“Making the Light Visible”Rev. Bill King John 1:1-18 Year B - Second Sunday after Christmas Day
When I was in seminary, one of the rites of passage was your “middler sermon.” Second year students were called middlers and sometime during the year you preached in chapel and then had your sermon critiqued. It was both exhilarating and terrifying to preach before your friends, professors, and any visitors who were on campus.
On this particular day one of my classmates preached and we gathered in a classroom for the obligatory review. “So, any comments?” asked Dr. Hoefler. I thought Brett had done a pretty good job: The organization was clear, his exploration of the text appropriate, his theology solidly Lutheran. My classmates agreed and we said so.
Dr. Hoefler nodded but then he said, “Yes, but where were the images; what pictures did Brett put in your mind?” He paused for a moment and then added very deliberately, as though he were imparting the one essential thing about preaching, “Never forget, if your people cannot imagine what you are saying, if an image does not come into their heads, they will not understand you. We think in pictures and part of your job is to give people pictures so they will understand and remember what the gospel means for them.”
I thought about Dr. Hoefler’s admonition as I looked at today’s gospel lesson. The prologue to John’s gospel is one of the most important passages in the New Testament. It is a soaring, majestic poem which explores God’s nature and God’s purpose in becoming enfleshed in a human being. It is a beautiful assertion of why this Jesus, who is at the center of the gospel, matters. These verses articulate the most audacious claims about Jesus to be found in Scripture….And the text is one abstraction after another, which makes grasping John’s message a challenge.
Contrast John’s prologue and Luke’s nativity story, which we hear on Christmas Eve. Both are origin stories which talk about Jesus coming into the world. But Luke is filled with those vivid images of birth, shepherds, and angels which stick in our minds. We sense the theology of incarnation by simply hearing the story and imagining Bethlehem; that is one reason we love the story. As we mentally sniff the manure in the stable, we intuitively understand that God is willing to share our common lot.
John’s prologue is different; he gives us very few images. He tells us that from all eternity the Word came into the world to bear witness to light, life, glory, and truth. John’s writing is like sunrise over a cloudless ocean horizon, dazzling but hard to fully take in because it is so expansive.
But maybe we are being a little hard on John. Maybe what we need to see is that John does not give us images about Jesus because he sees Jesus himself as the ultimate image. Think of today’s prologue as the overture to a great symphony, where all the major themes are introduced. The rest of the gospel helps us experience what all those soaring themes sound like when played in our world.
Jesus himself is the concrete image of what God’s light, life, glory, and truth look like.
Do you want to know what God looks like?
Do you want to know what it looks like when God acts in the world?
Do you want to see what divine love looks like?
Then look at this man Jesus and how he lives and interacts with others.
See him feeding the hungry, forgiving the guilty, healing the blind, and suffering to illustrate a different way of dealing with violence.
John’s gospel is filled with those pictures Dr. Hoefler so valued.
So, if John has done his job, that leaves the question, “How do we do ours?” The prologue has this little excursus which talks about John the Baptizer’s role: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” That is a pretty good job description for disciples of Jesus—our task is to bear witness to the light.
By bearing witness I don’t mean just talking about Jesus—though that is terribly important in and of itself. Our witness includes being willing to claim our Lord in the ordinary places where we live most of our lives, in letting others know we are indeed trying to follow where Jesus leads.
But bearing witness is something a little more radical. It is about letting Jesus transform who we are so that our lives cannot help but show the light within us. There is a famous story from the Desert Fathers which illustrates this.
A young monk came to Abba Joseph and said: “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my fast, my prayer, my meditation and contemplative silence. As I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts: now what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, “Why not become fire?”
Sometimes we are too modest in our expectations of what God can do in our lives, perhaps because we are afraid of what God might ask of us. We set our sights on simply doing the basics. But the truth is that each of us has the capacity to become fire, to become the very embodiment of at least some element of the light of Christ. Think of how Mother Teresa defined compassion, or how the members of Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston made forgiveness concrete in their attitude toward the one who murdered their friends. But it need not be so dramatic.
We can be the essence of hospitality by finding a place at the table for the stranger. We can become the fire of justice by being willing to speak out when it is unpopular. We can say “enough” when politicians treat the Bible as merely a prop to advance an agenda which shows contempt for all that Jesus was and taught.
The point is NOT to beat ourselves up when we fall short; it is to believe that God can and will use us in amazing ways as we allow ourselves to be changed. It is about asking what gift we have which might embody the way of Jesus and striving to use that gift to God’s glory.
Let me offer you a little spiritual exercise. When someone has spent a little time with you, what three words describe you in their mind? Do those words reflect your identity as a follower of Jesus? Or think about your community of faith; when a visitor has worshipped with you, met the people, and seen what you are up to in ministry, what are the three words they would use to describe your community?
Dr. Hoefler was right; images are important. The gospel makes no sense as a bunch of abstractions. But there is a deeper truth: The most eloquent preaching, framed in striking, creative language is not nearly as effective in communicating the beauty of the gospel as a living image, you and me, so transformed by Jesus that we embody him in every sphere of our lives. God is doing good things in most congregations. Yet Abba Joseph’s question remains, “Why not become fire?” Amen.
About the writer:
Bill King is a retired pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), living in Blacksburg, Virginia. He graduated from Furman University, Louisiana State University, and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. He served parishes in Welcome, NC and Blacksburg, VA. For 31 years he was the Lutheran Campus Pastor at Virginia Tech. During that time, he also served on the national campus ministry staff of the ELCA. He presently serves as the editor of Faith Lens, an online youth ministry resource of the ELCA which follows the Revised Common Lectionary. (https://blogs.elca.org/faithlens/)
Pastor King has published articles in The Christian Century, Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Furman Magazine, The Other Side, and Currents in Theology and Mission. He is the author of Bread for the Journey: Preaching to Myself,(http://www.pocahontaspress.com/bread-for-the-journey/a collection of short meditations, organized around the Church Year and designed for daily personal devotions).
In his leisure time Pastor King enjoys cooking, hiking, reading, and attending live theater with his wife, Gail.
Scripture and Music:
John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Break Thou the Bread of Life
Christ Is the World’s Light
Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak
Maker, in Whom We Live
O Laughing Light
O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee
O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread
Praise for the Fountain opened
Praise to You, O Christ, Our Savior
Sometimes a light surprises
The Birthday of a King
Thou art the Way, to Thee alone
Jesu, Joy of Our Desiring (Bach)
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing (Wilberg)
Morning Has Broken
Every Valley (J.N. Beck)
I Sing the Mighty Power of God (Milburn Price)
Arise, Shine, Your Light Has Come (Mary McDonald)
Love Came Down at Christmas
I Am His, and He Is Mine
Jesus, Name Above All Names