This morning I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that this text that we’ve heard from John’s gospel is one of the most poignant, most profound, and most beautiful passages ever written. That it happens to expound on the meaning of the very special event of Christ’s birth is a bonus, and adds a layer of meaning to our worship on this first Sunday of Advent. Now for the bad news… This text doesn’t really “fit” with our usual holiday traditions. John’s version of “Christmas” would be difficult to perform in a children’s pageant. There’s no baby lying in a manger. There are no Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. There are no angels singing their alleluias or shepherds trembling in fear. There is no star, no magi, no manger or stable.
John doesn’t even give us much historical context or narrative account of Christmas. Instead we have what amounts to a confession of faith regarding this miraculous event – the incarnation of God. John doesn’t seem very concerned with the historical particulars of Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus or King Herod. What he is concerned with is unveiling the whole story – and that is not only the story of what happened in Bethlehem. It’s the story of God – and the story of us – as well.
If we look closely, when John begins his gospel here he has those two dual points in focus: On one side is God. On the other side is us. There is God, who is holy, omnipotent, limitless, all-powerful, all-encompassing, and deeply, endlessly loving. There we are, who are sinful, disobedient, frail, limited, prone to wander, and standing in need of forgiveness and grace. John uses the term “world” to encompass all of this. It’s a word he’s fond of using with negative connotations. In the Greek, the word is kosmos, and when John uses that word, he is almost always speaking of a world that has turned away from God, a sinful world, a corrupt world. In verse 10 of this morning’s reading, John makes a point of mentioning that even though “the world” was created through the Word, it doesn’t know God. That’s like a wayward child who doesn’t know or appreciate his parents. It describes a world who was created by God but is not guaranteed to know God, and in fact this world may at times even hate God.
Yet, John’s gospel also makes a point of mentioning that it is this world that God so loves (3:16) and to which the light (Jesus Christ) is sent to save (1:9; 3:17, 19). John points out that the world will hate Jesus’ followers (15:18, 19; 16:33; 17:14), but we, perhaps just like the Word of God incarnate, are sent to live in the world (17:11, 18). That’s one of the constant overarching themes of John’s gospel, and we see it here, right from the beginning. He writes that the Word was God… yet the Word became flesh. He writes that the Word was with God… yet the Word lived among us. That movement from the divine, holy realm of God to the fallen, sinful, corrupt world of humanity is a constant throughout John’s gospel. In the context of this first Sunday of Advent, John offers us an advent confession that begins with God on one side and us on the other. However, in the Christmas event something miraculous was at work. In the birth of Jesus Christ, the God who created this world – a world that fell away from God – came into the world in order to redeem it. That same “Word” of God that was personified in Jesus Christ was at work before Jesus’ birth and continues to live and work among us even now.
The sheer wonder of that reality, the overwhelming joy of knowing that God came to us even in the midst of our sinfulness, is so miraculous and so profound that it’s really no wonder that John chose to begin his story not with historical particulars, but with poetry. The language he uses sounds other-worldly. It sounds poetic. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. It sounds like a dream, and maybe it is. Maybe in the darkness of our world and the darkness of ourselves we’ve fallen asleep to God, a sleep so deep that only a dream of light could hope to wake us. Frederich Buechner calls it “a dream as old as time”, a dream that God could descend to us and shine a light in the midst of our darkness that no darkness could ever overcome. He wonders if our longing for that dream to be true is really what’s behind everything that we do at Christmas – the tons of cards and presents and fancy food, the kneeling plastic figures on floodlit lawns and all of the other lights that we plug in or turn on out there in the darkness. It’s all just part of a wish, a hope, for that dream of light in the darkness to come true in our lives, but the very notion is so mysterious and alien and inhuman that we can’t fully trust it or express it. The best we can do is use our parades of symbols to reach toward something we don’t fully understand. So, we walk out into the darkness. We plug in another string. We light up another tree. We set up another floodlight in the yard. And whenever we do that, what we’re really doing is reaching, reaching… for that dream that there might be a light that could shine into our darkness in a way that no other light can.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “What we ready ourselves for in Advent is the sneaking suspicion, the growing awareness, the building restlessness that this weary world is not the one God has in mind. God will work another world … according to the person and passion of Jesus.” He goes on to say, “Advent asks if we are bold and sharp enough to speak the hurt that belongs to our weary world. It asks if we are ready and open enough for a newness to be given. It asks if we know the name of the Father to whom we belong, the coming One for whom we wait, and if we trust that One enough to relinquish the old world [and our old selves],” and ourselves be born into the new.
It’s perhaps a stroke of providence that Advent always comes soon after our Thanksgiving, and so there are times when the two blend together: Thanksgiving for the goodness of creation and for all the blessings of life; Thanksgiving for the promise of God’s steadfast love and mercy; Thanksgiving for a new church season that breathes energy, new life, and purpose into our days; Thanksgiving for Advent, for the Coming of God, for God’s Word that becomes flesh and dwells with us as the greatest gift we could ever hope for or imagine.
Brothers and sisters, on this first Sunday of Advent, let yourselves be thankful for the myriad symbols that even in a feeble way, point toward that dream of light. Be thankful for festivities and decorations that help us celebrate the season and draw us home. Be thankful for time in front of the fire hanging ornaments and re-hanging ornaments that the kids decide to move or hide in their room. Be thankful for the music, the glorious carols, classical pieces, the Peanuts gang whistling Hark the Herald Angels Sing around the Charlie Brown tree, and for the choir, the handbell ringers, and the children singing this time of year. Be thankful that generosity abounds from so many that reach out and share with those in need. Be thankful that even amid the busyness of the season, so many beautiful things are around to draw us into a deeper appreciation for Advent and the Coming of God.
And be thankful for this waiting, for these symbols like the Advent wreath, the paraments, the Crismons that tell a story, for the evergreens and decorations on the door. Advent is an intentional disruption in our ‘ordinary time’…an utterly new year, new time, new life. Everything begins again. While the world around us wraps up another year hoping for increased consumer spending and waiting for annual reports on profits, the church has already stepped into a new time, to begin a season of hoping and waiting for something of much greater significance.
In this new church season and new year, we dare to hope for something much greater. We begin a new time remembering who is really in charge of everything, and setting our hearts on being part of His plan and purposes.
In Advent we are reminded that God is the One who brings the dream of a Savior, a light to the nations, a hope for our world to reality, but there’s work for us to do, too, in re-shaping our lives, refocusing on God’s plan for us and our world. We must step into the new world that God has planned. There’s work to do, beautiful, fruitful work in waiting.
We wait for the gift of a Savior together as we gather for worship and Sunday School, sing carols and hymns, listen to the choir’s Christmas cantata, or hear the Christmas story through the children’s Christmas musical. We catch a glimpse of the dream as we gather food to donate, clothing to give, and gifts for the Angel Tree. We see the dream more clearly when we welcome our homeless neighbors through Room in the Inn.
As we do all of these things and more, we are waiting and growing in anticipation and hope for what is to come. Through the traditions we share and the time we spend in worship, we proclaim what His coming really means to us and to the world. My prayer for us this Advent is that we will engage in the challenging but beautiful work of waiting, and that we will do so trusting in the dream… that a light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. A dream… that as we journey toward a stable in Bethlehem we will meet with the hope not just of Jesus’ birth, but ours as well.
Thanks be to God. Amen.