Happy New Year! It’s been a memorable time away with family, and I’m glad to be back at this intersection between God and life, reconvening with fellow saints and sinners. I hope this New Year’s sermon, to be preached this Sunday, offers life-breathing encouragement for you as you embark on 2014.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 0 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,who is close to the Father’s heart,who has made him known.
Other-worldly. Mysterious. Maybe even a bit plain weird. The beginning of the Gospel of John reads a bit like a pre-prequel of the sci-fi blockbuster Star Wars: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away there was…no, not The Force, George Lucas…there was The Word, and The Word was with God and The Word was God.
Only for John, the story begins not just a long time ago, but at the very beginning, and not just somewhere else far, far away, but here. On Earth. In this Galaxy we call “The Milky Way.”
It’s the beginning of an epic story—and it sounds like one. That’s because the writer of John knows that beginnings matter. A good beginning can make or break a story.
And if you’re in doubt, just think about the movies you’ve come to know and love. By way of an experiment, here are some opening liners; when you recognize the flick, just say it aloud so the rest of us can be reminded how unhip we are when it comes to pop culture:
In the decade of the 1930s, even the great city of Metropolis was not spared the ravages of the worldwide depression. In the times of fear and confusion, the job of informing the public was the responsibility of the Daily Planet, a great metropolitan newspaper, whose reputation for clarity and truth had become a symbol of hope for the city of Metropolis. (Superman)
I’m 36 years old, I love my family, I love baseball, and I’m about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life. (Field of Dreams)
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. (Goodfellas)
Beginnings, or the origins of how things are and who we are, are arguably more important than even our endings.
This past Christmas my entire extended family on my dad’s side came together to celebrate my granddad’s 90th birthday. It was a joyful time of remembering our beginnings as family, and during an especially poignant moment of sharing stories and toasts, we watched a family slide show of pictures from years ago. Yellowed and dog-eared black-and-white photos taken when my granddad was just an itty bitty little boy, before he went off to the Navy and then married my grandmother, preceded pictures of my granddad’s sons and daughters, and then of their sons and daughters up until the present, several generations later.
By the time those slides were over, there were few dry eyes in the house—and not simply because we had just been subjected to the notorious “Family Slide Show.” There was something in that reminder of our family’s beginnings that illuminated the present with greater meaning and purpose. We were bound and defined by a common origin, and as a result had a deeper appreciation of our inheritance.
That’s what the writer of John is doing here in this prologue to his gospel. He’s helping his readers understand their origins, with a view to showing them who they are now, and who they can become— in this case, children of God, John says, with eternal, unending life beyond the grave.
So this is a creation story. A story about beginnings, and about light and life, much like the Genesis story, only a bit different, too. Because in this creation story, unlike the one in Genesis, The Word, who is Jesus, the Son of God, becomes human and, in living among us, shows us what it means to be a child of God, close to God’s heart, born not of human intentions but of God’s will.
At this time of the year, many of us make lists of New Year’s resolutions—all those things we intend to do a better job at over the next 365 days.
Exercising and losing weight.
Playing less video games.
Watching fewer reality T.V. shows.
Attending more church committee meetings. (Not.)
But John’s epic story of new beginnings has little to say about our resolutions. John’s story begins with God’s resolutions, not ours. We came into being and have life through God, and, similarly, we will discover our identity as children of God not when we will it for ourselves, by grinding our teeth and doing our best to keep all the rules and follow all God’s commandments, but when we simply welcome and receive Jesus into the mess of our lives, letting Jesus be there. When we accept God and appropriate our part in God’s story—about a Light shining in the darkness that the darkness does not overcome—we become children of God. We live in the Light that is Jesus, letting this light radiate the world with hope, promise and new life.
This is no small calling, and it doesn’t come cheaply. Inviting Jesus in over and over again will mean transformation that can be painful and demands self-sacrifice.
Over Christmas we read a familiar story about a baby Jesus for whom there is no room at the inn.
In just several months from now on the liturgical calendar, this same Jesus who shows us what it means to be a child of God will die like any common criminal in his time: rejected and humiliated by His own people and left to die on a cross.
If receiving and accepting Jesus makes us children of God with eternal and unending life, it also comes with a cost—a cost that many who have gone before us in this great epic story have found too high. In fact, all of us at one time or another will find the cost too great—we’ll quit just when we had started.
That’s probably because our human condition is such that even the most hopeful of beginnings can end in failure or disappointment.
…Those New Year’s resolutions to quit sweets or be kinder to our spouse end in a chocolate binge or in only more nagging about the clothes on the floor or the midnight snoring.
…That promising relationship with Mr. Right falls apart just when we thought we’d found our soul mate.
…That dream job we’d hoped would let us retire early comes apart at the seams.
…And, no sooner do we open our hearts to God—and then we are putting a sign on the door of our soul that reads, “No room at the inn. Manger available.”
If you’re a human—and I’m guessing most of us here today are—chances are that at some point in your life you experienced a beginning that came to naught. Or worse.
Which is why there’s good news in John’s reminder of our epic origins and our part in a grand story written by God. John is saying that the same God who birthed us and all creation out of love, will give those who receive Jesus the power to become children of God. God will do this for us when we open our hearts and invite Jesus into our mess each and every day. With the result that every day— every moment even— is a new beginning as we receive Jesus and welcome Him in, becoming in the process sisters and brothers of Christ and children of God the Father. Inviting Jesus in over and over again means we are perpetual beginners—“eternal beginners” as one theologian put it.
Which gives new meaning to the lyrics of a recent hit by the band Mumford & Sons: “It’s the not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive with every start.”
John is right: how we began and in Whom we began means a whole world of difference; it means that we don’t need another New Year in our datebooks to start over. We can start over perennially, letting God make and remake us into those who act and feel like God’s very own children, because that is who we are—and because that is who God and not we ourselves intended for us from the very beginning. Thankfully, God’s resolutions don’t break.
Heavenly Father, You have made us and all creation out of love, and have promised through the work of your Son to give us the power to become your children. We confess that so often we neither feel nor act like Your children and feel powerless in our own efforts to be your children. Enlighten us by your Holy Spirit, so that we might behold Jesus in our world and receive Him with open hearts, this day and in the year ahead. Make your power perfect in our weakness, so that there might never be a day when we find ourselves apart from or outside of Your love for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.