The First Sunday After Christmas
Eternal God, we thank you this day for blessing us with your presence through Jesus your Son; help us to accept the assurance you offer us of your presence and love throughout our entire lives. Amen.
I love the beginning of the gospel according to John, the gospel passage for this morning. It is so beautiful and many layered. In seminary, when we studied John's gospel, we learned that John’s gospel always has many layers going on. (Like a cake, or an onion.) No passage is simply about one thing. We had a hand gesture we used any time we talked about John’s gospel. (Hand gesture. A little John's gospel dance.) In looking at the gospel passage this morning, we have to keep this many layered approach in mind. We are going to start behind the scenes of what we have heard this morning.
Two of the great literary devices of storytelling and character development are birth narratives and foreshadowing, and the two almost always go together. A character’s birth story sets the character in a place and time, a context, and in relationship to some other important characters for the story. Birth narratives are great at opening up people’s lives and feeling connected to another person. They are both unique to each person, but also common among all of us. Every one of us has a birth story, but all of them are different. I was born, two weeks late, before sunrise on a Monday morning during a snow storm in New Jersey. Immediately, you can put me into a Northeast context and you know I was born during the winter. Even though you already knew I was born at some point, because I’m standing up here in front of you, you now know the story and our relationship connections have been strengthened.
Foreshadowing is one of the most teasing of literary devices. Foreshadowing is when some element of a later part of the story comes to light earlier on in the story. It’s a hint, a teaser, something to build suspense or expectation about what will happen later. Some very simple examples of foreshadowing are in narration, the “just wait until the end,” or a suggestion that the day will be the character's “longest day ever.” More in depth and subtle foreshadowing can be seen in things like stormy weather to start a day where something bad will happen, or, since I have Star Wars on my mind, the scene where Luke sees himself in Darth Vader's helmet, which foreshadows learning that Vader is his father. Most of the time when a birth story is told there are elements of foreshadowing about things that will happen later on to the person being born. We can’t always do this with our own birth stories, because we don’t know what will happen later on in our lives. However, we do make judgments about people based on what we know about their births. I was born in New Jersey and that makes me a Jersey girl, which is usually associated with a certain kind of attitude. It doesn't mean I have that attitude, but there is an association there. There’s no proof that those born early in the morning turn out to be morning people and those born at night turn out to be night owls, but our brains make some of those assumptions when we hear birth stories.
Keeping our knowledge about birth stories and foreshadowing in mind, can you imagine Mary telling Jesus about his birth story? The way we tell the story, as a mash up of stories from Matthew and Luke, it’s a long tale! There is the annunciation, when Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, the uncertainty about whether Mary and Joseph would be married, Mary’s journey to see her cousin Elizabeth, and the journey to Bethlehem, the angel appearing to the shepherds, and later on the appearance of the magi and their presents. Both Matthew and Luke use their birth narratives to make us feel personally connected to Jesus right from the start. And there are a lot of examples of foreshadowing and symbolism in the events around Jesus’ birth!
Angels symbolize God at work in the world throughout the Old Testament, the fact that there are multiple angels in this story confirms God’s place in Jesus’ birth. The shepherds foreshadow many things in Jesus' life and ministry. Sheep and shepherds are images used again and again in his parables. Jesus is later portrayed as the Paschal Lamb, the lamb slaughtered for the sins of the whole world. The sacrificial lamb for the Passover, that God would have mercy on our sins and not judge us by them. Jesus shared a parable about a good shepherd and has become known as The Good Shepherd. Even while shepherds were the last of people, the lowest of the low, social outcasts for their jobs and their smell, they are the first ones told about Jesus’ birth. One wouldn't have had a socially acceptable party and invited shepherds as your guests of honor, but God did. They were the last of society, but they were the first to be shown God. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. And then the Magi came, completing the imagery. It took them a long time to come and they came because they thought they were honoring a king. And they were, just not the kind of king they expected. I mean, they showed up first at King Herod's palace. They were looking for a wealthy, royal king. And what they found was a baby boy who was not born into a rich or royal family. Yet, we know Jesus is the King of Kings.
So what does all of this, what do birth stories and foreshadowing, have to do with John’s gospel? It is not a physical birth story. In some ways, it’s hardly a story at all. The first character on the scene, the Word, is kind of vague and confusing! “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Well, which was it? The Word was WITH God or the Word WAS God? Its both, naturally. However, it is a story, even a birth story; it’s the spiritual birth story of Christ the second person of the Trinity. We mostly hear of spiritual birth stories from born-again Christians, their conversion stories. That moment they say they knew they were saved. We, Episcopalians, talk about the development of personal faith and the maturity of taking on our relationship with God for ourselves. As human beings we have a physical birth and then a spiritual birth in this world. But as John tells the story, Jesus had a spiritual birth and then a physical birth. And while John is more interested in the spiritual birth of Jesus Christ the second entity of the Trinity, he uses the same techniques as Matthew and Luke to connect us to the story and foreshadow some of what is to come in Jesus’ life and ministry.
John starts by paralleling the beginning of Genesis, the great unfinished first line of the Bible, “in the beginning...” Jesus was the Word which was with God and was God, and through which all was created. The Word of God came before all else and created all else. Nothing was created outside of the Word. Nothing in all that we can see or taste or touch or smell or hear was created without Jesus the Word being involved. All things were created good because they have been created by being spoken by God. We learn from John that Christ, the Word, the Light, was before the beginning and so then will be long after everything else. John tells us that, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John knows that there is sin and evil and death in Jesus’ future, but none of those things can overcome Jesus and the power of His light. John mentions the glory and the grace which Jesus has given us and which John will tell us more about later on.
John tells us that not only is Jesus in the world with us, but Jesus is in us. We are never alone. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” the gospel reads in English, but in the Greek, the Word becomes flesh and pitches his tent among us, so to be able to go wherever we go. No matter where we go or whatever evil or darkness comes upon us, the Word goes with us, and we will hear later in John’s gospel about Jesus’ journeys around the Judean countryside to be with the people he loved. John tells us many things in his gospel, but he always makes clear that nothing can destroy Jesus and that God sent Jesus because of the great love God has for us. We have come from the one who was spoken out in love before all else.
Just as we share again and again each year the stories of Jesus being born a little baby, God in a very physical sense; we also remember each year the story of Jesus being with God and being born in us spiritually, as the light of the World, as the Word which sustains us. For this we give thanks and celebrate!