Sunday, December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Genesis 1:1-5 & John 1:1-5
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
The turkey leftovers are gone. The waistlines have already started expanding. (Don’t worry about that diet until January 1. It’s a lost cause.) The days have gotten short. The darkness returns depressingly early. Lexus commercials are back on, although I’ve never once met a person who got a luxury car for a Christmas present. And if you’re one of those people, talk to me after the service so I can tell you about our church endowment.
Are you ready for Christmas yet? I hope not. We’re only starting Advent today, and this is the shortest Advent season possible since Christmas Eve is a Sunday this year. As Dale Swihart wrote in his devotion for today, “This year it will be a dash.” Many churches focus each Sunday of Advent on a specific word – peace, hope, joy, and love – but to be perfectly honest with you, I never memorized the right order of those. I’m always eager to connect the words of the Bible with our regular lives, so this year we’re going to focus on the first 18 verses of John’s gospel, letting his cosmic and poetic account of the incarnation be our guide this Advent. The next four Sundays we’ll look at the Word to consider some special words to prepare us for Christmas. This week will be “light.” The coming weeks will bring us “word,” “flesh,” and “fullness,” all words that John emphasizes and that can spark our imaginations in this shortest of Advent seasons.
So we begin today with “light.” We start here because this is where John starts. It reminds me a bit like the crawl screen at the beginning of Star Wars (which is another thing many of us are eagerly expecting this Advent, but that’s another whole matter!). If you were fortunate enough to be among the first theatergoers on May 25, 1977, then you were the first to see these words flash on the silver screen, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” throwing your imagination into a fantastical time and place for the epic story that was about to unfold.
In starting his gospel, John does something similar to this. “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, immediately calling to mind the first words of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is no accident. When John was composing his gospel, the Septuagint was the most commonly used version of the Scriptures, and it was in Greek. John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1 start with the exact same language, and both point us back to a time before there was time. These verses begin with the cosmic, the grand scale of the universe. Before there was time, before there was created order, before there was light, there was God. This is as big as it gets.
John pushes it even further though because he wants his readers to understand the connections between Jesus and God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” This is a huge claim, but one John will consistently make throughout his gospel, where Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Yet, those with eyes to see it have noted that it’s possible to see traces of the Trinity breaking through the text in Genesis 1. There, of course, is God who creates, but how does God create? By speaking words, and Jesus becomes known as the “Word.” The Spirit is also there, hovering over the waters. The narrative of Advent is a grand one, cosmic in scope and scale. It is mystifying and marvelous. In the beginning God created using words, turning thoughts and speech into glorious action.
The earth was formless and void. Darkness covered the face of the deep. What does God create on the first day? Light. Into this chaos, God speaks, and light appears. It’s the first step in bringing order to the creation.
Imagine the world without light. Could you imagine if there was no sun or other stars? Ignore for a moment that life as we know it would be impossible because the sun’s light produces heat that is part of the reason we exist as we do. It’s hard enough at this time of year dealing with the late sunrises and early sunsets here in Michigan, but now imagine you had no way of piercing the darkness with light. No candles. No electricity. No light bulbs.
For millennia humans have harnessed light to combat the darkness and to warm us up. It’s essential to life. It’s so vital that many religions found ways to worship the sun and stars, recognizing that without them they had no life. I’ve stood on Mayan temples in Belize, created as a place for sacrifices to their sun god. They’re huge and impressive, but while so many have made gods of those things that give us light, we worship the One who is behind them, the One who created those lights.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,” John writes. Just as light is essential to our existence, so Jesus is essential to our true existence. He is the light of the world, piercing the darkness, and bringing order out of the chaos of our life. In the darkness of this time of year, we continue to remember this light when we deck our houses and Christmas trees with light. Even in the blackest of nights, there is a light whose warm glow welcomes us.
This story does not stay on the cosmic level, however. It funnels down to a single point, focused on the local and earthy event of the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. This big story of everything gets very intimate in this moment of incarnation. Very real people in very real places under very real historical circumstances lived out this drama, and this is especially true as we remember the birth story. There is dirt beneath the nails, exhaustion, joy, fear, and so much more.
So, let’s consider the historical moment. Why in the world would Mary have to travel to Bethlehem for this census? Couldn’t Joseph have handled this on his own? If she rode on a donkey, this is a five- to six-day journey, although there is no mention of a donkey in any of the birth narratives. Yet, she goes. Why? It’s possible that Mary’s family had property in the area needing to be registered. If she had to go, that means her father was dead, that she had no brothers, and that she was the eldest. This birth is no fantasy. It happened to real people with real lives.
Why was there no room at the inn? Well, it’s likely the town was full due to the census. Still, we find it cruel that the callous innkeeper turns away a pregnant woman. But, have you considered that perhaps the stable was the best place for Mary far from home? Many first-century homes were built from natural caves, and the stable would have been warm and private for the family – as cozy a place as could be had for a young family far from home and wandering in the darkness. Those images you have in your head of a wooden stable in the middle of a field just aren’t close to the reality of First-Century Bethlehem. It’s very hilly. It’s very rocky. It’s a place where the kindest thing an innkeeper might do is show them the warmest part of his property, so the Good Shepherd enters the world amidst the flocks. Perhaps this act is a little bit of light piercing the calculating darkness of Rome.
This cosmic light gets poured into this very specific place and time so that from Jesus all of creation has the chance to experience God’s love that brings order out of our chaos. It has everything to do with everything, even the most specific details of life.
From that focal point, we know that God’s light still illuminates the world today. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 Paul writes, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Through Christ God brings new life to all who would receive him – existence from non-existence, light from darkness, hope from despair.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Notice the verb tenses in John’s carefully crafted words. The light shines – present tense. It was shining in the entrance of Jesus into the world. It continues to shine today, even in our darkest days. The darkness did not overcome it. Did not overcome. Past tense. The battle between the light and the darkness is over. The light shines. Darkness lost. Even in its humblest of beginnings in that cave in Bethlehem, the light shines.
The light continues to shine in all who would follow Jesus today. It shines in you. It shines in me. Wherever a disciple is, there is light. That’s why I found the quote by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross so fitting for today, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”
Have you ever walked past our church in the darkness and seen the light escaping the stained glass windows? It’s breathtaking. And it’s a reminder that this beauty and truth that we speak of in these walls bears itself into the world through all of you, light-bearers.
You are the light of the world. Christ’s light has taken up residence within you, as humble a beginning as it had in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Your life from now until Christ returns is to bear that light everywhere. The darkness will not overcome you. The light of Christ within you is a foretaste of heaven for this earth, where in the end we “need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be [our] light” (Rev. 22:5).
As we begin our dash through Advent, I pray that the light of Christ penetrates all of our darkness, that this light would become personal for us, and that we would stand in awe that the God great enough to create all things loves enough to send His Son to us in the dark Bethlehem night.