Testament Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
Testament Reading: John 1:1-9
Strictly speaking the
Gospel of John has no Christmas story, no Nativity story, at all. It knows
nothing of any virgin Birth, since it has one of the disciples refer to
Jesus as "the Son of Joseph." Neither does it know of any predicted birth
in Bethlehem, as it has someone in the crowd protest that Jesus can hardly
be the Anointed one since he does not hail from fabled Bethlehem, a charge
Jesus seems to admit is true, though irrelevant.
But there is one slim
point of contact between John's prologue and the Nativity story of
Matthew. Matthew has a star mark the birth of Jesus and, two years later,
guide the magi to his home in Bethlehem. To the magi nothing in John very
closely corresponds, save perhaps those mysterious Greeks who come to
Philip saying, "Sir, we would see Jesus," and then do not see him.
But I am thinking of the
star itself, that astrological portent pointing to Jesus, as it had in the
birth legends of so many other ancient heroes. It is altogether fitting
that a newly dawning light should herald Jesus' appearance, for as John
says in his prologue, it was the advent of the Light of the world, the one
which gives light to every man and woman.
There are two rather
different images of light in this passage. One has the light of the Logos
of God shining all by itself, surrounded by depths of awful darkness it
cannot dispel, but which in turn cannot extinguish it. "The light shineth
in darkness, but the darkness hath not ..." what? Should we
translate "has not overcome it"? Or "has not understood it"? It could mean
either one, as when in English we say we have "mastered" something. Have
we beaten it? Or understood it?
In any case, the
Johannine prologue says the light can do nothing to illuminate that
darkness. It only manages to hold its own against it.
But there is something
that does begin to pick up and reflect the light of the world, and that is
people. In fact, all of them. All men and women have within them a light
of knowledge, of reason, which allows them to rise above the murkiness of
the shadowed world around them.
All people have a share
of godlike reason? Then why is the world the terrible mess it is? The text
does not say that none of these lights are put out by the
prevailing darkness! Alas, many or even most are. And John explains why:
"men loved darkness, for their deeds were evil." They cannot extinguish
the light fast enough! Like Oedipus, we blind ourselves. We begin with the
light of moral reason, and it tells us we have no right and no excuse to
do certain things. We think wistfully how blissful it would be to be
ignorant of the truth! Then we could degrade ourselves with a clean
conscience! So like Gideon in Paddy Chayevsky's teleplay of the same
title, we pretend for so long and so consistently that we do not hear the
voice of God or see his light that we finally do not. We can no longer
tell the darkness from the light. In our case, the light flickered
in the darkness, and then the darkness, surprised at its easy triumph,
When the light of reason
by which God created the reasonable world (it is reasonable, you
know, more so than we, which is why ecology works better than technology)
-- I say, when that light of reason took on mortal form to enter the dark
world, humanity received its second chance to throw off the creeping
frostbite death of willful darkness.
The human race was all a
group of foolish bridesmaids, fallen asleep on the watch for the
bridegroom, their lamps having long since run out of oil. But here came
the light himself to replenish their supply. Yet when he appeared, lamp in
hand, he seemed as mad as Nietzsche's lamp-bearing madman. But some
listened and found their brittle wicks newly alight and glowing.
How does the Light of the
World, Jesus of Nazareth, spread his light? Let me reject one analogy to
embrace another, and you will have one opinion on the matter.
We have usually imagined
Jesus the Light of the World on analogy with the sun, ourselves as the
moon. We shine with light, true enough, but it is reflected light. Really
it is second-hand light. It is the light of Jesus..On this understanding,
whatever wisdom we have to share will be the wisdom of the historical
Jesus. We repeat his teaching and do our best to extrapolate what it might
mean for new situations. To pass on the light of Jesus becomes a scribal,
an exegetical, an archaeological task.
From this understanding
of things comes the classical view of church history and theology: the
church is faithful and Christians are faithful as long as they pass along
unchanged the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. We are, as
Rabbi Johannon ben Zakkai said of his favorite disciple a "plastered
cistern that loses not a drop." Working with this model of the light of
Jesus, one of the early Princeton theologians was proud to announce that
"no new idea has ever originated at this seminary!"
Jesus has set the light
going, and the rest of us are merely holding mirrors to pass it on like a
signal through the successive millennia.
I have just described the
image of the light that enlightens that I reject, though once I accepted
Here is the image of the
light that enlightens that I accept. It comes from Buddhist apologetics.
Buddhists are in the remarkable position of believing in reincarnation,
yet without believing in the existence of a migrating soul! How can there
be reincarnation? That is not my subject this morning, but I will share
with you an image they use in making their reply. They say it is like a
man who used a candle to set a hundred other candles going.
This is what Jesus does,
in my opinion. Once he sets us blazing, we glow with our own flame. We
blaze in our own right, with a flame uniquely our own, once his matchless
light has started us off.
This is why it doesn't
matter that every thing we believe to be true did not necessarily come
right from Jesus. The doctrine of the Trinity, if you regard that as true,
no doubt never crossed the mind of the Nazarene, but Jesus had set the
mind of Saint Athanasius alight.
The pages of the Bible
were none of them written by Jesus, but the New Testament writers each
glowed softly or brilliantly with the light first kindled by Jesus. Did
Jesus teach the doctrine of salvation by grace alone? I am far from sure
that he did, but I am unashamed to call it true even if it were Paul, or
more likely Martin Luther who first saw this truth.
In the Buddhist analogy,
it is not even that the same one candle directly lights all the others.
Rather the second one lights the third. The fifteenth lights the
sixteenth. The ninety-ninth lights the hundredth. It is a chain reaction.
Like your Christmas tree lights, they are wired in series, not parallel!
Even so, you hold and perhaps modify the light of the candle before you.
It is Jesus mediated by his church, by its theologians for two thousand
years now. A student of mine once said she could appeal to the Spirit of
Jesus directly in prayer to answer Bible interpretation questions. Doris
was wrong. This was a theological delusion on her part. She was dependent
on some preacher, whose opinion she swore by. Once I met this preacher,
who was a most agreeable and reasonable fellow. Doris was much more
radical than he. In her attempt to reflect the light of Jesus that she
thought was reflected in him, she had blazed instead with her own fire.
In my thinking and
believing, I was lit by the candles of Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and
others, not primarily by Jesus. Tillich and Bultmann were kindled by
Martin Kähler and Wilhelm Herrmann. They were sparked by Albrecht Ritschl,
who in turn was set ablaze by F.C. Baur, he by Georg Hegel, and so all the
way back through Luther, Täuler, Augustine, the Manichees, Ambrose, Paul,
Jesus. Each candle lit the next, and each burned with its own light.
Have you ever read Luke's
genealogy of Jesus? He supplies the list of names, in which Jesus is said
to be supposedly the son of Joseph, who is the son of A, the son of B, the
son of C, and all the way back to Adam himself, who is the son of God! So
Jesus, for Luke, is the Son of God, but several stages removed. Even so,
are you a lamp lit with the fire of Jesus Christ? So you claim to be, and
so you are, but in the same way Jesus is the son of God: many generations
of candle flames intervene.
And the flames burn many
different colors depending on the atmosphere and the composition of the
wick and the nature of the wax.
If this is how the light
of the world is transmitted from Jesus, then the religion descended from
him need not look just like him. It glows with a light that he first
kindled, but it is no longer simply his own light. It is too late for
that. It has been for two thousand years. It has been since the second
The faithful church of
the light-bearer Jesus is the church that keeps on illuminating darkness
by kindling candles. No one can predict in advance what truths will come
to light in that glow. If they are new, strange, unaccustomed, so be it!
The only way to avoid such truths is to drop the candle, huddle in the
darkness and cherish the fading memory of the light as a poor
substitute for the light.
I began this Christmas
sermon with the kindling of one great light, the birth of Jesus. Since I
have alluded to Buddhism along the way, allow me to close with the
extinction of another great light, the Buddha. As he lay dying, as lights
will do, his gathered disciples pressed upon him desperate questions about
the doctrine and the future conduct of the Buddhist order. To these
entreaties he responded simply, "Be ye lights unto yourselves." He had
done his work, which was to kindle their lights. They should no longer
And didn't Jesus say the
same thing? He did not just shine in darkness, he illumines. He said "I am
the light of the world," but didn't he also say to us, "You are the light
of the world"?
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