Good morning, Friends! Happy New Year!
How many of you stayed up till midnight on Friday to watch the ball drop? Our family always does, but it seems like it gets harder for my wife and myself to stay awake that late. My family always tease me about how early I go to bed — they make jokes about “Quaker midnight” being about 9:30.
But Christians have a long tradition of holding vigils on important holidays. A lot of people around the world stay up till midnight on Christmas Eve. It’s like they identify with the shepherds, who stayed up all night to watch their sheep. They were the first ones to hear the good news when Christ was born.
In the same way, a lot of churches hold an Easter vigil. They stay up all night, praying, keeping watch and waiting for the dawn, when Jesus rose from the dead.
And there are many churches, particularly in Korea and Africa, where if somebody has a special problem, like a relative who is seriously ill, or if somebody is trying to get a job or get admitted to college, they will tell their friends, and they’ll come to church and have an all night prayer vigil together.
So, if you stayed up on New Year’s to watch the ball drop, and if you said a prayer that this year will be better than the last couple of years have been, you’re in great company! And if you stayed up late at night, like our young Friends did on their retreat this weekend, you’re part of a long Christian tradition.
The other thing that people do at these vigils, is often to have candles burning, all night long. There’s something about the symbol of keeping a light burning, all through the night, that makes us feel closer to God.
That’s why we have all the lights on the Christmas trees, and that’s why we had lights in all the windows here at Springfield during the Christmas season. They’re a reminder that Jesus himself is the light, the light in a darkened world.
Our Scripture today is all about this. Let’s read together from the opening words of the gospel of John.
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.
Through the Word, all things were made; without the Word, nothing created was made
.In the Word was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.John 1:1-5
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about the fact that often there’s more than one version of many different events in the Bible.
For example there’s at least two versions of the story of creation, in Genesis. You’ve got the world-was-made-in-seven-days version, and you’ve also got the story of Adam and Eve.
There are two versions of the Ten Commandments – one in Exodus chapter 20, and one in Deuteronomy chapter 5.
And there are at least three different versions of what happened at Christmas. We’re familiar with two of them – Luke chapter 2, with the shepherds and the angels, and the second version of Christmas, with the wise men and Herod in Matthew’s gospel. We’ve heard both of those two versions already this year.
But there’s also a third version of the Christmas story, which we don’t always recognize and celebrate. That’s the one we heard this morning, the story according to John.
John’s gospel begins with a burst of glory.
“In the beginning was the Word!” He’s so excited about it. “In the beginning was the Word!“.
John doesn’t tell us what Jesus looked like. John doesn’t tell us who Jesus’ parents were, or where he was born, or what time of the year it was, or any of those other details. John doesn’t care about any of that stuff. He’s much too excited about something else, about something much more important.
For John, it’s so simple, and yet he keeps falling all over himself, trying to share this tremendous and exciting truth which has changed the world forever.
“In the beginning was the Word!”
In a way, we already know what that means. The Word. It’s that quiet voice of God, which speaks within us, when we pray. That quiet reassurance, that hope, that wisdom, that guidance, that trust. That love that’s always there when we need it.
John calls that mysterious something, that presence – John calls that the Word.
We know – when we listen to the voice of Jesus – we know that we’re hearing someone special speak to us. This is more than just an ordinary carpenter speaking here. Jesus is someone who speaks with authority, who speaks with knowledge, who speaks with a depth of compassion, with an unshakeable sense of who he is, and where he came from, and why he came, and where he’s going.
That’s just a little of what we mean, when we talk about Jesus as “the Word”.
In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. . .
That’s a statement of plain fact. But it’s also poetry, about a mystery. Jesus and God are tied up together, in a relationship which is both simple and mysterious.
The Christmas story says that God came among us, as a tiny little baby, born the way all babies are born, and needing the same care that all babies need.
But Jesus is also God’s son. He’s one of us, but he’s also unique and special.
“In the Word was Life, and the Life was the Light of all people. . .”
To understand Jesus this way means that we realize that Jesus speaks to everyone, and not just us. Christ speaks to every condition, to every man, woman and child on the face of this earth.
People who are rich or poor, free or imprisoned, educated or uneducated, men and women, in every country of the world can hear his voice. What Jesus says can be translated into every language. And when we listen to Jesus, none of the barriers of place and language and nationality seem to matter any more.
Jesus speaks, and his words cross the centuries. It feels as if he’s talking to us, right now, right this very minute. And he is. That’s what “the Word” means.
“In the beginning was the Word!”
John is saying that way back when, at the beginning of all things, back before the beginning of all things, John is saying that Christ was already here.
“The Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things were made through the Word, and without the Word nothing created was made…”
John doesn’t begin with Christmas in Bethlehem, or even back in Genesis. The story begins back before anything else that we know.
John is saying that the love of God is a part of the foundation of the whole world, and of the entire universe. Back before anything else we know, if we go looking for it, we will find the love of God.
The love that made the whole world come into being, the love that allows us to exist, isn’t something accidental. It didn’t “just happen”. The love of God is what makes everything possible.
In a way, I always think of the Christmas stories of Luke and Matthew as being for children. John’s version of the Christmas story is the version for grown-ups.
The adventure of the Christmas story is realizing that we can look for God anywhere, and be sure of finding God. We are invited, we are dared, to go anyplace and everyplace in Jesus’ name, and we can expect to find Jesus already there before us.
We’re invited to pray for anything. We can enter any field of research, any society, any culture — and the living Word of Christ will be there, beside us, within us.
The story of Christmas, according to John, also has to do with creation. I don’t think that most people believe that the world was all created on one day or even on 5 or 6 days. We have a different understanding now of what took place.
But we also don’t necessarily think that God has stopped creating things. Creation is still going on. Things are still happening. As one of our great Quaker writers, Rufus Jones, once said, “God is the great I AM, not the great HE WAS…”
And at every point, John says, the Word has been and continues to be present. Christ and creation and re-creation go hand in hand. The God who makes the world is also the same God who saves and redeems the world. It’s the same God!
We need to see Christmas simply as one chapter in the story that began before the beginning of the world, which is also the story that will take us beyond the end of whatever world that we know. It’s continuous and seamless. The one who starts that story, and the one who tells that story, and the one who continues that story, is Christ.
Christmas isn’t just about warm cows and fuzzy sheep and cuddly babies in the stable. When we look at what made Jesus alive, we are challenged to dig deep into the life that Jesus was talking about.
Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; without me, you cannot come to the Father. . .I am the good shepherd; I give my life for my sheep. . .I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me shall never die. . .” (John 14:6, 6:35, 10:11, 11:25) Those quotations are all from the gospel of John.
When Jesus talks about life, he is talking about himself. He is saying, “Look at Me, and learn how to live. Walk in my way, and learn what God’s life is all about…”
In the other three gospels, you have accounts of the Last Supper, and people have argued forever over what Jesus meant and what he intended.
In John’s gospel, you get Jesus simply saying, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, whoever believes in me shall not thirst. . .the water that I give will become in you a spring of water welling up and overflowing to eternal life. . .” (John 6:35, John 4:14)
In all of the other Christmas stories, light plays an important part. We’ve got the star, leading the wise men on the long journey to Bethlehem. We’ve got the shepherds out watching their flocks in the field, when the angel of the Lord appears to them, and the glory of the Lord shines all around them.
In John’s version of the story, we have something simpler, and at the same time we’ve got something deeper. John says: “In the Word was LIFE, and the life was the LIGHT of every one. . .”
And then we have those tremendous words, “And the light SHINES ON in the darkness, and the darkness HAS NEVER overcome it. . .”
You see, John is a very realistic gospel. John wasn’t a dreamer. John wasn’t an idealist. John knew all about evil, and brokenness, and loneliness, and sin.
John knew about societies that were divided into acceptable people and outcasts. John knew about adultery, and betrayal, and about fear and disappointment. John knew about tragedy, and bitterness and blame.
It’s not a pretend world that we live in. There’s lots of pain, and lots of darkness. There are things that hurt us, and there are things we don’t understand.
But against all that, John says: “The light STILL SHINES in the darkness, and the darkness HAS NEVER put it out. . .”
I’d like us to try and find out what that really means this coming year. I’m not interested in New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, or clean out our closets, or to organize our snapshots into photo albums.
I’d like us to find out more about the person who could stand up and say, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. . .” (John 8:12)
I’d like us to try once again, as Quakers say, to walk in the Light, and live in the Light, and live up to the Light, and see if we can find out anything more about what the Light all means to us.
I’d like us to be filled with the Word, with the living Word that speaks in our hearts, if only we will listen. A Voice and a Life and a Word and a Truth that unbinds us, and turns us loose, and sets us free.
I want everyone here to find out a little bit more about all this stuff, this coming year. And I’d like us to do it, by simply spending some time, every day, with Jesus.
Read the stories over again, even if we think we know them already. Listen to God, every day. Try looking for Jesus, in unexpected and out-of-the-way places. Try asking Jesus, what he thinks really matters this coming year.
And I believe that if we wait, and listen, that he’ll answer. I believe that we are invited to move past all the sentimental stuff, and past even the inspirational stuff, past everything familiar, into the very presence of Christ.
Spend some time with the Christ who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; who is the Good Shepherd, who is the Prince of Peace, who is the Light of the world.