Last Sunday was the 12th day of Xmas. I prepared for us a service that included Xmas hymns and related prayers. I kept that worship for us today because I wanted to still preach on this first chapter from the Gospel of John. Xmas may be over but the message is still relevant today and every day of the year.
In part I am glad we didn’t have worship last Sunday because it gave me a week to rewrite my sermon. The sermon I had prepared was okay and would have been fine last Sunday but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to say on the topic.
It was weird last Sunday being in Bethany and not coming to church. I had a few nightmares that I had woke up to 80 degree weather with sun and no snow feeling like we had canceled church for no reason. But we did cancel with good reason. It would have been impossible for some of you to get here or home and unsafe for most of us to get out in the cold.
We worship God everyday in every decision we make to honor and glorify Him. But it is important for us to gather as a community to worship together because our faith is strengthened in the bonds of Christian fellowship. Christ knew the power of community and demonstrated that by creating a fellowship of Disciples. He even taught them the power of praying as a community when He taught them to prayer in one united voice in the Lord’s prayer. It is important for us to gather often to worship God praying and singing and studying the Scriptures together. But God doesn’t mind us taking a Sunday off for our safety.
Now, about Christmas. Today, we read John’s version of the Christmas story. There are no innkeepers, mangers, barn animals, young mothers, angels, shepherds, or wise men. There is only light and life, grace and truth. Specifically, John tells the Christmas story in 2 of these 18 verses. He says in John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” The second comes at verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (1)
These 2 verses give us the Christian belief known as the incarnation. The incarnation is the belief that God became a man. The second century theologian and first significant theologian after the Apostles was Saint Irenaeus the Bishop of Gaul. (2) Irenaeus believed that the incarnation alone is what saves us. The cross and the resurrection are important, but not salvific. He believed that God saved humanity when He became a human.
Irenaeus wrote a lot about the incarnation, specifically about this Scripture from John chapter 1, in a book titled Against Heresies. These verses were included in John’s Gospel to disprove the beliefs of the Gnostics. The Gnostics were a group that called themselves Christians, but didn’t believe everything Christians believed. Against Heresies took John chapter 1 as Irenaeus’ basis for proving that the Gnostics weren’t Christians and that their beliefs couldn’t be true.
The main belief of the Gnostics that separated them from true Christians was that they didn’t believe in the incarnation. They believed Jesus of Nazareth was a man. They believed Christ was a Divine spirit that settled upon Jesus at His baptism and left Him before the crucifixion. The Gnostics didn’t believe that the Christ was born or suffered.
However, Christians believe that Jesus was the Christ, both 100% God and 100% human, who was born, lived, suffered, died and was bodily resurrected. Irenaeus writes that Jesus, according to the first chapter of the Gospel of John, is “Christ, the Only-begotten, by whom all things were made…was the Son of God…the Former of all things…the true Light who enlightened every man… the Creator of the world…[the One] that came to His own… that became flesh and dwelt among us.” (3)
Let’s start at the beginning to flesh out the significance of the incarnation. Genesis, the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, starts with a poetic account of God’s ordering the primordial chaotic nothingness into all the wonder and glory of the world. It is God’s spoken Word that brings order from chaos and beauty from nothing. Just a few paragraphs later, the story turns to a division in the relationship between God and His created beings as sin blemishes the unity of God and humans.
God’s Word, the same Word that was spoken and created all things, has now taken on flesh according to the Gospel of John. The Word of God has taken on human form setting right the relationship between God and human and creating a new relationship where God and human intersect. Darkness and light had been at odds for those many thousands of years from Adam and Eve to Christ.
About the reconciliation of God to human through the incarnation, Irenaeus cites Paul’s letter to the Romans Chapter 5: 12 – 19 saying that “Just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam]…so one man [Christ]’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Sin entered this world by a man and so must be overcome by a man. The grace of God entered into this world and dwelt among us in the man Jesus of Nazareth. The Word made flesh, God living the full human experience from birth to death, joy and pain, crying and laughing, loving and hurting, is our salvation.
God created everything good and God loved it so much that God was willing to do everything possible to save it. God was so willing to save us that He got down on the ground hands dirty, knee deep in sin close to us. This is what John’s Christmas story tells me: God was made flesh and dwelt among us so that we could be adopted as children of God and receive grace upon grace.
The incarnation is the most important tenet in my faith in Jesus Christ. He was born for our salvation. God was born, descended from His throne in Heaven, to walk among us and live like we live. He knows the pain, suffering, and sorrow of the human experience. Jesus knew what it is like to want relationships. Most of His friends didn’t understand who He was until after He died. His friends didn’t understand what He was saying most of the time. He wept over the loss of a friend. His friends failed Him in the garden when He needed their protection. His friends abandon Him when He faced His greatest trial. Many of His friends weren’t there when He died.
He may not know failed marriages, or addiction, or mental health illness, or cancer, but Jesus knows what it’s like to have friends and family fail you. He knows loneliness. He faced demons and celebrated with friends. He has experienced this life and knows what both the joy and sorrow of our human existence. For me, God’s grace was born on Christmas day.
John’s Christmas story says that the Word made flesh is both light and life for all. The world did not understand the Light, because it lived in darkness. The people rejected the Light and did not welcome Him. But, there were some who did come to recognize the Light. For those of us that understand the Light, we are made children of God. God was made flesh and dwelt among us so that we could be adopted as children of God and receive grace upon grace.
Jesus has authorized us who welcome the Light to become children of God. By our faith in and our understanding of Jesus, we have been adopted. This is significant because John says as much about our adoption as children of God as he says about Jesus’ incarnation. Accepting the Light is the beginning of our new relationship with the God who became one of us. That means that as children of God the Light is central to our relationship with God.
John tells us that the Light is full of grace and truth. The word grace only appears in the Gospels in these verses of John’s Gospel. (4) Grace and truth came into being when Jesus the Christ was born. In Jesus, we have all received grace upon grace. God was made flesh and dwelt among us so that we could be adopted as children of God and receive grace upon grace.
I recently a memoir by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber about her experience as a pastor. In it, she writes a lot about grace. She is a Lutheran pastor and grace is central to Lutheran theology. I think she sums up grace really well, so I’ll share with you what she has to say. She cusses a lot in her book, so I’ve cleaned up the language.
“God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all…instead, it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own [stuff]. Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace-like saying “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word.” (5)
As children of God, accepting of the Light, we are defined by the Light, not the darkness. It’s a tricky thing to say we are defined by the Light and not the darkness, or grace and not sin. Because we are both sinner and saint, much like a recovering alcoholic is a sober drunk. We may live in the Light, but the darkness is always there. John, though, says that the darkness doesn’t extinguish or overcome the Light.
As a preacher, I find it a difficult task to remind us of both our sin and grace. There are plenty of preachers out there that will gladly berate you as a sinner every week. There are others that will never talk about sin and focus only on love and prosperity. I try to focus on the truth that we are sinners forgiven by grace. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans 3: 23 – 24, he says that all “have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace.” We must recognize our sin and our sainthood to live most fully as children of God.
It can be easy to allow sin to define us and our faith journey. It is a constant struggle to allow ourselves to be defined by grace, not sin. It is easier to focus on our past mistakes and failures. That is the power of darkness. It is difficult to focus on our triumphs. We are so willing to allow ourselves to be defined by this or that category, rather than the Truth. We can regret the past, but not live in it. We can learn from our mistakes and not make them again. Both the good and the bad are part of our past. What is our present and future is the transformative power of God to cover it all in grace.
From Jesus is life full of grace and truth. From Him we have received grace upon grace. John writes that there is grace upon grace. There is so much grace that grace covers and layers upon grace. God was made flesh and dwelt among us so that we could be adopted as children of God and receive grace upon grace.
(1) Dr. David Lose, “An Unsentimental Christmas Sermon,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2980
(2) “Irenaeus,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irenaeus
(3) St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter IX. Refutation of the Impious Interpretations of These Heretics, Kindle p. 1764.
(4) New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX: Luke, John, p. 517.
(5) The Pastrix, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Kindle p. 551.