January 3, 2010
William G. Carter
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
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. (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.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 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.
On the tenth day of Christmas, we take a few minutes to think about what all of it means. That is why the church assigns to us the great first chapter of the Gospel of John. The Word of God took flesh, declares John. There was a move from idea to deed. The mind of God became completely human and lived among us; or as John says it, “pitched its tent among us.” For a brief but measurable period of time, people like us saw his glory. They saw the full weight of his importance. And John invites to see it, too.
This opening chapter is like the overture of the entire work. The lights go down, the crowd hushes, and the orchestra begins to sound the themes of the story that follows it. For those with ears to hear, we learn what to listen for as the story unfolds. If we have heard the story before, the overture invites us to return and sink into the story at an even deeper level.
What is striking about this slice of the text is how it immediately reminds us that Jesus was rejected. He came into the world, and he was refused. It’s a glimpse of what will happen on Good Friday, when Jesus is put to a brutal death – but John says it has to do with more than the crucifixion. Don’t forget that John among the Gospels sees the cross as a triumph, not a tragedy, for Jesus gives himself freely for the life of the world. The Fourth Gospel says the problem begins much earlier than the cross. The Father sends the Son into the world, and the world does not want him. That’s the real problem.
We catch a glimpse of this refusal in the annual Christmas pageant. The Holy Family knocks at the door of one home after another. They are looking for a place to stay before Mary explodes in childbirth. “Go away,” is the sad reply, one home after another. An evil innkeeper twists his moustache and declares, “There is no room in the inn.” Now, historically, that didn’t happen – there is no innkeeper mentioned in the Bible. As the great-great-grandson of King David, Joseph could have recited his genealogy in the City of David, and every home in that city would have been opened to him. Especially if his wife was pregnant!
But theologically, the same message persists: Go away, Jesus! We have no room for you! We don’t want you around here. We certainly don’t want to mention your name as we exploit your name for the sake of our economy. That’s how it is in the world “out there.”
And perhaps that’s even the situation of the world “in here.” If you were here, did you see how full this sanctuary on Christmas Eve? Hundreds of people, candle wax everywhere, folding chairs set up in the aisles of the second service. Let me ask the simple question: where did everybody go?
The Gospel of John is not surprised by any of this. There is a resistance to the holy presence of the Christ. There is a refusal to follow in his way. It’s as if there is a defect in our DNA, and we have a difficulty welcoming God into our lives.
You can go into a lot of churches, and they talk about everything except God. They will sign you up for a fellowship group, invite you out to dinner, or put you on a basketball team. Out in the lobby, they might persuade you toward some generous deed, get your signature on a petition, or hand you a box of offering envelopes. All of that is fine, for what it is. But the real question is whether we are willing to create a welcome space in our souls for God. To listen for that Holy Voice. To follow those life-giving commandments. To forgive others and offer them freedom as Jesus does to us. Anybody interested in that?
John says, “The world came into being through [the Living Word of God]; yet the world did not know him.” At the heart of our lives is a hunger that we fill in any number of counterfeit ways. It is possible to be a creature, loving made in the very image of the Creator, and to have no clue about who brought you into being.
The young woman in her twenties tells about discovering she was put up for adoption as a baby. She knew nothing about the parents who gave her birth. She touched the mirror above the bathroom sink to trace the lines on their hidden faces. “I wish I knew who they were,” she says. It’s no slight on the mom and dad who took her in, raised her, loved her. What she wants to know is where she came from. That’s what all of us want to know. It is our lifelong search to know the God who made us.
And John says, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” That is not a slight against the Jews; that is an indictment of the whole human race. Certainly there were many Jews who were waiting for the Messiah at the time of Jesus’ birth, just as there are many contemporary Christians who would love to see him appear or return. The problem is that the Jesus we get is not the Messiah we want.
His first century neighbors wanted a revolutionary to drive out the Empire’s occupying army. They wanted a miracle-worker who took requests and kept them well-fed. They wanted a God they could apprehend, a Savior who made no demands on them, a Gladiator who would fight for them. They did not expect an elusive Galilean who kept slipping in and out of sight, who healed diseased people who didn’t ask to be healed, who fed them with loaves and fishes that he expected them to share.
It would be an interesting class project for all of us to figure out what kind of Jesus we would like. Chances are that the description hasn’t changed in twenty centuries. The American Savior would probably increase our investments, improve our self-images, and fill our churches. He would be a triumphant Christ who would make us strong, victorious, and arrogant. For those who consider ourselves to be “his own,” we would want him to look like us, and downplay his Jewishness. And we certainly would not want him to make any demands on us.
Well, so much for the Christ that we actually get. The prophet Isaiah was right when he expected that Jesus wouldn’t be much to look at. “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity. He was one from whom others hide their faces; he was despised, and we held him of no account (53:3).” Nevertheless, the Father sent the Son into the world . . . some still receive him, and some do not.
It is always far easier to point the finger at someone else than to explore the resistance within ourselves. Why is it so awkward for you or me to welcome Jesus into our little worlds? That is a good question to ask as we share the bread and the cup on the first Sunday of a new year. For in this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we have his invitation to receive him again.
I would suggest today that the reason people resist Christ is the same reason some people welcome him. The reason is simply this: that he is full of grace and full of truth. We want that, and we do not want that.
He is full of grace: we resist his grace the same way we shrug off every kind of love. We are suspicious of those who claim to take us as we are. It is hard to believe that they actually love us so much. In a word of test scores, comparisons, and endless measuring sticks to prove us inferior, Jesus accepts us with grace, long before we could ever turn back toward him. He is gracious to us – and to all. Do we really want that?
And he is full of truth: we resist his truth, for he sees us clearly, specifically, with a light that casts no shadow. Left to our own devices, we might rather slip into a back pew and have no one notice the brokenness of our souls and hearts. We might prefer the anonymity, the quiet shame of staying hidden and therefore neglected. But this is how he comes – full of penetrating honesty, full of uncalculated mercy. He finds us before we can ever claim to find him. He comes with brilliant light and abundant life. Do we really want that?
That is the invitation of the Lord’s Supper, and it lies at the heart of faith. It is the fullness of life, the brightness of light. Against all our resistance to God’s generous laughter, Christ comes to us in grace and truth.
“And to all who receive him, who cast all hope on his name, he gives power to become the children of God.” That is the invitation; are you ready to send your RSVP?
(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved. Used by permission.