- Parish House
Sermon for the First Sunday After Christmas – John 1:1-18
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
The light is out, we’ve read our books and told our stories, our songs have been sung, our prayers said, it is time for me to go. One daughter is already asleep, her breath settled into the deep rhythms of the night. The other is restless, unable to welcome whatever dreams may come.
“Please stay, daddy!” she says as I move toward the door. “I need to go,” I tell her, “I’ll be right outside.” “But I want someone here with me,” she replies. “Your sister is here with you,” I answer. “I want someone big here with me,” she clarifies. I’m ready to unwind, read a book, maybe watch some Saturday Night Live sketches with Emily. I resort to a priest’s answer, “God is here with you and God is bigger than anything.” My daughter is quiet for a moment and then says, “I want someone big that I can see.”
It’s a desire no one out grows. We want to be cared for and loved by someone big that we can be sure is with us. And so often, God doesn’t fit that requirement. We feel that God is remote, beyond us, sitting in the highest heaven, so far from the world of human life and concern. God is no good against the monsters in the closet; God is not there to comfort us in the dark.
“No one has seen God”, our Gospel reading says. This would seem to confirm the worst of our fears. If God cannot be seen, then how can God be with us in the dark? How can God be of help when we face the death, the betrayal, the suffering of life? God may know everything in the way we know facts in a book, but how could God know what it’s like to be a vulnerable human like us?
People have asked these questions since there were questions to be asked. From Jerusalem to Athens, they struggled with the answers. The Platonic and Stoic philosophers thought that God was too great to bother with the world, get dirtied with material things. God sent us the Logos, the Word that was reason, to guide us, they said. If we dedicated ourselves to reason we would know what we needed to survive the night. It was not God, but it was like a night light that would help us see that there were no monsters. It may not be the comfort of someone big, but eventually they said, we could get to sleep.
Interestingly, John borrows from the language of these philosophers to describe Christ as the Word that becomes flesh. He even seems to nod, in a way, to their understanding that the Logos was a lesser deity and not the supreme God. When John refers to God the Father he uses the term “the God” with a definite article and when he refers to Jesus it’s just just “god,” a divine being in general. Though our translation doesn’t reflect it, that’s essentially the difference in English between God with a capital G and god in lowercase.
But that is not what Christians who say the Creed and mean it, believe. We say that Jesus is God, the God. Christ was not just some divine night-light that came to illuminate us; Jesus was in fact “true God from true God,” someone big who would be there with us in person, not someone so beyond us that he wouldn’t come when we call. Is John, in his Gospel, conceding a point to the philosophers and telling us something different?
These first verses of the Gospel that we read today, leave the answers hazy. We are forced on from the intriguing ambiguity of the prologue and into the story of Jesus. There we find a man who teaches the way of love, who welcomes outcasts, forgives sinners, and heals those who are sick in mind and body. He challenges the religious elite and washes the feet of his disciples. It becomes clear enough that John believes Jesus is the Messiah, the long expected savior, but the Jewish teachers, never expected this Messiah to be God. The Messiah was simply to be a light in the closet, someone who would help people live in the presence of God, but not someone who would be worthy of worship on his own.
But then comes the crucifixion, the tomb filled and empty. The disciples encounter the risen Christ who shares meals with them and tells them not to fear. And in chapter 20, at the very end of the Gospel, Jesus appears to Thomas. Jesus shows Thomas his wounds, the marks of death on his body. This is a man who has been betrayed by his closest friends, a man who suffered the worst wounds of body and mind possible, this is a man who has died. He knows the breadth of what it means to be human, not in the abstract, but from experience. He has faced the darkness and it did not overcome him. Thomas falls to his knees before him. “The Lord of me and the God of me!” he exclaims. ὁ Θεός, he says, God with the definite article. He understands and we understand with him that this Word that became flesh, this man Jesus is not a messenger, a go between, but God himself.
At night, when the lights are out in my children’s room, they cannot always see me. But they know that I am there, within reach of the call of: “daddy!” They test it sometimes: “daddy!,” “yes,” “can I have water.” “Daddy!,” “yes,” “will you pull the covers over me.” But after a while they rest in the assurance that I will never leave them alone for the night, that I will be there for them when they need me.
This is the gift we receive in the Incarnation, the amazing idea that God came to us so that we could become God’s children, always in God’s presence, never left alone. We may not always be able to see God, sometimes God is too close to be seen, but in Jesus God has been made known to us and in the Spirit we will not be left comfortless. We can face whatever darkness is in our lives, whatever scary things seem to lurk in our closets, not only with a night light, but with someone very big, right there with us. It is God, but it is also abba, daddy–there is nothing to fear. Amen.