In the beginning…that wonderful ‘once upon a time’ sounding phrase from God. Makes us think we are going to get to hear a great story! We hear ‘In the Beginning’ and we think of that primeval time when God created land and sea and sun and moon and stars—all the wonders of creation. But today, we stop short: In the beginning……was….the word?
Then there is a twisting, turning phrase that follows. Something about this word-business being with God and then, well, actually, that this word WAS God. What? Did the writer of John get confused? First, this word was with God and then it turns out he was God. All things were made through him. Now what does that mean? Is this word some kind of computer program, like AutoCad that engineers use to design and then make things? Or maybe it is like Microsoft Word; word processing through which all kinds of things are written. Then there is this whole life/light/darkness thing that is nearly impossible to make sense out of. After all of these wonderful stories we hear at this time of year which might have been fantastical—virgin births and angels and prophecies and all manner of sci-fi/fantasy stuff—but at least that was something you could get your mind around. And after all, it IS Christmas! Where’s the baby in today’s text? Where are the animals lowing and stars shining in the east and shepherd’s keeping watch over their flocks? Instead we have all this ‘word’ business. It is a shock to the system!
Each of the writers of the gospels challenges us in different ways. Matthew challenges us by saying over and over: Look! Here was the prophecy and here it is fulfilled! Mark challenges us by the abrupt, hurried and sometimes downright abrasive attitude of the main character of his work. Luke’s challenge lies in his constantly focusing on what ought to be peripheral people—women, poor, outcast, those people who ought to only get a second thought from us. But John… John’s challenge is a little different. John challenges our minds. He calls upon us to lift the veil of what we see as everyday reality to see the truth that lies behind it. He challenges us to go further, deeper than a basic understanding of our faith and of our savior.
So, let us rise to John’s challenge and examine what he has written of the birth of Jesus. This is John’s Christmas story. But just what on earth is he talking about? Well, like John, like scripture, like God himself, let us begin at the beginning.
In the beginning was the Word. If it makes you think if Genesis, that’s a good thing. It’s intentional. John is drawing us all back to the very beginning of all things. Actually, before all things. Before anything was created, the Word was there. The Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made thorough him and nothing was made without him. This is one of the big pieces of Trinitarian theology right here. The Word means Jesus Christ, the Son of God, so he is in the beginning—before everything is created—with God. And, he is God. That means several things for us. First, it means that although Jesus was a genuinely real human being, fully incarnated in flesh and blood and lived breathed worked laughed cried bled and died just like every other human being that has ever been, he was not created the moment Mary gave birth to him. He has been in existence since before the dawn of time itself. More than that, he is God. Second, it means that everything that has ever been or ever will be in creation has as much of the fingerprint of Jesus upon them as they do the Father’s.
In him was life and the life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it. Advent, Christmas and Epiphany are all three seasons that deal with light—specifically the light of God—Jesus. During Advent, we look for and wait for the light—the light of the world. During Christmas, we celebrate that light being born into the world, the light of heaven coming to us in a tiny baby born on a long dark night. And then during Epiphany, which we celebrate beginning on January 6th, we share the light with the world. Epiphany is the ah ha of God, the lightbulb moment when we share the light of Christ with everyone. That light—the light of heaven, the light of God, the light of Christ, the light of the world—is the life through which all things are made, the life that was in the beginning with God and was God.
All of that—the truth of the God for whom we have waited becoming flesh and living among us and sending us out to the rest of the world is right here.
Just as this is John’s telling the story of the birth of Jesus in his own way, this text also has a different way of telling the Epiphany story. Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus is quite detailed and the first visitors we hear of coming to see the child are the shepherds who heard the message of the angels. Matthew tells his story of the birth of the Savior in a condensed verson and follows it with the visit of the Magi with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is what gives us the festival of Epiphany. But John, in his cosmic, mysterious way, tells it a little differently.
We hear about another John. John the Witness. We know him from the other gospels as John the Baptist. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He cane as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” In many ways, this is a very clear description of Epiphany.
In this gospel, John the Baptist is described as John the Witness. In many ways, it is just as good a title for him because he spends his entire ministry being a witness to this light of God. His very life points not to himself, not to anything he has ever done, not to anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ himself. And that is really the lesson of Epiphany for us. Our job, like John’s, is to be the witness to Jesus’ life. To point to Jesus.
I think that sometimes we as Christians have a mixed up idea of what it means to be a ‘witness’. It does not mean to beat someone over the head with our faith, nor does it really even mean that we must persuade anyone. To be a witness is simply to tell others what you’ve experienced. To tell in words and action. To point to Jesus. To, in a sense, make our whole lives into something that points to Jesus.
So what does that mean? Well, it’s hard to say really. I feel kind of like the writer of this Gospel who, no doubt, struggled with how to communicate the nature of God with mere words. Only God can speak light. Only God can say all that needs to be said in a single Word. The big, cosmic size image of God that John paints for us in his Christmas story can seem too big for us to reach. Too big to get our arms around. How do we even begin to be a witness to something, or rather someone, bigger than all of creation? And yet, John also reminds us that this God, this life, this light, this Word has become flesh and blood and lives among us. The God of all creation did not remain outside creation where we could not see him but, instead, became Emanuel God with us, so we could get our arms and minds around him and point to him.
Think of this: pointing to Jesus is the very heart of what it means to do Evangelism, to do Social Ministry, to plan, lead and participate in Worship. It is the center and purpose of Christian education and faith formation. Pointing to Jesus is the heart of discipleship and the very mission that gave birth to the church itself. What does that look like in a concrete way? Well, that is our challenge. I challenge us in the coming year to find what that looks like for us. For us as individuals and for us as a congregation. Let us, together, look for the Light of God in Christ in our lives and in the world and find ways to point to that light.