The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Three of the gospel writers begin their narratives with stories of Jesus’ life: his birth or his ministry. The writer of John, however, begins with an affirmation of the eternal nature of God and the ancient hymn affirming that God is eternal, outside of time and space. God, and the Word that is with God and is God, existed before creation and continue to exist. The relationship between God and the Word is eternal, from before the beginning to the creation of the world and afterwards.
Everything came into being through God, who is the source of all light and life. This light, which is eternal, shines even in the darkness. Even darkness cannot overcome this light from God.
After reminding us of the eternal nature of God, and the Word, the writer John brings us to a specific time and place to describe the life and teachings of Jesus: Palestine at the time of John the Baptist, with no birth narrative or story of Jesus’ childhood.
The gospel of Mark introduces John the Baptist as calling people to repentance and baptizing them with water, but the writer of John introduces John the Baptist as one who came to witness to the light. This witness is an important vocation in this Gospel, because it is through witness that the world comes to know the presence of God in the world. The writer of John later describes John the Baptist’s witness in answering the Pharisees’ questions and baptizing.
As the writer of John has emphasized the importance of witness in spreading God’s word, we are drawn to the question of how to bear witness in our contemporary society. Calling people to repentance goes against the grain of most Presbyterians and would doubtless cause some to question our grip on reality. However, in this season of Advent it may be worthwhile to explore how we can best witness to the reality of the Messiah, not for the sake of converting people, but to demonstrate to others that Christ lives among us.
After describing the role of John, the writer of John closes this prologue with a return to the meaning of the Incarnation. The eternal Word enters our earthly dimension, becoming human. The story of Jesus, then, is the story of the Word made flesh.
The significance of the Incarnation is that we are to discover God’s presence and God’s glory in Jesus himself. Thus, the rest of John’s gospel presents the life and teaching of Jesus, the Word made flesh which dwelt among us.
For Unto Us a Child Is Born
I grew up with the words, “For unto us a child is born.” These words from the prophet Isaiah have found much resonance among Christians, partially through Handel’s Messiah, and partially through the sheer purity of the joy these words express. What is more pure, more beautiful, more innocent, more gracious, than to say, “to us a child is born”? This is certainly true if we are parents to the child; it is even more true when we consider that, as Christians, we have traditionally seen this text as pointing to and embodying the child who is the Messiah, the Savior and Redeemer of God’s created order, Jesus Christ.
Notice, too, the equally appealing words attached to this simple statement:
Light – Wonderful Counselor – Mighty God – Everlasting Father – Prince of Peace – Endless peace
Then words in the passage get a little more earthly and move toward a certain concreteness:
Throne – Kingdom – Establish – Uphold – Justice – Righteousness – Forevermore
Less ethereal than the earlier words, these still speak to deep yearnings in the human heart. Interspersed, we have sentences which can be jarring to the hopeful cadence we have encountered so far:
Authority rests upon his shoulders
His authority shall grow continually
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this
I am not sure that we, as a society or a people, have a positive place in our hearts for the word “authority.” In recent years we have grown to distrust authorities, to discount experts. On the one hand we yearn for leaders who seem to possess authority and on the other we doubt and distrust authority of human offices, and of leaders who occupy those offices. And while we may accept and affirm the “zeal of the Lord of hosts,” we are also distrustful of human zeal, unless of course it is our own.
A central mystery of our faith is that the One who has the greatest authority – God – chooses to become a person who appears “as one without authority.” One born. One born in a manger. One suffering and dying on the cross. At its heart, and at the most mature place in our faith, the authority of God in Jesus Christ is that of One born “unto us,” “among us,” “within us,” an authority of “light” and “peace” and “counseling” that is said to be “wonderful.” That authority is supreme even as it seems soft. It is zealous even as it whispers to us. It grows continually and lasts forever, even as Christ, its bearer and bringer, is vulnerable much of the time, vulnerable even to the point of death.
“For unto us a Child is born.” A child. A mere child. But what authority rests upon his shoulders.
Christmas is here! After four weeks of preparing, the purple of Advent is gone and the brilliant white of Christmas adorns our sanctuary. We embellish our church with hundreds of candles, guest musicians, and carols of celebration.
While many familiar carols are associated with this most holy night, I have chosen to include the hymn, “Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding.” In it, we are reminded of the brilliance of this season. Familiar metaphors for Christ—”the sun” and “the lamb”—combine with a soaring tune to lift our spirits. Upper voices of the choir sing descants in two of the five verses. American composer, Richard Webster, provides us with a truly thrilling brass fanfare and accompaniment. The recording is of the Westminster Choir with brass quintet and organ recorded live earlier in December.
This Christmas, may you and yours experience the excitement that the Christ Child brings.
The Christ Candle
A gift is wonderful to receive. A gift is also wonderful to give. Whether gifts are wrapped in beautiful paper, a bag, brown paper or newspaper, a gift brings us wonder, excitement, joy and appreciation.
The greatest gift that we have received as Christians is the birth of Jesus Christ. God so loved us that he sent us a son. What an amazing present that we get to receive year after year after year.
The children of Westminster were asked to talk about the word gift. This is their response:
Dear Lord, thank you for the most wonderful gift of Jesus. As we celebrate Christmas day, we are most grateful for your gift to us.
Why Do Mission in Kenya When There’s So Much Need Here?
This question comes up from time to time and is a fair one. Strategically, we may wonder whether it makes “sense” to devote such significant resources abroad, when such significant human need exists just down the street, where our money and time may “go farther” because we do not have to travel so far to serve. And yet, for reasons that have as much to do with identity than strategy, Westminster remains steadfastly committed to the children and staff of the United Orphanage and Academy in Moi’s Bridge, Kenya, because our relationship with them is now an inseparable part of our story in God. It’s who we are, so it’s what we do.
We have Scriptural precedent. On Christmas Eve, we re-inhabit the story of Mary and Joseph, who were summoned from Nazareth so that Bethlehem may be the manger of our Savior’s birth. We anticipate the magi journeying great distances to pay the Christ child homage. We remember their antecedents, Abram and Sarai, who left home to be a blessing to all people in a new place far away, and we honor how Ruth felt in her God-given heart to leave her own people to abide with her mother-in-law, Naomi. We recall how in his grown-up ministry, Jesus hiked many miles to Tyre and Sidon to be with “those people,” the Samaritans, when he had plenty to do with “his” people in Galilee. And likewise, there is Paul, whose missionary map unfolded far beyond his city’s blocks, leaving us a faith whose boundaries extend far beyond the human imagination of his time.
All this to say, there are always needs “right next door,” in those places that are familiar to us, and seem tailor-made for our involvement. And yet, God seems to move through God’s people such that they move, extending their care beyond the well-worn paths of their everyday lives.
The disciples are sent, empty-handed but sure-footed, to proclaim release to the captives, good news to the poor, health to the sick. As disciples of this age, we are likewise called to “go,” to not restrict God’s movement in and through us to the confines of our known contexts. For this reason, we serve people in Kenya, and Haiti, and Mexico. We nurture relationships with friends in the Spirit Lake Reservation. We cross borders locally, by serving meals to people who might never eat with us at our tables, so that in God, someday, they might.
One need not travel far to move beyond one’s fenced-in yard. So, the invitation this Christmas is to go, be open to God’s leading you away from familiarity to the awe of the unknown, even if that place is just down the street. Join in this holy movement, because it is our story in Christ. It is who we are, so let it move in what we do, locally, nationally and abroad.
Cover Art: Awake My Soul by Mike Moyers. Image from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original work from www.mikemoyersfineart.com/.