“Light Breaks In” – Sermon, January 5, 2014

Do you need some good news?

This may seem like a silly question. After all, we just finished weeks of celebrating – Christmas and the New Year.

Today’s Gospel presents a final word of good news for Christmas season – before our lurching back into Ordinary Time. (Even though Ordinary is just what some of us might crave right now…) And I know I need the good news.

Even though we have just spent weeks eating lots of our favorite foods, seeing some of our favorite people, the-word-became-flesh-detail2singing some of our favorite carols, giving and receiving gifts, being surrounded by the beauty of lights and colors and such, my hunch is that it has left many of us feeling a little empty. Or maybe a lot empty.

If you are in that boat, know that you are not alone. If you are in need of some really good news, it’s okay; you really are not alone.

When I looked at the lectionary, and today’s Gospel text was the opening verses of John’s Gospel, I was genuinely excited. These are some of my favorite verses of scripture. To have the opportunity to explore and preach on them seemed my good fortune. That was several weeks ago. Then, the more I read, the more I exegeted, the more I came up short.

The thing is: I could spend my time this morning talking about how theological John’s Gospel is – especially this passage.

I could spend my time talking about the poetry – the function of the first 14 verses as the prologue to John’s Gospel.

I could spend my time giving vocabulary lessons by way of theological conversations about things like incarnation, Trinitarian overtones, high Christologies, the Johannine Community, the concept of the Logos, and all that implies, and so forth. And if you know me well, you know that most weeks I would probably very much enjoy doing that.

But I need more than that. And chances are, if I need more than that, so do you.

What I would rather do with my time this morning, with the chance to hold John’s words fresh on our lips and close on our hearts, is to really do that – to hold them close on our hearts. Because this passage, if it is about anything at all, is most importantly about Light. And it’s about Life.

And it’s downright scandalous if we’re paying attention.

It’s about the scandalous God we worship. The scandal of Incarnation (ah! There’s a good theological vocab word. We’ll come back to that.). It’s about the scandal of a God who took on our humanity – and not just as a mask – but became one of us. And not out of judgment or ransom – but out of love and grace.

It’s about a scandal that our God – our grace – our salvation – is predicated on Light and Life – full of Truth and Grace.

These words from John’s Gospel ought to scandalize us. And again, let me be candid: I am in need of being re-scandalized by the Gospel. It seems one thing to talk about a baby – it seems an entirely different thing to swaddle that story with the cosmic love language of John’s prologue.

What is really scandalous – and what is so often lost – is that John’s Gospel is a dramatically intimate Gospel. The God revealed here is not a God lost in the eternity and the stars – but a God who dwells with us – that is also right there in these verses. Listen again – in verse 14 we hear the proclamation that the word became flesh and lived among us. You do not have to dig too deeply into commentaries to read that what this verb “lived” really means is that God pitched a tent among us.

Okay, so for most of us, if we are going to pitch a tent, it means we are going to have to leave – to escape – to drive somewhere, then hike somewhere from there – and pitch our tent. We pitch tents to reclaim something simple, to encounter a different kind of life than our normal world of mattresses and cable and fast food and cell phones buzzing.

That’s not what this Gospel means. It means that God moved in. God took up residence among us. God moved into the neighborhood. God bought the house next door and moved in and shares life with us. We call this Incarnation – but that’s a theological vocab word that often makes the truth of this feel even more inaccessible. And an inaccessible incarnation is no incarnation at all.

God moved into the neighborhood. And here’s the miraculous, scandalous thing about that truth – God didn’t just move into your neighborhood. God moved into my neighborhood. God moved into her neighborhood. God moved into the inner city of East St. Louis, and God moved into the old mansions of Ward Parkway. God moved into Spanish Harlem, and God moved into Beverly Hills. God pitched a tent among refugees from South Sudan, and set up camp among orphans in Haiti.

This is the miraculous, scandalous good news of John’s Gospel. God really is with us. Because God wants to be with us. God didn’t decide to descend to our neighborhoods because we were so screwed up that we had to be punished. That Incarnation would be like when my sister and I would be fighting over the remote control in the basement, and my dad would bellow from upstairs, while he was making spaghetti, “Don’t make me come down there!”

Instead, God chose to dwell among us because we needed light. We needed love.

Because God so loved the world – remember – that God came down to live with us.

True, we have an enormous capacity to screw things up. We are quite good at exercising selfish motivations, at seeking power and control, even – at worst – at the loss of life and livelihood of others.

But also, we dwell in darkness – some of our own creation – and God is a God of life and a God of light. God chose to move into our neighborhood that we might see, feel, touch, hear, understand, the fullness of grace that is the light of God.

 

Do you need some good news?

Do you need some light and life?

Do you ache for the fullness of God’s grace?

The scandal, again, and the beauty of this Gospel is that the light is not our responsibility. The light is a gift for us.

I also find this good news in the passage: we do not have to ignore our darkness. God does not ignore the darkness – hear again in the opening verses – God’s life is the light of all people.

This light shines in the darkness. The darkness does not overcome the light. The light does not eradicate the darkness, but shines within it. God moving into the neighborhood is risky – God does not protect God’s own self by staying beside the darkness, but dwells and lives and moves in the midst of the darkness. But God’s own truth is this – that the light always shines.

There will never be a darkness absent of God.

As you listen to this likely-familiar passage, and you hear again the proclamation, the promise that Jesus and the light of Christ “is more powerful than any darkness,” do you wonder if it’s all bull? Do you find that truth easy to sing, but nearly impossible to grasp? Have you sat in darkness that felt pretty God-forsaken?

I do not want to offer you pithy statements and call them spiritual truth. But I can offer you the hope that I hold on to – and sometimes it allows even a glimmer of light to break through – and that is often enough. Sometimes it is just enough, but enough nonetheless.

What I think John’s Gospel is really about is not philosophical or theological systems, but the scandalous truth that God breaks in – that God breaks in, not to wipe away our human reality, but to dwell in it. To get dirty alongside us. To struggle and wrestle and weep and wonder alongside us.

The heart of the light and life that we all need to hear this morning – some of us maybe for the first time, and some of us maybe for the thirty-seven-thousandth – is that we are not alone. We are profoundly not alone.

Maybe your darkness is the darkness of terminal illness, and the search for healing that will not come in physical form.

Maybe your darkness is the darkness of loneliness, of feeling isolated and alienated from a sense of home or familiarity.

Maybe your darkness is the darkness of financial insecurity – the darkness of days between one paycheck ending before another one comes. Or the darkness of looming debt.

Maybe your darkness is the brokenness of a relationship you cannot envision how to heal. Maybe your darkness is the open wound of grieving the loss of someone – to a new place, to a new person, to death.

Maybe your darkness is couched in fear – of the future, of losing someone, of being unloved, unappreciated, unwanted. Or a fear of security, of the unknown, of forces that seem bigger and more powerful than your ability to survive.

Maybe your darkness is the irrational and yet all-encompassing reality of depression. Maybe it’s the darkness of not knowing why you get out of bed in the morning.

Maybe your darkness doesn’t feel so much like darkness. But it also doesn’t so much feel like light. Maybe your darkness is better named as listlessness or apathy.

But friends, here’s the truth I know I need to hear again and again – I am not alone in the darkness. You are not alone in the darkness. We are not alone in the darkness.

Out of love and out of grace God chose to move into your neighborhood, to keep you company, to show you light and love and life in the midst of your darkness – self made or not.

Maybe you don’t understand all this talk about darkness. Maybe you are glowing, shining in the light and life of Christ. Maybe you are like John the Baptist in this passage – called to testify to the light – called to speak and act in ways that point the world to God’s grace and light. By our lives we help light break through the darkness.

And the truth here is that happens, most of the time, not in big ways, in grand miraculous gestures, but in small, intimate ways.

It happens in the earthy mud that Jesus touches to a blind man’s eyes.

It happens in the ordinary water and cloth that Jesus used to wash his disciples’ feet.

It happens in the ordinary joy of a prolonged wedding celebration as Jesus turns water to wine. (Okay, that one is pretty extraordinary!)

It happens in the ordinary cup of water we offer Jesus as he sits with us at the well.

It happens as Jesus weeps with his friends after his friend Lazarus dies.

The light breaks through in the ways we share joys and grief, hope and fear with one another. In ways that we confront our own darkness, but do not give in to it.

Kimberly Bracken Long says this about the promise of meeting God in Jesus: “Jesus Christ is the living Word, the one who brought the cosmos into being, the one who will bring creation to completion, and the one who lives today…We encounter him in the reading and preaching of the Word; he invites us to the table and meets us there; he is present in his body, the church. This is why we live an incarnational faith – why we seek Jesus not only in the words we say but in the sacramental life we share. If we are paying attention, we recognize too that God is in the ordinary moments of our life – in the making of lunches and the folding of laundry, in daily kisses good-bye, in the moment when we look into the eyes of one whom the world considers unlovely at best and unworthy of notice at worst. It is why we aim to live the Christian life by not only talking about it or thinking about it, but by doing it – why our prayers are not only those of the heart, but those of the hands and the feet.”[1]

Do you need some good news this morning?

Hear the good news that the word became flesh and moved into your neighborhood.


[1] Kimberly Bracken Long, Feasting on the Word, Year B, volume 1, 145.

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