Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas, 2019. In our prayers, we remembered the victims of antiSemitic attacks in New York and elsewhere this Hanukkah.
Isaac Asimov is not an author I usually turn to for biblical commentary. Like many of you, I know him more as a writer of science fiction, but I recently stumbled across a secondhand copy of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, and he has some interesting ponderings to share about the star of Bethlehem, for example, and the Word of God, the opening character of John’s Gospel.
Asimov describes the term Logos, which we translate Word, as defining the creative principle and order of the universe. We use it today, he notes, to talk about the creative order of animals, in zoology or of the earth, in geology (or of God, in theology; although that is where we find the boundary to our own wisdom, since God is the Logos, the Word that we are seeking to define).
Asimov traces this interpretation to one Thales of Miletus, living before the biblical time of the Babylonian Exile. He describes how the term was developed and refined around the Greek-speaking world, and found its way into Jewish thought as Wisdom, the character of God portrayed in Proverbs and some of the Apocryphal writings.
In John, then, we find this creative order, this first principle of God’s relationship with the world made flesh, this Word of God, this God incorporated into the world that it has made and shaped, enfleshed and enmeshed with creation.
Matthew and Luke flesh out this story, if you’ll forgive the pun, with their narratives of angels and birth, heaven and earth met in Bethlehem, in a manger, in a baby. John skips the pageant; he is more interested in what it all means now, after the angels have left and the skies have fallen silent, except for their storms.
In his Christmas message this year, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry noted that it is no accident that Jesus is born when all seems at its darkest. He wrote,
I don’t think it’s an accident that long ago, followers of Jesus began to commemorate his coming into the world when the world seemed to be at its darkest. …
Undoubtedly, these ancient Christians who began to celebrate the coming of God into the world, they knew very well that this Jesus, his teachings, his message, his spirit, his example, his life points us to the way of life itself, a way of life, where we take care of each other. A way of life, where we care for God’s world. A way of life, where we are in a loving relationship with our God, and with each other as children of the one God, who has created us all.
They also knew John’s Gospel and John’s Christmas story. Now there are no angels in John’s Christmas story. There are no wise men coming from afar. There’s no baby lying in a manger. There’s no angel choir singing Gloria in excelsis Deo in the highest of the heavens. There are no shepherds tending their flocks by night. Matthew and Luke tell those stories. In John, it is the poetry of new possibility, born of the reality of God when God breaks into the world.
It’s not an accident that long ago, followers of Jesus began to commemorate his birth, his coming into the world. When the world seemed darkest. When hope seemed to be dashed on the altar of reality. It is not an accident that we too, commemorate his coming, when things do not always look right in this world.
But there is a God. And there is Jesus. And even in the darkest night. That light once shined and will shine still. His way of love is the way of life. It is the light of the world. And the light of that love shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, cannot, and will not overcome it.
But for Matthew and Luke, too, it is when the sky is dark and the inns are full and the doors are locked and where walls are built and the bullets are waiting and Herod is king and Rome pretends to peace through oppression and repression that the life that is the light of the world is born, and the darkness cannot stop it.
And good news is announced to the poor out on the hillside, and the rich and the wise are humbled into worship and generosity, and only Herod, jealous for the little piece of proxy power that the empire allows him, fails to see the majesty of the moment.
And John bears witness. He has Word and witness ready at the beginning. And his whole gospel is written so that we might bear witness to the life and the light that has been borne into the world, so that we might become midwives of the kingdom of God, advocates for making room at the inn, defenders of the innocent children at risk of Herod’s jealous wrath.
This is what John sets before us: that it is only the creative order of the Word, of God, that makes sense of the world, that sheds light on the life of the world. It is in Jesus, in the humility of birth and Incarnation, even in the confusion of the Cross, in the victory of Resurrection, the transcendence of Ascension that we find light in the darkness. It is in the light of the Word that life makes sense, with all of its joy and all of its promise, even its pain; with forgiveness and with justice, in the Word it becomes a story we can live with.
On Christmas Day I shared this R.S. Thomas poem as we gathered in the Chapel:
The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.
They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: Volume 2, The New Testament (Avon Books, 1969), 298-303
R.S. Thomas, “Nativity,” in R.S. Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990 (J.M. Dent/Phoenix, 1993/2000), 508