By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church
December 26, 2021
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 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.
Let us pray. O Lord Uphold me, that I might uplift thee. Amen.
This is John’s Christmas story. Notice no manger scene, no shepherds, no wise people from the East, only light. A surprising light coming all the way from the beginning and crashing into human reality. The other Gospels provide the backstory, the characters, the plot like the rolling yellow narrative at the beginning of Star Wars. John is like the booming soundtrack that makes you hum along and pump your fist.
I heard what sounded like two distinct voices in those opening words. The most prominent voice is like a boys’ choir singing in the rose glow of stained glass. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. The flawless voices sing about the cosmic Christ. Light and life for all people and our classic failure to grasp it.
But then comes the other voice, more of a raspy voice butting in, telling us the particulars of a guy named John. You see, says the voice, John was more of a witness to the light. This other voice is like a guy who can’t whisper too well, leaning over to his wife during the concert. Or like the Grandpa in Princess Bride, “Like I was saying, John did mention this, that he was outranked by this Jesus.” Undaunted, the chorus soars on, eyes fixed to heaven, ancient themes, grace upon grace, but then, the human, the flesh, the bone, the skin, the heart, the rasp, mingles right in there.
It is supposed to be that way. This interplay between the epic and the ordinary. For it to be a real Christmas, when the timeless word is made into actual flesh, we should let the choirs sing, but we should also hear the custodian run the vacuum. We should hear the toilet flush. The tears and sniffles of real life aren’t to be edited out. Christmas is not some sanitized experience that only occurs when the choir hits the perfect high note and when the poinsettias are just right and the living room is ready for guests. Christmas is the word made flesh. It’s the cosmic creator becoming known, in actual human lives, the light of the world breaking in even when folks bump into each other or test positive for Covid or can’t hang that particular ornament this year because it’s just too hard. Home with us.
God with us in our real home, not the one we just vacuumed. God with us in our humanness, including those habits we thought we’d outgrown. The tears in the car. The rage we carry so often these days that it’s like a little tissue in our pocket, right there by the car keys. God with us in the desperate prayer at night. With us in the staring at the ceiling. With us when our seemingly normal life was interrupted by cancer, by the layoff, by this wild idea, by the politics of the day, by this looming divorce, this scandal, this unexpected pregnancy in a world that wants babies to come in a certain way. That’s when we find ourselves like all the actual Christmas characters, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, the magi. God making a home with us even when our plans fell through and even when the inn is full and even when the star takes us out of our comfort zone. This message is perfect for the Sunday after Christmas. John tells us that light of Christ finds us even when we don’t have candles in our hands to receive it.
One of my all-time favorite books is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s the story of a blind French girl and a white-haired German boy whose lives intersect amidst the devastation of World War II. In the story, secret radio transmissions are sent into the air, overheard on a makeshift radio by children growing up in the rubble and thick fear of war. One of these released messages was a voice saying this, “What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.” What a powerful word to hear in their home battered by war.
John’s Gospel says as much. A lot of people will miss or reject this Christ light, including us sometimes. That does not mean that there is less light though. It just means we can get very narrow in what we think counts as God’s presence.
A few years ago, I was a tired pastor mom. I had been trying to do Christmas. Errands. Gifts. Logistics. And from the backseat, Davis, who was about 5 years old, said, “Mommy, Christmas is a feeling in your heart. It’s wow. It’s woah. It’s for everyone.” It was like he was speaking out of an ancient hymnal. Then, don’t you know that rather than sitting in the unbridled beauty of a kindergartener talking about God, I launched into an explanation, a mom-a-logue. “Yes. Jesus is a human and divine, God’s only son, he taught and saved us and it’s called the in-car-nation.” The voice from the back seat stopped. Darn. I blew it. The bird of peace takes cover if it senses someone is trying to put it in a cage. I took a deep breath and laughed at myself and my little traveling lecture series, teaching in-car-nation to someone who had already felt it in-the-car-seat. But thankfully, that light was there for me too. Sometimes that Christ light is pure enlightenment but other times, it is the grace to lighten up. The light is full of grace and truth. So relaxed my shoulders and said, “Hey buddy, have you been feeling Christmas in your heart?” “Yes, it’s super big this year.”
The light that catches us off guard from the backseat when we were least expecting it. The ancient chorus that meets our raspy voices. The light that is in our actual life, not just the one on the Christmas card. The light that is for all people, not just the ones who seem to have it all together. Maybe you don’t see it with your eyes but you feel it. The light is the lightening up of a world that is so darn clenched we are one giant fist. The light is the lightening of the load for those who carrying way too much. The light is experiencing delight as often as you can.
The other day on a run I saw a dog with a log in his mouth. He looked so darn proud. And I felt delight. Then, I saw a sunrise that stopped me in my tracks. All the gradations of light that I know exist but God had to paint them on the sky for it to sink in. Delight. Then, I saw a runner tethered to another runner who was wearing a vest that said BLIND and I thought now if that isn’t the Kingdom of God, I don’t know what is. That light is all around us. All the time. At home with us.
Leonard Bernstein penned a musical called Mass that was the first musical performed at the Kennedy Center, in 1971. It’s about a big kind of Christmas – here’s part of it:
You can lock up the bold men
Go and lock up your bold men
And hold them in tow,
You can stifle all adventure
For a century or so.
Smother hope before it’s risen.
Watch it wizen like a gourd,
But you cannot imprison
The Word of the Lord. . . .
For the Word
For the Word was at the birth of the beginning
It made the heavens and the earth and set them spinning,
And for several million years
It’s endured all our forums and fine ideas
It’s been rough
It’s been rough
but it appears to be winning! . . .
For the Word
For the Word created mud and got it going
It filled our empty brains with blood and set it flowing
And for thousands of regimes
It’s endured all our follies and fancy schemes.
It’s been tough,
It’s been tough, and yet it seems to be growing!
O you people of power,
O you people of power, your hour is now.
You may seem to rule forever, but you never do somehow.
So we wait in silent treason until reason is restored
And we wait for the season of the Word of the Lord.
We await the season of the Word of the Lord
We wait …
we wait for the Word of the Lord . .
The light of Christ is home with us. Our homes as they actually are. The light of Christ is not just enlightenment, it is lightening up, lightening the load of others, and experiencing delight in the world. The light of Christ is there when we see it and when we can’t. It is super big this year, and it seems to be growing.