In the beginning was the Word

Principle Lessons: Isaiah 9:2-7; 52:7-10, John 1:1-18

“For unto us a child is born, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Isaiah 9:6

The prophets of old had spoken and the people of Israel, who sat in the darkness of captivity, waited and hoped. They prayed and longed for a light to dawn. Yet, even as Isaiah proclaimed his word to Israel, it seemed that nothing changed.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his  servant.”

Luke 1:46b-48a

Some say that Mary was meek and mild, and scared. Maybe she was. I don’t really know since the story doesn’t really expound on Mary’s emotional state. Nevertheless, I admit that I tend to view Mary as rather fierce! Scared, perhaps, for her state and future; but, fierce nonetheless like only the mother of the Lion Judah could be. And I tend to see her as proud, not in an arrogant sort of way, but in a way that a young Jewish woman could be proud to be so addressed: “Blessed are you among women.” What courage and daring and mettle Mary showed when she said “Yes, be it done to me!”

But now, in the stable in Bethlehem, it seems so long ago. Did she know the full responsibility of what was to come, that her voice would echo through eternity: In a world dominated by privilege, power, and persuasion, Mary longed with the rest of Israel for deliverance. In a backwater town with a famed history but now in the middle of nowhere an unwed refugee teenager brought our salvation. Amid the birth pangs, the breath of the animals, and the bewildered carpenter, Jesus was born into the numb and noisy world. Into humanity’s quarreling and warring, God’s shimmering light shined forth. Unto a fragile world, a Word was uttered: “Hope.” And yet, as Mary looked around, the animals were still there, her baby was hungry, the stench of Bethlehem’s sheep hung in the air. It seemed that nothing changed.

  Angels came with their fierce gentleness. They were winged messengers clothed in light and overflowing with song. They heralded the birth of the Word into the world – the very same word that was spoken at the creation. The beauty of their song, the intensity of their countenance, the light of eternity was lost on certain poor shepherds keeping their flocks by night.

 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

Luke 2:14

 Their message was sent and their song ended. Then the angels turned back to their heavenly duties as though nothing changed.

  The shepherds tended the sheep. They were hired hands who lived on the borders and the margins of society, outcasts who counted as two steps above nothing. But to these the angels came, imparting their celestial message:

 “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Luke 2:11

The shepherds filled with fear and awe at the message of the angels, came and saw and stood for a time gazing at the world’s redemption. All of God’s self, wrapped in the beauty of a baby. But no matter how bright the angels, no matter how beautiful the song, life does not stop for a screaming, squirming baby, even one named Jesus. After all, the sheep needed tending because nothing changed. Even the Romans, the purveyors of power paid scant attention. It was a night like any other, unremarkable in its blatant ordinariness. The holy night was filled with a scent of ordinary because it seemed that nothing changed.

Nothing changed…except everything changed.

God, the Great I AM, the placer of stars and the sculptor of the mountains entered our world. God, the Great I AM, the voice of creation, the very crafter of the universe entered into our world and changed everything!

The great American poet, Maya Angelou, said it beautifully, 

“We, unaccustomed to courage,
exiles from delight,
live coiled in shells of loneliness,
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight,
to liberate us into life.”

I love Christmas and I particularly love the way John tells the Christmas story. Perhaps rather than saying this is John’s “Christmas” story it makes more sense to say that this is John’s story of the Incarnation. It bears little resemblance to the Christmas that we know. There are no angels and no shepherds. There is no Bethlehem, no inn, and no manger. There are no stars and no magi. For all of it, there is not even a Joseph nor a Mary. No, indeed, John follows the rhythm of Rogers and Hammerstein, starting “…at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

John transports us all the way back to the beginning of time…actually, to before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word – the Logos – the Christ was with God. No, the Logos was God.

The Logos was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. How astonishing! And we are indeed meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed, to be brought to silence in the holiness. All of our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced as we push the story to the very beginning of all things.

Perhaps we wish that John had started his Gospel with something a little less, with something maybe not at the very beginning. The beginning, it turns out, might not a very good place to start after all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about Mary and Joseph, some cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background. Christmas is easier if you stick to the shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story either. John is making it all just a little inconvenient.

That is until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). 

Legend holds that Martin Luther lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky! When we light candles, we access ancient energy – cyclical life-giving energy. The biochemistry of it is unmistakable: Energy produced in photosynthesis by a plant’s absorption of the sun’s energy is passed up the food chain to grazing cattle to produce tallow or on to bees to produce beeswax. The candle then produced will light even the gloomiest of nights with cryptic sunlight, returning the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again.

The Word, the Logos, the Christ that was at the beginning and through whom all things came into being is in all of that. The Logos is in photosynthesis. The Logos is in the tallow and the beeswax. The Logos is the cryptic sunlight. “Without him, not one thing came into being.” Or, as the old Authorized Version says, “without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3b). Oh, my!

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be or, rather, it is probably more complicated that we want Christmas to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas through the eyes of the Fourth Gospel: 

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth…And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace.

John 1:14, 16

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. When we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word pulls up and travels with us. But not just a part of the Word, it is the fullness we have received. Simply astonishing! The fullness of the Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”

So it started on the one hand with the Word, the Logos, the Christ, and all that he has done since before time, in time, and beyond time. And then on the other hand is John the Baptist, the man “sent from God” (John 1:6a) who “came as a witness to testify to the light” (John 1:7a). “He himself was not the light but came to testify to the light” (John 1:8)

So I was thinking, maybe we could do that, too. Maybe we could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God, who was God in the beginning. Maybe we could be like John so that others might believe through us and the light, which enlightens everyone, might shine forth on everyone. 

This, I was thinking, is exactly what Christmas invites us to be and to do, to bear witness to the light. And we are asked to do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is what is meant by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the Logos, in all persons, everywhere, at all times.

The light of Christ, the Word made flesh, comes among us at Christmas — and we celebrate its coming into the world. God had revealed God’s love to us in Christ. That first Christmas, the stable stank, and the light shone — and it continues to shine — and continues to allow us to see, and to show a world living in darkness what we have seen. For by that light we have been given the power to become children of God — and to take our places with the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

To paraphrase words attributed to Meister Eckhart, a 14th-century monk, “What good is it that Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago if he is not also born in me?”

The Work of Christmas

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.

Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

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