Stepping Into the Light” – January 3rd, 2021 Steve Schantz
Good morning Church family and Happy New Year! I hope you enjoyed a safe and happy start to 2021. A new year can bring a sense of hope, can’t it? 2020 with its disrupted work, travel, education, and worship – with its health challenges, and its health tragedies. We want to put them behind us in the New Year, (at least by 2 days at this point!), and hope for a clean slate ahead. But our minds don’t tend to live in the future with great clarity. In fact, while saving a draft of this sermon file on my laptop I labeled it “January 3rd, 2020!” Most of us don’t sign as many checks as we used to, but how many times will we write the wrong date this month? Into February? RIGHT… There’s a simple reason for this…We tend to get used to hearing, seeing, and processing our world based on where we have already been, better than where we might be headed. This is just another way of saying that you and I are creatures of habit. But Epiphany with its emphasis on THE light who shine in the darkness, reminds us that life continues on, that revelation and growth and new beginnings loom on the horizon, that new roads appear up ahead, new roads that will take us, if we choose to let them, into new adventures, new challenges, and new opportunities to be the people God wants us to be. Let’s read from our text today in John chapter 1, verses 1 through 14:
John 1:1 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. (NRSV) – “God’s word, for you, and for me”
Today we’ll focus our attention on the Light that the Apostle John mentions 6 times here in the first 14 verses of his gospel account. We celebrate everything with lights don’t we? I have a confession to make this morning… we ordered some Christmas lights online but some of them didn’t arrive until this past Tuesday, December 29th. So, I waited until dusk, snuck out, and put them up anyway! (Which means I’m just in time for the Eastern Orthodox Christmas which is this next week on January 7th!)
Light fascinates us. It affects our temperament and mood. The gentle flicker from a fireplace log helps us relax… The 4th of July firework display stirs us up! From Birthdays, to Founder’s Day’s, State Fairs to the New Year’s Eve ball drop with thousands of LED lights set in luminous panels descending from the Times Square building in NYC. And it’s not only man made lights that attract our attention and bring us wonder, for we, like the traveling Magi, are all still fascinated by the stars and planets of the night sky.
Perhaps you noticed that Jupiter and Saturn came closer to each other in the night sky this year on December 21st than they have in almost 800 years? Astronomers note that there was less than 1 degree of separation visible between them. (From our perspective, that’s a thumbnail part!)
What the apostle John shares here has cosmic implications! Attempting to unpack everything in this text in a single sermon would be the very definition of overreach. So, to be fair to the text as well as our time together this morning, we will focus on a couple of the ‘Highlights’ of the passage. (First bad pun of 2021!) True transformation is not linked to a date on the calendar, but rather that it’s a bit sneakier than that. My hope is that John’s words truly help to light our path, to lead us into transformation, and not to blind us. So we will be selective in the text, and try not to bite off more than we can chew as so often happens with those long lists of New Year’s resolutions…
Embedded in this sermon file is a shock value nature picture to remind us of what not to do! This Anole Lizard was trying to swallow an entire earthworm on our front porch a month ago when I got this picture of him… We will return to our little friend in a few minutes…
I hope that we hear from John’s pointer to THE light two things: First, the power and promise of Jesus as we respond to the light, and Second, how this affects our New Year’s resolutions.
When we read john opening in verse 1, “in the beginning…”, most of us hear these words a bit differently that the average citizen of judea in the late first century. For them it called to remembrance the creation story which they knew so well. They would expect john to complete his thought sentence with, “in the beginning, god created the heaven and the earth”. But that isn’t where john goes, for he is now explaining the wisdom and logic behind the god of all beginnings and before all beginnings revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. We might compare their reaction to our own when we hear a song we’ve known and loved since childhood, and then someone comes along and puts new lyrics to it. (‘contrafactum’).
For example, when we sing the Christmas song, “What child is this?”, some of us still hear the lyrics from the folksong “Greensleeves” competing for space in our heads! “Alas my love you do me wrong – to cast me off discourteously; and I have loved you oh so long delighting in your company.
Or the way that William cummings retrofitted Charles Wesley’s lyrics to hark! The herald angels sing into a section of Mendelssohn’s Gutenberg cantata which he wrote as a secular piece to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Guttenberg’s moveable type printing press.
if you heard or sung “Auld Lang Syne” (lit. “long time ago”, “old times”) Last Thursday night, please know that in japan that song is called “Hotaru no Hikari” with different words and the song title means “the light of the firefly”), which they sing at graduation ceremonies! “hey, wait a minute, that’s not how that song goes!”
So when john says, “in the beginning was the word”, the original audience did a head jerk and asked, “who read that wrong?” What could it mean?
The Greek for word here is logos… (related to our English logic, or reason). Even a slang expression such as “word up!”, (in use since the 80’s), is a pointer toward speaking out, truth telling, or saying something meaningful. There’s only one meaning in the English language to the word “word”… no other version of what a word is – no deeper meaning to it. Something that is so true to a thing that nothing else can come of it, or better describe it. In this case, so true to the nature of our creator god. Make no mistake, john intends to connect the creation story they knew from genesis with this word – (capital “w”), and everyone who heard took notice! For some, god in Christ became a stumbling block. And for the Greeks who heard his message, the word logos meant intelligent design, the wisdom and purpose behind all things… and so john’s careful choice of word-ing would become a connection point for both cultures in hearing this witness to the nature of god in Christ.
This is the same Apostle who picked up pen and parchment and wrote of Jesus in his first epistle: “We have heard him. We have seen him. We have touched him.” John is named “the disciple that Jesus loved” 5 times in this gospel. The disciple who leaned on him at the last supper. The disciple who took Jesus’ mother Mary into his home after Jesus’ death. If Jesus wore an after shave, John would have known the brand! And so he presses on us, as people who are now reading his gospel account, to remove any thought of placing Jesus in the category of fable. We aren’t given the option to view him as just a man with good morals who taught some interesting truths. Because He actually came! He actually lived as one of us, but He also has always existed as God, and with God. John shares this in part because there are already misconceptions brewing about Jesus in the late first century, and he meets them head on here, and in his first epistle. He is especially keen to let us know just how real this Jesus is, and how we can rely on him to be who he said he was… Jesus tells us that, “I and my Father are one” “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”. And, it is the Apostle John who reminds us that “God is love”.
And so John reintroduces us here to the very real, pre-existent word of god, and the very real human person of Jesus – one in the same! In this unique way, god has provided what we need to discover and to validate our own reason for being. We need these two voices: the Holy and the human, the indescribably, transcendent mystery of god, and the crying baby.
Author and theologian Frederick Buechner says that both voices speak to us here:
“In the beginning was the word and the word was with god, and the word was god.” That’s the first voice—high, pure, like a choir boy singing and the sound of it rises to the very top of the church. “there was a man sent from god, whose name was john.” That’s the second voice, the human voice: “you need a human voice to get your bearings in the first voice’s unearthly music.” – Air In Two Voices:, A Room Called Remember, p. 82
Christianity becomes something less than authentic when it neglects the human, when the humanity of jesus, our own humanity, is not part of it. Buechner also says that interruptions can help us identify with the christ that is human.. He suggests that, at the highest point of the liturgy “as the priest raises the host, the janitor should walk through with a vacuum cleaner.” Now, we don’t usually plan for this in our communion liturgy…but it could happen!
But our text today tells us that this inner logic of god, results in this particular man, this son of god, who appeared at just the right time in history. And when this light of the world came, he will dispel the darkness in such a way that the darkness cannot overcome it. It cannot overtake the light, it can only try and hide from it! Light is the energy, the power, the heat source, the photosynthetic catalyst to life on our planet. (even a fictional character like a star war’s Jedi has to have his ‘light’ saber to do battle with the dark forces!)
Try telling a clerk at the hardware store that you are looking for their most durable flash dark. You know, a flash dark – it’s like a flash light only in reverse…for those places in your closet where it’s just too bright — you just point the flash dark at it and bam! Dim it down a bit! It doesn’t work that way does it? Because darkness is only the absence of light, just as cold is only the absence of heat. They have no energy or substance of their own. By receiving him as our light, believing that he truly is the father’s son, the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his being, we are given power to become the children of god. (verse 12 again). 12 but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of god…
When planning new year’s resolutions, we tend to fall into one ditch or the other. One of my difficulties in stepping into the light, perhaps one you can relate to as well, is my tendency to, 1: Overestimate what I can do/accomplish/check off, (and in the process lean on my flesh to accomplish it rather than the power of god). I mentioned we would come back to that lizard trying to bite off more than he can chew.
This is where I become that anole lizard! But the invitation to receive him, to believe him, comes with powerful results in our lives. Let’s hear Jesus’ words to us, which are good for any year, any place, and any culture:
Matt 11:28-30 28 come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and i will give you rest. 29 take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Jesus sees us weary and burdened, and he offers us a yoke! When we think of rest, we often think of escape. Just give me a vacation! (from COVID, from work, from stress) or, a mattress to just take a long nap! But Jesus provides us the kind of rest that yokes us to himself! The result is that your burden and my burden are never ours alone…it is always a shared burden. We can resolve to allow our burdens to drive us to him in 2021 in ways that we never imagined! He desires “all who labor”… do i really understand what a low bar Jesus offers me? Author and pastor Dane Ortland in his book Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers, suggests that we often avoid deep connection and fellowship with Jesus because we have a “muted understanding of the heart of Christ.” Do we believe he has an affectionate heart? How far this light has traveled to touch my life and yours with healing and wholeness? Or do we see him more as always having one eyebrow cocked? (“not so sure about that one… how’d he/she slip through the gate? Looks and acts more like a goat to me!”)
So the cure for overestimating my ability (which creates frustration and confusion) boils down to this two-step New Year’s Resolution:
- Go to Jesus
- See step 1
That’s it! We never outgrow this need year to year! What about that other ditch we so easily fall into? When I am hesitant to step into the light – moving too slowly, resisting his quickening spirit? When I fail to see that that which is in my power to accomplish in Christ in the moment? We have another reptile illustration readily available to us… as well as the words of the apostle paul to help us here…
8 for you were once darkness, but now you are light in the lord. Live as children of light eph 5:8 (niv)
(Jesus)- “It is the spirit that quickens, the flesh profits nothing.” (KJV) (“gives life”- NIV)
What will that quickened life look like for you this year? How will we step into the light in 2021?
Surprising a neighbor who is sick with a delivered meal? (ordering online is so easy and has become so common, if it’s not best or possible in person.)
Surprising those who serve and deliver our goods with a generous tip where businesses are still struggling… those small business owners who don’t have large reserves or holdings to sell off…
Pausing to lift a person up in prayer when their need and their name pops into our head…
Forgiving someone even if they never accept that forgiveness…
It happens when we listen to our brothers and sisters who have been marginalized…
It happens when we support the ongoing ministries of our church…
Every day is a new opportunity for us to be transformed by the love of god.
Let’s pray about that:
Gracious God, Remind us of the beautiful simplicity of coming to you again and again. To begin this New Year drawing close to the one who has seen all beginnings, and takes joy in making all things new. You have placed your light in us by the presence of your Holy Spirit and adopted us as your children. You know how we struggle under our own power to do better year by year, and so we come instead fully expecting to understand how much better you are this year than we could ever have imagined. Shine through us for your glory and good purpose. – In Christ name we ask – AMEN
Your pastor and brother,
Grace Communion Melbourne
Grace Communion Orlando