Shuck and Jive

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Light of the World--A Sermon

The Light of the World
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Christmas Day 2011
John 1:1-18 (Scholars' Version)

Light was shining in the darkness,
And darkness did not master it.

Is that true?   
Is that true for you?
Is that true for our world?

We all know about darkness in our world and in our own lives.  You can fill in the blanks regarding specifics.   We know the darkness is powerful.  Whether it be the darkness of greed, war, cruelty, or our own personal sadness and loss.    We can feel lost in the dark and without hope. 

We can even make a religion out of darkness.  Apocalyptic religion is based on the belief that our world is a lost cause.   It believes that the forces of darkness are so powerful that they control the world and that to destroy the darkness, the world must be destroyed with it.   It is a tempting religion for those who have lost hope or who have had engrained in them the belief that humanity is fallen, sinful, and evil. 

I don’t think that was the belief of Jesus or Buddha or Muhammad or of other great spiritual leaders.  They saw instead that there is light in this world and that it shines and that it shines in you and in me.   This is not a matter of will or of moralizing or of claims that some people are more special and enlightened than others.  It is a matter of promise and hope and trust.  It is a matter of being in a position to see, of letting our eyes adjust so that we can see enough light to take another step.

During the season of Winter that started a few days ago, we will find each day get progressively longer.  More light each day.   Christmas borrowed from more ancient traditions and placed the birth of Jesus near the winter solstice.     Jesus took on the role of the sun god who brings light to the world.   It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that symbols change and that our sacred stories are borrowed.    It is only when we get literalistic about it and think our symbols are facts or historical events that we develop a tin ear. 

When we allow symbol, myth, and legend to become a kaleidoscope of light, we can see that our ancient stories and symbols are true in a deeper sense than we previously thought and that our various religious traditions are more alike than different.     The symbol of light shining in the darkness is a universal symbol that is as old as the old star watchers who had enough time to spend figuring out the patterns of the night sky and the rhythms of Earth.    

Our modern era based on the magic of fossil fuels gives us light 24-7.  With that we have lost the need and the skill to watch with eyes adjusted and open to the patterns of Earth and sky.   Those who have insight are alerting us that we may be needing those skills again.   

I have borrowed from theologian Matthew Fox and his four paths or four vias.   For each season of the year we honor a spiritual path.    
  • During summer we travel the path of awe and wonder, the via positiva.  
  • Fall is the path of letting go and letting be, the via negativa.
  • Spring is the way of compassion and justice making, the via tranformativa and 
  • Winter is the path of creativity and imagination, the via creativa
There is nothing absolute about any of that.   I just decided to arrange our celebrations and rituals that way.   I have chosen for this season of Winter, the via creativa, to read the Gospel of John in a new way.    For the next thirteen weeks we will be reflecting on scenes from the Gospel of John from a naturalistic or mystical perspective. 

The Jesus Seminar who looked through all the traditions of Jesus to separate what they thought went back to the historical person of Jesus found virtually nothing in the Gospel of John to go back to Jesus.  That doesn’t mean the Gospel of John is bad or doesn’t have value, it is just that it is a creative, imaginative reconstruction.   

In the Gospel of John, Jesus the historical person was transformed into the cosmic Christ.  This process happened before John, but you really see it in John.     What that means to me is that the author of John felt that he had permission to cast the Jesus story in this way.    If he had permission to tell the story of Jesus in a way that made sense, inspired, and told his truth, maybe we do as well. 

Since it is Christmas it is a good time to tell the truth, or at least to be honest about what we think is truthful.   To regard Jesus in a first century way as a supernatural being who comes to Earth, dies for sins, comes back to life, and goes back to heaven in the sky with the promise that he will come back again, is less than compelling for many of us.    If we don’t find it compelling it isn’t because we are bad or that we don’t have faith.  It is that we don’t live in that world and the symbols of that world don’t translate easily. 

That supernatural story fits the Gospel of John’s world.  He lived in what he thought was a geocentric universe and he saw the gods inhabiting the heavens and breaking into the world.   The scandal of John’s gospel is not that Jesus was a supernatural being and so forth, but that all of that elevated language was attributed to Jesus, as opposed to say, Augustus. 

Jesus was a nobody who was executed by the government as a criminal.    The elevated supernatural god language and miracles and what have you is not the scandal or the interesting part.  That all of that was applied to Jesus is the interesting part.  That is the scandal.  It can be life-changing if we let it.

I have been a minister for nearly twenty years preaching on these same texts and talking with people.  I find the same thing again and again.   We have been told all our lives that faith is about believing stuff, virgin birth, miracles, Jesus dying and rising, and that God is a supernatural being.    We end up wondering what is the least amount of stuff we have to believe and be OK.   I say none of that stuff matters.    Defining faith as belief in impossible things misses the point.   At least I think so.     

I see Jesus as John presents him as the myth of the authentic human.   Jesus 'shows us the Father" which I take to mean Jesus shows us how to become human, how to become real and authentic, how to live a life that matters.    That we can live a life that matters takes a great deal of faith. 

Here is the deal.  If Jesus represents the light that comes into the world at Christmastime, a light that the darkness does not overcome, what kind of light is that?   Further, if Jesus said that we are that light, what does that mean for us?  What does it mean to be light in the world? 

What I know of the historical person of Jesus is that he stood up for people who were put down.  He was accused of eating with sinners.   He knew that sinners were more fun.   He lived courageously.  He saw the wool that was being pulled over people’s eyes by those who were in charge.   He challenged the pretensions of the elite, and he told people who were nobodies like him, that they mattered.

“You are the light of the world,” he said to them.   

He talked about sharing, giving your coat and your shirt, going the second mile, turning the other check.   He said to give to those who beg from you.   He said live life as a passerby and travel lightly.    He talked about loving neighbors and loving enemies and forgiving people who wrong you.  He congratulated the poor.   He valued fairness, mercy, and compassion.  

The world said that is no way to run a government.  He said it is in my world.    He got on the wrong side of somebody and ended up being executed along with thousands of other “disturbers of the peace”.   

Then something strange happened.   His life and teachings touched a nerve, warmed a heart, transformed a mind, and people who remembered who he was and what he stood for wouldn’t let him go.   They decided to live his vision of a life that matters.   They felt his presence with him when they decided to live counter to values that they saw as darkness and injustice.     They felt empowered by the light of compassion and hope for the least of these.     They collected what they remembered of what he said and did.   They made a bunch of things up, but in many cases they were good things.  They attributed miracles to him because that is how they honored people then. 

After years had passed his life was put in story form.  The gospels were written including the Gospel of John.  The scandal of John’s gospel, like the others, is that they saw in this counter-cultural figure, this social prophet, this teacher of a strange kind of wisdom that the elite called foolish, they saw in him the way the world could be and really is at its heart.   

They decided that this is the light. 
This is the light that is in the world. 
This is the light that darkness cannot overcome. 
It is the light of joy at every child’s birth.   
It is the light of compassion for those who hurt in mind, body, and spirit. 
It is the light of concern for those mistreated.
It is the light of truth for the lies that are told to keep the powerful in power. 
It is the light of laughter. 
It is the light of delight in simple things like lilies and sparrows. 
It is the light of friendship. 
It is the light of simple decency. 
It is the light of Christ.  
It is in us.  
They decided to live the light.
It will never go out as long as we never forget who we are. 
That was their faith.  

That is the light we celebrate at Christmas. 
Light was shining in the darkness,
And darkness did not master it.

Is that true? 

My faith says yes it is true.
That light may be little more than a single candle.
But it is enough light to take the next step. 

A book about Christmas that I particularly like is Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas.  I have taken a number of passages from it during this season as prayers and reflections for the bulletin.    Howard Thurman died in 1981.  He was influential in the life of Martin Luther King.    Thurman understood Christmas and its symbols as well as Christmas as a symbol.     I will let him have the last word on this Christmas Day.
The symbol of Christmas—what is it?  It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding.  It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live.   It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life.  It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.    P. 3  


  1. What a good Christmas sermon! Thanks John, for these encouraging, helpful and liberating words.

  2. "If [John] had permission to tell the story of Jesus in a way that made sense, inspired, and told his truth, maybe we do as well..."

    I think it's a rather powerful insight to recognize that, inasmuch as Jesus of Nazareth left no written statements at all, EVERYTHING we think we know about Jesus consists of other peoples' (pre-modern 1st-4th century in particular) inferences and interpretations. And since the normal trend in human understanding is that we have different or maybe even more accurate understandings as time goes on, cannot we update our interpretations today, instead of insisting they had the last word in the 4th or 5th century?