[This message was given at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on the second Sunday os Christmas, 1/3/21, based on John 1:1-18.]
It hadn’t happened in about 800 years and, just in time for Christmas, it was happening at the end of 2020, that year of much disappointment and suffering. Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in our solar system would nearly be touching from our earthly perspective. Some wondered if this planetary conjunction would be something like the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. I wanted to see it. So six nights in a row I looked:
- December 21, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
- December 22, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
- December 23, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
- December 24, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
- December 25, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
- December 26, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
That completed what I read would be the six nights for viewing. I don’t think I’ll live another 800 years to see this when it might happen again. Then, on December 27, the first Sunday of Christmas, I was seated with family around the dining table eating leftovers. I had a view of the low southwest sky. Before it was fully dark, I saw a light in the sky. Was it an airplane? No. Could it be the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter? Yes. My skywatcher app confirmed it.
Let the Magi begin their long journey, just as John recorded it. Oops. John didn’t report it. Only Matthew did. And Bethlehem? John didn’t report it either. In John’s breathtaking opening, there is no manger, no Bethlehem, no shepherds, no angelic chorus, no star, no magi. But surely John would tell us about Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. No. No. No. If John were our only gospel account, there would be no Christmas pageants, at least we know them.
If we designed a Christmas pageant from John, we would need to go to a planetarium with a large telescope. His account is cosmic. “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.” If Mark is the beat reporter getting the story done by the deadline, and if Matthew is the biblical student showing us how Jesus fulfilled all righteousness and is Messiah, and if Luke is the physician who cares about babies, women, and all the underappreciated, then John is the poet, the artist, even the astronomer. Like Edwin Hubble and the telescope named for him, John sees beyond what most see. The icon traditionally given to John’s Gospel is the eagle, the most majestic of all birds, with ability to soar high and see what is happening on terra firma with great accuracy.
Make no mistake: John tells the story of the coming of Jesus, just in a way no one else does. The poet is at work: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” I can never read that without thinking of how Eugene Peterson rendered it in “The Message.” “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Yes!
John loves playing with words, like any poet. This poet’s parchment is panoramic. This artist’s canvas is cosmic. In 2020 the coronavirus enlarged our vocabulary. Some words and phrases skyrocketed. “You’re on mute” was said 1,000 percent more in 2020 compared with 2019. Zoom is no longer just a word for moving quickly; it is how most of us go to work. And “pandemic” was named word of the year by dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster. Those words already existed, but in 2020, they took on new meanings. So it is in the New Testament. Old words take on new meaning. Rare words become common, but with uncommon power. Everyday words take on eternal significance. In John 1:1-18, three such words emerge and cluster in glorious ways.
The first word is word, which in the Greek is logos. That is not just a unit of speech or so many letters representing something, but a concept with cosmic connotations. In the first sentence of John, it occurs three times. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Nowhere in the New Testament is there a cluster of the word logos like this one. Logos speaks of the cosmic creative activity of God in Christ. It crackles with consequence.
The second word is light. It occurs seven times in this passage. “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. . . . He himself (John the Baptizer) was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Nowhere in the New Testament is there a cluster of the word light like this one. Our 2020 was a year of unusual darkness in our world. I needn’t rehearse the statistics. And it looks like the first quarter of 2021 will be no better and probably worse. In the midst of darkness, the light is shining. And it will shine. Nothing can extinguish the light of Jesus the Messiah. Nothing.
The third word is grace. It occurs four times in the climax of this narrative of the incarnation. “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. . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Nowhere in the New Testament is there a cluster of the word grace like this one. The apostle Paul develops the doctrine of grace like no one else, but it isn’t original to him. Grace dawned on our weary world in an unprecedented way in the coming of Jesus, enfleshing God’s grace.
In the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, our world has been visited in a way as never before: he is the creative power of the God of the cosmos; he is the light shining in our darkness; he comes to us in grace upon grace, that we may experience God’s favor, God’s salvation.
A friend challenged me several years ago to choose a word to use as a focus point in my annual journals, which are a form of reflective prayer. The word I have chosen for 2021 is mystery. I am aware that there is much I don’t fully understand and cannot adequately explain (and much of my work for the seminary and the church calls on me to understand and explain!). I realize increasingly that I live in the mystery of God’s creative genius, in the mystery of Jesus, the light of the world (the word for world is cosmos), and in the mystery of God’s grace in my life through Jesus. I will revel in the mysteries of God. But there is no mystery about how to respond to Jesus’ coming. In two days, we will be concluding the liturgical season of Christmas. That brings to mind the poem of Howard Thurman, that I visit this time each year.
When the song of the angels is still
When the star in the sky us gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their sheep
Then the work of Christmas begins
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners
To bring peace among peoples
To rebuild the nations
To make music in the heart.
This second Sunday of Christmas, this 10th day of Christmas, Merry Christmas, planet earth! Merry Christmas, Community of the Savior. Happy birthday, star child. The Word is made flesh, the light is shining in the darkness, Jesus is bringing us grace upon grace.