Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Light of the World (The Rev. Richard O'Brien, Dec. 29, 2013)

If you were in church on Christmas morning, you are likely feeling a bit of déjà vu.  You are probably asking yourself; didn’t we just hear this gospel passage from John?  No, you are not wrong.  We DID just have this passage from John on Christmas morning.  So why are we hearing it again?  Because one service was simply not enough time to devote to such an important gospel passage as this one.  Indeed, a month of sermons could be based upon this passage and still barely scratch the surface. 

The beginning of John sets up a number of themes that will run throughout his gospel, themes that are important to understanding Jesus Christ, his ministry on earth, and the beginnings of the early church. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word was God.  God, in all three persons was present at the creation of the world.  The book of Genesis tells us that the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.  Here we have God the Father, the Word Jesus who was with God and who was God, and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters.  John helps us to understand the three aspects of the Trinity, the triune nature of God as all present and acting to create the world and bring about life. 

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”  Life and light are major focuses of John’s teaching.  So too is the concept of witness.  “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  John the Baptist was sent by God to be a witness to the light.”  The gospel is quite clear, “He came to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” 

There had been no prophet in Israel for 400 years.  And then John appeared, preaching a message of repentance and return to the Lord.  Even though he was very odd, dressing funny, eating strange food and spending a lot of time in the desert, his message resonated with the people.  And the people responded.  They came from far and wide to be baptized by John.  John was seen by some as a prophet and by others as potentially the Messiah himself. 

John the Baptist would not allow this idea to gain any traction.  He was extremely clear that he was NOT the long awaited Messiah.  He told all that he had been sent simply to prepare the way of the one who would come after him, the one who would be so far above him that John would not be fit to even untie the thong of his sandal.  “This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”  How could he come after him and yet be before him?  John the Baptist is echoing the idea that John is expounding in the gospel that Jesus is the Word; the Word who was with God at the creation of the world and was therefore long before John the Baptist.

Saint Andrew, one of the twelve apostles, was also a witness to Jesus.  He traveled with him, ate with him, heard him teaching in the synagogue and saw the miracles that Jesus performed.  While he was a witness to all of this, he is not one of the better known disciples.  Unlike Peter or James, Andrew merits only occasional mention in the gospels.  But these mentions are very telling.  Each time Andrew appears, he is introducing someone to Jesus.  Andrew is the one who introduces his brother Peter to Jesus, and at the feeding of the 5,000, do you remember where the loaves and fishes come from?  They are brought by a small boy, a boy who is introduced to Jesus by Andrew.  Andrew has a special role in bringing people to Christ and he is a witness to the light, but he is clearly not the light.  And the same is true of John the Baptist.  He is aware of the light, but is also quite clear that he is Not the light.  The light of the world, the light that broke the darkness is Jesus.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  The life was the light of all people.  In both of these statements, John is saying something quite revolutionary.  For unlike much of the Old Testament, unlike themes from other religious traditions, John is telling us that Jesus came into the world not simply for the Jews, but for everyone.  All people, Jew and gentile, roman and Greek, slave and free; Jesus came for them all. 

The ancient world was full of hatreds and distrusts.  The Jews hated the Gentiles.  The Romans hated the Jews.  The rich hated the poor and the feeling was very much reciprocated.  All felt that God was for them, and only them.  Some Priests made a living by feeding into this idea and reinforcing the idea that each of them was God’s elect, that God had a special relationship with them and only them.  And into this realm comes Jesus Christ, God himself, preaching a message of grace, compassion, and love.  Not just for some, not just for those who looked like them, or talked like them, or thought like them, but for everyone.

This Jesus who ate with sinners, healed lepers, conversed with women, tax collectors, and Samaritans; this man came to bring light to all people, not just some people.  This was unheard of in the ancient world and was further proof that God himself had come into the world.  But many did not understand it, and, as often happens when something is misunderstood, they feared it. 

We see this in today’s world as well.  Many religions seem to speak and act as though God is there for them and only them.  Even among the Christian churches it can be difficult to find agreement on who is and is not saved by Jesus Christ.  It is this sad tendency to exclude some while including others that has been with us since the beginning of time.  But that is not why Jesus came.  This is what Paul is saying to the Galatians.  The early church in Galatia was deeply concerned about the presence of Gentiles in the church and there was great conflict about whether these people must become Jews in order to be followers of Christ.  Paul’s answer to this is the same as in John’s gospel; that the light of the world came for all people, not just for some.

We face similar issues in our churches today.  There are those who would have the church be only for people who agree with them, or people who look like them, or people who think like them.  But that is inconsistent with the message of God, the incarnate light to the world. He didn’t come to save just the Episcopalians, or the Jews or the Muslims.  He came to save us all.  John is very clear that Jesus is the light of ALL people, not just some.  Let us always keep that in mind, let that light shine in your hearts, and never let the darkness overcome it.