Sunday, January 4, 2015


John 1:1-18
January 4, 2015
First Presbyterian Church,
Sterling IL
Christina Berry

This first Sunday of the new year, we begin with the first chapter of John. The fourth gospel is different in style, substance and tone from the other three. Matthew, Mark and Luke are synoptic gospels – they look together at the life of Christ, chronologically. John, however, describes the life of Christ in terms of cosmology – a poetic, earth-changing event that cannot be described in everyday language. Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism. Luke begins with the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary, the mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus. Matthew’s gospel begins with genealogy of Jesus, going all the way back to Abraham. And John? John’s gospel goes even farther back, back to the very beginning. Even the opening words hearken back to Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning.”

John wants to be very sure that we understand that Jesus is co-eternal with God. So, just as in the beginning, God spoke a word and there was light, in the beginning, the Word was, and is. And through this Word made flesh, through Jesus, the light of God has come into the world. To say that “the word was God” may sound confusing. A clearer translation would say, “What God is, the Word is.” So listen for God’s word and God’s light to you this morning in a reading from the first chapter of John, verses 1-18.

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.

Did you make New Year’s resolutions this year? I looked up some data on resolutions and found some surprising facts. More than half of people surveyed make resolutions, and nearly half make them every year. I looked up the top 10 resolutions for 2014, and here they are, counting backwards from 10 to 1:

10. Spend More Time with Family
9. Fall in Love
8. Help Others in Their Dreams
7. Quit Smoking
6. Learn Something Exciting
5. Stay Fit and Healthy
4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest
3. Spend Less, Save More
2. Get Organized
And the number one resolution for 2014 –you can guess what it is:
1. Lose Weight

Interestingly, they say that people who make resolutions are TEN times more likely to achieve something than those who don’t. But of those who made resolutions in 2014, only EIGHT percent kept their resolutions and achieved their goals.[1]

Given those facts, maybe we should turn our attention to a different sort of resolution. Perhaps we could think of resolution in terms of clarity, such as the resolution of an image. Perhaps we can think of resolution in terms of finality, such as the resolution of a paradox or difficulty. In either one of these uses of the word both literal and figurative, the presence of light is a crucial factor. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. I read recently about a paradox in physics that has to do with literal light. It seems that the darkness of the night sky is taken as a proof that the universe is finite and ever-expanding. To oversimplify the issue, if the universe were indeed infinite, there would be no darkness. This is because in an infinite universe, the endless number of stars would be endlessly shining and they would overcome the darkness of space entirely.[2]

Instead, the light shines in darkness. In fact, were it not for darkness, we could not appreciate light. A lit candle on a sunny day is barely visible. The light does NOT dispel all the darkness, but only illuminates it, giving us the clarity to distinguish between the shadows of the night and the light of day. Christ’s light shines, but the darkness remains. It is only with that light shining that we can find resolution – literally and figuratively --both of our vision and of our difficulties.

Thinking literally, we only see clearly if we have sufficient light. Light not only illumines the space around us, it resolves murky shapes and outlines, giving us clarity, even if there is darkness everywhere else. Light is not so important when we are in familiar territory – most of us can find our way through our own homes in the darkness, without the need to turn on a light. But light is critical when we are in a place that is new or unknown. When we are sleeping in a new place and get up in the night, we need light to find our way. When we walk in the wilderness at night, we need a lantern to light our path. When we are in an unfamiliar city, and it grows dark, we seek out the lighted places, where we feel safer.

Thinking figuratively, consider how often we describe problem solving in terms of light – And then, it dawned on me! I saw the light! A light bulb went off in my head! That’s a bright idea!

John’s gospel is using this image of light as both a literal and figurative way to describe the person of Jesus. John the Baptist – not John the Gospeller – came into the world to point the way to the light, but he himself was not the light. John the Gospeller is intent on dispelling the darkness of disbelief with the dawning of the light of Christ.

There was, at the time the gospel was written, a troubling belief that has arisen and persisted over and over again in the many generations since. This belief system, called Gnosticism, is much less complicated than its name implies. If you listen carefully to a description, I am sure you will recognize it in its modern form.

Gnosticism takes four major positions that differ from our understanding. First, it suggests that what we need is more knowledge – not a savior, but more knowledge. This special knowledge is available, but not to everyone. It comes only to a few special people who have been empowered by this knowledge revealed to them. So Christianity becomes a kind of AP spirituality class, in which we just need to learn more wise and mystical things about God in order to become more spiritual people. There is nothing wrong with learning wise and mystical things about God. The trouble comes when the accomplishment of it is something WE do. The trouble with that is that it eliminates the central truth that we are a people in need of saving, and that salvation comes by grace.

From God. Not us. Not me. Not you. God.

Connected to that reliance on self in this belief system is an intense focus on the inner self, to the disregard of the Christian community and other believers. Salvation, or connection with God, is a personal and internal event. So, we hear, from those who profess to be “spiritual but not religious,” “I don’t need church or religion – I connect to God in the forest…” or on the couch, or the golf course, or at the lake. Trouble is, if there actually is any connecting to God going on there, it takes place personally and internally, which is, as Tom Long says, “on a very small stage.” In other words, Jesus did come for you, but he didn’t come JUST for you, and the only way you are going to really connect with the bigness of God’s activity in the world is by participating with other human beings in that experience.

The third facet of this belief system is that it rejects the physical – bodies, buildings, the visible and the material. Yes, you are a spiritual being, but you are not ONLY a spiritual being. You are a physical being, with a body, moving around in physical space. AND SO WAS JESUS! That is what is so stunning, so overwhelming, so unbelievable about the incarnation – the Word made flesh – flesh! coming into the world – GOD WITH US!

So in spite of the Gnostic impulse – and we all have it, Jesus came into the world in a real human body. And so do we – our lives are not just spiritual, but physical – we live in this place, deal with these people, make decisions about real money and furniture and politics and food. We are embodied Christians. We sleep and eat and sweat and argue and sigh and dream. And so did Jesus. Jesus came in a human body, not a disembodied spirit floating around the earth, never having to deal with hunger or thirst or fatigue or frustration. He was God, eternal and embodied grace, and he was human – he drooled in his sleep and had bad breath sometimes and when he got up in the morning his hair stuck out all over. Or something like that. And he still is – God AND human, embodied grace. With fingernails.

The fourth element of Gnosticism is a focus on the present and a poverty of eschatological hope. If it is all about the spiritual, and all about me, then there is no need to wait for God’s time, no hope of any ultimate resolution in the universe. Sometimes, in the dark night of our souls, the only light that shines is the light of hope, the expectation of a light that eventually will outshine every false flame. Sometimes the light in the darkness is not visible, but it is there, like a sunrise that is about to happen. Sometimes the best light we have is the anticipation of that new heaven and new earth, of a time that will come when God will set everything right. It is a vision of the hope of eternal life, the promise that there is more than merely this life. That hope is also firmly rooted in the promise of the light shining in the darkness of this night, the light which came for all people, the light which enlightens everyone.

The magi followed a star to come to the presence of the Christ child. They could only see it because it was night. We too seek the light that shines in the darkness, the light that brings resolution, clarity, and hope. Perhaps this year, as we look toward that light, we would do well to look as well toward that Word. 

Christ is the word made flesh; 
Christ is the light that shines, the light that has come into the world and is yet to come. 
Christ is the light that will provide resolution – of the paradoxes of our lives and of all the creation. Christ is the light that brings clarity, illumination, and will one day provide resolution of all that has gone awry since that time when he walked in the garden in the cool of the day. 
He is light and word and hope, and we have seen his glory! 

Thanks be to God! 



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