Last week I suggested
that singing "Silent Night" by candlelight in our Christmas Eve services
is one of the most sacred things we do in this community. But for
me, the most powerful moment in that service on Christmas Eve comes just
prior to that -- when gathered in this circle here in this sanctuary,
and all of the lights go out, and then in the darkness and the silence
we hear the opening words of John's gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was 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 does not overcome it.
And then, we take the light from the
Christ candle and it spreads across the sanctuary as the silence is
broken with Silent Night.
It is a powerful moment made sacred on
that holy of nights by this ancient, powerful witness to the meaning not
only of the birth but of the life, the teachings, the death and the
resurrection of Jesus.
The text for this morning picks up
after these opening words to John's gospel, and provides further insight
and reflection on just what it means to say that God is revealed to us
through Jesus Christ.
Verses six through eighteen:
There was a man
sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to
testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the
light. 9The 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. 11He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who
received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to
become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of
the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the
Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his
glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace
and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was
he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me
because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have
all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given
through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is
close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
It is a very appropriate text for this
Sunday, which is just 2 days before Epiphany, the celebration of the
Star of Bethlehem that represents the light of God that we see in
And it is also an appropriate text for
the first Sunday of the year, as we think about beginnings, of a new
year. We think about how we are going to live out that
Visioning Process. We think about the new directions of our
country as we inaugurate a new President.
The prologue of John's gospel, as this
text is known, is John's equivalent of the birth narratives that we find
in Matthew and Luke. Only, he says, in essence, that the beginning
of the good news is not the birth of Jesus but the birth of the cosmos.
Note his first words: "In the beginning", which of course are the
very first words of Genesis. And quite likely is intentional on
the author's part, so we make the comparison to the creation of the
world. 'In the beginning', before, in other words, anything else
was created, the Word was there with God.
This is the beginning of the good news,
the origin of the gospel. Not a historical event attended by
shepherds and honored by Magi, it was not the divine messenger appearing
to the father as in Matthew's gospel, or to the mother in Luke's gospel,
rather it was and is the very character of God revealed to us in Jesus.
This, says John, is where our story begins. With God, before
anything else that is, was.
And the essence of that character,
revealed to us in all it's fullness in Christ, is summed up simply (but
powerfully) in this one phrase: grace upon grace.
This is, I believe, a most striking and
remarkable assertion made by our gospel writer. It speaks to that
deeper truth that cannot be proven by empirical evidence. It can
only be experienced by the believer. What is striking about his
claim that we receive from God through Christ 'grace upon grace' is that
after this prologue, in which the author mentions grace 4 times,
it is never mentioned again as he tells the story of Jesus among us.
It's as if the author is saying to us that God's grace is so evident in
the life of Jesus he doesn't have to name it.
When Jesus heals the blind and the
lame, often when they do not even know enough to request it, that is
grace upon grace.
When he surprises the guests and host
alike at that wedding party that has run out of drink -- turns the water
into wine -- that is grace upon grace.
When he engages a Samaritan woman in
deep theological discussion at the well -- a taboo for a Jewish man in
ancient Israel -- that is grace upon grace.
When he feeds 5,000 from the few loaves
and fishes with baskets of food left over, that is grace upon grace.
And when he saves that woman caught in
the act of adultery from stoning, he befriends lepers and outcasts, he
raises Lazarus from the tomb, that is grace upon grace.
Finally, when he appears to Mary in the
midst of her grieving in the garden, and appears to the disciples in the
midst of their cowering in the closed room, and appears to Thomas in the
midst of his doubting, that is grace upon grace.
A remarkable claim, because if scholars
are correct, the author of this gospel (by the way, we call him 'John',
though the gospel itself never names him), is not writing a few days
after these events, a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years, but
rather at least 50 years later. Writing as if it were yesterday.
It's like writing about 1959 as if we experienced it yesterday, or even
more recently. For this grace upon grace is not something that is
received once in the distant past that one treasures in their heart like
a cherished memory (like Mary ponders all these things in her heart),
but it is an on-going presence that continues to enlighten and enliven
all the community of Jesus' followers.
And even more remarkable is that in the
eyes of the world the life of Jesus ended in failure.
Spectacularly so. No person of any repute in the first century
would dare to claim that one who was crucified somehow embodied the
presence, the essence, the character of God.
And yet here is John making this point,
that no one has ever seen God, but in Jesus everyone can see not only
the Son of God but God the Son, so full of God is Jesus.
So what is this grace that is so
abundant in Jesus to make him, as John says, next to the heart of God?
If you look up 'grace' in Webster's
dictionary, there are 11 different definitions of grace. One of
the things that makes the English language so challenging -- 11
different definitions of grace! From the prayer said before a
meal, to the period after the due-date on your credit card bill -- the
'grace period'. Grace can be a manner of speech or a manner of
movement -- Grace Kelly we think of as the embodiment of grace. A
person of royalty, or what a good number of current and former
government officials in the administration are hoping the President will
provide before leaving office!
Actually, Presidential clemency is very
close to the theological definition of grace. Provided in
Webster's dictionary: "Unmerited love and favor of God for
I would prefer not 'unmerited' but
'unconditional'. Whether we merit or do not merit this love of God
is not the point, but rather that God gives it unconditionally and
abundantly. Just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust
alike. And it is this abundant love so amazing, so divine,
revealed to us in the life and being of Jesus that is grace upon grace.
The apostle Paul, who speaks about
grace more than any other New Testament writer, in fact, twice as often
as all the other New Testament writers combined, defines this grace of
God in Christ using economic imagery for a most non-economic reality.
In 2 Corinthians 8 he says: "For you know the gracious act
of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich, yet for your sake he
became poor. So that by his poverty he might become rich".
It is in knowing and experiencing this
richness of God, the beauty, the wonder, the joy, the mystery, the
harmony, the love of life in all things created through the Word of God
that we experience this grace upon grace given so freely and abundantly
to all who will receive it. Merited or not.
a great scene in the new Batman movie ["The Dark Knight"]. My kids
always think I'm silly, coming up with these theological reflections on
things like Batman. But in case you haven't seen it, a wonderful
scene that illustrates this interplay between merited and unmerited.
The Joker, tragically but brilliantly portrayed by Heath Ledger (who
gave his life, sadly, in service to that role, died toward the
conclusion of that movie) comes up with a villainous plot whereby there
are two ferries that he arranges to have filled with people: one
ferry filled with the good citizens of Gotham, the other ferry filled
with the convicts of Gotham.
Both ferries are rigged with
explosives. Both ferries have a detonator for the other ferry.
And the Joker tells them that one of them has to be exploded before
midnight, thereby killing everyone onboard, or he is going to explode
So you can just imagine now the scene
on each ferry. And the good citizens of Gotham now start clamoring
for someone to push the button, because after all, those convicts, you
know, don't deserve to be the ones to survive, they had their chance in
And then one of the good citizens
finally takes the detonator and a few minutes before midnight . . . .
can't press the button. Just can't bring himself to do that.
He's a good citizen, after all.
Meanwhile on the other ferry, the
meanest, ugliest looking, baddest convict of them all, gets up and takes
away the detonator and. . . . .throws it into the sea. And
thereby, the lives of the good citizens are also spared, by the
Grace upon grace.
Chris Carrier and David McCallister
were the most unlikely of friends. Chris, 32 years of age, father
of two, a Youth Minister. David, 77 years old, a long criminal
history, now confined to the nursing home in very poor health. On
his last visit to his ailing friend, Chris took a pound of David's
favorite smoked fish and made sure he was warm and cared for, because
there wasn't anyone else left to do it. Having no family or
friends, alienating everyone who had known him except for Chris, he died
alone that night.
Just a few months before, he confessed
to the crime that in which he was long the sole suspect -- the abduction
and near murder of a 10 year-old boy, 22 years before. After being
fired from his job, he kidnapped his employer's son, stabbed him with an
ice pick, shot him, and left him for dead in the Everglades. It
was a miracle, they all said, that the boy survived, although blind in
Now, facing his likely and soon death,
David confessed to the Sheriff, who had kept the investigation open all
those 22 years. Told the identity of his attacker, the victim went
to see the old man himself. And when the dying man realized that
this young man standing before him was that boy that he had left for
dead, he broke down and cried. And told him how sorry he was for
what he had done to him.
That victim, of course, was Chris
Carrier. He said of their encounter that day: "It wasn't
hard for me to show compassion given his circumstances. I had long
since moved on. I told him I forgave him".
And so it was at his death, David's
only friend was the one he tried to kill.
Grace upon grace.
With the escalating hostilities in
Gaza, and now the invasion by Israel (begun yesterday), it's hard to
imagine much grace in that land of seemingly unending hatred and
killing. Yet grace is precisely what I found on my visit there
just 11 months ago. From a Jew and a Palestinian, members of the
Bereaved Families Forum, composed of 500 members, 250 Palestinians, 250
Jews. The only criteria for membership is that you had lost a
loved one to the violence.
The group only sends out speakers
two-by-two, one of each, to share their personal stories of pain and
suffering, and often of deep anger and hatred. In the case of the
young Palestinian woman who met with us in our hotel in Tel Aviv, who's
family was from Gaza, whose brother was killed by an Israeli soldier,
who's aunt died due to lack of medical care due to conditions in Gaza,
it was a visit from the founder of that organization that transformed
her hatred of Jews into hatred of the violence.
When he came to their home, they all
thought that he was crazy -- here, a religious, devout Jew, coming to
this Muslim home in Gaza, to express his sorrow. She thought that
all Jews hated Palestinians, indeed as she hated Jews, and wanted to
drive them into the sea. Instead, he shared with this family of
how his son was kidnapped by Hamas in 1994, executed in order to thwart
the peace process. And he decided he needed to do something to
make sure that his son's death was not in vain. And so he founded
Together, they cried over their common
loss. Today, this organization of Jews and Palestinians speaks
with one voice for the reconciliation of their respective people.
A Jewish representative who met with us
on our tour, whose son was killed by Hezbollah in Lebanon, told us that
the Israeli government says there is no one in Gaza they can talk to,
and hence the current invasion. And yet when this organization
went into Gaza, where 90% of all families have lost a loved one to the
conflict, they found open doors. People eager to talk about how
they could work together to change the facts on the ground, to bring
Government, he said, will never bring
peace. At best, it can only make agreements. Peace must be
made by the people, in face to face reconciliation.
Asked about the role of forgiveness in
this process, another Jewish speaker on our tour said that is a question
typically that comes from Christians. Never hears about it from
Jews, because, he says, for them, forgiveness is not up to them, it is
up to God. "We do not have to forgive one another", he said, "we
have to learn how to live together in peace. Only then when that
happens, perhaps, can we speak about forgiveness".
Grace upon grace.
Wherever life is given, not taken,
reconciliation offered and accepted, love shared merited or unmerited,
there you will find the grace of God.
In Christ, the fullness of that grace
has been revealed and offered to us. And when we share that grace
with one another, and especially with the unloved of our community and
our world, that's when we know grace upon grace.
May it so be.