Saturday, February 6, 2010

For the New Year, a broken or a holy hallelujah

Text: John 1:1-18 (In the beginning was the Word)

"Another year over, and a new one just begun." And as John Lennon's song "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" continues, "Let's hope its a good one, without any fear."

For the first Sunday of this New Year, the Lectionary directs us to the Introduction to the Gospel of John, which Phyllis just read. It is an influential and difficult passage: "In the beginning was the Word . . . " John is here echoing the first chapter of Genesis: "In the beginning when God was creating the heavens and the earth . . . "

John's Gospel has quite a different flavour from Luke's. Luke is the Gospel from which we have been reading so far this Advent and Christmas. Luke paints a very humble picture of Jesus' birth. A poor man, Joseph, and his wife Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census. Their trip is followed by a lowly birth in a stable attended by poor shepherds.

John's Gospel, on the other hand, doesn't include any stories about the birth or childhood of Jesus. Instead, John writes his cosmic poem. "In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." John identifies Jesus as the Divine Word; the force that created the universe; the force that is the source of light in our life; and the force that means the coming of grace and truth to the world.

To further complicate things, this Wednesday, the church marks Epiphany. As I mentioned to the children a few minutes ago, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem. Starting next Sunday and continuing until Lent in late February, we mark each Sunday by its number after the Epiphany. The problem -- if it is a problem -- is that the story of the Magi is neither in John nor in Luke. Instead, the Magi story is found only in Matthew -- and Matthew's Gospel has yet another and different story of the birth of Jesus.

Do people know about these differences between the four Gospels? I was not aware of the differences until I went back to school these past two years. In Matthew's Gospel, there is no Roman census, no journey from Nazareth, no birth in a stable, no manger. Matthew says that Joseph and Mary's hometown is Bethlehem, not Nazareth, and that Jesus is born in his parent's bed in their own house. Matthew also has no angels or shepherds. Instead, he has the Magi, or wise men, guided from Persia by a Star. Matthew also says that after the visit of the Magi, Joseph has a dream which directs him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt where they live for several years until the death of King Herod. It is only years after Jesus' birth, Matthew says, that the Holy Family return to Israel, but not back to their supposed hometown of Bethlehem in Judea. Instead, they relocate to Nazareth in Galilee. Luke, on the other hand, has the newborn Jesus and his parents making a leisurely trip from Bethlehem not to Egypt, but back to the other supposed hometown of Nazareth via Jerusalem.

Now if one looks to the Bible for literal history, these differences might be disturbing. But for those of us who look for things much more important than history in the Gospels, it is perhaps not a problem.

In any case, John avoids the birth issues by not writing anything about Jesus' birth. Instead, he gives us a portrait of a Cosmic Christ, the second person of the Trinity, working to create the universe long before he takes human form and comes to dwell among us as Jesus of Nazareth. John's version sounds important.

There is a lot one could talk about in John's introductory poem. But I will focus on the line that says that all humans can become children of God. "To all who received him (that is, Jesus the Christ), to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God -- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God."

John says that with the coming of the Christ, we have gained the right to become children of God. But aren't we told over and over again in the Bible and in church that Jesus is the only Son of God? So why does John here, and St. Paul in his letters to the churches in Rome and in Philippi, and the author of the letter First John write that all of us are children of God? Does God have one child, or many? The Bible itself doesn't provide a solution. It was left to the ancient church in the creeds from the Fourth Century to come up with an answer -- Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, while we, the other children, are adopted in baptism. Hmmm.

I do love the idea that we can all become children of God. The sticking point in John's text is a requirement: in order to become children of God. we have to believe in the Holy Name. Now this leads me to wonder what it means to believe in the Holy Name. Further, what happens if you don't believe in the name? Like the rest of John's Introductory poem, it seems a bit unclear to me.

For instance, does it matter if we don't believe in the historical accuracy of Matthew's stories of Jesus birth and childhood? Do we need to believe instead in Luke's different stories? Or perhaps we have to do mental gymnastics to make the two sets of stories somehow line up? 

When Christmas carols and Christmas pageants merge the two different set of stories from Matthew and Luke into one --- and almost all of them do -- this isn't done so that we can believe something that is not really believable. They are merged together because one is not required to believe in their literal accuracy in order to love these stories. The stories have magic, mystery, power, and life in them. On their own or together, they say the same thing: God is with us. This is also what John tells us in his own way. God is with us. In fact, John goes further than Luke and Matthew in his poem when he says that God is the light inside each of us. John reminds us that we are all children of God -- well, if we believe, that is.

What is missing in John's requirement, I think, is Grace. Grace is the love of God freely given to all. It is by Grace, and not by belief, that we are all God's children. This fact should be true whether or not we believe in a particular story or doctrine. After all, one doesn't have to do anything to receive Grace. God simply offers us Grace. So why does John give us this requirement that we have to believe?

Well let's take a look at the word "believe" for a moment. In its current meaning, I am not sure that "believe" is the best word to use when translating from John's original Greek. Think, instead, of the root of our word believe. The word used to mean love, or be-love. In this sense, our beliefs show where we have put our hearts. They show the values and the people that we be-love. And to be-love the Holy Name and to receive Jesus as the Saving Christ is to love what Jesus as the Christ has brought into the world.

Christ brought many things into the world. John's introduction notes that the key things he brought were Light, Grace, and Truth. Therefore it is Light, Grace and Truth that we are required to be-love in order to remember again that we are children of God. This means that when we are drawn to the Light; when we are aware that we are supported and saved by Grace alone; and when we search for Truth using the light of Love that our stories, traditions, families, and inner divine sense tell us to use -- then we have be-loved the Holy name of Jesus and received him again into our hearts. When we do these things -- and we do them every day with our family at home, and at work, and in church, --  we exercise our right to become children of God. We join with God's only begotten son, Jesus: the Jesus who was born in Bethlehem; the Jesus who grew up in Nazareth, and the Jesus who was revealed to his friends as the Christ on the road to Jerusalem. When we love the light, grace and truth that Jesus loves, we become part of what Jesus is, the Divine Word. This is the light that shines inside our hearts and minds -- beloved children of God all.

I began this sermon with John Lennon. I will now end with the Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen. In Cohen's 1984 song "Hallelujah," which became so wildly popular this past decade, he has a verse about the Holy Name and how we are told to treat it. That verse from Hallelujah goes like this:

"You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah"

So on this first week of the New Year as we celebrate again the light of Epiphany and the revelation of God as a child, know that with God's Grace we will also remember that there is a blaze of light in every word and in every heart. When we remember this, we might be moved to shout out a holy or a broken Hallelujah. It doesn't matter which. Both will work. For we are all the beloved children of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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