December 18, 2011 - Advent IV
“The Promise is Forever”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
Jesus is Savior. Jesus is light. Jesus is love. Jesus is salvation. Jesus is brother. Jesus is friend. Jesus is teacher. Jesus is protector. Jesus is peace. Jesus is the rock. Jesus is grace. Jesus is compassion. Jesus is mercy. Balm of Gilead, Rose of Sharon, King of kings, Lord of Lords. Son of Man. Jesus is the man. Jesus is cool. Jesus is awesome. He’s the dude! In the Gospel of John alone, Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world, the bread of heaven, the Good Shepherd, the Vine, the Gate, the Living Water, the Way, the Truth, the Life.
Before all of that in John, Jesus is Word. Jesus. Word. Not as common when it comes to your prayer life. Not what rolls off the tongue. Word. Jesus is word. Jesus you’re so word. Rabbi, Teacher, My Lord….Word! Jesus, Friend, Dude…..Word! Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…. Word! Jesus….Word. Word. Sounds more like a rap artist, a hip hop star. Word…that’s Jesus. Jesus…Word!
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word. The poetry of the first chapter of John, the Prologue of John, it is poetry of the Word. The Word became flesh, and lived among us. Jesus.Word. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The gospel poet avoids any pronoun there in v.1. The new Common English Translation of the bible takes its cue from verse one and carries through with its emphasis on the Word, the repetition of the Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. The Word. The Word. The Word. Jesus….Word.
The philosophers of antiquity, the Church Fathers, those earliest Christians who gave voice to the faith, took this Prologue-Poetry to creedal form.“We believe in one God the Father Almghty, Maker of Heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds. God of God, Light of light, Very God of Very God, begotten , not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” The Nicene Creed, the year 325. And all the Trinitarian formulations thereafter, all the philosophical arguments about fully God, fully human, so much of it started with the Word was. There’s so much mind-grabbing, intellectual, all night campus conversation, solve the problems of the world, discover the mind of God, grist for the mill here in John. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being. Jesus. God. Begotten. Light. Life. Word. And the history of the theological enterprise is forever captivated by Jesus as Word.
What has come into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The Word here in Greek is logos. The connotation is more than this word or that word. Logos; word, it’s more than a spoken expression. Logos is word with power, word that comes with action, word that shapes, creates, meaning. It is word with all the eventfulness of communication, a something happens and is happening kind of word. If you will excuse the Advent expression, logos is pregnant with meaning. Word bursting forth. Not just saying peace but creating peace. Not just signing love at the end of a note but being in love while as you signed it. Not just a diploma that includes the term graduate, but the means of communication that makes it so. The Word; not just reason, or rationality, or intellect, or thought, but God communicating life itself, life in all of its eventfulness, life itself through the Word. God passing on, communicating, bearing, something of God’s own being, through the Word. Word…so much more than a definition.
A bizarre reality type game show not too long ago had people dating in the dark. They met for the first time, got to know each other a bit, in a room that was so dark they couldn’t see each other at all. You can figure out the premise pretty easily; the intent was to see if dating really wasn’t all about looks or if a relationship could be built upon personality rather than appearance. It was pretty much like watching a train wreck. It was a brutal at the end as folks would decide whether they would still go out on date with the person after the lights came on. Was it all still about the looks? In college athletics everyone (coaches, presidents, alumni) gives such lip service to the life lessons and bigger values and relationships formed and character building that all comes with being a scholar-athlete; it’s not about the winning so many try to say. Well, actually, yes, it is all about the winning, and when it came to that show, it was all about the looks.
It’s all about the looks. It’s all about the winning. It’s all about reason. Stick with me here, the point I’m trying to make, is that if the meaning of logos is so much more than reason, if the Word in the prologue to John is more than just an expression intended to be well understood, if the Word in the poetry of John connotes the promise of God in a way that goes far beyond words, than we can’t just turn around and think that our life in God can all be explained, or understood, or put into words, or crammed into a creed. You can’t suggest on the one hand that the Word is so much more than reason and then come back around and throw in the towel because of the unanswered questions, and the mystery, and the stuff you can’t figure out. It’s not all about reason. The Prologue to John, it’s poetry, not a creed. Jesus…..Word.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Or as it says in the King James, The light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. Did not comprehend it. Did not overcome it. It’s quite a difference lost in translation. I have always thought of it as overcome, that the darkness did not overcome it. My own reading of these verses in John, my own take as student of scripture never influenced much by the King James (I’m a RSV kid, born and raised), has been to go with “overcome”. Reading the Prologue to John here on Christmas Eve when the sanctuary is completely dark expect for the candle I hold in my hand. It just makes sense. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
As you read the Prologue, the promise overcomes the tense. Each Christmas Ever, the promise comes in the present. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not, will not, shall not ever overcome it. Shall the darkness ever blow it out, nooo! The everlasting promise of the light of Christ is forever breaking into the world’s darkness. This light conquering darkness promise wasn’t just a first Christmas one off. That light that was the light of life in the Word, the Word that became flesh and lived among us; the darkness couldn’t put out the light then when Christ was born and it will never overcome the light of Christ, that by the mercy of God still shines forth in the world today; the very kingdom of God still breaking in, shining forth, glimmering on, lighting the Way, in your life and mine, and in the life of the world.
Those Christmas Eve candles in your hand aren’t intended to serve as a memorial to the birth of child born long ago. It’s not like God’s promise sparked that one night long ago so we keep an eternal flame burning as monument to the past. No, the promise of God revealed in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus still shatters all the darkness the world has to offer. That inbreaking of the kingdom, that communicating of God’s very being, that meaning making presence of God, that life in God rising from the valley of the shadow of death, the promise of our life in God is forever. Word was, Word is, Word forever shall be. The promise is forever.
And the darkness comprehended it not. God’s promise. The Word was. Jesus…Word. The darkness comprehended it not. Maybe the King James was right. Did not comprehend it. Did not overcome it. At least, maybe it shouldn’t be an either/or. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not, will not, shall not ever comprehend it. From the world’s darkness, and our place in it, the light of God’s promise, shall never fully be known. But then the logos of God, it is so much more than words, something beyond comprehension. The Word; not just reason, or rationality, or intellect, or thought, but God communicating life itself, life in all of its eventfulness, life itself through the Word.
Christopher Hitchens died this week; the author and public intellectual maybe best known for his role, his voice in what is called The New Atheism. In his book god is not great; how religion poisons everything, Hitchens lays out his argument in great detail with a rhetorical flare and arrogant tone. Certainly not all of his indictment can be wiped away; like the history of religion and violence for instance. Early on in his book, Hitchens writes “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago….We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only echoing repetitions of yesterday….” And in conclusion of his word, he reiterates his contention that religion has nothing to offer. “Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”
Now trust me, I’m not smart enough to take on Christopher Hitchens, and we don’t have time for a nuanced discussion here about the difference between religion and faith, and notice that it is a journalist not a scientist implying that the telescope and the microscope can, in fact, explain everything important. But here’s the rub…the Advent promise of God is not that we shall be able to figure it all out, or always have something to say, or should expect to have an answer, an explanation, a reason all the time. The promise is that when there are no answers God is with us. When we can’t figure it all out, God is with us. When there are no words to say, God is with us. Precisely when there is no explanation for something really important, God is with us, communicating something of Godself amid the very eventfulness of this life, through the Word…..Word…..Word was…Word was with God…..Word was God.
The first time I went to see someone for spiritual direction, a spiritual director, there was this awkward silence. He had said an opening prayer, and then we just sat there. He didn’t ask me anything. He didn’t say anything. I just sat there too, squirming in that silence. Finally, I said, “I’ve never done this before, are you going to ask me a question, say something spiritual, is there a place to start?” With this very calming presence, he pointed out to me that God was here, and that when I’m ready I can say whatever is on my mind, in my heart. But in the meantime, we can just sit here in silence. Years later, you would think that awkward silent time would be gone, now that I knew the ropes. The truth is the silence only grew. It was no longer awkward, but some months the silence went on for a quiet a while.
When the world expects you to always have something to say, some answer, some explanation, the silence becomes all the more meaningful. Not just for the preacher, but for the child of God surrounded by darkness, the world’s darkness. Sometimes all you can do is point to that candle on Christmas Eve.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall never comprehend it, shall never overcome it.
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