Our Christmas text today from John sounds more like the introduction to a dramatic movie – you can almost hear James Earl Jones’ deep voice saying the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Of course, John’s version of the story is not as action packed as Luke’s version of the story. Luke’s story of an evil empire, of a scandalous marriage and birth, of magnificent angels, and of rebellious shepherds is much more like the Christmas blockbuster we would all flock to the theaters to see. John’s version of the story is a little more like the movie at the independent film theater that you might be dragged to with your artsy friend – or maybe you would just wait until the film came out on DVD, to watch if you had time. John’s story is less engaging because he takes us away from the dramatic and relatable details of that holy night, and takes us to the cosmic understanding of that night. The language is beautiful, but we have a difficult time finding a way to connect to the story.
The good news is that John gives us more than we realize at first glance. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The beginning of John reminds us of the beginning of another great story of our faith – the beginning of Genesis.[i] We hear the similarities from Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” We can hear James Earl Jones’ introduction here too. In Genesis the world was in darkness and chaos – “tohu wavohu” are the Hebrew words for this dark chaos, this formless void. By referencing this time of darkness from Genesis, John hints that when Jesus is made flesh among us, the world has fallen once again into a time of darkness. In fact, even though God forms the world and gives the world light, the light seems to battle with darkness from the earliest days. Though God gives the world covenants, laws, judges, kings, and prophets, the darkness still fights with the light.[ii]
And so, in the midst of this struggle between darkness and light, we pick up the story with John. God, unwilling to cede the world to darkness, takes on flesh. Jesus Christ becomes the incredible gift to us – God incarnate to show us the way to lightness. Of course, Moses and Job saw glimpses of God’s glory and light. But when the Word becomes flesh, God puts flesh on light, glory, grace, and truth, “so that followers who want to know how [light, glory, grace, and truth] sound and act have someone to show them.”[iii] John does not start his gospel telling us the story of Jesus’ incarnation; Instead, John tells us of the significance of Jesus’ incarnation. John cuts right to the importance of this event instead of letting us linger in the blockbuster version of the story.
What is challenging about John’s version of the story is that John immediately invites us into a choice when we hear the significance of Jesus becoming incarnate. John explains, “[Jesus] 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…” When we hear these words we often think of those people who did not accept Jesus. We hear John’s words in the past tense, thinking ourselves as separate from a time when Jesus had to be accepted or not. Unfortunately, we do not get off so easily. We too can be people who do not accept Jesus, and who do not live in the light. We turn our eyes from those in prison, from those barely keeping out of poverty, and from those victims of discrimination and intimidation. We allow the darkness to spread, not claiming the light of Jesus in our lives, and not shining the light of Christ into the darkness.
I stumbled on a commercial recently about parenting. The commercial shows three quick vignettes – a father drinking milk from the carton, a dad shoving some dropped trashed under a bench, and a mother yelling angrily at the car in front of her. At the end of each scene, a child is shown to be watching, taking in every last bit of behavior from the parents. The commercial warns parents that children are constantly watching, listening, and learning from all of us. We are our children’s teachers and children learn by imitating us. The commercial is eye-catching in its honesty and simplicity.
What John is arguing for today is somewhat like this commercial. Like children and parents, the world is watching us. The world, knowing us to be persons of faith can see when we are agents of the darkness or of the light. A few weeks ago, when a police officer gave shoes to a homeless man, the world saw his light. When young dancers agreed to perform during their Christmas Break to raise funds for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the world saw their light. When we empty our pockets and purchase gifts for those suffering right here in Plainview, our community sees our light. Whether we want to admit the reality or not, the world is watching us for some hint of light in this world that can be so dark.
Being an agent of light can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. But John’s gospel gives us two words of encouragement. John first tells us that to those who claim the light, who claim Jesus in their lives, God gives power to become children of God. In other words, God will give us the power to become the light in the world. Second, John tells us that we have all received, grace upon grace. God’s grace can lift us up out of the darkness, and allow us to shine Christ’s light in the world. Through God’s grace and power, we can be agents of light. We can be agents of light in a world that still struggles with darkness. We can be agents of light because “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Amen.
[i] Paul J. Achtemeier, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),189.
[ii] David Lose, as found on http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=12/25/2010&tab=4 on December 28, 2012.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),191.