Dec. 17, 2017
John 1:6-9, 19-28
Nowhere do the differences in the Bible’s four gospels surface more dramatically than at their beginnings, which of course, we turn to during the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
Did you know that the stories of Christ’s birth only appear in two of the four gospels? Luke’s is the longer one and perhaps most familiar to the masses with the angel’s annunciation to Mary, a decree from the Emperor Augustus, a birth and a manger and no room at the inn, and shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Matthew’s is a bit shorter, but from him we get the Wise Men, learned astronomers from foreign lands who journey all the way to Bethlehem to pay him homage and give him gifts. (What is it they know about this baby, and how do they know it?)
It’s after these accounts of his miraculous birth that we come to Christ’s baptism in Matthew and Luke and we’re left with the sense that it must somehow be God’s deep and hidden wisdom to send a Savior who would condescend to human need, become one of us, baptized along with us, in order to also be Emmanuel, God with Us.
Mark starts his gospel with Christ’s baptism. There’s no birth. From Mark we learn nothing about Jesus’ younger years. It’s as if Jesus becomes Jesus – the Messiah – when he submits to the baptism of John and rises from the water to receive the Holy Spirit. It’s the Spirit of God that will motor his ministry, and I think Mark wants us to know that the same Spirit will motor ours.
From John’s gospel, which of course wasn’t written by John the Baptist, we get a somewhat different story. In the gospel of John Jesus is never actually baptized. John the Baptist isn’t even “John the Baptist;” he’s a guy named John who is better able to say who he’s not than who he is. “Are you the Messiah?… No.” “Are you Elijah?… No.” “Are you the prophet?… No.” “I’m a voice,” says John. “I’m a witness.” “I’m one who points beyond myself to something greater.”
In the Gospel of John this guy John is part of a prologue that is utterly unique to the gospel and should be heard if we are really going to get a sense of what the evangelist wants us to know.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 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 being in 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.”
Right after that comes the first part of our gospel reading for today. This is what John the Baptist points to. The light of the world, God’s very Word and will, – the “Word” that spoke creation into existence, the “will” that brings life from nothing, – that is what has entered the world in the coming of Jesus.
In what I think is a very helpful little video clip Franciscan priest Richard Rohr talks about Christmas and the mistake we make when we think of the time leading up to it as awaiting the birth of the baby Jesus. He notes that that event happened 2,000 years ago and its simple beauty, as we’ve noted, is proclaimed by Luke and Matthew. That baby will not be born again.
He says how up until the 13th century the feast of Christmas paled in comparison to the much more important feast of Easter and its proclamation of death and resurrection. But, Francis loved Christmas and prioritized its celebration because of its message about Incarnation. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” says the gospel of John. Christmas is about the Cosmic Christ – this Word – born into this world and continually reborn into the fleshy physical material of creation. Christmas is about God’s decision to be revealed within the physical stuff of life. It’s about Spirit, the Holy Word, the Light of Life, infused into the material. It’s God appearing in the beauty of nature; it’s God in bread and cup; it’s God in our willingness to encounter one another in love; it’s God in our making of love; it’s God in our care for our neighbor; it’s God in our willingness to hold hands with the marginalized; its God in our capacity to humanize one another – even our enemies. Francis said the trees should have candles on them to show their inner truth – to reveal the light of God that is pleased to dwell within them and all of creation.
We are always in Advent, suggest Rohr, because we are always awaiting Spirit to reveal itself in matter. And it is Christmas that happens whenever Spirit does just that – whenever Spirit gives us a glimpse of itself through the fleshy stuff of life.
Christian leaders talk a lot about changing the world. Some talk about changes that I like; some not so much. And I agree that to ignore Christ’s call to serve “the least of these,” (a passage from Matthew that we read in the near past) is to miss an important message. But, I do want to suggest this: that our making a difference in the world is meant to be rooted, I believe, in our seeing the world differently – in our seeing of the world through the lens of Incarnation. When we see God in creation we necessarily think twice about spoiling it. When we see God in our fellowship here at church we care about the things that build us up. When we see God in our neighbors – friends and foe – we desire their wellness; we’ll even sacrifice for it because we know it’s the key to living a life that is sacred.
A friend of mine has this image of God, which his very artistic daughter drew up for him and I keep thinking about it. God is a bright yellow in the middle of the picture. A line signifying the Holy Spirit comes right out of God to the person of Jesus who is entirely yellow as well. Even the space around him is yellow. But, there are other lines of the Spirit shooting out from God as well and landing upon people who, to varying degrees, share that same yellow. Some have a little and some have a lot. And the picture makes me think, “Why not have a lot?” What’s keeping us from glowing that same yellow light?
And I ask because that is what the gospel of John says is at stake here – a God-infused life, a God-infused existence. The light of God has come into the world, and it is lit in you and it is lit in me. What Christ has with the Father he shares with us, so shine your light for as it shines Christmas happens.