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12.04.16 We’re all Walking Towards the Light, John 1:1-18 Sermon Summary

by on December 5, 2016

Light and darkness are powerful metaphors that run throughout Bible and are universal. The Gospel of John puts Jesus at the center of this metaphor, and so does Christmas.

Summary Points

  • Metaphors in the Gospel of John
  • Why Christmas is December 25
  • John, Jesus, Jews, and Germans

The Gospel of John loves metaphors. Jesus is the shepherd, the gate, the path, and the vine. The metaphors of bread and water receive more lengthy discussions, but light is probably his favorite metaphor. As light shows up in the first and last chapters of the Bible, so it appears throughout the Gospel of John. It shows up in different contexts. In the Newer Testament, “light” appears most times in John, and it inaugurates the Gospel. It seems John wants to say that you can’t understand any of the other metaphors without enlightenment.

In the prologue, John refers to Genesis. He writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was life and light.” Genesis begins, “In the beginning was darkness, and God spoke, creating light.” Though John doesn’t have a birth narrative for Jesus, he remarkably captures the essence of Christmas with his prologue.

Christmas is properly the “Feast of the Nativity.” It was chosen in the 4th century to be on December 25. That was the date of the winter solstice, at least according to calendar at the time. (The actual solstice is December 21—it’s a long story: Check back in a couple of weeks . . .)

Soltice” comes from the Latin words Sol (sun) and Stitium (to stand still). In the northern hemisphere, the sun appears to rise to the south little by little, creating shorter days and longer nights, until it “stops and turns around” on December 21. This is the winter solstice, and it happens in reverse from then to June 21, the summer solstice.

In 274, Emperor Aurelius, declared December 25 to be the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” Roman culture was already celebrating Saturnalia from December 17-23, a festival for the god Saturn. It was characterized by gift-giving, banquets, and a carnival-like atmosphere. The excesses of Saturnalia were already a concern for church, but the impulse to celebrate light over darkness was irrepressible. With the introduction of the birthday of unconquered sun, the church saw an opportunity.

Referring to the last chapter of the Older Testament Malachi 4, the church recalled that Malachi urged the people to, “remember the teachings of Moses,” and promised to, “send the prophet Elijah before the day of the Lord.” On that day, Malachi promises, for those “who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”

With Jesus in mind, the church declared the day of the invincible “sun” to be the day of the invincible “son.” In other words, the church built a bridge to the culture surrounding it. Much later this festival became Christ’s Mass, eventually to become Christmas.

Bridges are two-way streets, and there has always been some hesitation about solstice celebrations infiltrating the festival of the nativity at Christmas. This is why the Puritans outlawed Christmas (see last week’s message). But two-way bridges have their advantages. In this case, the two cultures—Christian and pagan—can complement, instead of compete with, one another.

This insight leads us to consider John’s prologue anew. Clearly he is referring to Malachi. The Day of the Lord has arrived in Jesus. John is the promised Elijah. Jesus is the promised sun of righteousness. In chapter 8, Jesus declares that he is, “the light of the world.” John is saying something new, yet by using the words of Genesis, he is saying that this new thing is really, “from the beginning.”

For John, Jesus is the “Word” of creation in Genesis. He is the foundation of all that is. In Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich’s language, Jesus represents God as the “Ground of our being.” For John, Jesus is life-itself, and this life begins, as Genesis does, with light.

Jesus came to the world which was created through him, but had forgotten him. He came to “his own,” the Jewish people, but they did not recognize him. They still worship God and celebrate light (think of Hanukah), just not through Jesus. This propelled Jesus outside of Judaism to Gentile (non-Jewish) nations. As a result, now all people can recognize they are children of God.

This is what John means by referring to Jesus as offering “grace upon grace.” Grace means being chosen by God. There was grace in the Law of Moses, which was the characteristic distinguishing ancient Israel as chosen. John says there is “grace and truth” in Christ. What is this truth? It is that we are all children of God, not just the Jews.

This inclusive ethic is, according to John, “closer to the Father’s heart” than Moses’ exclusive Law keeping. This truth is “from the beginning.” It is the light “that darkness could not overcome.”

This is what we welcome across the bridge from the other side, from the solstice celebrations of light and life, from the “Christmas” rejected by the Puritans. If we were to make this bridge one-way, we would risk not accepting Christ, risk forgetting that we are children of God. We could backtrack from grace and truth to just grace through law. And some in the church desire to do just this.

But Christmas is about grace upon grace. It is about grace and truth, the truth of all being children of God. It is about the “light that enlightens every person.”

The traditions of medieval Germany help us to remember the value of keeping the bridge two-way. In Germany, Advent is called lichtwochen, “light weeks.” In the weeks prior to Christmas, they light candles. The lights on Christmas trees originated from Germany. In the most well-known expression of Christmas light in Nuremburg, they have the Angel, a resplendent being in pleated gold dress representing the lighted star which guided the Magi to Jesus. And in Germany, it is the Christkindel, “Christ child,” who brings gifts, reminding us that in Christ, we are all children of God.

With thanksgiving we receive these reminders of what solstice celebrations of light offer to the Christian church celebrating the birth of Christ. And we must also remember Germany’s plunge into darkness in the last century. They forgot the revelation of John. They forgot the grace of God offered through the Law of Moses. They forgot truth of all people being God’s children. In nationalistic insanity, Hitler tried to eradicate Jews, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, and non-Aryans.

May it not be so today! As we approach the winter solstice, let us remember the meaning of Christ’s birth—the light that enlightens every person has come, and we are all children of God.

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