Christmas Eve Candlelight Sermon, 2017
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
I wonder how many of you remember the show The West Wing? Do we have any fans in here? I’ll admit that I didn’t watch the show relentlessly. I enjoyed it only on occasion. Somehow, however, I feel like this may have been a mistake. The show had a lot to offer and it was, perhaps, a reflection of a better, more civil, time in American politics. But there’s one episode that I want to bring back to our memories here tonight. It’s episode 10 from season 1, which was entitled In Excelsis Deo. In this episode, Toby - the White House Communications Director – gets a call from the D.C. police who are looking for someone to identify a dead homeless man. It turns out the man, a Korean War veteran, was wearing a coat that Toby donated to Goodwill, that Toby had left his business card in. The event stays with him, and he tracks down the veteran’s next of kin. The only relative he can find is a brother, also homeless. Using the influence of the president's office, he arranges a military funeral at Arlington. President Bartlet is informed about Toby’s transgression, but can only muster a limited amount indignation and jocularly asks if the country is still in NATO. The rest of the president's staff is concerned that this could create precedent for other veterans to come forward, a concern to which Toby responds, "I can only hope, sir." After this exchange of words, Toby and Mrs. Landingham, the President’s secretary, attend the funeral at Arlington. It’s a powerful moment in television history that powerfully discloses the dishonor we share in our society’s indifference to homeless veterans.
As Christians, we often get in the habit of assuming that things will improve if we just recognize that other people are created in the image of God – that they are just as human as we are. It’s a popular idea and it even has secular forms. In philosophy, many assume that the foundation of ethics should rest in empathy – our basic recognition of another’s humanity and the feelings, motivations, and experiences that they might be undergoing. And yet, I cannot help but wonder if this idea is insufficient. In every major city around the world, people walk by homeless people. Yes, we often try to avoid looking at them, yet the vast majority of people who walk by are simply unaffected; or, perhaps, more tellingly disgusted. Is this simply an act of not seeing another person as created in the image of God? Or to ask the question in another way, does the schoolyard bully simply fail to recognize that his victims are just like him?
Bullies don’t dehumanize their targets. They revel in the fact that they are human. As Paul Bloom stated in a recent issue of The New Yorker, “The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not.” Humanity’s worst acts of violence often carry a level of empathy – a recognition of another, but an ‘other’ as an enemy or target, rather than the object of sympathy or altruism. Toby’s misuse of presidential power to arrange an honor guard and burial for a homeless veteran wasn’t just an act of seeing the homeless man as human, it was an act that required something more than that. It required selflessness and sympathy – which is an ethical intention.
This evening’s passage from the first chapter of John begins with the famous phrase, “In the beginning was the Word”. It’s a scripture that is often called a poetic prologue because it beautifully foreshadows the coming narrative. It’s a dramatic and immediate announcement regarding the significance of the following narrative and the meaning behind the life of Jesus. Its scope is unparalleled because it isn’t just concerned with something like the forgiveness of our sins, but the redemption of the entire cosmos, which encompasses everything – not just the world we experience.
So, when we hear this imagery of a light that cannot be overcome by darkness we are hearing about something truly magnificent. When John tells us that Jesus, “was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” we are being told that humanity failed to understand the significance of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ own disciples failed to understand! It was only after his death and resurrection that comprehension began to set in. Jesus brought us a revolution not of swords, or guns, or violence, but a revolution of humanity – of ourselves. He offers us more than we can ever be on our own.
Our world, much of it at least, is built on darkness. Nation states and even tribes are formed out of our collective commitments to use force to dominate, protect ourselves, or keep the balance. In ancient times, nearly all civilizations practiced human sacrifice as a means of alleviating the buildup of tension within a society. By finding and expelling a scapegoat, societies could expel their frustrations. It’s a habit that we haven’t escaped even if we’ve found more ‘civilized’ ways to directing our anger. We still point fingers at those we don’t like or don’t care to understand. Similarly, we still show indifference to those who may be too weak to help themselves. We rarely turn the other cheek, but we often turn our eyes away from that to which we would rather just be indifferent – the foreigner, the orphan, the elderly, the poor, and sometimes even the veteran. Our species is in a great need of healing.
And it is at precisely this point where the Apostle John has something powerful to say to us. Light doesn’t just shine in this world, it cannot be overcome by the darkness. It enlightens all who see it and seek to follow it. Everyone who receives Jesus, who believes in his name, can be enlightened by his example. Jesus offers us the opportunity to become children of God – people whose intentions and desires aren’t just shaped by their families, histories, or fragile constitutions but by the example of God himself who came to us to illustrate what it means to truly be a Human Being – to truly live according to God’s will. As Walter Wink writes in Only Jesus,
"And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN... It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God's image and likeness - which is to say, we are capable of becoming human."
To put it another way, Jesus alone is truly a Human Being – in the sense that he alone perfectly reflects human nature as it is intended to be. The rest of us are broken. We are, together, Human Becomings more than Human Being. We aren’t stagnant or stationary creatures. Our natures aren’t fixed. We can change and grow. And yes, we can be touched by God’s in a way that can be truly transformational. We can be touched by the light that inhabits a feeding trough and be thoroughly moved by it.
That’s the powerful thing about the Gospel. It turns our preconceptions upside down. The creator of the universe wasn’t born in a seat of power. His name wasn’t on the lips of the rich and famous. He was born into a distant, poor, overcrowded, and oppressed nation full of turmoil. He was rejected by his own people and killed by those he came to save – all of us. And in the process of giving himself up, he revealed something about each of us – our great need, our sin, our failures to truly be who God intended us to be.
And it’s in the tinder moments when everything feels like it’s bearing down on us, when it feels like we’re at a loss, that the Christmas message come pounding on the doors of our hearts. Choirs of angels and the tendrils of guilt simultaneously compel us to recognize that our ideas might be wrong and our actions weak. The birth of Jesus announces that God acts to save us from our own failings. When things seem dark the bright light of the heavenly hosts flies in to offer us the chance to participate in something better. So, let each of us embrace this moment and let the Christmas spirit change our hearts and transform us into the kinds of humans we are truly meant to be. Amen.
 Paul Bloom, “Beastly: Perpetrators of violence, we’re told, dehumanize their victims. The truth is worse.” The New Yorker, November 27th, 2017, p. 75.
 Walter Wink, Only Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human (Image, 2014), p. 102.