13 DECEMBER 2020 (ONLINE)
THEME: “THE LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS”JOHN 1:5
I greet you all in the Name of Christ, and wish upon you the peace and blessings of God.
It is a pleasure to share with you.
I want to say to you that I am offering this sermon at the request of James Morley, who is now one of my Superintendent Ministers.
This is very special for me, because I held James in my arms just a few days after he was born in Manchester, when I went to visit him, and his mum and dad.
At that time James’ dad Barrie and I were training for the Methodist Ministry in Hartley Victoria College in Manchester.
Now James is my boss.
James, I wish you and Sally Coleman, and Lisa Quarmby, and all our colleagues in the Circuit well.
I want to thank you and all your team for all you do to keep hope alive, and keep everyone connected
The other person in the Circuit I would like to mention. One is John Peacock, he was my Superintendent Minister in Dudley when I was a candidate for the Ministry in 1974.
I kept failing my theology exam as a local preacher in training.
In the end John said to me, “don’t answer question with your theological reasoning, give them what they are looking for, let’s get you through this exam”.
I followed his advice, got through the exam, have since continued with my own open, questioning, enquiring, learning, humble, inclusive approach to theology.
This is all by way of introduction.
Now let us turn to our theme.
Imagine a small band of people meeting in the name of Jesus for reflection and prayer, and to worship God. They are few. And they are afraid of what is happening in the world around them. There is turmoil. They feel like an insignificant minority, in a world where others seem to have greater numbers and more power, and they are uncertain of their future. It feels to them that they are sitting in the darkness. In fact, fear is the word that sums up their world. They long for some good news. They hold on to God, and centre their lives on Jesus Christ.
Is that us?
Do our Bible readings this morning offer us any illumination in this reality?
I want to focus on the words read from the Gospel according to John.
They centre on light that shines undimmed, a symbol of hope in the context of despair. With these words the Gospel according to John introduces Jesus Christ.
JOHNANINE ASSERTION: AND THE WORD BECAME FLESH
There are Scholars who believe that the reflections we call the Gospel according to John are based on the experiences of a small congregation in Jerusalem. The congregation is centred on exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ, and who are working out what it means to be a community of Christ when you are small in number, just a handful, surrounded by a powerful larger community. Some of them, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are secret followers of Jesus and still adhere to worship in the Synagogue. They are wrestling with where their worship home is, and many have been expelled from other local worship centres (John 9:34). In some ways they feel they are in the dark, not completely sure of their identity, and are fearful of the future.
They meet as a small group, behind locked doors (20:19) for fear of what is going on around them.
They are committed to God, and are deeply loyal to Jesus.
They also believe they are at the beginning of something new, a new creation, that God is among them in a new way, they are discerning new insights in to who God is and how God is with them. They are writing down their insights to share them with others.
Where does their vision and hope lie?
The opening words of John Chapter 1 hold up a key idea, and that is light, light that is not overwhelmed or put out, light that “enlightens everyone”.
The light that enlightens everyone is the concept John Wesley used to form his doctrine of Prevenient Grace, the grace, “that of God”, that is in everyone.
There is One light, the One central principle of all creation, the source of all life and light, the Light that “enlightens everyone”.
All around the world people awaken and respond to this One Light, and what we call different religions grow around these responses.
Throughout my ministry I have been held together by my theology which is centred on the opening words of the Gospel according to St John which hold up and points to the logos, the Word, and declares that this “Word became flesh”, and is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who is the core, and essence, the logo of the Christian faith.
The reflections in the Gospel according to John assert that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all thing came into being through him” (John 1:1-3)
The Word is identified with God. Later in the words of the Gospel we read words attributed to Jesus who declares, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (John 14:10, 11). His deepest prayer is that his followers “may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).
What this says is that the Word is God and is Incarnated, took on frail flesh, and the face of a human being, with a name, the name is Jesus Christ.
“And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), in Jesus of Nazareth.
There are no nativity stories in the Gospel according to John. No Stable, no Manger, no Shepherds and Wise Men, no Choirs of Angels. But a bold claim summed up in five words:
And the Word became flesh.
I love this sentence. My theology sanctuary is rooted in these words. What they mean is that God chooses to pitch a tent, a sanctuary, with flesh and blood, among people.
This is the Johannine way of saying that Jesus symbolises the good news that God is with us.
No one has to find or go to God.
There are not many paths to God.
There is indeed only one way revealed in Jesus, and that is that God comes to us, always.
From here comes another bold claim that Jesus “has made him known” (John 1:18).
The Gospel according to John begins with this bold assertion.
The rest of the reflections in John give us a picture of Jesus, what is revealed of God in him, what God calls us to, and offer reflections on this.
What we must bear in mind when we say God is revealed in Jesus is that the Gospel according to John gives us one clue, just one insight into who Jesus is. There are at least three other clues and we have them in Matthew, Mark and John. In John we have a humble admission that there are “other signs”, clues to God’s revelation in Jesus “which are not written in this book” (John 20:30), and also that sometimes what Jesus said was interpreted differently by his followers (John 21:20-23). With this humility let us take a brief look at God as revealed in Jesus.
WHAT IS REVEALED IN CHRIST: GOD IS WITH US
What does it mean to say that the light shines in the world?
It means, God is with us.
What is the picture of God that emerges in John? How is God with us?
We see this picture in revelatory windows into God who blesses people with “grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16), grace that is never in short supply. The God revealed in Jesus is seen for example in:
- God is seen in abundance. God is in everyday events like the wedding in Cana. The new world God is creating is envisaged in the wedding feast, a banquet where all are served the very best. At this banquet God is the host, and God desires the best for all (2:1-11; 6:5-14; 21:4-19). God’s hospitality knows no bounds
- God is seen in action for justice. God the host welcomes all and turns no one away (6:37). The overturning of tables in the Temple, challenging excluding and exploitative structures affirm that God’s house is a house of prayer for all. God hears the prayers of all people (2:13-22). God’s house called heaven is no less, it is a house with many room (14:1-7)
- God is seen in surprising ways and places. God is not worshipped in a place but “in spirit and truth”, and the Spirit of God is seen as “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”, flowing like grace upon grace (4:7-42)
- God’s will and hand is seen in healing and wholesome life, not harm or hurt (4:46-54; 5:1-15; 9:1-7; 11:1-45)
- God is seen in the humility of service like washing dirty feet (John 13)
- God is seen as a companion in the turbulent waters of life, and the agonies of experiences of pain and crucifixion (6:16-24; 18 and 19)
- God is seen in the promise of new life and hope, always (20:1-30)
These are signs of God’s presence and action. They reveal God who is like the light that shines and is not overwhelmed. All this had to be stated before the words of Jesus’ “follow me” are spoken right at the end, at Chapter 21:19. Following Jesus is along a pathway of abundance, justice, prayer, healing, service, suffering and hope. It is a pathway of sacrifice, not security.
GOD’S INVITATION: ABIDE IN ME
This ministry is rooted in a relationship with God. John’s reflections reveal God who calls human beings to come and “abide in me”. This deep friendship with God is a relationship of intimacy and depth, an indwelling. Everything flows from there. This is what keeps the followers of Jesus renewed and refreshed, flowing and fruitful.
What we are told about the very first who responded to this invitation from Jesus is that they “remained with him” (John 1:39). That’s the key to being followers of Jesus.
What it means to “remain” is developed later (John 15: 1-11). Jesus says to his friends, “abide in me as I abide in you” (15:4).
What is it to abide in Christ?
In the reflections of John, Jesus’ followers abide or remain or dwell in him by:
- By being in the community of his followers with all its difference and division, failures and faults (Jn 1:39)
- By sharing bread and wine (Jn 6:56)
- By dwelling on the word (Jn 8:31)
- By keeping Jesus’ commandments (Jn 5:10). The commandments of Jesus are reduced in John 15:12 to three words: “love one another”, and the deepest expression of love is revealed when you “abide in my love” (Jn 15:9)
(There are other thoughts on this, for example in Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:44-47). John Wesley had his own thoughts on this under the title of the “Means of Grace”.)
GOD: THE LIGHT THAT SHINES AND ENLIGHTENS EVERYONE
Grace is a central word in Methodist tradition and theology.
I warm to the image of God as light, but I do not like to contrast this light with darkness.
Light and dark are not opposites, even if and when they appear to be.
I like what the Psalmist wrote when reflecting on where one could go to get away from God. The answer is, nowhere. And surmises:
If I say surely darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139: 12).
The readers of the opening words of the Gospel according to John, “in the beginning” are required to recall and reflect on the opening words of Genesis Chapter 1.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).
God, our great and true Guru, is present in and speaks and acts and creates everything out of the primordial deep and darkness [Genesis 1:1-2]. Everything flows from this in the Bible. In my view the two opening verses of the Bible summarise its whole content. All that follows these two opening verses illustrates the creative and life-giving God who is with people and accompanies them in all experiences. All life is dark and deep, chaotic and formless. God is always present in it creating, speaking wisdom and making all things new [Isaiah 43:19; 65:17; Revelations 21:5].
Our reading from Isaiah 61 asserts that the Spirit of God continues to inspire the work of God which is seen here as:
- Good news to the oppressed
- Binding the broken hearted
- Release to those held in bondage
- Comfort to the grief-striken
- Justice and liberty
- Environmental justice
Recalling this God is described elsewhere in the Bible as an eagle watching its nest, hovering over its young [Deuteronomy 32:11]. And the darkness and the deep is described as a trembling, a disturbance, a stirring or a storm [Jeremiah 23:9; Daniel 7:2; John 5:7]. In Sanskrit the word is “vritti” which signifies a whirlpool. This is what precedes and accompanies creation in Genesis 1. It does not speak of creation out of nothing [ex nihilo]. God dwells in and creates within and out of all that is represented by the darkness and the deep.
God calls on all people to then provide care for all created thing, and to do all things with wisdom [Genesis 1:26-28].
MINISTRY AND PASTORAL CARE: FINDING GOD, GRACE AND ILLUMINATION IN DARKNESS
This is the work of any good minister and guru, to model exactly that. To be prepared to dwell in darkness, to accompany people in darkness, and to do all things with wisdom. Ministry is not to lead people from darkness to light. The word guru is composed of Gu and Ru. Gu refers to that which is bad. Ru refers to the ruach, the spirit of God.
A true guru, a good pastor will sit in the darkness with people and help them to find wisdom from the deep, and stillness within the stirring of life and the whirlpool of the mind, within the state that is called mental illness.
A true guru does not say there is a silver lining to every cloud, and does not speak of light at the end of the tunnel. A true guru is tuned in to the attendance and echo of God in the storm, points to God in the shadows, and helps people to see darkness as a place of sacredness, not scaredness. So a good minister or leader or mentor will not hurry people out of darkness, or speak negatively of emptiness but revel in its holiness.
A good minister will not speak of light inspite of darkness, but of light in the darkness.
John the Baptist is not the first New Testament person who normally comes to mind when we are thinking of a good role model in ministry.
Our reading however holds him up before us.
What is the first thing said about him?
He was a man of God. What makes him a man of God?
In the words of John 1:8 “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
Testify to the light, light that shines in the tunnel, because that’s where we find ourselves.
Many associate despair and difficulties with darkness. Some speak of their experiences of being enslaved in dungeons, without any kind of light, and also as refugees in camps without light.
Fear is real. It is related to the world around us, Covid-19, Climate Change, extreme weather, ethnic and religious diversity.
The Woolf Report How We Get Along, published on 16th November 2020 describes religion as the “final frontier” of fear and personal prejudice. The study says that attitudes to faith drive negative attitudes more than matters of ethnicity or nationality. The deepest prejudice relates to and is triggered by the word Muslim. This prejudice is strongest in people aged over seventy-five.
The Johannine community were fearful of the “Jewish authorities” (20:19).
We have to acknowledge that the fearful attitudes of the Johnannine community towards Jewish authorities has contributed to irrational Christian anti-semitism over the last two thousand years.
Fear those who exercise power over us is real. Power so often is about majorities and minorities whether you are in USA or Ethiopia or Azerbaijan and Armenia, as we can see from conflicts in the world today.
There are places where Jews are in the minority.
There are places where Muslims are the minority.
There are places where Christians are the minority.
There are places where Sikhs are the minority.
There are places where black people are the minority.
There are places where white people are the minority.
Minorities lives in fear.
It is irrational to associate the things or people we fear with darkness, or blackness. Dark and black go together.
We have to re-examine the way darkness is related to anything to be feared, with hurtful things and realities, and light with good things and wholesome realities.
In her book, The Divine Heart of Darkness, Cathy Bird describes herself as a “friend of darkness” who is “turning the dark on” and making it “visible”. She does not want darkness to be eliminated by light but wants “darkness made visible by the light” and wants to draw us to “darkness which gives life to light itself”. Cathy reminds us that we need the dark to help us see the light. She insists that darkness is a holding place rather than a hiding place and that “all clear understanding is grounded in the darkness of God”. Darkness is a place and time of sacredness, not scaredness.
Cathy’s reflections on death as entering darkness is so helpful. She writes of “the ultimate paradox of the Christian faith that love leads to grief” and of “darkness as a metaphor for what is surely the ultimate transfer of trust…from life to death”. In her words, “we think that light is the source of life – yet it is in darkness that all living things have their naissance, in the womb, in the earth, in the seed, in the tomb, the absence of light is necessary for life to take hold”. Entrance into darkness is not an entrance into disintegration and disappearance, it is an entrance into a place of recreation into new life.
Cathy’s book challenges us all to examine how we use and understand and speak of light and darkness. What do you normally associate with darkness and light? How do you use the concept of darkness and light in your prayers and worship and liturgy? Darkness is abundant and life giving as light is. Darkness and light are friends and both are gifts of God.
Many years ago I bought a copy of the book The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark [Jill Tomlinson, 1968, Methuen & Co Ltd, London] to help children overcome fear of dark. I would buy and give Cathy’s book to adults who are afraid of the dark.
On a clear, dark night I like to watch the stars slowly become visible, and quite bright, and sometimes a fleeting shooting star too. Often, I lie down on the ground and find myself in the sky. Just me and the stars with their myriad patterns and pathways. The star-studded Milky Way beats any red carpet laid out for celebrities. I merge with the stars. This is the revelation and gift of darkness. Light hides and covers this gift. I find it so hard to leave the aura and awe-inspiring company of these jewels of the sky. It is a sadness to part from this company. It is I who turns away, never the stars.
I am sorry to deliver this sermon by zoom.
The Word became flesh.
This is an important message in the context of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdown. We want physical presence. We’ve had enough of zoom and virtual reality. I’m sure we will be able to meet physically soon.
Keep holding up the light of God in Christ.