Just the Beginning
Rev. Sarah Buteux
January 4, 2015
Second Sunday of Christmas, Year B
There are some parts of the Bible I would much rather listen to than analyze; passages that mean more to me if I open my heart up wider than my intellect and allow their graceful cadence to stir something in my soul that I know my mind will never fully comprehend.
Passages like Psalm 139: “O Lord you have searched me and you know me, you know when I sit and when I rise, you perceive my thoughts from afar…”
Or the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53: “For he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed….”
Corinthians 13 is another: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal…” I’ve probably heard that chapter more than most, given the number of weddings I’ve done, but it somehow never gets old because every time I hear those verses I feel in my heart just how much I still have to learn about love.
It’s not that I don’t understand the words of these chapters on an intellectual level or that I have trouble parsing out the inherent theological implications. I do and I can. It’s more that when I come into the presence of words like these, I am reminded once again that scripture isn’t just poetry or really good literature. It’s holy… holy writ.
When I read these passages, or hear them read, it’s as if I can feel that holiness in my very bones. I know I am in the presence of something sacred, something so full of goodness and truth that no matter how many times I read it or how many hours I spend trying to study it, I will never fully grasp all of what God is trying to communicate.
It should come as no surprise then, that this is also how I feel about the first chapter of John. I can’t read this chapter out loud without tears welling up in my eyes, and yet I can’t tell you exactly why it moves me the way that it does.
I know that for a lot of people, their favorite part of the Christmas Eve service is singing “Silent Night” while the candles are being lit, but my favorite part is always the Great Lesson, always the reading of this very chapter. And although I have never seen it done quite the way it is done here, I found your custom of reading the great lesson by nothing more than the light of the Christ candle, to be especially powerful.
In my former churches, the Great Lesson has always come after all the little candles had been lit, and I have always counted it a gift to look out upon the softness of the faces gathered in the church, faces turned up and a-tuned to these words ringing out across the sanctuary. But to hear those words spoken into the darkness itself… and then to witness the light break forth, that for me was breathtaking.
I don’t think there are any among us who can grasp the fullness of what is being said in that moment, and yet it is always a holy moment, a moment where I feel God reaching out to us through His Word and telling us that he is here, that he loved us enough to come among us, and that miracle of miracles, he loves us still.
“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.”
These words have got to be some of the most beautiful and some of the most abstract in all of scripture. And yet this chapter is John’s Christmas narrative. This is how John tells the story of Jesus’ birth.
You’ll notice that it lacks the rugged details we find so much easier to grab hold of in the other gospels. There are no shepherds or angels here, no holy family or wise men. We get a brief glimpse of John the Baptist in chapter 1, but none of the salacious details about locusts and honey or camel hair that make him so much fun to talk about it.
The truth is, if we only had John’s gospel to work with our understanding and our celebration of Christmas would probably be very different. After all, John’s Christmas narrative is more conceptual than actual. He talks about light and darkness, grace upon grace, glory and truth. There is no room for Burger King crowns here, velour bathrobes, or baby lambs in his telling of the Christmas story.
And yet, as much as any other gospel, the first chapter of John in its own unique way is as concrete as you can get. It is all about God becoming flesh, God becoming someone we can see and touch and feel, God slipping on skin the better for us to understand who God is and how God loves.
“No one has ever seen God,” John tells us, and yet “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
Sometimes in my work I have the opportunity to ask people if they believe in God, and more often than not I get a vague sort of answer. Most people do, but God for them is usually a rather distant entity, not a someone as much as a something, again more conceptual than actual.
If pressed to think about it they will acknowledge that God is the force that got the ball rolling so to speak, kept people in line back in the old days with floods and plagues, fire and brimstone, and is still around today if you really, really need him – or her (depending on who you’re talking to).
But other than creating the universe, smiting people on occasion back in the day, and being the force one calls upon when all other options have been exhausted or you just really, really need a good parking space, (can I get an amen Martie?) in my experience there are a whole lot of people out there who believe in God but don’t seem to have a very good grasp of who God really is.
And for the longest time, I have pointed these folks to the first chapter of John. Because, you see, I think the most basic thing that John is trying to communicate with all of all these beautiful words, is that if you want to know what our great, all powerful, inconceivable, “immortal, invisible, God only wise” is really like, then stop, right now, and take a good long look at Jesus.
If you want to see highfalutin theological concepts like grace in action, pay close attention to how Jesus speaks to, say, the woman at the well.
If you want to understand the nature of God’s own glory, then take a moment and notice that when Passover comes, it is Jesus who kneels down and washes the feet of his disciples, rather than the other way around.
Do you want to understand the truth of God’s great love for us? Then listen. Listen closely as Jesus tells stories like that of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.
Observe with care how he responds to the woman caught in adultery.
Do you want to know how true light behaves in the presence of darkness? Then watch. Watch what Jesus does when they come to arrest him. See how he reacts when his disciples abandon him, how he conducts himself when the Romans convict and crucify him.
And if you wonder what John could possibly mean when he writes that, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” then read on till the end of the gospel and follow the women on Easter morning to an empty tomb.
If you want to know what God is like than look at Jesus: that, I believe, is what John is trying to tell us in this first chapter, and that is what I have always said too.
But then sometime last year my friend Chip, who many of you know through Common Ground, sent me a little story that blew my neat little analogy to pieces. It’s a curious little story of Marcus Borg’s that he tells about his good friend, the scholar John Dominic Crossan. And having read this story over and over now, I’m not so sure if even I know what I believe about God anymore.
“A year ago this March,” begins Borg, “Dom was the featured speaker at a weekend event at Trinity Cathedral in Portland. He gave an opening lecture Friday evening and then a series of talks on Saturday. Saturday morning, he began his first presentation by saying, “I want to tell you a story about something that happened last night. Last night after my lecture, while I was signing books, a student from the local seminary . . .” (Now there’s only one seminary in Portland. It is the Western Conservative Evangelical Baptist Seminary, and all of those adjectives matter. And so, the audience immediately knew that he was talking about a conservative student.)
“This student,” Dom continued, “said to me, ‘I told my professor that I was coming to hear you tonight.’ And my professor said to me, ‘You’re going to hear Crossan!?!? Why, why he’s to the left of Borg!’” That’s not the punch-line, though. Crossan continued the story, and he said, “So I said to the student, ‘Please give my best regards to your professor. And tell him that the real problem is that both Borg and Crossan are to the right of Jesus. And rumor has it that Jesus is to the right of God.’”
I haven’t been able to get that little story out of my head, in part because I’m spatially challenged so it took me awhile to understand who was to the right and or left of who. But once I got everyone lined up, the story gave me pause.
Because, you see, I’ve always thought of Jesus as the fullest expression of God’s great love for us, and in a sense I believe he still is. But now I can’t help but wonder if Jesus, the incarnation of God in human form, was simply as much of God as God thought we could handle…
…that perhaps God is even more loving, grace-filled, patient, and forgiving than the person we know as his son.
…that perhaps the depths of Divine mercy run far deeper than we can fathom, that the span of divine grace is wider than we could ever imagine.
I think what I’m beginning to understand is that Jesus – as good and wonderful and forgiving and loving as he was/is/and will always be – is just the beginning, the tip of the ice berg, a fleeting glimpse of the irreducible nature of Divine love; that faith or belief in God can never possibly be reduced to what you think you know because when it comes to God you never will.
“You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone,
the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”