Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of HolmeswoodBaptistChurch in Kansas City, Mo., on January 3, 2010.
John 1: 1-18
For those of you with small children, we’ve passed through the season notorious for a three-word phrase strong enough to strike fear into any parent’s heart: “Some Assembly Required.” That phrase usually means an hour or two reading instructions written by someone in China studying English as a second language. It means bolting a hundred parts together only to discover you missed a crucial earlier step so you have to undo it all and start over. It also means getting it all together only to realize they left out the most important part. It won’t work without the most important part, mind you … all of this while your children are bouncing up and down crying, “How much longer?”
Maybe “Some Assembly Required” is a kind of parable. God has given you life, created you with a unique mixture of gifts and opportunities. Maybe God even gave you the advantage of a loving, supportive family. But no matter how blessed you are you still have to figure it out on your own from there.
You put your life together piece by piece, trying to follow the instructions that were written a long time ago in another language and from another culture, bolting a thousand parts together only to discover you messed up early on and have to redo most of it. And when you put it all together as best you can, you realize something very important is missing … all of this while people are depending on you and looking up to you to help them make it all work. There’s a lot of pressure on a person in living this life!
There’s so much at stake and so little forgiveness. You start off with such big dreams and high ideals, but the twists and turns of life can make you cynical after a while. Then you’re tempted to give up on your ideals altogether or at least set your sights considerably lower. Life has a way of making cynics of every generation, but it seems our day is extraordinarily cynical. I suspect all of us are affected by it and perhaps some are consumed by it.
We’re cynical, I suspect, because our times are filled with such anxiety. Wherever there is a feeling that chaos is out of hand, cynicism takes root and goes to work. Could we agree that cynicism is the spiritual opposite of faith? Where faith says God is still at work, the cynic says, “It’s just a matter of time before we all fail.” Where faith claims that God is doing something larger than we can imagine and that good will surely prevail, the cynic whines, “No good can ever come out of this.”
Sam Keen once observed, “When in the 19th century Nietzsche said, ‘God is dead,’ he didn’t mean people stopped believing in God (94% of all people, as Readers’ Digest tells you, still believe in God). But what Nietzsche was talking about was that the majority of people stopped structuring their lives as if there were a God, as if there was a sacred order, and they started structuring it in terms of what was technologically and economically possible.”
If we’re honest, we might admit that most people, even Christians, regardless of what they say and think they believe, live as if there is no God. Is it any wonder we are so cynical? And I think we can see this cynicism in the way most people have a hard time believing in their dreams these days.
Try this experiment … Ask a few people what they want to be when they grow up. Ask them what they are trying to do with their lives. For instance, ask them what their personal vision is, what contribution they want to make, what they would like to believe about their faith, what role our nation should play in the post-Cold War world, and see how many people answer in very narrow, self-centered terms. More than that, see how many people respond with blank stares. They haven’t even thought about these things because they have been reduced to living one day to the next without any sense of purpose. Are we so powerless? Have we lost our capacity to dream? Do we still believe in God’s tomorrow? Or is it just too idealistic, a word that in our time is just a synonym for “unrealistic?”
John’s gospel points us in new directions. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” He does not deny the darkness – how can he? We all know the darkness some way or another as if it were an old, familiar friend to our worst moments. But John insists the darkness has been overcome.
Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with stories of Jesus’ birth. Mark starts with Jesus’ baptism and ministry. But John starts with creation, and paints great contrasts between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death. He speaks of the logos, the Word which was in the beginning, through which everything was created.
“In the beginning was the logos and the logos was with God and the logos was God. All things were made by him.” It all made perfect sense to both the Jews and the Greeks. Then John dropped his bombshell, “the creative Divine Word became flesh and camped out among us … and we saw him.”
Christmas means the God of creation is not the God who set the world on its course and sat back to watch impassively as it wound its way through history. The Creator God is not like some guy sitting in his living room on New Year’s Eve jumping from station to station … watching the New Year’s celebrations from different countries in different time zones … watching as if he could somehow observe the whole world open up to a new year as the dawn races around the globe. Christmas means the God of creation is still at work, still involved in creating the world, in creating you and me, in bringing the Divine dream to reality. “In the Word was life and the life was the light of all.” John is saying Jesus is the new creation, the “Let there be light” of God’s love and salvation. God did not give up on us even though we embrace the darkness. Rather, “to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.” Then as now, not everyone who has encountered Jesus believed in him, but to those who did, he gave them this power to become. The power to become!
Christmas means no matter how hard your life may be put together, even though it’s fallen so terribly short of your first dreams, God is not finished with creating you yet. Against the darkness, against the cynicism, the Bible reassures you, “You are not alone. The Creator is still with you.” The God of “in the beginning” is the God of the end and of all the things in between. God’s creative power is available to you each step of the way. If you believe and are willing to participate in this re-creation!
The incarnation is a calling to us to not give up on our dreams. It is a calling to never give in to the cynicism borne of adversity or anxiety. God is still engaged with creation, in spite of being ignored, scorned, and rejected. God came in person, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and we crucified him, but still God came back. And God still comes back, comes to you, calling you to believe. God will not give up loving you and giving you the power to become. So don’t give up on your dreams!
Naturally, I’m not talking about your idle narcissistic dreams of winning a million dollars on a TV game show or of making a killing on the stock market. Sometimes the narrowness and selfishness of our dreams is just another manifestation of our cynicism. I’m talking about God’s dreams for us. I’m talking about the call of God in the very things that tempt us to cynicism: War, hunger, poverty, disease, all the brokenness, all the darkness remaining in our world.
Elizabeth O’Connor put it this way: “When we are dissatisfied with things as they are, or suffer or know pain, we begin to imagine what the world would be like if things were different … if there was no hunger or thirst and all tears were wiped away.” Creative imagination reaches toward God, and glimpses a new heaven a new earth.
SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard characterized the Christian faith as “a passion for the possible.” Do we have that kind of faith that sees more than what is and goes after it? If we truly believe in Jesus Christ, if Christmas is more to us than a romantic season of sweet sentiment or a commercialized children’s festival, then we must not give in to the cynicism of our day and age.
Christmas means God is here with us, and our suffering and struggles are the labor pains of a new creation, that God still wants us to create a paradise by the power of the living Word.
Keith Herron is the Bridge Pastor for First Congregational Church of St. Louis. He is the author of “Living a Narrative Life: Essays on the Power of Story,” and served previously as a member of the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.