Preached at Light of Christ Anglican Fellowship (AMiA), Kenosha, WI on December 27th, 2009
The Light has come to shine through us. Merry Christmas! Here we are on the fourth day of Christmas. Anyone get four calling birds today? Three French hens? Well I mention this Carol because it drives home what is an often lost understanding in modern American culture: Christmas does not end on December 25th, it begins! It’s not a day but a season. Twelve days long. It is a time when we can immerse ourselves in the joyful reality that Jesus has come into the world! We’ve celebrated a season of anticipation and hope in Advent. A season where the Church historically prays "Maranatha!" or “Oh Lord, come!” And now we celebrate His arrival into the world. We have twelve days to immerse ourselves in the truth that the Light has come into the world in order to shine through us.
Today’s Gospel is very familiar to many of us I’m sure: “In the beginning was the Word…” It’s the great prologue to John’s Gospel. Why does the Gospel open with these words? Essentially what John is saying is that when it comes to Jesus “Let us begin at the beginning." And where else do we hear “In the beginning…” in the Scriptures? It is these words which begin God’s message to his people. The Scriptures begin at Genesis 1:1 with “In the beginning…” And John is very intentionally using that same phrase here to indicate that in that very same beginning...Jesus! It’s interesting to note a progression among the Gospels. Matthew starts Jesus’ genealogy with Abraham: the first Hebrew. Luke begins Jesus’ genealogy with Adam: the first man. But what does John begin with? Before the first Hebrew, before the man, before the Creation itself…Jesus.
John uses a unique description for Him too. The Word. Well what does this mean? Why does he call Jesus "the Word"? It comes from the Greek λογος which means “reason” or simply “word.” And the incredible thing about John’s use of this particular description for Jesus is that it communicates effectively to a number of different audiences. For the Greeks, like the Stoic philosophers, they would understand this to mean the principle of order that holds the universe together. So for the Greeks "λογος" means something. What about the Jews or the early Jewish-Christians? Throughout the Old Testament the “Word of God” is understood as the creative force. In the Creation account we have God speaking things into being, “Let there be ____, and there was _____.” The Word is also a message: “The Word of the Lord came to Isaiah” for example. So tied up in this description of Jesus as “the Word”, is this sense of the Creative Power and very essence of God and that which holds the universe together. This Word was with God at the Creation. And He is God.
An interesting thing to note is the parallel this passage of John’s Gospel has with the Nicene Creed. For example the phrase “Begotten not made” certainly is suggested when John begins with “in the beginning” as opposed to Matthew or Luke’s “starting with Adam…” or “starting with Abraham…” We also see it in “through Him all things were made."
What we seem to have in today's Gospel is John building for us the identity of Jesus. He is eternal. He was present in the beginning with God. He is God. He is the medium through which everything was created. And then we come to our next point which is also in the Creed.
Christ is Light. “Light from Light” as the Creed says. Or as our Gospel says “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness…” And this bursting forth of the Light is a wonderful hinge for us in our liturgical life together. We’ve come through Advent, a season of longing for the Light to come into the darkness of our world. With Christmas we celebrate the arrival of the Light. But the journey’s not over because we are moving towards the great Christian Feast of Light: the one from which we get our name (Light of Christ Anglican Fellowship). Epiphany. With Christmas we celebrate the arrival of the Light into the world. With Epiphany we celebrate the Light going forth into all the world.
This procession of the Light of the World into the world brings me to the next important section of today’s Gospel. John the Baptist. As I’ve reflected on John the Baptist it seems to me that, in the American Church, John the Baptist doesn’t get much attention. Two Sundays ago Fr. Eirik brought with him the three-paneled icon called a deisis which has Christ in the center with Mary on his right and John the Baptist on his left. In every Eastern Orthodox Church this deisis with John the Baptist is in the center of the Church, a beautiful wall before the altar. John the Baptist stands before millions of Christians throughout the world before millions of altars. So obviously certain Christian traditions think he’s a big deal. And I think we should too. Why? First, Jesus suggests that he’s the role-model of discipleship. “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." (Luke 7:28) It’s Jesus paradoxical way of exemplifying John in such a way as to urge us to follow his lead. Second, it’s rather remarkable that in a passage meant to explain who Jesus is that John comes up. Anyone else being mentioned at all seems exceptional to begin with, but then considering that someone is mentioned who might we expect? Mary? One of disciples? An angel? No, rather we find John the Baptist. Somehow, tied to the Light coming into the world is John the Baptist and his ministry. And it’s kind of funny because in this passage just when we think we’ve heard the last about John the Baptist, the John the Evangelist mentions him again in verse 15! It’s like he can’t stop talking about John the Baptist! So based upon Jesus, John the Evangelist and the Eastern Orthodox tradition we have good evidence that John’s a big deal.
So what do we see John the Baptist doing here? Why is he a big deal? He's bearing witness. He has one mission. “To bear witness to the Light, that all might believe through him.” The Light has come. And John knew that the reason the Light came was to shine through him. As he says later in the Gospel John the Baptist knew that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30) We need to make John our example, our role-model. Just like the beautiful deisis in the Orthodox Churches we need to hold his example before us to remind us that the Light has come in order to shine through us.
In this sense we’re like a lamp. We’re meant to contain the Light of Christ so that He can shine though us. Our responsibility as people who celebrate the arrival of the infant Jesus, the Light of the World, is to let Him shine through us. And this has two key elements. First, we have to keep the lens clean in order for the Light which is in us to have its greatest effect. Secondly, we need to direct our light into the darkness. Like John, we need to bear witness to the Light. Jesus says about our Light, "Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15-16)
Where are you called to bring the Light of Christ? Where am I called to bring the Light of Christ? Look at our relationships first. Our homes. Our families. Our coworkers or our classmates. Friends. Those people we do hobbies or sports with. Then move outward to our communities that we live in. Our State. The World. Henry Blackaby in his book Experiencing God has a great admonition. “Find out where God is at work and then join Him.” Where is God at work in your corner of the world? Pray about where you’re called and then bring the Light of Christ there.
And the Incarnation also informs where we bring the Light. Our Gospel says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God took on human flesh in order to live among us. And the word used for dwell here is the same word used in the Old Testament to describe when God would tabernacle Himself, when His glory would dwell, among His people. Another way to say this is “The Word took on flesh and His glory dwelt among us.”
I’d like to share an example of this theology of the Incarnation from our own Anglican history. In the 19th century in England a revival was occurring in the Church. This revival was known as the Oxford Movement and it has had lasting effects upon, and informs, how we worship today. So what was this revival all about? These Christians were rediscovering the treasures of the Early Church. And central to the foundation of the way the Early Church worshipped and did mission was their understanding of Incarnation, "the Word becoming flesh and His glory dwelling among us." God became matter. And because God became matter, “matter matters.” An early saint of the Church from the 7th century named John of Damascus has a wonderful quote I’d like to share:
"I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation!"
The Incarnation, God’s taking on human flesh to dwell among us has dignified it. Jesus has “graced” matter by taking on matter. This is why we as Anglicans reverence the bread and the wine in the Eucharist, it’s why we find value in water and oil which has been set apart for blessing and healing. It’s why we value symbols like the Cross or the colors in the vestments that clergy wear. Not because these things have value in and of themselves but because they represent, they point to, the inner reality of the Incarnation. Christ's dignifying of matter.
Throughout the history of the Church these were important because of what they represented however at the time of the Oxford Movement this theology of the Incarnation had become weak. The Eucharist was celebrated with a small amount of reverence. Clergy didn't vest. Things such as candles, a Cross in Church or even making the sign of the Cross were considered scandalous. A priest could even get thrown in jail for using them. And the Oxford Movement brought back things like frequent celebration of the Eucharist, vestments, candles, etc. But not because they liked playing dress-up. They did this because they thought that matter mattered, because God said so in the Incarnation of His Son, and that worship ought to be beautiful. As the Psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” They wanted to bring the beauty of the Lord and His worship to the drab world of the slums of England.
This lack of “color” in worship common to their day was in some ways symbolic of the drabness that had entered the ministry as well. During this time, for most, going into the priesthood was a career move. The profession of a gentlemen, like becoming a doctor or a lawyer. It was motivated by a desire for income and prestige. The Oxford Movement reclaimed the priesthood and said it was a calling from God which one ought to abandon themselves to completely. Why? The Incarnation. Because Jesus abandoned Himselg completely to the Father's will for our sakes. And because the dignity which Christ brought to matter such as bread, wine, oil, water or symbol paled in comparison to the dignity Christ brought people. Christ’s Incarnation dignified and made present Himself in every human being and was present in "the least of these" in the slums. This was the era of Oliver Twist. Horrendous slums. Children working in factories. Hunger. Three and four families crammed into a small tenement with no heat. Filth in the streets. And it was in these poor that Christ was present. Just as Our Lord says in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, “Whenever you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto me.” These men and women went into the slums to abandon themselves to God's will and bring Christ and the beauty of His holiness to "the least of these."
Another tradition the Oxford Movement recovered was what's called reserving the sacrament in the tabernacle. The tabernacle is a special place to keep the bread of the Eucharist, which is a way to acknowledge Christ’s presence among us and focus our devotion towards Him. One of the defining statements of the Oxford Movement of our Anglican forebears was said by missionary bishop Frank Weston, “You cannot worship Jesus in the tabernacle if you do not pity Him in the slum.” And this drove these priests into the slums of London were they lived and died among the poor: risking cholera during epidemics to minister to people and bring beautiful worship to an otherwise drab world. They wanted to let the Light of Christ shine through them.
This theology of the Incarnation ought to motivate us as well. We cannot claim to honor Jesus in the Eucharist and not have compassion on Him in our neighbors, can we?
Christ is the Light who came into the world to shine through us. May we follow the example of our Anglican Forefathers and honor Jesus in the Sacraments and minister to Him in our neighbors. May we follow the mighty example of John the Baptist and bear witness to the Light. May we embrace the Light which has come and allow it to shine in and through us into the world. And may we make today’s Collect our prayer as we enter into the Celebration of the Incarnation: “Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives…” Amen.