View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin
Sunday, December 10, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Christmas at John’s House
Advent Sermon Series: A Tour of Gospel Homes
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
John 1:1–8, 14–18
Advent asks the question, what is it for which you are spending your life? What is the star you are following now? And where is that star in its present radiance in your life leading you?
My friend Pen Peery, a Presbyterian minister in Charlotte, has told me that he and his wife deliberately approach decorating their home for Christmas in the exact opposite way that his own parents approached it. Pen’s family begins putting up the tree and hanging the stockings for their four little children right after Thanksgiving, as the season of Advent begins. His parents, though, also Presbyterian ministers, were Advent purists. So they always made Pen and his sister, Meg, wait to decorate the house, to hang the stockings, and place the ornaments on the tree until after Christmas Eve services.
After all, they would correctly state, Advent was to be a season of waiting, of preparation. Advent was not the time for Christmas decorations. They would celebrate Christmas when it was actually the Christmas season: December 24 through Epiphany on January 6. And though my friend did not appreciate it as a child, he has come to understand that his parents certainly knew how to make a counter-cultural theological statement about Advent, a statement that was completely different than the one made by every other neighbor on their street.
I imagine we have a diversity of approaches to holiday decorating represented here in this sanctuary today. Some of us might get started putting up the wreaths and trimming the tree on the evening of Thanksgiving, like my family did this year, because I was sick and my sister was in town and she would do it! Others of us might wait until after the First Sunday of Advent has come and gone and the month of December has settled in more fully. And who knows, perhaps we even have some Advent purists in our midst here today—people who, like Pen’s parents, wait until Christmas Eve to put up the tree and to hang the garland—as a kind of protest to the consumption culture that has taken over so much of our holiday activities.
The Gospel writers themselves had diverse approaches to decorating their symbolic homes for Christmas. Each one of them approached the story of Jesus’ birth in a very different way. This is why we are going on a Christmas tour of Gospel homes this Advent season. Together we are moving from one Gospel to another, seeing what we see as we look to how each one prepares for the birth, paying attention to what decorations they either display right away or hold back until it is time.
Last week we traveled to Mark’s house. As we made our way to the door, we realized Mark’s home looked a little bit like my friend’s childhood home. Mark had zero decorations to be found. No wreath, no tree, no candles in the night. No, Mark’s house stood empty of all that, but the holy emptiness fit Mark’s Gospel since Mark does not say a single word about Jesus’ birth. He bypasses Bethlehem completely as he makes his way rather hurriedly to the cross. Mark’s Gospel home showed us that unless we look at the whole of the Jesus story through the lens of what happened during Holy Week and Easter, then we really have nothing to celebrate at Christmas, nothing for which we prepare during Advent.
Today we are making our way to John’s house. Whereas Mark’s Gospel was the first one written down, John’s is the last. As we make our way there, we all need to hold up our pretend candles to help us see the road, because John’s house is set way back, far from the chaotic roads of the neighborhood, back away from street lights and porch lights and any other kind of artificial light. Truthfully, it is not very easy to get to John’s house. You have to work to get there, similar to how you have to work to understand John’s interpretation of the Jesus story.
This philosopher named John loves language and symbolism and poetry. Throughout this Gospel, John gives us long speeches by Jesus, full of complex metaphors that hint at his identity: I am the bread of life. I am the vine. I am the way, to name just a few. John’s Gospel often reminds me what Emily Dickinson once wrote: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant. John’s Gospel is full of the truth about who God is, but always told slant—enveloped in just enough mystery to keep us a tad off-kilter.
Just as he delights in mystery, John also seems to have a special affinity for the power of the dark. As we walk up to his house today, we can understand why. Since John’s house is shrouded in rich darkness, the light he displays almost takes our breath away, for while John does not have much greenery displayed—no wreath or tree to be found just yet—he does have a candle in each window, a shining Moravian star hanging over the front porch, and a fire roaring in the fireplace. The whole effect makes John’s house, John’s Gospel, almost glow with a beautiful brilliance and warmth. Someone once wrote that John’s is a Gospel drenched in glory, and his house certainly embodies that truth.
John invites us to sit down so he might say a few words, as he always does. As we begin to hear his telling of the birth, we remember again that since John’s Gospel was written later than all the others, he did indeed have the benefit of almost a full century of congregational thinking about the birth and how it all unfolded. It appears to us that as John took the time to ponder this “wondrous in-breaking of God into human history, [he must have] decided he is way more interested in what Christmas means, rather than in how Christmas happens” (Agnes Norfleet, sermon preached at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Advent 2014).
Thus, here at John’s house, with his version of the birth narrative, John spends all of his time on the why of Christmas, the why of God becoming flesh. What a task to undertake! In the fourth century, 300 years after John, the early church father Athanasius said, “To try to capture what Christ means is like looking at the open sea and trying to count the waves” (a paraphrase of “Such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from his Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves” from Athansius’s On the Incarnation). Perhaps this is why John uses poetry in his version of the Christmas story and not prose.
But I want us to go back to John’s interest in showing what Christmas means, rather than spending his time on how Christmas happens. We have our first clue with just the first few words: “In the beginning.” In the beginning. Where else have we heard those words, that poetry being uttered before? Genesis 1: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . .” With John’s very first words we are immediately taken back to our very beginning, the poetic telling of creation. Perhaps that is because John hoped to prompt us into remembering just how it did all come into being, which was with nothing less than the speech, the utterance, of God.
The poetry of our beginning called Genesis tells us that each time God said, “Let there be . . . ,” there was. As Craig Satterlee has written, “[In Genesis] God spoke day and night, heaven and earth, land and sea, plants and animals, and humanity into being. [And now, here in John, we discover that] Jesus is that utterance. Jesus is God’s eternal speech, speech which existed before anything else and called everything else into being” (Craig Satterlee, commentary, www.workingpreacher.org). In the beginning was the Word, the Speech; and the Word, the Speech, was with God; and the Word, the Speech, was God.
I realize this is yet another example of John telling us the truth about God as slant, but have you ever thought of Jesus in that way: as God’s eternal speech, perhaps even as God’s love song for the creation that God spoke and sung into being? “In the beginning, God said, ‘Let there be,’” Genesis records. “In the beginning,” John responds, “was the Word.” John’s Gospel tells the Christmas story in such a way that we are taken as far back as is possible to go, as far back as before creation has even begun. John’s telling of the Christmas story starts with the affirmation that the one we have come to know as Jesus is the same one who is the divine utterance of God, God’s eternal speech. And John is just getting started.
As we continue to sit in his home, John collapses the categories of time and space again in order to declare to us that God’s speech, God’s divine utterance, the Word, was never going to be content to remain distant from the creation God spoke into being, from the creatures God spoke into being. No, this speech, this divine utterance, the Word we came to know as Jesus, deeply desired to be in relationship with us, deeply desired to demonstratively show us the Love beyond all love, the Love that is the very core of creation.
And so it was that this speech, this divine utterance, the Word, John writes, chose to become flesh. The Word became flesh, and by doing so, as Eugene Peterson translates, moved into the neighborhood. In the person of Jesus, John writes, God decided to enter into our time and into our history, coming to be with us as an eternal presence in our human neighborhood Another way to say it is that Jesus is “God’s sermon preached to us in the living out of a human life” (William Barclay’s Commentary on Matthew, used in Pen Peery sermon). This is the why of Christmas for John, what Christmas means.
So if Jesus is God’s sermon preached to us, what does God want us to hear? If Jesus is God’s very utterance, God’s eternal speech, what is God saying in and through him? First and foremost, God is saying, “This is who I am!” If we want to know how God feels about us and about this world, we only have to look at Jesus, God’s sermon, the Word. Again Satterlee: “God speaks in Jesus as in no other way; not as in the Bible, not as in nature, not as by human reason or accomplishment, not as by listening to inner voices. Jesus tells us who God is” (www.workingpreacher.org). Jesus is God’s self, God’s soul, God’s life force in the flesh (Barbara Brown Taylor, Pulpit Resource, 2 January 2000, p. 5). Jesus is God’s utterance, the Word.
As we look through the rest of John’s Gospel, the rest of his testimony about God’s sermon called Jesus, we also hear other things about God:
In Jesus we hear that God heals, forgives, embraces outcasts, [is impatient and angry at injustice,], and prays for those who hurt him. In Jesus we hear that God understands betrayal and denial, suffering and pain, humiliation and death. [But not only does God understand those parts of being human,] in Jesus . . . we hear that God brings victory over despair, defeat, destruction, and death, [not allowing them to have the last word, emptying them of their power,] and God wills and shares that victory with us, with humanity, with creation. (Craig Satterlee, www.workingpreacher.org)
This is just some of what God is saying to us in Jesus, God’s very utterance, God’ eternal speech, the Word made flesh, the Word who moved into our human neighborhood.
All of this composes the “why” for John. Whereas Mark focused heavily on how the events at the end of Jesus’ life are what make Christmas matter for him, for John it is this truth that God chose to do it this way all along, that from before the very beginning Jesus as the Word was with God, was God. With his poetic telling of the Christmas story, John desired for us to remember that God did not just start calling and loving God’s people in the stable at Bethlehem or with the angels in the shepherds’ fields. No, John wanted to help us know that from the moment of creation on, God has constantly tried to be in relationship with God’s creatures.
The incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, Jesus as God’s sermon, was not some kind of spur-of-the-moment holy decision. Not at all. Rather, John longs for us to trust that the incarnation was a part of God’s plan all along. Why? So that the one we call God would not be unknown to us. Because of Jesus, God’s sermon, God’s divine utterance, we have seen the face of God, and we have seen what Love looks like, sounds like, and acts like.
God said, Let there be. And God’s eternal Speech moved into the neighborhood, Love embodied, full of grace and truth. God said, Let there be. And God’s eternal Speech moved into Hyde Park and Wicker Park and Uptown and the Gold Coast, Love embodied, full of grace and truth. God said, Let there be. And God’s eternal Speech moved into West Garfield Park and Roscoe Village and Englewood and Beverly, Love embodied, full of grace and truth. God said, Let there be. And God’s eternal Speech moved into Austin and Bronzeville and Boy’s Town and Back of the Yards, Love embodied, full of grace and truth. Not one single neighborhood left untouched. Not one single neighborhood left out. All neighborhoods, all humanity loved and called.
John’s house testifies to us that Jesus was and is God’s eternal Speech, God’s sermon for us, so that the one we call God would never be unknown. Indeed, because of Jesus, we have seen the face of God; we have seen the face of Love. That is the why of Christmas for John. No wonder why his Gospel shines with such brilliance and warmth. Amen.