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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 3, 2016

 In the Beginning

Jeremiah 31:7-14; John 1:1-18

            A prologue, at least in an opera or a play, is an opening statement or description that tells you something about the story that is going to follow.  I mention the prologue today because what I read to you is what most scholars call the “Prologue” to John’s Gospel.  It is the only Gospel that begins in this way, with a prologue, and people have pondered long and hard about this prologue.  Is it to be read as poetry?  Is it a hint of what is to come in John?  Is it to be read as important theology?  My answer to all three of those questions is, “Yes.”  This is not normal prose that John offers, and this is very much a hint, an introduction, of all the important themes in John’s Gospel which are going to follow, and this is one of the most theologically dense and significant pieces of scripture in the whole of the Bible.  It is bigger than I am, I admit that.  Sometimes you are up against a text and you feel simply overwhelmed by its breadth and its depth and its grandeur.  So let me today lift up simply three statements out of it and offer you some thoughts around those, as we begin to live another year, 2016, “Anno Domini,” the year of our Lord.

            The first words are unforgettable, and they are familiar.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  We have read those words in the beginning – in Genesis.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep….  And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”  I think this is a hint of what John wants to say about the meaning of the incarnation, of the birth of God into the world in human flesh, as a baby in Bethlehem.  John does not tell the story that has already been told masterfully by both Luke and Matthew.  Instead, John ponders the meaning, the richness of this story.  I think what John is wanting to say is that what God has done at Christmas with the Incarnation – that is God taking on human flesh – is part and parcel of the same work that God was doing when God created the heavens and the earth, when God said, first of all, out of the dark, formless void, “Let there be light.”  John wants all of his readers to know that the God who has chosen to redeem this world through a Savior, a baby in Bethlehem, is one and the same God who created the heavens and the earth.  Good theology always links redemption with creation, for God indeed intends to redeem the whole of what God has graciously created. 

            So that is the first word that I would offer you today: “In the beginning was the Word....”  The creator God intends to redeem the whole of creation through this Son, through this Blessed Child, whose advent we celebrate each and every Christmas.

            The second word is a powerful one, I think, for us living in this place, in this time, “In Him,” meaning the Word, meaning Jesus, the Logos of God, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Later in John’s Gospel Jesus will say, “I am the light of the world.”  But for now we have this powerful image: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 

            I never read this passage that I don’t return to my childhood when our family was on vacation together, and we went to visit somewhere in central Pennsylvania a place called Indian Caverns.  Indian Caverns was a series of natural-made caverns.  When you arrived there they gave each of you who were going on the tour, Indian blankets, scratchy, wool, probably disgustingly filthy, Indian blankets that everyone in 1960’s America wrapped around themselves before they entered into the caverns!  And underneath the ground, after walking down the whole way, the guide who has been talking about how many miles of these caverns exist, held up his gas lantern and turned out the lantern.  At that point the guide told us of how many people had been lost forever in Indian Caverns!  All of us are cast into total darkness underneath the earth.  My older brother Luther, six years older than I was, said, “Quick, let’s lose Todd!”  I grabbed onto my Dad next to me, and wouldn’t let him go.  Then as we were surrounded by complete darkness, our guide lit a match, one single match.  It is amazing, in the midst of total darkness how much light one single match casts!  He relit the lantern, and we walked out of Indian Caverns to safety, so that I could tell you this story so many decades later!

            “The light shines in the darkness.”  It is the light of God found in Jesus Christ, and “the darkness has not overcome it.”  I would add even further: the darkness is powerless ever to overcome the light of God.

            Stuart Gordon had two teachers in seminary, married to each other – among the smartest people I ever met – Paul, known as “Bud,” and Betty Achtemeier.  The two of them met as students at Stanford University, then went to Union Seminary in New York when Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich were teaching, and then to Heidelberg University.  This was in post-World War II Germany.  Once, after the term was done, Betty tells about the two of them getting bicycles, packing clothing and food, and embarking on a journey from Heidelberg all the way to Denmark.  She said, “Village after village lay in ruins from what was left from the war.”  In one little town they stopped in order to eat lunch.  They stopped alongside a small village kirche, and the church was utterly destroyed.  Two walls were left standing, and on one of the walls someone had placed a rough-hewn wooden cross.  On the other wall someone had written in German, “Heaven and earth may pass away, but My words will never pass away.”  This was, of course, the promise of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel, a promise upon which you can wholly and completely depend.  “The light shines in the darkness....”  I know how dark sometimes this world can appear to be.  The promise of the Gospel is this: “The darkness shall never overcome it.”

            As we enter another year, let us be resolved to walk in the Light, to let the Light be our guide, and most importantly of all, to let the Light of Jesus Christ fill us with faith, with hope, with love, with a sense of purpose and a resolve to be everything that God by grace has put it in us to be.  “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” 

            Finally, John says this: “He came unto His own and His own received Him not.  But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.”  There is no power, no power under heaven or earth that I long for us to claim more, than this power to become who we are, children of a loving and a powerful, and an infinitely creative and hopeful God. 

            I am reading an incredible book right now, written by an historian named Candice Millard, called The Destiny of the Republic.  It tells the story, the almost unbelievably comic, if it were not so tragic, story of the assassination of President James Garfield.  In the opening months of his presidency in 1880, Garfield was shot, but not fatally, by a disturbed, selfish man seeking a job from Garfield.  The story that unfolds, the story sadly of how his doctors killed him, where the assassin could not, because many American doctors still did not believe what Joseph Lister had theorized about germs.  They could not believe that things they could not see could be real!  Doctors, a host of them, repeatedly stuck their germ-filled fingers into his wound and probed it over and over again to find the assassin’s bullet.  Garfield died seventy-nine excruciatingly painful days later from sepsis or infection, not from the bullet wound!  During this time, America was frantic over the fact that if Garfield died, the next president would be Chester Arthur, who was the puppet of the most corrupt Senator in that age, a man from New York named Roscoe Conkling.  There was a woman, an invalid, who was thirty-two years old.  Her name was Julia Sand, and she felt this strange call to minister to, of all people in the midst of this long waiting period in American life, through letters that she would write, twenty-three of them in all, Chester Arthur.  In those letters Julia Sand spoke to Chester Arthur the truth.  She said, “Many people in this nation think you are behind this assassination attempt.  People are frightened at the thought of you being President.”  She also said (she had a beautiful way with words), “There is a better man inside of you waiting to emerge.”  For whatever reason, Arthur, who had never met this woman before, knew nothing about her but her words spoken through her letters, heeded their call.  And through receiving these letters, these hard words to read about the life that he had lived up until this point, he took them to heart, distanced himself from Conkling, recognized that if he would serve as President, a better Chester Arthur would have to emerge in order to serve and to save this country.  He grew into the man he was created by God to be!  He effectively reformed the very spoiled system he had run.

            “But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.”  I take that to mean that God is not through with any of us yet, and that Jesus gives us power to be who we are created by grace to be: children of God.  So on this first Sunday of a new year, hear this word: You belong to God.  You are God’s beloved child.  You are loved of God.  You are chosen by God.  And God will not let you go until you become the fullness of what He intends for you to be.

            Paul puts it like this in his letter to the Philippians: “The one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the Day of Jesus Christ.”  “But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.”  That, dear friends, is the challenge and promise of the Gospel.

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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