This is a sermon I had quite a bit of fun with. The text was the very well known intro to John, and I played around with what the metaphor/symbol of 'word' might mean. I preached this sermon at the Apache Junction/Epiphany Campus
The text is John 1:1-18
Some of you may already know this but I am currently a student at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. This internship year is the third of my four years there. When someone goes to seminary in our ELCA this is pretty typical. They start with two years of class… go on internship for a year… and then come back to finish their classwork. If one of you were to go to seminary at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary you would show up with a pretty set schedule for your first semester, and then you’d get a little more freedom in the semester after that to choose what classes to take. So just like at most any college or university you’d get to have some flexibility with which classes you take and when you take them. There are, however, a few classes that you have to take before you are allowed to go on internship, that’s to ensure that us interns might actually be good for something when we get out here in the world. One of those required classes is Preaching. Preaching class at PLTS is a really fun class and if you were to take it you would probably get a lot out of it. You would get the chance to talk about interpreting Bible texts, ( a very important part of sermon writing) you would get to listen to your classmates preach, you would learn and talk about the relationship between the preacher and the hearer, and you would talk about some specific ways, or methods, or recipes of crafting a sermon that would hook and keep your hearers’ attention and also communicate your message effectively. One of the recipes you would probably learn about is called Lowry’s Loop. Lowry because the guy who wrote the book that talks about it is named Lowry and Loop because when you diagram the method it looks like a loop. If you were to learn about Lowry’s Loop you would probably then be able to identify the fact that most of sermons follow that structure… more or less… there’s an identification of a problem and then a rising in tension, then there’s a shift followed by an exploration of the solution to the problem and eventually some kind of resolution. This is how I normally write my sermons… it is a very literary form, and I have a strong literature background so it feels comfortable to me and I think it works.
I’ve told you all this now in order to say that today I’m not going to preach this way….
I’m not going to identify a problem in the world that this Gospel addresses and I’m not going to do that dramatic shift.
The reason I’m not going to do this is not because I got tired of preaching that way, it’s not because we’re in 2011 and Lowry’s Loop is no good in odd years, and it’s certainly not because I couldn’t think of any problems in the world that this Gospel could speak to.
I’m choosing not to preach the way I normally do today because I think today’s Gospel is too important and too special to just do the same old thing. So I’m going to stand up here today and I’m going to talk to you about Why today’s Gospel is so special and why it’s so important.
To begin with I think it’s important to say that these first verses of John are unique… they are unique because for one thing they are the words of a sort of hymn, and when John begins his Gospel this way it’s like he’s beginning with the words of a song, and his audience would have heard these words as poetic and lyrical and meaningful and mystical. That style is important because it highlights what these first words are saying and if you listen to them carefully those lyrical lines are giving you what is perhaps the most eloquent, most concise, and most clear summary of the entire Gospel. And when I say that these words are a summary of the Gospel, I’m not talking about the little-g Gospel that is what we call the excerpt we read each Sunday or even the middle-sized-g Gospel that refers to one of the first four books of the New Testament. This is the big-G Gospel. This is THE GOSPEL. The entire message communicated to you by God, the message of hope, of salvation, of grace and of love. So if you read nothing else, if you pay attention to nothing else in the whole Bible… read these words of John. These words about The Word, and about a Light in the Darkness that is not overcome. This is what this whole business of being a Christian is all about.
The question that follows from this, at least for me, is that: what are these verses saying… exactly? Because if they are really the Gospel in a nutshell it seems important that we really understand them, it seems important that we would be able to crack open that nutshell. So there’s two important things going on here that really tell us a lot about the Gospel.…
The first can be summarized with verse 5 “The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness did not overcome it” Now I could preach a whole sermon about that one verse. And you know, I bet a lot of you could too. You could stand up here and you could tell us all how powerful a message this is, because the light shining in the darkness is the light of hope in a weary and broken world, and anyone that has felt the love of God in the midst of sadness and pain knows all about the light shining in the darkness.
The second important thing is probably not something that’s so widely understood. It’s the simple fact that Jesus is referred to in these verses as The Word. The question then I have for us today is two-fold, or possibly it’s two parts of the same question: why is Jesus referred to as The Word, and what does it mean for us the Jesus is referred to as the Word.
Now some of you may have thought about why Jesus is called the Word, some of you may have studied about it, or read about it, or taken a class and learned about it, some of you might never have thought twice about it. But if you’ve only ever thought about it just a little bit you might have figured that it probably has something to do with the “Word of God” which is what we sometimes call our scripture, and you might have concluded that basically John is saying that Jesus is the way that God communicates with the world… well… that’s kind of true. It’s not false, anyway. The problem with that answer is that, on the surface, it would just boil down to Jesus being a prophet. Again… that’s not really untrue, but Remember a couple of weeks ago and our Advent story about John the Baptist in Prison and he asks Jesus (through his disciples) if he’s the Messiah, and then Jesus is talking to the crowds and he asks them “What did you go out into the Wilderness to see?” He says: “A reed shaken by the wind…” No “Someone in soft robes….” Definitely not “A prophet.. Yes…” Oh okay… they went out into the wilderness to see Jesus right and here Jesus says they went out to see a prophet so he must be calling himself a prophet…. Oh wait I forgot what it says after that…. “and MORE than a prophet” So… Jesus is not just any prophet… if you’re looking for a prophet you can go to Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Malachi, or Micah… or any of the other books in the last part of the Old Testament…. Or Elijah, Or Elisha…. Or Moses. But this Jesus is more than just a prophet.
So it must be that “the word” means more than just God communicating with his people. But how much more? Well, this is a kind of Metaphor, right? Jesus is being called ‘the Word’, yeah that’s basically a Metaphor. Maybe to understand this metaphor we should think about what a Word is…. So What is a word?
Well a word is a collection of Letters right? Go to the alphabet pick out a few of your favorites, throw them together and you basically have a word… but that doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus. What else is a word….? Well let’s not think about the written word. Let’s think about the spoken word. Now again I ask… what is a word?
A word is that thing that you speak that turns some idea in your head into something that is out in the world. So, if you have an idea in your head, and say it’s red and shiny and about the size of a baseball and smells and tastes sweet…. then you say the word “Apple” and now we all have the same picture in our heads. So that idea has become real and alive and active in the world because of your using …. THE WORD. A word makes an idea real and alive and active in the world.
Now think about what that metaphor means. To say that Jesus is the Word is to say that Jesus is not just a prophet, he’s not just a nice guy, he’s not just the Son of God…. Jesus is God coming to be real and active and alive in the world. Jesus is God in a way that we can understand and interact with, he is God in a form that we can perceive. Jesus is the hope, and the salvation, and the grace and the love of and from God here among us. Jesus is Emmanuel, and Emmanuel means God with Us. God is with us because Jesus was born and God was spoken into the world.
This is why today’s Gospel is so special, because it’s the Gospel that tells us with one word that God has come into the world, that God is alive. And just like in your loneliness how the words of a friend or a loved one can pierce through the quiet and isolation. The Word of God, Jesus the Christ, breaks through the isolation and the darkness of our pain and sadness and becomes alive in the world so that, no matter how lonely and sad you might sometimes feel, you well never truly be alone.
And that is what today’s Gospel is about… it is about hope and salvation, grace and love all in that one single word.