Preaching John 1:(1-9), 10-18
2010-12-28 by David Howell
How apt that on this particular Sunday, we have the New Testament’s "Genesis" story in John’s gospel. At the opening of a new year on the "secular" calendar, John reminds us that nothing that has being exists "without him"—the Word. "In the beginning…" takes us back at the same time as it points us forward.
Are we reading history, or poetry? Is the proclamation for this day an earthly record, or a heavenly paean? Did the writer himself know? Five verses from "In the beginning" to "The Light shines..." describe the ineffable; followed by three verses giving biographical data on the baptizer. Another verse on the ineffable, how the true light enlightening everyone was entering the world, precedes five more that dance on the boundary between what might be termed historical narrative (vv. 10-11, 14a) and theological reflection (vv. 12-13, 14b). Finally, another interlude characterizing this one who lived among us is followed, to the end of the pericope, by an assertion regarding the grace we have all received. John, a mortal recorder of something barely describable in human syntax, slips back and forth between the timeless and the time-bound, "Word" and "light" almost inextricably interwoven.
We too, like John and with John, are pulled in separate directions or challenged to hold together two disparate parts of ourselves: the holy and the earthly, Word and flesh. That our lives are like that, a spirited amalgamation, is the deep and sturdy truth running beneath the soaring eloquence. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote from his prison cell "Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another?"1 We are dust with diamonds in it, made of a little of both. The light, however, is the constant.
Lovers of scripture through long ages have found that it is often the verbs that open a subtle window of revelation. The pivotal announcement of this magnificent narration, and the statement forming a linkage between primeval origins and the baptizer whom God sent as a witness, is anchored by an eternally present verb: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."(v. 5) One might puzzle over this abrupt shift to present tense and back to past in the space of a single compound sentence: the light "shines" and the darkness "did not overcome." Is it an unintended scribal glitch? Or is it one of those inspired "mistakes" that inadvertently reveals a deeper truth?
The light shines, we are reminded; as if to signal to us that what we have here is not an ancient history or a religious etiology but a word intrinsic to us—now—in our own time. It is as if we claim, in the face of the worst ecological disaster in human history, that the light continues to shine. Or gazing into the bleak maw of ongoing financial devastation dogging millions long after a great recession, we affirm that the light overcomes the shadows. Or in the midst of the horrors of genocide fueled by long tribal hatreds, the overarching quality of human life is that this holy light shines. Or in spite of the ceaseless global warfare that robs all nations of their best and brightest, we proclaim that light reigns over darkness. Yet we do, and it does. Certainly, this unfathomable hope has also been the historic stance of the world’s seers—the Tutus and Mandelas, and all the lesser-known faithful whom the preacher will recall from the particular community and legacy of the local church. Although we still mark the Christmas season, it is not inappropriate on this day to name the great cloud of those who witness the invincibility of God’s light that has entered the world in Christ.
There are other paradoxes here in John’s attempt to speak the unspeakable, and they weave a fabric that is strangely familiar to us from our own experience: the interplay of the timeless and time-bound is an authentic facet of our own lives as well. The world did not know him (v. 10); and yet we who are creatures of that world, even if citizens of another, have seen his glory (v. 14). ("It’s a conundrum," wrote Ronald Goetz2: that "the light by which everyone sees came into the world, yet the world didn’t see it...Shouldn’t someone have noticed?") The Word that became flesh gives power to those who receive him to become children of God, who with that identity are not born of the will of the flesh (vv. 12-13). Ultimately, the truth that captures John is that the paradoxes of this life are pervaded and superceded by eternal light. Rather than attempting to parse in detail John’s attempts to describe the grace bestowed on our lives by this Word-become-flesh, we who preach might best help our hearers sink, at last—as Bonhoeffer did—into the blessed ambiguity: "Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!"3
Gail A. Ricciuti
1. From the poem "Who Am I?" published in Christianity and Crisis, March 4, 1946.
2. In "Penetrating the Darkness (Jn 1:9-13)," Christian Century, December 7, 1988, 1118.
(from Lectionary Homiletics/GoodPreacher)
A Christmas Eve Sermon
2010-12-21 by David Howell
Not Just To The Holy
A few days ago, a friend of our two-year-old daughter, Emily, came over. Looking up at our Nativity set, he exclaimed, "Oh wow! We have that game, too!"
I remember when I was a kid, getting out our nativity set. Nativity sets are great for kids, because they’re usually just the right size for play. I remember re-enacting the Christmas story in my own way, arranging the kings and shepherds, conducting their visits, mooing with the cattle. (When you’re an only child, you have to play all the parts.)
If occasionally, a figure from another childhood play set makes a special guest appearance—say, an alien, or a dinosaur—how much more outrageous is that than the idea of wise men and shepherds gathering around an infant king in a bed of straw?
Perhaps your nativity scene is too delicate for children’s hands. Perhaps it’s too fragile to play with, too expensive to touch, too much of an heirloom to handle. Or maybe yours is found only on cards, or in churchyards, or in the memories of pageants too valuable to bring forth. So you see the manger from a safe distance—as most people in truth do, and as most people always have.
Henry wished the clerk at the liquor store a Merry Christmas and crumpled the bags around the necks of his two bottles of no-so-cheap wine.
As evening fell, he crouched in a doorway and drank the first in no time. A bitter wind made his bare hands cold around the bottle and his knees began to ache. So he hoisted himself up and down the street. Henry chose the streets tonight. He hated the shelters on Christmas Eve—so jolly, so crowded, so deceptively hopeful.
He walked past the old stone church across from the courthouse. Across the long lawn, by the steps of the sanctuary, was the manger, empty except for some bales of hay and a lighted star overhead. Henry remembered the story of the family that had no place, and how the manger provided a night of rest and warmth. He decided that tonight it would do for him, too. Henry walked across the lawn and found the hay bales closest to the back of the manger. A dark corner. Protected from view. Henry pulled some hay around him as camouflage from any wandering police or religious pilgrims. Downed Bottle Number Two, and curled up to sleep until Christmas morn.
In Henry’s dream, there was an angel choir. And then a child speaking.
"And she gave birth to her firstborn son," the child said, "and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn."
The waking dream brought Henry a sleepy smile until his foggy mind realized the voice was no dream. This was real. Henry’s eyes shot open. He had died. He was sure he was dead and the angels were coming to get him. He froze in terror.
The child’s voice went on.
"In that region, there were shepherds in their fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night…."
Henry shut and opened his eyes until he remembered where he had laid down. The church, the lawn, the manger scene. Except now there were voices. Henry could feel the presence of people, lots of people. Holding his breath, he slowly turned his head and could see between the bales of hay that protected him.
There he was. Smack in the middle of First Presbyterian Church’s Christmas Eve Living Creche Candlelight Service. Henry stifled himself from speaking aloud the full name of the Lord. He closed his eyes. Opened them again. And slowly let himself breathe in the Holy mystery of a reckless Almighty that would land him in such a ridiculous scene. Between the bales he could see Mary and Joseph and a crib made of wood. A baby doll and shepherds passing by.
And as the angel child spoke her words, Henry’s memory began to work in very old ways. In little more than a whisper, he moved his lips and from his mouth came the words of the angel child, in perfect, quiet unison.
"Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
And suddenly, with the angel child, Henry and all the children were praising God, and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
Henry closed his eyes. For a moment, he, too, was an angel. He was a shepherd. He was a king.
Eventually, the crowd sang, "Silent Night," blew out their candles, wound up the electrical cords, picked up the crib, loaded up the children, and went home. When he was certain that the last churchgoer had gone, Henry sat up, then poked his head over the top of the hay bales. Looking up at the stars, he spoke to the One he knew was watching from safe on high.
"Dear Lord," he said. "That was a close one."
How close do you allow yourself to the manger? For this is a place where shepherds and kings, even people who regard themselves as not worthy or hopeless, can come. The manger is a place where there is no need to keep a safe distance. It’s the place where the angels are saying to you, "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all."
Not just to the holy. To all.
Tonight, in your hearts, I invite you to come close to the manger. Come close to your Lord, born for you in a place called Bethlehem of Judea—and called, right here.
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
(a sermon submitted to GoodPreacher.com)
Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas/Joseph in Matthew 1:18-25
2010-12-17 by David von Schlichten
Earlier this week, a few of us got into a discussion via Facebook about the old "Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays" debate. I tried to make the case for the latter. Some agreed, others did not.
As is so often the case with that debate, exchanges quickly descended into mean-spiritedness. The chief perpetrators were pastors, including myself. "Silly humans," Satan said as he observed all this from hell. "So easily do they embrace evil in the name of righteousness. They make my job a breeze."
Joseph provides some wisdom. When he discovers that Mary is pregnant, he is supposed to have her stoned to death. That's what the Bible says. Instead, Joseph resolves to divorce her quietly. Then, of course, an angel in a dream lets Joseph know that it is all right (I was going to say "safe" until I realized how ironic that would be) to marry Mary. So he does.
There are causes that demand for us to be loud and passionate, but is this whole issue about the proper greeting one of those causes? Maybe the best thing to do is to focus less on the proper greeting and more on emulating the quiet mercy of Joseph, which arises from and is sustained by the greater mercy of God.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
2010-12-14 by Stephen Schuette
(Or, let me make you an offer you can’t refuse...)
It’s telling that the footnote in the HarperCollins Study Bible to vs. 17 says, “Whether the verse is a promise or a threat to Judah is ambiguous.” Makes me wonder if you can be threatened by a promise?
For that seems to be Ahaz’ position. For whatever reason, whether due to lack of trust, fear of loss of control, faithlessness, a reluctance to “go there,” etc., Ahaz says he won’t ask, even though the prophet has invited him. All he has to do is ask. Reminds me of the story of the healing of Naaman when the only thing he has to do to be healed is to wash. (2 Kings 5) All Ahaz has to do is ask. But while Naaman wanted more Ahaz seems to want less. Maybe he simply wants to manage the nation’s affairs without any theological or moral complications. (Sometimes this stuff really strikes close to home.)
And yet there is a blessing bestowed. Ahaz’ enemies will vanish. Where there is no way God is going to open a way. It’s almost as if Isaiah is saying, “Ahaz, you will be blessed, damn it! One way or another God is going to bless you!”
Are we ready for Christmas in terms of the blessing? I know I’m not, and hardly ever have been. I’m too caught up in whatever is occupying my attention. I think I can manage if I just try a little harder. I think I’ve figured it out, if I can just have one more chance to try it on my own. I want God to understand that I’ll feel a little better about the blessing after I am more secure in my own sense of accomplishment, thank you very much. But what may be psychologically understandable is theologically profoundly wrong. It’s a stubborn refusal to turn willingly and openly to receive the blessing I need.
But God will bless! And Jesus is born!
Lutheran Santa and Mary's Song
2010-12-11 by David von Schlichten
Last night, Santa came around to our cul-de-sac to hand out candy.
He said to me, "You're that Lutheran minister, aren't you?" I said I was.
He said, "I'm Lutheran, too. How about that? Santa's a Lutheran."
"Wow. Who knew?"
He said, "It's a problem, though, because the whole Santa-thing is based on works. You get gifts if you're good."
We laughed about this and moved on.
Mary's song is about God's grace being shown to the downcast and judgment being shown to the wealthy. Ultimately, of course, God shows mercy to us all, even though we can never earn it ever.
I don't know where I'm going with this (and it's Saturday afternoon!), but this will all probably somehow turn into the sermon for tomorrow morning.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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