Having children has had an effect on my mental health. Not just the increased stress; I find my memory is not what it is, and I don’t like to think that has anything to do with age! Debbie will ask me to bring three items in from the garage, and I will remember one. And while I’m sure some of that is down to the way that I as a typical man like to concentrate on just one task at a time in contrast to typically feminine multitasking abilities, I have to admit that there are just too many times when I forget things I would previously have remembered. Senior moments seem to have started in middle age for me.
And you may be thinking I’ve had another memory failure in the choice of John 1:1-18 as our reading tonight. Didn’t we have it in the carol service? Yes. Didn’t we have it on Christmas Day? Yes: it’s the traditional Gospel reading for Christmas Day, and so if anyone has a memory relapse here, it’s the compilers of the Lectionary! And don’t I go on and on about verse 14 when talking about mission, ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’? Yes. I’ve remembered all these things.
But when I saw that these great verses occurred again today, I saw an opportunity. This passage, known as the Prologue to John’s Gospel, gives us – to use an overworked word – an awesome vision of Jesus. This passage is for me the Mount Everest of the New Testament. And we have a chance here to let its towering vision of who Jesus is inspires us at the beginning of a New Year.
So I thought I would take some of the great images of Jesus here and explore each of them briefly, so that we might bow before his magnificence and kneel before his wonder. It’s a fitting place to get our bearings for the new year.
Before Jesus is named at the incarnation, he is the Word. Before time and for all time, he is the Word. He is the creative Word, involved in creation. As in Genesis God spoke and it came to be, so in John ‘all things came into being through’ the Word. So when the Word becomes flesh and speaks to the created order, he is continuing his work of creation.
For Jesus, then, being the Word doesn’t mean words without action. There is no division between truth and deed. One leads to the other. We can see that in another way as well as Jesus being the Word through whom creation comes into being and is sustained. For John 1 has resonances with Proverbs 8, where Wisdom is spoken of in similar terms to the Word here. Now we might associate the word ‘wisdom’ with wise words or philosophy, but to the Hebrew mind wisdom was not merely intellectual. It was moral. Wise words maybe, but words connected with action. That’s why the Book of Proverbs is full of advice on how to live.
Now if Jesus the Word is the Wisdom of God, then he is not an abstract philosophy, he is the One who supremely shows us how to live. When we call Jesus the Word, we aren’t simply ranking him among or above the great philosophers of the world – although he belongs there – we are saying that he speaks in such a way as to show us the paths of life.
What does this mean for us? Something quite down to earth. It is a renewed commitment to walking in the ways of Jesus. Not only has he died for our sins and been raised to give us new life, he lays down the yardstick for living the new life he grants us.
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but in recent months the great majority of my sermons have been based on passages from the Gospels. I have concentrated on those four books where we most clearly get the voice of Jesus. It’s why Anglicans and Catholics stand for the Gospel readings at communion.
Not that he doesn’t speak throughout all of Scripture – of course he does – but the central biblical documents are the Gospels, and if I am to be any kind of Christian, I must tune into Jesus’ life-giving words and align my life accordingly. That would be a worthwhile vision for a new year.
In reception class at school, Mark and his friends have had to learn forty-five ‘action words’. They learned the words by learning the associated actions. (Except Mark knew them all already, including how to spell them.) Jesus the Word is an ‘action Word’. He is not ‘mere words’ but ‘the Word in action’.
The image of Jesus as light tells me something about his supremacy and victory.
On the one hand, his life is ‘the light of all people’ (verse 4) and he is ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’ (verse 9). Whatever light may be found in this life has its source in Jesus. The old saying is that all truth is God’s truth. If something is good, beautiful, pure and life-enhancing, then it is from Jesus, whether it is overtly religious or not. We Christians need not be afraid of truth, wherever we find it, because its origin will be Jesus, who is light to all people. Conversely, we may find goodness in many places but none will outshine Jesus.
So do not worry about truth. Sometimes the world’s discoveries seem to contradict our faith. In time, however, we shall either see how they harmonise (dare I suggest evolution and creation?) or that the world’s claims for truth were over-rated. Let us remember that whenever an intellectual controversy strikes this year. Jesus always brings light.
But better than that, says John, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’ (verse 5). The word translated ‘overcome’ is one of those rich, multi-layered Greek words. You could say, ‘the darkness did not overcome it’, but you could also render it as ‘the darkness did not understand it’, or ‘the darkness did not come to terms with it’.
Sometimes understanding is a way of coming to terms with something or controlling it. But darkness can never master light. Even a tiny speck of light cannot be extinguished by the surrounding darkness. And John tells us that the darkness in creation can never master the light of Jesus.
Now that, surely, is Good News for us. The light of Jesus can never be put out. Light and darkness are not even two equal and opposite forces: light is superior! So whenever the life of faith is discouraging – whether due to internal reasons or external pressures – we have good news. Jesus triumphs!
And this is not just a private pious hope for us to enjoy. In the world, when dictators ravage their people, we know they cannot finally prevail. When governments and armies rampage with their forces of war, we who believe in the light know that their darkness is not the final word. It is good news to proclaim to the world as well as the church that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it – nor will it.
John makes a staggering claim about Jesus when he says that ‘we have seen his glory’ (verse 14), especially as he also acknowledges later that ‘No one has ever seen God’ (verse 18). Moses wanted to see God, but he had to hide in a rock and glimpse just a little of God’s glory from behind. Isaiah saw the Lord, but became stricken by a knowledge of his sin and his people’s sin. Claiming that we have seen divine glory in Jesus, then, is a monumental claim.
What might such glory look like? The Queen of Sheba saw the glory of King Solomon: it consisted of wealth, property and expensive possessions, as well as his famed wisdom. If we took a tour of Buckingham Palace, we might hope to see some royal glory, but not all of it would be on display, and that which was would be a matter of high culture, fine art and items from the most exclusive of suppliers.
Similarly, our popular culture has a crude version of glory. We see it in magazines like ‘Hello’, ‘OK’ and ‘Heat’, when they invite us inside the mansions of the rich and famous. Money, possessions and property are still a popular measurement of glory.
Jesus could call on all the resources of heaven to show dazzling glory that would make Bill Gates look like a pauper. But that is not the divine glory John describes. His glory is ‘the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (verse 14).
The glory of God is not in the splendour of heaven or the armies of angels: it is in grace and truth. The awesomeness of our God is in the grace and truth brought by the ‘father’s only son’. For grace and truth are the family likeness. The glory of God is not in palaces but a manger. The glory of God is not in the amassing of wealth but in the humiliation of the Cross. The glory of God is not in fulness of possessions but in emptiness – Christ emptying himself of all but love, and the emptiness of the tomb on the first Easter Day. The glory of God comes not in the violent conquest of enemies, but love for enemies and forgiveness for sinners.
What does this mean for us? For Jesus, showing divine glory in the form of grace and truth is a matter of the family likeness: he is ‘God the only Son’ (verse 18). We are children of God in a different sense according to the passage: Jesus gave us the power to become God’s children when we received him (verse 12). In Paul’s language, we are adopted children. The family likeness doesn’t pass down easily – not in the same way that our little Mark looks so much like a red-headed version of me. For adopted children, it’s a matter of being open to the influence of the parents and the existing family (which of course is vital in other families, too).
So we are called to reflect God’s glory of grace and truth in also being humble, loving and forgiving of those who wrong us. However, it’s not an easy matter. It’s something that only comes as we grow in grace, and that means being part of the community of God’s family and being consciously open to the work of the Holy Spirit who imparts the character of God to us. (We call it the fruit of the Spirit.) We don’t work this out alone, but together under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That’s why not all the great spiritual disciplines are private actions, but many are also corporate practices, as in fellowship we seek to be open to grace in order that it may transform us and we may share it.
Jesus the Word, then, is the great ‘action Word’ in creation and ethically wise living. To encounter him who is the very Word of God is a call to our own action in response.
Jesus the Light is good news for the church and the world. Wherever we are enlightened by the truth, it is the work of Jesus. And the victory of his light over darkness is good news for all who may despair when evil advances.
Finally, Jesus brings the Glory of God in grace and truth. He reveals God as so different from the petty obsessions of the world, and calls us to receive and share grace.
These three aspects of Jesus – Word, Light and Glory – constitute just a sketch and not even an oil painting of our spiritual Everest. But I pray that even these sketches might give us enough vision of our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord to inspire our discipleship in this new year.
Hope is in short supply right now. Increased unemployment. Home repossessions threatening to hit 1991 records. Banks, the backbone of our economy, in turmoil. Many suffering fuel poverty as gas and electricity prices stay high, even when petrol prices have reduced. You know the rest. We could do with some hope.
In the time of John the Baptist, Israel could have done with some hope. You’ve heard it enough times. In their own land, yet feeling like exiles, because they were occupied by Rome. Every now and again, someone popped up to offer hope in terms of an uprising. Every time, Roman legions quelled the rebels and executed them publicly.
Well, you root yourself in another time when the people of God needed hope. The time addressed in Isaiah 40. Most of God’s people had been deported to Babylon, and had been there a few decades by this point. A handful had been left in Jerusalem.
Then, a prophet in the Isaiah tradition turns up in Babylon, addressing the dispirited exiles and the desolate residents of Jerusalem. Using three metaphors from the physical world around him – wilderness, grass and mountains – he offers God’s hope to those lacking it and most needing it.
And this theme of hope complements what we thought about last week, on the first Sunday of Advent. Then, our theme was waiting. Today, it is hope, which is the content of Christian waiting. Had we read to the end of Isaiah 40, we would have heard – depending on which Bible translation we used – about those who will renew their strength by either ‘waiting’ or ‘hoping’.
So – without more ado – how does the Isaiah prophet help us to hope, using these images of wilderness, grass and mountains?
Last week, as we considered the theme of waiting, we wondered how we live when it feels like God is absent. Isaiah 40 is bold in response to this: you may feel that God is not here, but God is coming! He gives us a picture that is a bit like the building of a new road (hopefully without the environmental concerns we have about such a project in our society). Prepare God’s way in the wilderness, make a straight highway in the desert, raise the valleys, lower the mountains, and smooth out the rough terrain, and you will see God’s glory (verses 3-5).
So – in a time of God’s apparent absence, the good news is that God is coming. In a time of spiritual darkness, the good news is that you will see God’s glory. Music, surely, to the ears of disillusioned exiles in Babylon, and beaten-down people in Jerusalem. This is a message of comfort. Your punishment is over. Enough is enough (verses 1-2).
We may not know when things will change for the better for Christian witness in our culture, but we can hear similar echoes of hope in Advent. Our waiting and hoping is for Jesus who is called Immanuel, God with us. God is coming. We are not alone. Christ is coming. Christ came. The Father sent the Spirit of Christ. Our sense of aloneness is only apparent. It is not actual.
Of course, we must be careful: proclaiming that in Christ, God is with us, can make us sound like we have a religious superiority complex. This is not a matter of our deserving special rank. It is a matter of grace, God’s undeserved favour to sinners. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Jesus, God with us, came for lost and sick people – including us. Yes, God is with us in Christ. But we hold that knowledge humbly. And as we share it, we do so as one beggar telling another where to find bread.
And the wilderness was specifically to be a place where God’s glory would be seen. Would God’s glory be seen in raining down fire and brimstone? No. It would be seen as he led a raggle-taggle bag of exiles back home.
Similarly, Advent is a time when we wait in hope for the glory of God. His glory will be seen and sung about in skies over Bethlehem. His glory will be seen, in the words of Bruce Cockburn,
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
It’s a different kind of glory. It’s wilderness glory, a manger at the back of a house in Bethlehem, not a palace in Jerusalem. It’s the glory of God humbling himself into human flesh, one who later as an adult would not grant the wish of two disciples known colloquially as the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to unleash damnation on enemies.
Yes, come to unexpected dry places like a wilderness – like a manger – and find that God is present in strange glory. Come to Broomfield and find him? Why not?
When the prophet speaks about the people being like grass, I think he has wilderness grass in mind. It withers and fades in the heat of the wilderness, so when we hear about that happening when the breath of the Lord blows on it (verse 7), I think we’re meant to imagine that the Lord’s breath is hot and intense. The breath of the Lord, the Spirit of God, is not here life-giving but life-taking. The judgment of God had fallen upon the people with the Babylonian invasion and exile; now, like grass in the hot sun, they are withering and fading.
It’s not difficult to find similarities in later generations. In the days before Jesus was born, Israel was withering under oppression from Rome. In our day, we in the western church (especially in Europe) feel like we are withering and fading. What word of hope do we find here? It comes in verse 8:
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Whatever happens to us, the purposes of God are not thwarted. Whether we wither due to divine judgment on our faithlessness or whether it is general oppression or persecution, hear the promise that ‘the word of our God will stand forever’.
A story was told during the time when Russian communism ruled Eastern Europe. Soldiers raided the home of a Christian family and made some arrests. To humiliate them, they threw the family Bible on the floor. But a soldier noticed that one page didn’t burn. It contained the words of Jesus: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’ That incident was key in the soldier’s conversion to Christ.
There will be many attempts to destroy God’s word from its place in our society, and some of those attacks will focus on the church. But we are in Advent, the season of hope. The word of the Lord stands forever, and the gates of hell will never prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
None of this is a reason for complacency, but it is a reason for hope. Therefore, it’s here to boost our faith and fuel our prayers for God to renew his wonders in our day.
So God is present in his strange glory, and he is speaking and will not be silenced. Those are grounds for hope, but they are not very specific. We need a vantage point. The herald, the preacher (who by the way is female in the text), needs to ‘get up to a high mountain’ to see things as they are and be several hundred feet above contradiction in preaching good news to discouraged people (verse 9).
What good news? That God is victorious over the enemies of his people, that he comes in conquest, with his people as his booty, and with the gentleness of a shepherd caring for ewes and lambs (verses 10-11).
Israel’s hope was the end of captivity in Babylon. The hope in Jesus’ coming was in his resurrection from the dead. Our hope, based on that resurrection, is that of God’s final victory when he appears again, not only to claim his own, but to renew all of creation, with a new heaven and a new earth.
There are always reasons in the world to make us gloomy. At present there is a plethora of reasons. There are also reasons to be pessimistic about the western church. You would think there were few grounds for hope. But when you get up the mountain to see things from God’s perspective, the situation looks different. You see hope in the promises of God, who has acted decisively in the past, who will do so again, and who one day will make all things new.
It’s rather like the old story told by Tony Campolo. People give him all sorts of reasons to be negative about the state of the world and the church. But his standard reply is, “I’ve been reading the Bible. And I’ve peeked to see how it ends. Jesus wins!”
So let the world write us off. Let our friends regard our faith as irrelevant. Let Richard Dawkins describe religion as a virus. But see God’s view from the mountain: Jesus wins. Let that fill us with Advent hope.
And while we’re on the mountain, let us – like the female herald in Isaiah 40 – proclaim it to all who will hear. Let us encourage one another in the church. Don’t be dragged down by the lies and limited perspectives of the world: Jesus wins.
And let us also proclaim it to a world sorely in need of hope. To people who thought they could trust in money, until the banks blew up. To people who gained their sense of identity from their job, until redundancy hit. To people struck down with disability or chronic or terminal illness, whose lives had been based on the vigour of their bodies. To all these people and many others, proclaim that Jesus wins. It is promised in the actions of God and especially in the Resurrection. We have a hope worth trusting in. Why be afraid? Why be dismayed?
You may recall I’ve said that my first circuit appointment was in the town of Hertford. There, the Methodists regularly quoted John Wesley’s Journal regarding several of the visits the great man made to the town on his preaching travels. They were fond of quoting one entry in particular, where Wesley was utterly discouraged. It said, ‘Poor desolate Hertford.’ Those words hung like a curse over them.
But you may also remember how I have talked of being involved in ecumenical youth ministry in the town. Somebody gave me the complete set of Wesley’s Journal, and I looked up all the entries on Hertford. They weren’t all doom and gloom. Some were, but one in particular wasn’t. In it, Wesley recounted coming to preach at a school in the town. To cut a long story short, he saw a revival break out among the children.
You can imagine the impact that story had on us as we gathered to pray about youth ministry. Never mind ‘poor desolate Hertford’. There was a heritage of Holy Spirit work among young people in the area. God had not been absent or silent. He had been gloriously present, proclaiming Good News.
So I want to say that the Advent hope is like that. It is time to cast off the darkness. The great Advent text in Isaiah 60 says, ‘Arise, shine, your light has come’. This Advent, might we just dare to believe and to hope in our God?
And might we find that in this hope we have something beyond riches to share with a world, whose own versions of hope have plummeted in value?