Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Reflecting Light

Reflecting Light
Jer. 31:7-14; Jn. 1:1-18[1]
  There are a lot of people you meet in life who simply radiate gratitude.  Like children, their actions, their words, even the look on their faces and in their eyes conveys a fundamental joy.  But that’s not always the case.  It’s become more socially acceptable to complain than to be “radiant over the goodness of the LORD” (Jer. 31:12), as the prophet puts it.  Criticizing someone or something demonstrates that you’re sophisticated, that you think about things more deeply than the average person, and that you’re not prone to being gullible.  If there’s an unforgivable sin in our culture, it’s being too gullible.  You might as well paint a target on your back that says “kick me.”
  And yet, in response to the “indescribable gift” of God’s “surpassing grace” that we have received in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 9:14-15), it would seem that there is no other fitting response than to be thankful.  When you look at all that the prophet Jeremiah promised the Lord would do for his people, it’s no wonder he expected them to be radiant with joy. Instead of exile they were going to be gathered home, instead of weeping they would find themselves consoled by God, instead of languishing in a foreign land they would live in their own homes and enjoy all the grain and wine and oil they need.  The prophet was promising them that one day God would ransom the people of Israel from captivity, from “hands too strong” for them (Jer. 31:11).[2]  As one modern-day prophet observes, our lesson from Jeremiah provides “a picture of overwhelming, over-the-top grace.”[3]
  If there’s one word in the New Testament that summarizes the gift that God has given to us in his son our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, it’s grace.  And so it comes as no surprise to us when our lesson from John’s Gospel says that the light that those first Christians saw in Jesus was “the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).  He goes on to elaborate: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn. 1:16).[4] 
  Because we’ve heard words like this from the Bible so many times, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that John’s Gospel goes “over the top” to describe the gift we have received in Jesus the Christ.  That phrase “grace upon grace” gets lost in our hearing. Our translations have a hard time putting it in words.  Some of them, like the NIV and the NLT, render it with “one blessing after another.” I like Gene Peterson’s translation in The Message: “We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift.”  In the very first chapter of John’s Gospel, the meaning is clear: Jesus comes to us as the one who brings God’s grace.  And he brings so much of it that all you can call it is “grace piled on top of grace.”[5] 
  John’s Gospel uses other words like light and truth and life to describe the gifts Jesus brought to us.  But there’s one very important aspect of this gift that is clear in John’s Gospel: the gift that Jesus brought to us was the good news that we are God’s children. In part, this is due to the fact that because God is our creator, we all are God’s children.  No one who has ever lived or who will ever live is excluded from this good news. But there’s another level to being a “child of God” in our Scripture readings for today. 
  There is the sense in our lessons for today that our experience of  “grace piled on top of grace” is meant to produce in us a reflection of that grace in the way we live our lives.  In Jeremiah’s day, he anticipated that those who benefitted from God’s “gift after gift after gift” would be “radiant over the goodness of the LORD” (Jer. 31:12).  They would reflect the gratitude and joy that would be the only fitting response to the amazing grace God was going to lavish on them.  And in Paul’s day, the idea that the believers were chosen by God to be his children meant that they were to “live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12).  And that brings us back to our gospel lesson: we who have “seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14) are to reflect that glory in our lives as his children.[6] 
  It seems to me that the ultimate gratitude for the “indescribable gift” God has given to us in the birth of the Christ child is to reflect the light that we have been given.  Our world still has plenty of darkness in it.  One of the primary ways in which the light of Christmas shines in this world is through us!  Part and parcel of the good news that we celebrate is our calling to be children of God, children who reflect the light that has come into our lives and has given us a new way of living, one full of hope and joy and peace and love.[7]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/5/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Patrick D. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreters Bible VI: 813, “The promise of return to the promised land is one of the many instances in which God’s deliverance is seen to belong to the very real and material world of human existence in time and space and not only to a spiritual realm. ... The image of returning home as a salvific act is so powerful that it comes to have a spiritual dimension as well, through the images of pilgrimage, of looking for a city without foundations, whose builder and maker is God. ... The return to the land long ago promised is a return home, and it is a return to the place of security, the place where the means to life can be found.”   Cf. similarly, R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, 185: “Israel does not and cannot exist in and of itself.  It exists as a people only as the outward expression of a decision of divine love.  Because that love does not and cannot cease, so will Israel’s existence and restoration in the future be assured.”
[3] Christine D. Pohl, “Homeward Bound,” The Christian Century (Dec. 27, 2005): 19.  Cf. also Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:815: “Surely there is no more powerful or extravagant depiction of the Lord’s future provision of the good of the people than that of 31:10-14. It is an invitation to a party the likes of which this people have never known. It is a homecoming party, with all the good things parties are meant to have: the best food and wine, music and singing and dancing. It is intergenerational and full of fun and merriment. And it goes on forever. The picture of a marvelous party, where all are gathered before the Lord to enjoy all the benefits of God’s goodness and celebrate in joy and singing and dancing, is a way of connecting the vision of the future with the reality of the present.”
[4] Cf. Gail R. O’Day “The Gospel of John” New Interpreters Bible IX:524, “The Word becoming flesh is the decisive event in human history—indeed, in the history of creation—because the incarnation changes God’s relationship to humanity and humanity’s relationship to God. The incarnation means that human beings can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible.”  She adds (p. 526), “The joyous witness of the Prologue is spoken by those whose own experience has been decisively marked by the incarnation. John 1:14-18 is not theological speculation about the character of the incarnate Word, but the testimony of those whose lives have been changed by the incarnation.”
[5] Cf. Pohl, “Homeward Bound,” 19. Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.1:236: “It is, therefore, the love which is in God Himself, which goes forth and breaks into the world in the existence of the man Jesus, .... He reveals Himself as the One in whom this affirmation of the world takes place, ..., the fulness of life, so that what He gives and what is received from Him is absolutely unequivocally and exclusively grace, “grace and truth” (1:14, 17), “grace for grace” (1:16), inexhaustible, victorious grace which can be followed only by more grace.  Cf. also Ernst Haenchen, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, 120: “the community that speaks this way is conscious of living out of grace that is forever being renewed.”
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:429: “the Church as such, and every individual in the Church in his own place and manner, becomes a bearer and proclaimer of” the “loving-kindness of God realised and revealed in Him.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 337-38: “In joy over the open fulness of God, out of which we receive not just ‘grace upon grace’ but also—as we can now say—life upon life, the life we live here and now is already transfigured and becomes a festive life, life in celebration.”

No comments: