We get on full display how John’s gospel begins in a much more mystical way than the others. The synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all dive right in to the narrative first. They describe the foundational stories of Jesus and his ministry, and present either birth narratives or Jesus’ baptism in their openings. But John takes us back to words that point to creation. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We learn quickly that Jesus is in fact the Word , and the beginning of his story is so much earlier than when Gabriel broke the news to Mary at the Annunciation that she would bear a son.
A sermon based on John 1:1-18.
In addition, John the Evangelist is particular with his word choices throughout his Prologue. He describes Jesus as Word and Light and Son, and also the one who creates everything and who became flesh in order to live among us. It’s all a bit heady, really, especially given that we’re still in a bit of a festive frame of mind, and there are still Christmas cookies in the Santa cookie jar waiting to be eaten. Even more subdued celebrations like this year don’t mix well with deep theology. But John wants us to see, to know and to understand who Jesus is before we get to the stories about his life and teachings.
So hear again some of his writing: “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 beingin 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.” We then get a bit about John the Baptist and his not being the light himself, but one to give witness to the light. And then this: “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.”
On this First Sunday after Christmas Day, let me offer some thoughts on this exquisite language from St. John and what we can learn from it. First John tells us that life was to be found in Jesus, and that life of his provides light for all people. Jesus’ light shines on and on and could not be overcome by the darkness. Every single human being needs the light and life of Jesus to restore, refresh and guide them to the deepest meaning of love. In him—this one who is the Word—we can find full acceptance and care and an embracing of who we have been created to be. This life of ours—the life that is singularly and uniquely ours—can only be experienced in its fullest through the presence of the light.
But a word of caution on this language, which seems unnecessary for me to even mention, but it does arise from time to time, so I want to be clear. People at times have somehow understood that when the Bible speaks of light and dark they imagine this also includes a commentary on lighter and darker skin color. Light being good, and dark being bad. Yet light and dark in John’s usage—and throughout scripture—is not about color; it is the ability to see. If you’ve ever explored a cave system, you know this gets dramatically shown to you. While at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, we did three different excursions into the cave system. During one point in each tour, the ranger would tell us that she was going turn off the lights so we could experience what total darkness feels like. With a click of a switch, everything fell dark. For a minute or so with the artificial lights off, you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face. It is unnerving, really. I was afraid to even take a step even though the places we were gathered were relatively flat. Darkness like that terrifies and overwhelms us, showing our need for the true light of God. That’s what John means.
Second, John describes some of those whom Jesus came to as rejecting the light. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” This is another dicey section, because it can lead to sense of superiority over those of the Jewish faith since the ones Jesus came to and then rejected him were Jewish. However, nearly all of the people Jesus came to were Jewish, and his early followers were themselves Jewish. I think the rejection of the light of Jesus holds true for a group of people without regard for their religious beliefs: those with power. The message of Jesus about light and life could be seen as troubling to those wanting to keep the status quo in society. The ones with power generally do not want other people to see their own worth and value. They want to keep them tamped down. To feel as if they are not loved by God, and that they are ever in God’s displeasure. This has nothing to do with a religious identity; I know plenty of Christian leaders who’ve done the same. With the light of Jesus, all people have the opportunity to see themselves as God does—if their clouded vision becomes clear—and then they might upend the powers that be.
And how would they upend it? With love. The way John describes it, those who receive Jesus become children of God. We are best able to understand the attributes of God through Jesus—the one who became flesh and lived among us. Jesus embodies love. He lifts up those who are brokenhearted with words of comfort. He heals the ones who have been been unable to fully live life due to a debilitating illness. He softens the hardened hearts of those who feel they do not deserve love. He condemns the ones who seek to use others simply for their own greed. He brings light to lives too often overcome by darkness.
Which is the good news of this third day of Christmas. Jesus—the babe—was born in order to shower us with love. How do you need to experience that today? How do you need to know in your life that you are loved by God? And then, in turn, how can you share that love with others? Because the love of God shown to us through Jesus is generative. It does not stop with us; it is not something for us to enjoy and relish in ourselves and have it end there. The love brought to us in the birth of Jesus can bring light to a dark world. As we face the overwhelming reality of a pandemic, as safeguards for jobless benefits expire, as food insecurity balloons, as loneliness envelopes many, we who have received Jesus’ love are invited to share it with others.
Let’s do that this Christmastide. Let’s look for ways to make a difference for someone else. Let’s lighten their days. Let’s make their hardship better. Let’s share out of our abundance. Let’s take time to listen. Because the Word who was from the very beginning has come to live among us, and to bring his light to the whole world. May it be so.