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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


Scott Black Johnston: Christmas at John's House

John 1:1-5

4th Sunday of Advent - Special Series

December 23, 2018

 

The four Christian gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - each have a unique approach to Christmas. Each author introduces Jesus to the world in a distinctive way. Each has a special story to tell - a perspective to share - a hope to offer.

To partake of this hope, Day1 has been visiting the homes of the gospel writers this Advent. We have peeked in frosted windows to see how they have decorated their living rooms. We have noted who sits at their dinner tables. We have asked each of them: "Why do you think this moment in history is significant - is holy?"

We began by visiting Mark's house. Mark didn't go in for much in the way of decorations or entertainment. For Mark, Christmas comes while we are in the wilderness. The second house on our tour of homes belonged to Matthew. Matthew was host to a big family reunion. He pulled out the album and the family tree to remind us that we all have been adopted by God. In the third house, Luke invited us to come inside and hold the baby. Holding a baby can be scary. They are so small. So vulnerable. But holding a baby can also give us tremendous hope.

Today, we are going to visit John's house. John's home is different from the rest. There are no decorations, no inflatable shepherds or magi or angels. There is not even a baby. Instead, John has put out candles - lots and lots of simple candles - one in every window.

Let us listen now for God's Word as it echoes to us from the very beginning of the Gospel according to John 1:1-5:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This is the Word of God; for you, the People of God.

 

The sidewalk to John's house is lined with brown paper bags, each filled with a few handfuls of sand and a candle - luminaria.  On a cold winter's evening, when gusts swirl the snow, the luminaria provide a soft, flickering glow.

John meets us at the door. Some confuse him with John the Baptist. It's a hazard that goes with sharing a popular name, but this is no roughneck prophet. This is John the writer, John the scholar, John the philosopher. The bookcases in his living room are stuffed with well-worn volumes of Greek ethics and Hebrew prophesy. This is John the reader.

A fire crackles in the professor's hearth. Each window looking out on the world contains a single candle. Next to the fire, two comfortable armchairs face each other. Between them sits a small table, glasses and a bottle of red wine.

"Sit down," says John. "Relax. I'll pour. Let's talk."

Unlike his neighbors, John won't tell us a story or read us a genealogy. He wants conversation - a long, deep, honest conversation about the meaning of life. He wants to sip cabernet and debate the fate of the world, the purpose of human beings, and the ways of God. He wants to pull books off the shelf and read snippets of poetry to you.

"Listen to this - it's from that wily old dog Isaiah: The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light... Beautiful poetry. Right? What do you think it means? What is the darkness? What is the great light? Personally, I think the only way to figure it out - to figure anything out, really - is to start at the beginning."

By now, we know that each of the gospels has a different "beginning." The beginning for Mark was an adult Jesus getting baptized in the wilderness. The beginning for Matthew was a family tree stretching all the way back to father Abraham. The beginning for Luke was two pregnant cousins comparing their swelling bellies and their due dates.

So, when John says, "In the beginning," we wonder: Where will he start? It turns out that John is not one for half measures. He wants to rewind our clocks, to turn our minds, to toss our imaginations all the way back - back before humans existed, back before the dinosaurs tromped around, back before the planets orbited the sun - back before there was anything that might make sense to our limited minds.

"Back there, in the very beginning, was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God."

When I imagine the beginning of everything (the moment before Creation or the Big Bang or whatever you want to call it), I picture darkness and silence - a vast expanse of nothing. No stars to cast light. No air to convey sound. Not so for John. In the beginning, says John, there was radiance and sound, word and light. Beyond the stars - before the stars - God was speaking.

According to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, at the moment of creation God spoke, and it was good. "That's right," says John. God is word. God is speech. God is life. God is light. "Sip your wine," he urges. "This is mystical stuff, to be sure, but that's what Christmas is all about: Word and Light and Life. God enters the world, just like Isaiah promised. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Hearing John say this, I pause. The gospel writer does not say what I want him to say. Not exactly. I want him to declare that when the light comes into the world it obliterates the darkness. It takes the bleak mid-winter with every sadness, every despair, every raw deal, every evil plan, and every god-awful, life-sucking disease, and tosses the whole mess into the cosmic trash. 

I want the light to arrive and to win, and I want it to win big. I want the light to deal with the darkness in a way that is so overwhelming, so completely devastating, that I can switch channels at half-time because there is no way, no possible way, that the darkness is going to come out of the locker room to start the third quarter. 

Instead of total victory, we get something painfully modest. The light came into the world, and the darkness did not extinguish it. The darkness was not able (at least, not immediately) to reach over and pinch out the flickering wick of the light.

Now, while I may not like John's perspective, I have to admit that it is true. In the two thousand years since that silent night in Bethlehem, can anyone argue that the darkness has diminished? Is there any less pain, any less meanness in the human spirit, any less heartache? If anything, there is more, more suffering, more nastiness, because there are more people, lots more vulnerable souls for the darkness to damage. In fact, there is so much suffering that it may seem that the darkness has already won - that its victory is assured. And isn't that the case? In the end, isn't that the lot for us all? Darkness.

John nods at this. "Yes, but there is more to be said..."

My friend, Laura Lewis once told me a story about a seminary student who was preparing a lesson plan on the ninth chapter of Isaiah. It is the chapter Charlene read from earlier this evening, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined." 

To convey the meaning of the passage, the student decided to find the darkest place on campus. After hunting around, she discovered a little-used racket ball court. It was accessed by going down two flights of steps and through a few heavy doors. A good portion of the court was underground. 

The student discovered that when you got inside, and closed the door, and turned out the lights, it was really dark in there. There wasn't a single stray photon bouncing around that could make an impression on a human retina. It was, she said, totally dark. Scary dark. 

When it came time for this student to lead her class through the lesson, she brought them down the stairs, through the doors, and sat them down around the edges of the court. She said, "You are people who live in a land of deep darkness."  And she turned out the light.  A few students gasped. Then it got pretty quiet. She waited. In the hush, and in the dark, they sat. They sat and waited. After five minutes, five surprisingly long, silent, and absolutely dark minutes, she read the words, "Those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined." 

With those words she struck a match and lit a small candle. Now, as I understand it, by no means did that small candle fill the vast room with light, but (all the same) it changed things. With the flickering of the light, people saw themselves, and they saw each other. They saw faces - surprised faces, puzzled faces, and even a couple of faces streaked with tears. For those in deep darkness, a little light made all the difference.

"The light shines in the darkness," writes John. Everyone in this room is acquainted with the dark. The great Italian poet, Dante began his great poem describing a journey through hell with the words, "In the middle of life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood." Yet, the woods and the workplaces and the empty apartments and all the places where darkness reigns - all the places God seems silent - are the very hells that God rushes to embrace in this season.

I have always loved Martin Luther's stunning hymn, "A Mighty Fortress in our God." As a child though, one verse perplexed me. "The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him... one little word shall fell him." As a boy, I wondered what the "little word" was. I figured it was a secret phrase - a short, magical word that only God knew - only God could say it and when God uttered it - everything evil would unravel and crumble and blow away. It wasn't until I went to seminary that I realized that Luther didn't have a secret password in mind, he was thinking of the baby Jesus. He was thinking of Christmas - one little word in a manger arrayed against the darkness.

In John's house, the professor leans forward and whispers to us: "I think God refuses to watch our hardship from a safe distance. I think Christmas is God climbing into the darkest places to be with us - to light a candle alongside us. Christmas is solidarity."

Last year, a group of students from local elementary schools went to visit Santa Claus at the Dolphin Shopping Mall in Miami, Florida. It was a typical scene, with a few not so typical elements to it: all the children in this group were deaf or hearing impaired. They couldn't hear Santa's words, but they could see them. This Santa knew how to sign. You could see the excitement on the kids' faces as they realized that they could communicate with Santa in their own way.

This is what Christmas at John's house looks like. It is a candle in the window. It is God flying on angels' wings to be with us. As Light. As Life. As a little Word lying in a manger. Heaven's assurance that the darkness will not win.

Let us pray:

Holy God, who approaches us as a child, as light, as hope in the darkness, shine in our lives this Christmas. This we pray in Jesus' name, Amen. 

 


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