn’t explain where this darkness came from or why it’s around, but he doesn’t act like it’s not there. Darkness exists, and it’s a problem. It’s a problem for the light, but it isn’t as powerful as the light. The light prevails – but not without a struggle. That’s what I understand John to be saying in this passage, and that’s how I understand the reality of life to be. It’s a struggle to maintain the light of life. The darkness will never fully prevail in the world, but it’s a nagging presence to all of us.

It’s a nagging presence, but it can be contained. John is proclaiming in these verses that the whole enterprise of God establishing creation and eventually taking on the form of flesh and blood was to enable us to live as children of God. God became flesh in order to reveal God’s true nature – which is as light in darkness. We’re told that there is a gift that comes to those who love and seek to follow Jesus, and the gift is for us to continue the tradition of bringing this abstract concept of God into the reality of human life.

I’m speaking in what I consider to be very abstract language, but I don’t just think of the incarnation as being an abstract concept. I may be totally off base, but what I like to think that God did when God took on the form of a human being was to show us what it really means for us to become human. And we humans have a lot to offer to one another.

A wonderful thing happened to me one Christmas Eve a few years ago. I received a call from a friend who was having a hard time. My friend has some severe medical issues, but in addition to having a hard time with his body he was also experiencing a profound sense of fear that the end of his life was near. His medical condition wasn’t life threatening, but he had this sense that something really dark was approaching and it was going to take him away.

On one hand, he knew that it might be an irrational fear that he was experiencing that may well have been brought on by a round of a really strong antibiotic, but he was also in touch with the thought that it may be true. He was asking the question, what if it’s true that he was about to die and that bad news awaited his eternal soul. This is what he was feeling.

He told me he had hoped to attend a Christmas Eve Communion service, but that he wasn’t going to be able to make it. I offered to bring communion to him and that sounded good to him.

When I got to his house I found him in a state of profound resignation to the end of his life. He wasn’t suicidal, but he just thought his life was over. He once again spoke of his sense that something dark was approaching, and that things were not going to be OK. For some reason his words made me think of my mother, and I told him how I had been really lucky in the sense that from my earliest days my mother always made me feel like things were going to be OK. I told him I thought I had been conditioned to believe that the world was a good place, and that I had never really had my illusion shattered.

No doubt the reason I thought of my mother was that she had recently died from a sudden and massive stroke. The person who had always made me feel like things were going to be OK had departed in a manner that didn’t feel OK when it happened. But as I spoke to my friend it occurred to me that the feeling she had instilled in me seemed to have reemerged. I went on to share my belief that this was the message Jesus wanted us to understand – that in the largest sense, regardless of what was going on, things were going to be OK. Jesus was killed in a way that wasn’t OK, but even that wasn’t able to destroy him. His physical body was destroyed, but his presence remains, and we continue to experience this gift of being the children of God. Ultimately, we still have a way to be OK.

I went on to read the communion ritual, we shared the elements, and I think it left both of us feeling better. We didn’t ward off the darkness for good, but we both had a moment of reprieve. I know the exchange we had felt like a gift to me. I had never really articulated how my mother had always made me feel like things were going to be OK, and how it seemed to be a feeling that remained with me even though she was no longer around. My mother was a person who fully embraced the teachings of Christ, and she had that gift of living as a child of God. I’m pretty sure her sense of optimism about life was rooted in her trust in God.

I don’t always feel like things are going to be OK. I’m familiar with that sense of darkness that seems to find it’s way into our lives at unfortunate moments. I don’t think any of us remain illuminated by the light of life every day of our lives, but I believe that people who embrace the life of Jesus Christ and who seek to follow his teachings grow in their ability to share the light of Christ. Following Jesus doesn’t protect us from the assault of darkness, but darkness doesn’t prevail in the lives of those who embrace the light.
John says God has offered a gift to us all – we are offered the opportunity to live as the children of God. As we begin this new year I invite you to embrace this gift and I encourage you to look forward to those opportunities that God will provide for you to be the sharer of light in to all the places you will go.

One of the large oversights of our United Methodist Hymnal is that they didn’t include John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer – which is a prayer he would include in his annual New Year’s Covenant Renewal service. I wish I could tell you to turn in your hymnals to that prayer, but it isn’t there. I think it’s a good prayer for us to pray this morning, so I invite you to pray that prayer with me as I read it to you:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee.
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.


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