A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California
on the 12 day of Christmas, January 5, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
Scriptures:  John 1:1-18 and Matthew 2:1-12
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“When I Am Among the Trees,” by Mary Oliver[i]

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

 

Set aside, if you can, the Christmas story as we hear it each December and step into John’s world.  Forget the manger, the Magnificat, shepherds, and an overstuffed inn – they belong to Luke.  For a moment, try to get “We Three Kings” and your neighbor’s illuminated front yard out of your head.  We’ll get back to them in a little while.  For now, keep going back, past the medieval saints calendar telling how the Magi died as martyrs for the gospel.  Go beyond their names and faces, fixed in the seventh century.  Go back even before Herod, even before Pharaoh.  Go back to the very beginning of creation.

That’s where John starts.  “In the beginning” – quoted directly from the first verse of the first book of the Torah – “in the beginning was the Word.”  Before anything else had been created, the Word was.  And the Word was not only with God in the beginning, but the Word was God.  John tells us that “not one thing came into being” without the Word.  The Word is not just part of, but is within, integral to God’s identity and purpose.  The Word is part of God’s life-giving agency.

“It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this text in shaping Christian conceptions of Jesus’ divinity, the incarnation, and the Trinity.  Indeed, one of John’s concerns here is to emphasize Jesus’ unmatched transcendence and authority as one who comes from the Father.  Jesus originates from God not only in an apostolic sense as one who is sent, but also in an ontological sense.  [Jesus’ very nature, becoming, existence is of God.] …  As his narrative unfolds, John will continue to stress that to see Jesus really is to see the Father.”[ii]

“The other gospels usually tell us stories about Jesus.  Then, like the disciples, we are left to ask, ‘Who is this, that wind and sea obey him?  Who is this who feeds the multitude on a couple of loaves and a few fish?’  But in the Gospel of John, there’s never a doubt who Jesus is, because he tells us.  Usually he does so with a statement that begins with the words, ‘I am.’  Put him in a situation and he will clarify who he is and what he has come to do.

“You can put him in the desert surrounded by people who are chronically unsatisfied, and Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6:35).

“You can put him in the midst of people who are confused, people who ask, ‘Who are you, Jesus?  What makes you different from all the other gurus, rabbis, and religious leaders?’  And Jesus says, ‘I am the gate for the sheep.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture’ (10:7, 9).  It is an act of self-definition.

“You can put him at graveside, in the midst of grief-stricken people, and Jesus says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live’ (11:25).

“Or put him in the midst of people who feel disconnected by life’s difficulties, and Jesus says, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing’ (15:5).

“In the Gospel of John, in one situation after another, Jesus defines himself and says, ‘This is who I am.…’  In the eighth chapter, Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (8:12).  His words echo the[se] opening words of the Fourth Gospel, where the writer defines the person and work of Jesus in terms of light.  ‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people … The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’ (1:3-4, 9).”[iii]

John insists that the coming of this light into the world is a good thing.  And for those who receive Jesus, it is a good thing.  John says that all who receive Jesus – all – are given ‘the right to become children of God’ (John 1:12).  “God’s grace, though marked in a very particular covenant made with Israel at Sinai, is not reserved for the children of Israel alone.  Now God has made a covenant with all of humanity.”[iv]

For the Herods of this world, the news of the Word becoming flesh, of the light shining in the darkness – no, not so much good news.  “To the credit of the rulers of this world, they at least had the good sense to look at Jesus and see that, in him, they were in big trouble.  Matthew says that the moment King Herod heard about the birth of Jesus, he called together his political advisers and ‘was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matthew 2:3).  Herod had been in office long enough to know a threat to his rule when he saw one.

“Herod knew that, in this baby at Bethlehem, everything his kingdom was built upon was in mortal peril.  So Herod responded in the way rulers usually respond:  violence.  Herod called out the army and they massacred all the Jewish boy babies (Matthew 2:13-18) – alas, only one of many violent attempts by governments to rid themselves of challenges to their power.  In praying ‘Your kingdom come,’ we are in a power struggle that can become violent because the kingdoms of the world rarely give up power without a fight.”[v]

I can’t help but wonder if tradition transformed the Magi into “kings” as part of this contrast of powers.  The powers of this world, the kings like Herod, try to silence the Word.  The magi are a different kind of “kings.”  They come to pay the Word homage.  John is right:  some are drawn to the light; some prefer the darkness.

Almost 30 years ago, I got to go spelunking in the Ape Caves south of Mount Saint Helens.  One of the things I remember about that hike is how dark the caves were, once we were away from the entrance and turned off our flashlight.  I remembered that hike when I read Rose Marie Berger’s account of spelunking in the Peruvian Andes.  This is how she tells the story:

“My friends were ahead of me and turned a corner.  Suddenly, I was alone.  There was no flashlight.  I am very claustrophobic.

“For a moment I felt sheer terror – that physically urgent need to be anywhere else.  Then I had a brief vision from above my body.  I was looking down on the curve of the Earth, the high field in the mountains, the pile of rocks with the cave’s mouth, and my body trapped in a granite crevice below the surface.  Next, I just stopped breathing – like someone pulled the plug on my being.  The darkness, to say it simply, unmade me.

“… The minutes alone in the cave seemed to last a lifetime.

“Suddenly, I smelled the phosphorous odor of a match.  A flame illuminated the face of an elderly Incan man who reached for my hand.  The warmth of his coarsened palm restored me to myself.  I breathed.”[vi]

I can’t help but wonder if this is Epiphany.  The word “epiphany” means “manifestation.”  When we grasp the hand of another and are given back to ourselves, made manifest to ourselves.  We see the light of the Word as it is manifest in the infant of Bethlehem and we are restored to ourselves.

Next to the Trinity, the Incarnation is probably the hardest Christian concept to understand.  Yet, it is the Christian concept at the heart of the Christmas story.  I have given up trying to explain either idea, either concept.  Instead, I turn to story.

Kierkegaard, I’ve heard, told a fable of a king who fell in love with a maid.[vii]  When asked, ‘How shall I declare my love?’ his counselors answered, ‘Your majesty has only to appear in all the glory of your royal person before the maid’s humble dwelling and she will instantly fall at your feet and be yours.’

But that was precisely what troubled the king.  He wanted her glorification, not his.  He wanted to love her, and for that reason, perhaps she would love him back.  The king realized love’s truth, that freedom for the beloved demanded equality with the beloved.  So late one night, after all the counselors of the palace had retired, he slipped out a side door and appeared before the maid’s cottage dressed as a servant.

The fable is a Christmas story, a story about the incarnation.  But we don’t have to turn to fables to meet the light that has come into the world.  We hear about it happening every day.

I remember my feelings the first time I heard about a child who had battled cancer and was finally returning to school.  Like so many who go through chemotherapy, he had lost all his hair.  And like so many 12-year-olds, he wanted to fit in, to not be teased or singled out for his “difference.”  He and his parents experimented with hats and wigs and bandanas, and settled on a baseball cap.

With a pit in his stomach and the cap on his head, he mustered his courage and went to school.  And he discovered that all his friends had shaved their heads.

“You can’t hide the pain of the world.  You can’t cover it up.  You can only share it.  Make someone else’s journey a little easier.  Be willing to go to great lengths to help someone else carry their pain.

“God did.  God left whatever throne people had put him on in their imaginations and came to earth.  And God made the absurd choice to arrive as a baby, vulnerable and dependent, subject to all the pains and fears and frustrations that plague the rest of us humans.  A choice for incarnation.

“John reminds us that we have all been given power to be the children of God.  To be lights to the world.  ‘The true light … [that] enlightens everyone.’

“Whatever darkness may envelop the globe, whatever gloom may hang in our own lives – it isn’t strong enough to suffocate the light.  The smallest match will light up a room [or a cave].  The smallest gesture of kindness, act of compassion, or work of mercy will light up the globe.  ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’”[viii]

In the smallest gesture of kindness, act of compassion, or work of mercy – that’s where we meet the light.

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[i] Mary Oliver, “When I Am Among the Trees,” from Thirst. © Beacon Press, 2006; reprinted on The Writer’s Almanac, http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2012/06/23 (3 January 2014).

[ii] Karl Kuhn, “Commentary on John 1:1-18,” Preach This Week, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1960 (4 January 2014).

[iii] From the introduction to an unattributed sermon titled “The Light of the World,” that was quoted in an email from sermons.com, dated 30 December 2013.

[iv] Lauren F. Winner, “Invited and Convicted,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/invited-and-convicted (30 December 2013).

[v] Stanley M. Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, “Your Kingdom Come,” Sojourners (May-June 1996).

[vi] Rose Marie Berger, “Magnificent Desolation, Agonizing Love,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/magnificent-desolation-agonizing-love (30 December 2013).

[vii] This telling of Kierkegaard’s fable is based on a telling by James T. Garrett quoted in that email from sermons.com dated 30 December 2013.

[viii] Joyce Hollyday, “Be A Light,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/be-light (30 December 2013).

Other sources used:

Kari Jo Verhulst, “A Birth Announcement,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/birth-announcement (30 December 2013).

Nancy Hastings Sehested, “The Flickering Light of Epiphany,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/flickering-light-epiphany (30 December 2013).

 

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