The Arrow

Sermon for Sunday, December 14, 2014 || Advent 3B || John 1:6-8, 19-28

thearrowJust before his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory that corrected a long held belief about our planet’s place in the heavens. Initial curiosity by the establishment, including some power brokers of the Church, unfortunately succumbed to the prevailing wisdom of the day that the sun revolved around the earth and not the other way around. When Galileo picked up Copernicus’s theories a few decades later (and we must mention with less diplomatic tact than Copernicus had shown), Galileo was convicted of heresy, compelled to recant, and lived the rest of his life under house arrest. The heads of the Church could not handle this new information that implied we humans weren’t quite as special as they thought. Despite the definitive nature of Galileo’s proofs and despite further corroboration by other reputable scientists, the establishment for many years shut its collective eyes, covered its collective ears, and said, “We’re not listening!”

Humans have always fallen victim to the particular notion that we each exist at the center of the universe. Just examine some common occurrences if you need evidence. When a young man of a certain disposition goes courting, an observer might say, “What does he think he is, God’s gift?” When doctors are accused of “playing God,” it’s often because their own egos have driven them to risky procedures. When the cult of celebrity that grips this country hails the triumphant return of a professional basketball player as the second coming or heeds the flawed advice of a low-wattage movie star concerning childhood vaccinations, then we’re all left to wonder why we don’t have such personal clout. And to top it off, how many of us have been told, when trying to insert ourselves into a friend’s troubles, “This isn’t about you!”

Thinking we are (or we should be) the center of the universe is just part of the human condition, but it’s a part of the human condition in continual need of rehabilitation. And in today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist gives us a lesson. Recall that one of my favorite things about the Gospel is the fact that people rarely answer questions the way you expect them to. The priests and Levites come to John when he is baptizing in the Jordan and ask him a simple question: “Who are you?” Note how John could have answered as expected: “I’m John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, from down yonder a bit. Favorite pastime: baptizing with water. Likes include locusts and wild honey…”

But that’s not what John says. “Who are you?” they ask. And what does John do? He tells them who he is not. “I’m not the Messiah.” His rejection of messiah-hood throws his questioners for a loop and they start grasping at straws: “Are you Elijah? A prophet? Tell us who you are!” If a cult of celebrity exists today, then a similar one, albeit less fed by the fawning media, existed in John’s day. False messiahs cropped up all the time, attracted followers, and then lost them just as quickly when they couldn’t deliver the goods. That’s why, at the beginning of the Gospel, the establishment doesn’t much worry about Jesus. They assume he’s going to fade into obscurity like everyone else. Indeed, John’s denial of messiah-hood was much more newsworthy than claiming it would have been.

With John refusing the identities that the priests and Levites try to pin on him, they decide to ask him point blank: “What do you say about yourself?” They need an answer to bring to their superiors, but John never gives them satisfaction. Even when asked specifically about himself, John doesn’t take the bait. He deflects the attention from himself and shines it on the one who is to come, saying: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ”

John has no delusions of grandeur. He knows his place in the universe. He knows he is not the Messiah. And he also knows his relationship to the Messiah: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John embraces an identity based in Jesus’ messiah-hood. John is the herald, the special voice that captures people’s attention and turns their eyes to the coming king. “What do you say about yourself?” they ask. And John responds: “My identity is based on the identity of the true Messiah. I am the voice, the herald, the witness. I am the arrow that always points to the one who is coming after me.”

John continues to display this identity throughout his short time in the Gospel. When his disciples see Jesus the next day, John the Arrow points and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” He risks losing his own followers because he knows it is not his place to have followers. Later he repeats that he is not the Messiah, calling himself instead the “friend of the bridegroom.” John has now heard Jesus’ voice, so John proclaims: “My joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

How in touch with his sense of self must John have been fully to embrace his identity as the arrow pointing to Jesus. How many of us would have felt jealous when our turn in the spotlight was over? How many of us would have tried to extend our fifteen minutes of fame? But not John. John knows he has no light of his own. He is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.

And so are we. The lesson we learn from John the Baptist today teaches us to delve within and discover our own true identities, the places in this universe where only you and I were made to fit. None of us was made to be the center of the universe, even if the human condition tries to trick us into believing that to be true. Our true identities are gifts from God; therefore, when you fully embrace your identity, when you try it on and it fits better than your favorite pair of jeans, then you will find yourself spontaneously pointing to the true center of the universe, the true light of the world.

Like John, we are arrows pointing to God. I invite you this week to list out all the different facets of your identity and pray about how each one connects back to the One who makes you who you are. Here’s a snippet of mine to get you started: I am a husband and a father. The love for my family that fuels these pieces of my identity comes directly from the love of God. I am a priest and a pastor. My service to God and others springs from the call Christ places on my heart. I am a singer and writer. My inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit’s creativity living within me.

As I continue to list out facets of my identity, I see this pattern continue: I am who I am because of God’s presence in my life. Claiming and proclaiming that presence makes me an arrow like John the Baptist. And not just me: each of us is an arrow pointing to God. Each of us is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.

Copernicus and Galileo knew the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. But they had no idea how far away from it we actually are in space. Recent modeling shows our own solar system is tucked in a corner of the Milky Way galaxy and the Milky Way galaxy is tucked in a corner of a supercluster of galaxies known as Laniakea, and Laniakea is just one piece of a web of superclusters that make up the known universe. We might not be at the center of this universe, but the Creator of it is at the center of ours.

Art: screenshot from this incredible Youtube video.

A Tale of Two Helicopters (devo180 recap)

Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life. (John 1:3-4a; context)

For my birthday this year, my then fiancée bought me a LEGO kit of a police helicopter. It was great fun to put together, and when I was finished the helicopter looked exactly like the one on the box. And no wonder, considering that I had followed the directions exactly. Not one piece was out of place. It was the perfect realization of the set on the box.

Then over the summer I instituted a LEGO club at church, and one of the participants brought in a helicopter of his own. It didn’t quite have the sleek lines of the dedicated pieces that the one I made had, but I sure thought his was way better. His was better because he didn’t use instructions to build it. It didn’t come from a kit ready to assemble. He built his helicopter directly out of his imagination. Whereas I constructed mine, he created his.

In this post, we are going to talk about the link between God’s creation and our own creativity. This link is the imagination, the wonderful gift that God gives us that helps us access our creativity. As we move on, I want you to be thinking about how you personally express your own creativity. We’ll get to that later; for now, just thank God simply because God created you.

Still Speaking

Before we go any further in our discussion about imagination and creativity, I have to rehash some stuff that I’ve said before so please bear with me.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…everything came into being through the Word.” So says John the evangelist at the beginning of his account of the Gospel. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…God said, “Let there be light.” So says one of the writers of the book of Genesis at the beginning of the whole Bible.

The important words here for our discussion are “Word” and “said.” As these two writers articulate the miracle of God’s work in the beginning, God speaks creation into being. Now, we get into trouble when we decide that at the end of Day Six, God stopped speaking. God may have rested on Day Seven, but that Word, which God used to organize creation, continued and continues. God has never stopped speaking creation into being.

As parts of this creation, God continues to speak us into being, as well. None of us is finished being made yet. Not even close. God breathes life into us with each word God speaks, giving us the opportunity to grow, to change, to use our imaginations.

Creation is God’s imagination made real. When we access our imaginations, we tap into the kind of energy that God uses to create.

Imagination

Our imaginations allow us to access our creative sides unrestrained by any thoughts of boundaries or rules. In the beginning of creation, there were no boundaries or rules; there was just God and God’s Word. So when we use our imaginations, we get as close as we can to the state God was in when God began to create. (Of course, we’re still really really really far from the actual state, but we are closer than we normally are.)

Our ability to imagine finds its roots in the reality that God made us in God’s image. You might think that this means, “in God’s physical appearance” because of our use of the word “image” in today’s parlance. But “image” here does not mean “superficial representation.” Rather, it is shorthand for “the deep and abiding spark of God’s Spirit that animates us.” It is that which is within us that allows us to imitate God, to reflect how God is, or to put it another way, to follow.

And it’s no coincidence that the words “image” and “imagination” come for the same root. When we tap into our imaginations, we find ourselves in a pure moment of creative energy. Children are so good at imagining because they don’t have as much baggage, which tends to pollute this pure moment. But even with baggage, we can soar into the heights of creativity. And in so doing, we enable the spark within us that is calling us to create in God’s image.

Talent Not Required

We’ve spent the first half of this post discussing the theological warrant for why we are able to engage our imaginations to aid in creative endeavors. Now let’s talk about one of the pitfalls that can accompany this discussion.

This pitfall centers around a word that is often linked to creativity, and that word is “talent.” Too often we ascribe the creative task only to those people we describe as “talented.” And while it is true that the vast majority of creative artifacts – paintings, musical scores, choreography, to name three – that survive the test of time come from talented people, this does not mean that so-called talented people have a monopoly on creativity. Rather, their works generate value beyond the initial act of creation because other people have decided on sets of factors that assign such value.

But the initial act of creation is much more important than any resultant value of a work. And anyone, no matter how much or how little talent he or she has, can and should create. Exercising our creativity, no matter what the outlet, allows us to reach deep inside and root around for the spark that God buried within us. In this searching for our creative spark, we concurrently probe for our strong, but often ignored, bond with God’s own constant creation. And this leads us to be better followers of Jesus Christ.

So don’t worry if you do not have what the marketplace has decided is “talent.” Don’t worry if the fruits of your creative endeavors sit in your basement once you’re done. Don’t worry if your creativity manifests itself in a way that leaves no material product, but rather leaves a mark on the life of someone else. Rather, create for creation’s sake. After all, that’s what God does.

A Poem for Creativity

As we close our discussion on creativity and imagination, I invite you to imagine with me how you might work with God to release your own creativity. Perhaps you will

Sing a song a way that’s not been heard before,
Or write a play and cast your little brother as the lead,
Or take a day to dig a garden in your yard
And sow some seeds that soon will be a living tapestry.

Or paint a picture with the watercolors in your bottom drawer,
Or stitch a many-colored quilt to lay across a pair of old, scarred knees,
Or take some pages from old magazines and roll them
Into beads for jewelry for your mother’s special day.

Or hum a tune you half-remember hearing at a pub, oh way back when,
Or write some epic verse about adventures Spot has when you are away,
Or take an afternoon to bake a latticed apple pie
And bring it for dessert to potluck night at church.

Or dance a dance that you are making up right then and there,
Or tell yourself the story of the star that shines before the others do,
Or take a piece of rusty clay and throw a pot
And glaze it with a dye you mixed yourself.

Or pick a bunch of daisies for the vase atop your sister’s chest of drawers,
Or weave a brand new romance with the threads of your two lives,
Or take some time to shape a handful of the deepest silence
Into a laugh
Or a cry
Or a long, contented sigh.

I leave this moment with you, God, imagining how you will move in my life tomorrow.

What are you looking for?

(Sermon for Sunday, January 16, 2011 || Epiphany 2, Year A || John 1:29-42)

The hospital was a maze. Children’s Medical Center had several buildings, and they were all connected somehow, but getting from one part of this building to another part of that building always involved multiple corridors and elevators. During the summer of 2006 between my first and second years of seminary, I was learning how to be a chaplain at this sprawling medical complex. One of the first things I learned was the hospital policy of refraining from giving directions to visitors. The hospital was just too confusing. Instead, if little Jimmy’s grandmother asked me how to get to the oncology unit, the hospital policy directed me to take her there myself and to make sure she knew her way back to the parking garage (which happened to be two elevators, three corridors, a skywalk, and two Starbucks away). In effect, hospital employees said, “Come and see” to their visitors and then accompanied them all the way to their destinations. These words – “Come and see” – make up Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the entire Gospel according to John. We’ll get to them in due time. But right now, let’s talk about Jesus’ first line of dialogue.

His first five words would not have been out of place in the labyrinthine hospital: “What are you looking for?” You might hear this question at any hospital elevator as any lost visitor stares helplessly at the building schematics printed on the wall. What are you looking for? Jesus speaks these words to two of John the Baptizer’s disciples after he notices them following him. At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has no followers of his own. He is the new guy in town. John the Baptizer owns the market on charismatic fellows who say compelling, challenging things. But John knows who Jesus is, so John encourages his disciples to begin following Jesus. Right away, Andrew and an unnamed person – quite literally – begin following Jesus.

When Jesus turns around and challenges them with his question –“What are you looking for?” – his words speak on two levels. This dual-layered dialogue is a common occurrence in the Gospel according to John. The first layer speaks to superficial, surface meaning. This layer is easy for Jesus’ listeners to access, and so they become drawn in. Then the second, deeper layer of meaning presents itself. Many of Jesus’ listeners resist this deeper level. But those who do dive deeply find rich, life-giving substance in his words.

With Jesus’ first words in the Gospel, he challenges Andrew, the unnamed disciple, and us to dive deeply to this second level of meaning. At the first level, John’s two disciples probably interpret Jesus’ question as a straightforward query into their present intentions. Do they happen to be going his way by chance or are they following him purposefully? But at the second level, Jesus’ five words penetrate to the deepest places of the human heart. What are you looking for? His question beckons an answer from those same deep places within us. The trouble is there are so many potential answers to this question that digging through them to find the ones that exist in those deep places can become problematic to say the least. Here’s what I mean.

What are you looking for?
A mid-sized sedan with good gas mileage and a high safety rating.
A doctor who understands my symptoms and actually seems to care for my wellbeing.
An assisted living facility for my parent whose mind is rapidly deteriorating.

What are you looking for?
The right greeting card to express my feelings.
A college that’s not too big but still has my major.
A quick hit to forget the day.

What are you looking for?
A boyfriend I can bring home to mom.
A scrap of meaning in a dead end job.
My car keys.

What are you looking for? John’s two disciples seem to understand that the “car key” type of answers will not suffice because Jesus’ words penetrate right into their hearts. So instead of answering his question, they ask one of their own: “Teacher, where are you staying?” Now, Jesus apparently does not hold a monopoly on dialogue with dual layers. At the first level, they want to know just what the question appears to ask: “In what house are you going to rest your head tonight?” But on that deeper second level, their question seeks a much more profound answer. Where are you staying? In Greek, the word that is translated as “staying” means quite a bit more than the English equivalent. Rather than the connotation of “staying at a hotel” or “staying on a friend’s futon,” the Greek word means to “abide” or to “continue to be present.” Thus, at the deeper level, the disciples ask Jesus where he dwells, where he abides, where he is present.

Their question, then, is the best response to Jesus’ own question. What are you looking for? Lord Jesus, I’m looking for where you abide. I’m looking for where you are present in my life. I’m looking for where you dwell in this particular situation I’ve gotten myself into.

When we receive Jesus’ question at the deeper second level, we can feel his words penetrating our hearts. We can hear his voice whispering up from the very depths of our beings: What are you looking for? Paying attention to his words rising from those depths helps us locate our own responses, the ones that originate in the same deep places of our beings. The transient, daily, car key type answers to the question fall away when we search deep within.

The best way to begin this search is with the disciples’ question: “Where are you staying?” When we ask this question, we open ourselves to finding Jesus dwelling somewhere in every facet of our lives. We open ourselves to hearing his voice whispering his presence into and out from our souls. We open ourselves, and in doing so, we turn the depths of our beings outward. The hidden deep places, where our responses to Jesus’ question lie dormant, become the pieces of ourselves that we display to the world. These pieces of ourselves are our callings from God. They are our personal, individual discoveries of Jesus beckoning us to find him in everything we do, in everything we say, and in everyone we meet.

And this brings us back to Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the Gospel according to John: “Come and see.” What are you looking for? Teacher, where are you staying? Come and see. Jesus invites us to see where he abides, where he is present in our lives. He invites us to dwell with him, no matter the situations we find ourselves in. Finding his presence means we have found those deep places within ourselves. Abiding in his presence gives us the grace to be vulnerable and to show the world the deepest yearnings that God has put in our hearts, the callings that God has blessed us to follow.

And the good news is this: “Come and see” means that Jesus will be with us, to take us where we need to go, to show us what we need to see. Just like the hospital employees accompanying a lost visitor to her destination, Jesus remains with us throughout our journeys. He dwells in our hearts whispering his question: “What are you looking for?” And when we ask him in return where he is staying, where he is abiding in our lives, he walks one step before us, saying, “Come and see.”

What a Good Boy, What a Smart Boy, What a Strong Boy

The following post appeared Tuesday, November 2nd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

When you listen to the Gospel, you might notice the trend that folks rarely answer questions directly. Instead, the responder either completely ignores the question or says something so profound that the question ceases to matter. Most things Jesus says in the Gospel fall into one of these two categories. Think about how often someone asks a question, and Jesus responds, “Well, let me tell you a story about that. Once there was a farmer…” Before Jesus enters the scene, however, John the Baptizer finds himself under interrogation, and he does just a good a job as Jesus in not answering questions with the expected answers. His unexpected responses to the folks interviewing him (as recorded in John 1) show John’s understanding of his identity, which helps us understand ours, as well.

The priests and Levites come to John and ask him a series of questions, the first being “Who are you?” This question seems to have an obvious answer: I’m John from over yonder, my parents are so-and-so. But that’s not what John says. Instead of saying who he is, he explicitly says who he is not. “I am not the Messiah.” And what’s more, he’s quite emphatic about it: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” By his answer, John seems to know what they are getting at, so he makes sure with his first response that any gossip about his messiah-ship is highly overrated.

So they try again: “What then? Are you Elijah?” He says, “I am not.” They try once more: “Are you the prophet?” “Nope.” John steadfastly refuses to play into any expectations these priests and Levites have about his identity.

I wonder to what degree our identities are based on the expectations of others? It’s not necessarily a bad thing for others to have expectations for us, of course. A community (family, church, team, circle of friends) plays a significant role in the development of our identities, and expectations are a natural part of that role. But if those expectations begin to suffocate us or make us begin to dislike the people we are becoming, then there is something wrong.

In the film Dead Poets Society, Neil Perry has a passion for acting. When he sees the flyer for auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he says, “For the first time in my life, I know what I want to do. And for the first time, I’m going to do it!” He throws himself into the role of Puck, and he’s good, he’s really good. But his father expects him to be a doctor and thinks this acting business is nothing more than a dangerous whim. Neil defies his father’s wishes and continues rehearsing for the play. After Mr. Perry discovers him at the theatre, he furiously tells Neil that he is not going to let Neil ruin his (Neil’s) life. Neil feels suffocated and trapped: he has found his calling as an actor, he has found himself. But Mr. Perry is stifling this identity with his expectations for Neil’s future. That night, Neil commits suicide.

Expectations like Mr. Perry’s can smother us. They can make us feel less worthy, less capable, less adequate because our worth and capability and adequacy fall outside the limits defined by those expectations. In their song “What a Good Boy,” the Barenaked Ladies lament:

When I was born, they looked at me and said,
‘What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy.’
When you were born, they looked at you and said,
‘What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.’
We’ve got these chains hanging round our necks,
People want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.

When we feel smothered, stifled, or strangled by expectations, troubling questions form in our minds. What if I’m not a smart girl? What if I’m not a strong boy? What if I don’t measure up? Then another question compounds these: Will they still like/love/accept/welcome me? These expectations that help shape our identities now morph into ultimatums. They signal the possible breaking of a relationship: This is who I am, and if you don’t like it then fine. And the door slams shut. In this scenario, we begin to define our identities by focusing negatively on the rebellion against expectations rather than by stating positively who we are.

Expectations themselves are neutral things. They surely can be used to spur us to excellence or to inspire us to continue to grow and discover who we are. But they can also be used to deny our self-worth or sense of belonging. When John the Baptizer refuses to be defined by the expectations of the priests and Levites, he is holding onto the identity he has as the voice crying out in the wilderness.

The priests and Levites are unable to pin their expectation on John, but they can’t go back to their bosses empty-handed, so they press John asking: “What do you have to say about yourself?” The Baptizer answers with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” Even here, when they ask him deliberately about himself, he answers by pointing ahead of himself. Their concern is based on his seeming lack of authority to baptize, for he is not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet. But such trifles don’t worry John. He states dismissively: “I baptize with water.” And then he points ahead of himself again: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” Everything John says about himself, he is really saying about Jesus. He only speaks in terms of Jesus; he deflects questions about himself, preferring to point to the one “who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

Rather than playing into their expectations, John flourishes in his identity as an arrow pointing to Jesus. To change the metaphor, he shines because he lives fully into his own particular, God-given identity. Like the moon, he has no light of his own, but he reflects the light of Jesus who is coming after him. Even as we struggle with the expectations of others and with discovering our own identities as God’s children, I can think of no greater joy than to be a moon to Jesus’ sun, reflecting the light of Christ.

Proclaiming the mystery: John’s first five

The following post appeared Saturday, August 22nd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am now a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

The mystery section was on the back wall of the small independent bookshop at which I worked my last few years of high school. When a customer entered the store, her eyes would glance past the smaller shelving units and fix on the placards proudly bearing the word “MYSTERY.” The shelves containing the mystery section were taller and broader than those holding the other books, and I was the only employee tall enough to dust the top ones without a stepladder. Let’s just say that the manager loved mysteries, so we had a disproportionate number of them. We had humorous mysteries and thrillers, beach reads and stay-up-till-one-in-the-morning nail biters. In those books, a mystery was set forth: say, how did the killer manage to murder someone in a room locked from the inside? The plot revolved around the detective attempting to solve the puzzle. In the end, the detective figured out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub of discovering the body. Mystery solved. No more mystery.

The Gospel according to John begins with a mystery, but it is a mystery that is wholly different from the Whodunnits? on the back wall of the bookshop. The mystery that begins the Gospel cannot be solved, cannot be explained away. It can only be unapologetically presented and then unabashedly proclaimed.

rainbowTake a look at the first five verses that John gives us:In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (1:1-5; NRSV)

Here John presents the mystery: somehow the Word (who we find out a few verses later becomes enfleshed in Jesus Christ) is in the beginning with God and is also God. Remember in Algebra class when you had to show your work to get full credit? Well, John skips down to the bottom of the page. There is no balancing of equations or solving for “x.” He states the mystery simply: in the beginning, the Word was with God and was God. This is frustrating at first because I’m conditioned to think that mysteries are all supposed to be like the ones on the back wall of the bookshop. I want to know how it’s possible and I won’t be satisfied until I figure it out and if I can’t figure it out then it must not be true.

But I take a deep breath and look at the words again. I read them slowly and speak them aloud. I notice that the rational part of me is sitting in the corner sulking because “with” and “was” should be mutually exclusive. But I find that the creative part of me sees past such mundane things as mutual exclusivity and begins to roll around in the muck of ambiguity. I squelch my toes in the mud, relishing the notion that God lives in a reality where choosing between alternatives is not the only viable option. Of course the Word can be both with God and was God! The limits of my language do not limit God, only my understanding of God. I realize my language skills are not up to the challenge of describing God. And my rational side joins my creative side in the muck of ambiguity because my rationality has been given the license to imagine.

In a few short phrases, John presents the mystery. Then, he deepens the mystery by retelling the story of creation. It’s no coincidence that John uses the same phrase that opens the book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” All things came into being through the Word who was with God and was God. My creative side connects with these verses because they are about creation. Life is created through him, and because I have been given the gift of creativity, I can sense in my gut or in my bones that the Creator is continuing to create me.

This creative force is the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness cannot comprehend or overcome or understand the light because the darkness has never been a part of creation. The darkness is just the absence of any created thing. It tries jealously to unmake created things but fails to triumph since God never stops creating or calling creation to God.*

In these first five verses, John locates us (“life,” “all people”) within the mystery of God and creation, and he presents the adversary of creation, namely darkness. We have the makings of an epic story here.** The seemingly out-of-place verses 6-8 help me realize my role in this story. The mystery has been presented, and now John the Baptizer steps onstage for a brief scene. He is a witness who testifies to the light. (The words “witness” and “testify” are from the same root in Greek; the English word “martyr” comes from it.) His proclamation points to the light, which is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. So too, my life, which has come into being through the Word, is meant to be a proclamation of the mystery of God and God’s movement in creation.

When I encounter these first few verses of the Fourth Gospel, I feel the enormity of the mystery of God surrounding me, and I rejoice that this mystery discloses itself in light and life and love. If I could explain the mystery, I would be in danger of explaining it away, of shelving it like the Whodunnits? on the back wall. The mystery transcends explanation. It is elusive, and at the same time intimate; it cannot be grasped, but it can be embraced. The intimacy and the embrace happen when the mystery touches the spark of creativity within me, spurring me to proclaim the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Life has come into being through the Word. And my life expands to every pocket and corner of my being when I live to proclaim this good news.

Footnotes

* My apologies for hurling this paragraph at you with no further comment. If it confused you at all, blame Karl Barth.

** I am using the word “story” to convey something that is important enough to be told and retold down through the centuries, something that is about God and about us and is a tale that is never quite finished being woven. Please do not take my use of the word in the sense of “it’s only a story.”