Words matter. In our culture, where words are cheap, or not to be weighed carefully, or that are seized upon as evidence of ideological wrongness, words matter. We know because God created everything, us included, by simply speaking. In Genesis 1 and clearly in the background/foreground of John 1, God creates the universe(s) by simply speaking. “Let it be.” And it comes to be.
John 1 reminds us of the time when, as I have envisioned it, “God was young.” God has always been—but if we think of God as old, God was young when God spoke at Creation. Before there was anything at all, God, being fully God and with no need for anything else, spoke in love. Love speaks. Love is not quiet. Love cannot keep silent. The love within God the Trinity overflowed and could not help itself. God made a world, a stupendous universe, and tender, small things like the flower in your yard, a snowflake, your own visage in the mirror. John 1, we have to notice, just decades after Jesus the man lived and died, speaks of Jesus in sumptuous, startling terms.
The light in the darkness image invites the preacher to do peculiar things in preparing a sermon. I go outside, in the dark. I light a candle, gaze at the stars. I read this text with a flashlight. What is this light in the darkness? Doesn’t even a little bit of light, a flickering candle, banish the darkness?
Jesus, God in the flesh, was born “not of blood” — but there had to have been lots of blood — for you and for me. That is the glory: that he was born not of blood, but we are reborn, children of God and inheritors of life everlasting, because of his own blood, shed for us.
John the Baptist is in John’s poetic opening as in Luke’s nativity narrative. He is always in the Christmas stories—but never in pageants, Christmas picture books, or any narrative retellings of Jesus’ birth. No wonder: he is hairy, maybe a bit unsavory, like a survivalist, hollering “Repent!” like a street preacher. Did he holler? Perhaps his tone was more plaintive, pleading, almost tearful, so loving: Please, repent. Advent was to have been a season of repentance, of “prepare him room,” and Lent is coming. Christmas perhaps should be not just joy but also mortification. God has come down to earth. Nothing could possibly be the same.
John the Baptist, despite his evident fame and popularity, was forever deferring to Jesus. Karl Barth, rather famously, kept a print of the Matthias von Grünewald painting of the crucifixion in his office. John the Baptist, anachronistically, but theologically on target, is standing at the foot of the cross, pointing up at Jesus with a bony, crooked finger. Barth often said, “I want to be that finger.” Every preacher’s ambition is right there. The question is: can we trust ourselves simply to point to Jesus?
The Scriptural witness is primarily about God, and Jesus. Jesus did what we could never do. And do we are in awe of him.
John 1 is a symphony, a poem, a painting, an opera, a whisper, a shouted declamation that Jesus is far more amazing than you had ever imagined. Light, preceding Creation, the Word, the cause, reason and purpose of all things, banishing the darkness. Ours is to be in awe, to shiver in reverie, to be “lost in wonder, love and praise.” And then, like John the Baptist and Karl Barth, simply to point. The preacher is the docent in the museum, leading parishioners to the big picture of Jesus. You point, you say Wow, and they do not even notice you any longer.
During our time together, I pray, I hope, that I have been like John the Baptist in the painting, that through my deeds and my words, I have pointed toward the Light of the World. I will never know but can only hope that that is what I have done over the last three years.
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied,
“Well, I made a difference for that one!”
This is a small congregation, a tiny community with few people and fewer resources. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged, to decide that the feeble light that we shine makes no difference in the world around us. Yet each of you has had times when everything seemed dark, and you have been upheld and supported by the rest of the Saint Michael family.
When the pandemic came, and knocked so many people out of work for so long, hundreds of our neighbors – people who had always, always, supported themselves and never asked for a handout – were suddenly faced with the awful decision to beg for food so that their loved ones did not starve. Their world had become dark, and they needed just a flicker of light. They needed evidence that the light would shine in the darkness, that the darkness would not win.
And the people of God of Saint Michael Lutheran Church did not say, “We’re too small.” Did not say, “Let other people handle this, organizations with more resources and with cash to spare.”
Instead, this congregation that is small but fierce immediately began to gather and distribute nonperishable food. Not just once, but over and over again, for as long as the need persists. Instead of despairing at the scope of the need in the community, the people of God of Saint Michael Lutheran Church said, “We will make a difference for that one.”
During our time together, we have laughed, we have wept, we have enjoyed successes and we have weathered failures. It hasn’t always been easy – but it has always been a light in the darkness. Never underestimate the strength to be found in community. You have made a difference, and you will continue to make a difference, for a long time to come. Thank you. Amen.