I cannot even begin to tell you all what a joy it is to be here with you all this morning at Shepherd of the Hills. There are so many things I am excited about, so many things I want to share with you all. As I began working on the sermon for today, I had tons of ideas I wanted to cram in! It is common for seminarians and new pastors to try to stuff all of their seminary knowledge into every sermon. But a wise pastor once told me “Remember Rosemary, you don’t have to tell everything we know about God each time you preach. In fact, you can’t. God is too big to fit entirely into one sermon.”
So, where to start. Well, perhaps the most logical place….the beginning.
In the beginning……words filled with such promise. Hope. Anticipation. Excitement. Possibilities.
I will admit that I was so pleased to see this text come up for this particular Sunday since, as we all know, it is a beginning! It is the beginning of our ministry together, the beginning of the next chapter for Shepherd of the Hills, the next chapter for me in the ministry to which God has called me. Today we will share the Eucharistic meal together for the first time—a very meaningful beginning.
It’s the beginning of the calendar year. Time for resolutions and changes for the better. Time to give up bad habits, pick up good ones, make promises to ourselves and one another. A new beginning. A clean slate.
It’s the beginning of our relationship—as pastor and parishioners—our journey together as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is the beginning of a journey toward healing from past hurts, growing in the depth of our faith, in our ability to share the Gospel with others and growing our church family.
New Year’s Day was my first day on the job here and when I came in to the church I was so excited to move in books and get started. When I arrived, the church was so still and quiet. All my hurried rushing and excitement was calmed. I came in here—into the sanctuary—and just sat here for a minute. I thought about all those beginnings and about the Gospel for Sunday and just how perfect it was that this was to be the text. Then, it hit me. Was I, perhaps, thinking too small? Did I need to expand my understanding of what this text is saying to us? Maybe these little beginnings are really not the point. Maybe my small beginnings—our small beginnings—are too small for Jesus’ attention.
The Gospel of John begins in such a way as to bring to mind another ‘beginning’: Genesis. The author most likely began this way on purpose. He draws upon that story and shows that now we know the full story: the Full Story in Jesus Christ. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
Now that is thinking big!
In fact, this is a common theme in scripture: the call to stop and recall the past and see where and how God was and is active in it. The writers of scripture frequently draw parallels to the past and specifically to what has come before in the history of the People of God. Take our Old Testament lesson for example. The prophet Jeremiah is speaking the Word of the Lord to the people of Israel and it is, indeed, a good word. He tells them that there is reason for singing, for joy and celebration because God is going to gather His people back together and they will prosper and live well in God’s love and favor. At that time, Israel was a captive people under the rule of the Assyrians. This was a time of exile for Israel. Not a time of joy, but a time when many felt abandoned by God. Yet, the Prophet Jeremiah tells the people: Take heart! There is reason for hope! There will be a new beginning! Our future is full of Hope. Anticipation. Excitement. Possibilities. “Hear the word of the Lord,” he says “He who scattered Israel will gather him and will keep him as a shepherd a flock. For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.” The word of the Lord says it is so.
This is, then, cause for us to celebrate as well! Just as the prophet spoke the Word of the Lord, the good news that God had redeemed them, that God had been there all along and would save them, so, too, does the Gospel tell us that God has been there with us from the beginning. Jesus was there in the beginning, is here now and will be there in the future. There is nothing in all creation that came about through any other means than through Jesus Christ.
In recent days, I have seen this for myself in my journey to becoming your pastor. Early in 2008 when I was assigned to the NC synod, I looked at the list of congregations in the call process and saw Shepherd of the Hills. I thought, wow, what a great name! It makes me think of Jesus walking through the mountains searching for His lost sheep. And then, finally, after a frustratingly circuitous path, I came to interview here. On the drive up, I was struck by a strong memory from my childhood of my and my parents’ many trips home to visit family in Asheville or Mars Hill. At the first sign of the mountains on the horizon my father would recite his favorite scripture: I lift mine eyes unto the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of Heaven and earth. And there I was, on my way to interview at Shepherd of the Hills. God was there on that day, in that precious and powerful memory. He was with me as a child, and through out my life’s journey, that of my father and mother and even further back, for all the times they had looked to the God of those mountains, the Shepherd of those hills, He was there just as he has been for each of us. He was with me when I sat in this sanctuary on my first day, and he is here today, too, and has promised to be there in the future. He is with us here at the beginning of our journey together, He has promised to be in the bread and the wine we will share this day. And he will lead us as we go forward together. I am sure that many of you also have stories about when you realized that God had been there from the beginning. I look forward to hearing those stories and to looking for Jesus’ presence with us all in the time to come.
In our scriptures in Advent, we hear about Jesus, the tiny baby, born in such poor and humble surroundings and wrapped in the inescapably fragile flesh of a human body. We hear of all the prophecies about this vulnerable infant boy. We do not even want to think about what will happen to him, what lies ahead. But today’s Gospel reminds us that is not all there is to Jesus. Jesus IS the tiny human baby boy born to the Virgin Mary so long ago, the Messiah, but Jesus is also THE WORD. He is GOD. The Gospel writer quite plainly calls Jesus “God, the only Son.” He proclaims, “The Word was God.” Nothing in all creation would or could have been made without him. Nothing in all creation is apart from him. All things owe their very existence to him for life itself dwells within him and he is the very light of the word; a light that, no matter how dark it may seem, evil will not overcome. That tiny baby IS God. That infant IS the Word that was in the beginning–in all beginnings, all middles and all endings, too, for that matter. The beginning of all things—all creation all peoples—and our small little beginnings that seem insignificant in comparison.
That is a lot to take in, really, isn’t it? Theologians often like to think and talk about God in one of two ways: immanent or transcendent. The immanence of God refers to God being present here and now, dwelling with us. The Emanuel—God with us. The transcendence of God refers to God’s unsurpassibleness, greatness, beyond the limits of space and time, beyond us. The wonderful thing about this text is that it will not let us choose only one way of thinking about Jesus because, well, he isn’t just one or the other. He is both immanent and transcendent.
John’s Gospel returns us to the beginning of scripture—to the very beginning of time itself—and reveals that Jesus, the Word, was there. This is one of those times that we can really see and feel how much bigger than us God actually is. So big it seems that we cannot get our minds around it all. But then, he returns us to that baby in the manger: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…..no one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the father’s heart who has made him known.” God wrapped in the inescapably fragile human flesh. The creator of the universe, of all things seen and unseen, of things as yet undreamt of, of you and me, came to us as one of us so that we might know him and know that he is in the beginning of all things and he is in our small beginnings, too.