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The Everlasting Light

December 19th, 2012 No comments

“The Everlasting Light” (John 1:1-18)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
December 16, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This is, perhaps, my favorite text in all of Scripture. It speaks to the heart of my being. It tells of the very essence of our Lord and Savior. There is beauty in its hearing. “ Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.1” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”2

“The prologue of Gospel of John differs from the infancy narratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is in the form of a poetic narrative. It is written in the language of worship more than that of theology.”3 It is a hymn of praise to the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us within creation. The author of John takes us back further than Jesus’ birth to the dawn of creation, when the Word was there even in the beginning with God.

As the prologue of the Gospel of John is written in a beautiful poetic form, I thought it fitting to enter into a more poetic telling of the story of the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.

In the beginning was God. And though the darkness covered the very face of the earth, God’s presence still hovered over creation. God spoke into the darkness, “Let there be Light.” And there was Light. And it was good. And the Light shines on in the darkness, and though the darkness has not understood it, the darkness has never extinguished the Light.

And God spoke creation into being with a Word. By the Word of God, everything came into being. Not one thing has come into being that has not come from the Word of God. And the Divine Word is still creating, even today, even in our midst.

And God uttered, “Let us create humankind in our image.” Through the Word of God, humankind came into being. God breathed the light of life into them and placed within each human creature a spark from the Divine Light. And the Word of God spoke to every human heart, saying, “Let your light so shine. May your lives reflect the Light so that all creation will be ablaze with God’s glory.”

And for a while, all was “very good.” God’s glory blazed throughout creation. God’s beloved creatures let their lights shine.

But human beings were seduced by the darkness. And many chose to love the darkness rather than the light. And they forgot about the Divine spark within themselves. And the light within their hearts grew dim. And the glory of the Lord no longer shone ’round about them.

So the Word of God spoke to a people called out to let their light shine and to be a blessing to the nations. And God came and dwelt with this people in the wilderness; God came and made his dwelling among them. And the cloud of God’s presence covered their tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the space of their worship. And the cloud of God’s presence guided the steps of their journey by day, and the fire of the Lord guided the steps of their journey by night.4 And for a while God’s glory blazed and God’s beloved people let their lights shine.

But once again God’s people were seduced by the darkness, and many chose to love the darkness rather than the light. And they again forgot about the Divine spark within themselves. And the light within their hearts grew dim. And they no longer saw the fire of the Lord’s presence before their eyes to guide the steps of their journey.

So God sent prophets to remind the people, “You have called that which is darkness ‘light’ and that which is light ‘darkness’ and you have rejected the Word of the Lord of hosts.5 People of God, Come let us walk in the Light of the Lord! We are called by the Lord in righteousness to be a light to the nations! When we care for the needs of the hungry and afflicted, then the light of the Lord shall blaze in the darkness!”6 But God’s prophets were rejected and killed for people loved the darkness rather than the light.

So God himself decided to come into the world. God humbled himself and chose to be born in human form. And the Light of the World entered creation in the most unexpected way. The Word which first spoke creation into being entered the world unable to speak save for the tender cries of a newborn. The One who first breathed life into humanity drew his first breath in his mother’s loving embrace. The Light of the world entered it on a cold, dark night. Thus it was that the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us.

Through the Word become flesh, God has been revealed. The world had been waiting in darkness, but now through the coming of the Word, a light has shined. The True Light, which enlightens all people, had now come into the world. And through the True Light coming into the world, God has been made known.

The One who turned the water into wine is the same One who parted the waters of the Red Sea. The One who fed the crowd of 5,000 with 5 small loaves and two fish is the same One who provided manna to the people wandering in the wilderness. The same One who stayed the hands of those who would stone the woman caught in adultery also stayed Abraham’s hand when he went to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah. The One who freed the man born blind from his illness also freed those who were slaves in Egypt. The hands that formed us from the soil were the hands that were nailed upon a cross.

The One and Only who is close to the Father’s heart is the One who has revealed God to us. The same Light who had come into the world who took on the flesh of a little child is the same One of whom the psalmist spoke, “The Lord is my light, and my salvation.”7 And through the Light who has come, all creation has come to know God. Or so we would hope, yet even though the Word become flesh was in the world, even though the world came into being through him, the world still did not know him. Even though he came to what was his own, his own did not accept him.

The True Light has come into the world, and yet we still feel like a people who wait in darkness. The Light has come into the world, yet people have loved darkness rather than Light. And many have forgotten about the Divine spark within themselves and the Light within their hearts has grown dim. Many love the darkness rather than the light. People continue to put their trust in the seductive ways of the darkness, people continue to inflict violence and have violence inflicted upon them, people continue to experience illness, pain, loneliness, children continue to be massacred, and we long for the healing, hope, and peace that only the True Light can bring.

We long for the True Light to come in full, and yet the Light still continues to pierce the darkness. We long for the coming of the True Light, and yet we are still called to reflect the Light of the One who we have given our hearts to. Just as John came as a witness to testify to the Light, we too are all witnesses of the Light that shines within each of our hearts. We are those to whom the Word has given the power to become children of God because we believe in his name and have given our allegiance to him. We are those whose lives reflect the Light of the world.

One cannot be a child of God without beginning to become like God who came to us as the Word made flesh. One cannot look upon the glory of the True Light and remain unchanged. The Light within us calls us to speak words of healing in a world filled with darkness. The Light within us calls us to care for the needs of the hungry and afflicted so that the Light of the Lord should blaze in the darkness. The Light within us calls us to witness to the light within every human heart, so that we might nurture the spark and fan it into flames that will become a blazing fire. The Light within us calls us to love each other as he has loved us, he who loved the world so much that he came and laid down his life for our salvation.

But we ourselves are not the Light. We are only witnesses to the Light. And though darkness covers the earth, the Lord will arise and his glory will appear and be radiant. Though we are as though who wait in darkness, our Light will come. Indeed, our Light has come. The True Light, who enlightens all people, is coming into the world. “And the God who takes on our flesh does not ignore the darkness, but shines in the very midst of it.”8 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it. The Lord is our everlasting Light. In him is life, and the life is the Light of all people. And we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. This is the one of whom the prophets of old have sung. He is the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. “Hail! Hail! The Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary!”9

Notes:
1. John 1:1 in New Testament Greek
2. John 1:1 NRSV
3. Leo Hartshorn, “A Different Drummer” blogpost on John 1
4. Exodus 40:34ff
5. Based on Isaiah 5:20, 24.
6. Based on Isaiah 2:5; 42:6; 58:10
7. Psalm 27:1
8. Rev. William McCord Thigpen, III
9. From verse 2 of “What Child is This”

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The Guiding Light

December 18th, 2012 No comments

“The Guiding Light” (Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-5)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
December 9, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A Season of Light
We are right in the thick of the many traditions of the Advent and Christmas season. Trees have come out. Holiday letters and cards are filling our mailboxes. Kitchens are filled with the smells of delicious if not nutritious goodies. Radio stations play the old favorite carols. And we read again the cherished Christmas stories.

Well, every year when I was growing up, we had a tradition that took place on Thanksgiving weekend or thereabouts. My dad would bring out several old boxes and buckets and bags, and inside there was tangled bundle after tangled bundle after tangled bundle of Christmas lights. And we would untangle strand after strand after strand, and test each string and check each bulb to be sure that the grand display of light was ready.

And then, my dad would get out the extension ladders – yes plural ladders – and climb at great peril clear up the house to outline the steep colonial Williamsburg roof edges and ridges and dormers of our house with light after light, while I steadied the ladder below.

And then that night, if we had done our due diligence, the house would light the night sky with several hundred Watts of warm, white, pure Christmas joy.

Years later, when I was in high school, and then college, those lights would welcome me home to Christmas season, a beacon of warmth heralding the message of hope and joy along the horizon of the cold night sky, saying, “Come home; come home.”

Advent and Christmas are a grand celebration of light: the glorious radiance of angelic choirs; the dawn from on high breaking upon us, a great light for those who walked in darkness; a guiding star pointing the way to a child-King; the True Light coming into the world, becoming flesh, and dwelling among us. It is a season of preparation to welcome that light into our hearts, and into our lives.

Now actually, the celebration of light at this time of year is a very ancient tradition, going back even before the birth of Jesus. And in fact, ever year, about this time of year, every household and synagogue and stable and cave in Jerusalem would be lit, and the Temple courts would blaze with the joyful light of the many wonders of God. Jerusalem: the City of Lights.

Disappointment in the City of Lights
Well, as the well-known story for this morning goes, our famous mystery men of the East – the Magi, as Matthew calls them – have caught sight of a rising light declaring a message of hope and joy across the dark night sky. A new king is born! A long-awaited heir to the promise that hold the hope of the world has come! The star of a Judean king has arisen, beckoning, “Come home, come home.”

And where would one expect such a star for a Judean king to lead? Why, to the Judean capital, of course! In the royal palace, in Jerusalem, the holy City of Lights.

Of course, the Magi find a king in Jerusalem, the City of Lights, alright, but, to say the least, he is somewhat lackluster compared to the radiant expectations of the guiding star. After following a dazzling light in the night sky for miles and miles, after crossing through many a foreign land, after braving the desert’s unrelenting heat and the bitter cold of the mountains, following after the majestic light in the night sky for month after month, they have arrived at the City of Lights, coming to the royal palace with their kingly gifts at last only to find this Herod, a sniveling, sputtering king who always kept one hand behind his back, his countenance shadowed by years of treachery born of the fear that darkens the human heart.

Forget a star, this guy doesn’t even deserve the hazy neon sign glaring in the nearest dilapidated nighttime tavern!

Light Pollution
You know, any amateur or professional stargazer can tell you that light pollution is a major problem for anyone who is staring upwards to catch a glimpse of the nighttime heavenly lights. Now I like artificial lighting quite a bit. If I need to find a nice snack in the middle of the night, all I have to do is flip on a light switch. If I want to find my way around outside when I wake up at 2am wondering if I remembered to turn the hydrant off, all I have to do is grab my trusty Mag-Lite and follow the lighted path it provides. In fact, I hardly need the sun, the moon, or any star at all in the sky to find my way around.

The problem is that artificial lighting generated on the surface impedes the observer’s ability to see the stars above, sort of like how in a crowded restaurant it’s hard to hear the person sitting next to you because all the other noise crowds out your own voice. Well, all that artificial surface lighting crowds out the heavenly lights above. Even the brightest star can get lost in a washed out night sky because of light pollution.

You know what I think Herod and his cabinet of advisers and all those mighty religious leaders in Jerusalem were afraid of? I don’t think they were afraid of some star in the sky or any helpless baby. But I think the most terrifying thing for them was the thought that if this new star was going to shine in all its splendor, all their lights were gonna have to be laid down. If this new king was going to ascend his throne, all their knees were going to have to learn how to bend for the first time.

It’s scary to think of turning off the lights. I think everyone’s at least a little afraid of the dark. You could smack your face into something or fall down the stairs or trip over your cat or step in something icky, and who knows what or who is lurking in the shadows!

Trading our puny little lights for the dazzling light of Christ can be terrifying! Giving up our way of life for God’s ways and handing control over to God is absolutely nerve wracking! Giving up our well-laid plans and paths for God’s plans and paths is downright scary oftentimes, as scary as living in the dark.

But you know, the headlights on our cars only light up a few dozen feet in front of us. They only light up the path we’re already on; they can’t show the way or lead us home. Even the lights we string about our houses and yards are fragile, easily cut off by ice or winter storm. Even in all their radiance and glory, they disappear behind a hill or a hedge, and get packed away after a little over a month. As beautiful as the Christmas lights shining into the night sky are, they are but a representation, a facsimile, a comparatively crude imitation of the rising star of the newborn king.

I was a student at Bethel College during the great Ice Storm of Aught Five. And after that storm, we were without power for almost a week. And I remember stubbing my toe and tripping over my roommate, and trying to shower in total darkness, and it was miserable.

But one of my nightly routines that I had stumbled upon was to go outside and walk around campus to pray. And during the last portion of my path, I would always look upward to stare at the stars, to ponder the vastness of the universe and the creator’s love even for a tiny little speck of dust like me.

And I looked up to see a sky filled with stars in a way I’d never before seen it, from horizon to horizon. The stars were twinkling down through the icicles and gently gracing the ice and snow below. Thousands and thousands of majestic orbs filling the night sky dancing in my eyes. When the lights are on, we spend so much time looking down, planning our paths, busying ourselves with our own self-importance and security, dodging obstacles. When all those other lights are off, then we can do nothing, but stop, look up, and behold the glory of God.

It’s just so easy to get so caught up, so distracted, so comfortable and dependent upon all the lights that lure us with their shining, that offer to light our paths with their promises of success, of fulfillment, of purpose, of power, prestige, of happiness and wash out the splendor of the heavenly guiding light.

“Your Word is a light to my path”
As the Magi crossed the Jordan River and climbed the Judean hills and came upon Jerusalem shining in all its splendor and bustle and majesty and importance, how could they have even thought to have noticed the star moving just nine miles south in the washed-out sky to Bethlehem?

Sometimes with all the headlights glaring in our eyes, vying for our attention, blinding our sight, the right path is so very hard to find. Into this cacophony comes the word of God, like the first break of dawn scattering the darkness of the night: “You, Bethlehem, little Bethlehem, from you shall come a shepherd for my people.”

It’s like the Psalmist once said, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The little child-king, the one these mysterious magi have traveled so far to see, is the one who came to fulfill God’s word. When we come to the little child, we come to a faith not washed by the sea or tossed by the wind or blinded by any mere imitation of the true light coming into the world, but firmly defined and anchored in the Word of God.

That’s why we read this word, why we tell this story every year, is it not – to draw our eyes away from all the blinding glint and glare around us, to the splendor, the brilliance of the True Light of God’s Word, and to go and bend our knee before the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us in a little town called Bethlehem.

True Wise Men
Herod couldn’t go. None in all Jerusalem could go. Too afraid were they to yield whatever light, whatever life, whatever power and control they thought they had to this rising star of the child king. But these men of mystery have seen the light; they have beheld its glory; they have caught a glimpse of its promise of a new and glorious day, and all other light is mere faint and flicker compared to it.

And they go, leaving behind the grand City of Lights for a small village in the hills. And as the last light of Jerusalem’s highest tower vanishes behind a hill, there, shining clearly in the night sky, is the star they had seen at its rising.

And off goes this band of Magi with their caravan of their whole entourage of camels and wagons and supplies and household staff, to a small rural town. A delegation of foreign dignitaries visiting your nearest small Kansas town. Imagine heads of state and scholars from around the world walking down Main Street Elbing!

The caravan stops at a humble dwelling – perhaps built of mud and rock, perhaps partly sheltered by one of Bethlehem’s caves, such a far cry from the grand limestone palaces and towers of Jerusalem, the City of Lights.

Sometimes we give these mysterious travelers, these magi from the east, the nickname “Wise Men.” And this is why they have earned that title: These mysterious magi, these men of complex learning, of training, of nuance and refinement and means, who have brought gifts not for a dirty peasant child, but a refined king in his splendor, have come to what must be to them the very picture of simplicity, of vulnerability, of poverty.

No doubt these philosophers from a distant land cannot fully understand, but in their wisdom, they can see the light, the glory shining in the child-king, and they, even they, are prepared to kneel in worship, offering – perhaps a little sheepishly – their now ironic and obviously flawed and inadequate gifts because those are the gifts they have, and they are absolutely overcome with joy, because they have, at long last, after months of following the guiding light in the dark night, found their way home.

Following the Guiding Light
Unlike even all the beautiful lights we use to fill the night sky with the message of hope and joy, a star can be seen from just about anywhere on earth, filling the heavens with its message of pure hope and pure joy: “Come. Come home.” It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, how lost you may be, how long you’ve been gone, or what you are, absolutely anyone can lay down all those other lights, stare into the heavens from anywhere on earth and see that good message, “Come home. The king is come!”

The invitation is the same, whether you’re in a dark and distant land, or whether you live in the City of Lights itself; no matter what gifts you have to offer or how inadequate you feel; or even if you’re just downright terrified of giving up the life you have, the invitation is the same: “Follow the light. Come home.”

It will guide you through every storm and desert, through every valley and over every mountain and across every distant land. And it leads to a humble family in a humble village. There you’ll find a little child with the light of the world sparkling in his eye, whose home is in every heart that bends before him and welcomes his light, the wonder of wonders, God among us.

May we all turn to follow the radiant guiding light of our king with overwhelming joy in our hearts, as we prepare to welcome the light this Advent season.

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Light of the World

January 27th, 2012 No comments

“Light of the World” (John 1:1-14)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
December 11, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I’ve always been fascinated by light. My older brother, when he was little, didn’t sleep with a teddy bear or stuffed animal. He slept with a red light bulb – fortunately my parents found a rubber look-alike so he wasn’t in danger. And I remember every Christmas, my dad would climb up the steep roof and scoot across the ridge, fastening the lights in place, and he would go on to outline the dormers and structural edges of the house, and we’d come home in the evening and could see the house from a mile away. I understand several of you share a similar enthusiasm. It would seem it runs in the family. I’ve always been fascinated with light.

Lighting of the Green
A couple weeks ago, I shared one of my favorite Christmas light memories with the Challengers Sunday School class. My dad is the maintenance director at Bethel College, and as a young boy, I would scurry closely behind my dad’s brisk step as he hurried from building to building, switching off all the lights facing the Green (a large lawn in the center of Bethel’s Campus) in preparation for Bethel College’s annual Lighting of the Green Christmas service. The campus, majestic and ornate in its soft night-time lighting, gradually slipped into a bold, dark solitude.

At last all the lights had been extinguished, and, with the campus perfectly dark and still, we climbed the old wooden steps in the Administration Building to a window overlooking the Green. My father lifted me up so I could see, and we waited in silence as several dozen students began to gather in the crisp, cold December night for the still-young Bethel College Christmas tradition.

I strained to hear the scripture reading. Then some barely-perceptible singing. Then came my favorite part. A single candlelight appeared, and I watched intently as that single small flame gradually spread across the green, each small flame taking its place in the stunning wreath of warmth and light in the cold, dark night.

As a young boy, I could not have understood the meaning of the first chapter of John or have grasped the powerful symbolism of the flame being passed around the Green, but somehow I knew that it was special and significant. I knew I wanted to be a part of it, to see my little flame dance before my eyes and pass the light on until all was bright. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Science of Light
Today, we know by scientific curiosity what ancient writers knew by intuition about light. Physicists tell us that nothing in the universe can move at a higher speed than light, which travels in a vacuum at 186,000 mps. By contrast, sound travels at 0.2 mps. A space shuttle re-entering the earth’s atmosphere travels at 5 mps.

Light is the fastest medium for carrying information. John said of the Light of the World, “It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus is the fastest and best information about God!

Moreover, we know that the speed of light remains constant as it travels through space. Mass increases with velocity, and time slows, and length contracts, and so forth, but the speed of light remains constant. The author of Hebrews said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

The eternal character of God is unchanging, a constant in the universe. You could say a lot about God’s unchanging character, but sometimes I think John summed it up best: “God is love.” God’s love is a universal constant. Even in every dark day, in every moment of loss and despair, in every hour of loneliness, in every season of failure, the love of God revealed to us in the light of Jesus, is a universal constant that does not change, ever transforming brokenness into beauty.

Biologists tell us that all living creatures ultimately depend on the sun’s light for their source of energy. Without sunlight, there would be no life on the earth. John puts it this way: “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 humankind.” Jesus is life. Just as the sun gives life and light to the earth’s creatures, Jesus gives life and light to God’s children. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

John and Genesis
John’s gospel starts off with the same words as the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible: “In the beginning. . .” In Genesis, we hear the powerful Word of God for the first time, saying, “Let there be light,” and there was light, and God saw that the light was good.

The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the Word who was with God, and was God, through whom all things were created. Every Advent, every Christmas, we tell how the dictum of old, the word, “Let there be light,” first uttered at the beginning, finds its fullest and greatest fulfillment in the light that shines in the darkness – the true light, which enlightens everyone and has come into the world, and the true Word, which became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth.

The first verses of John’s Gospel call to mind the first verses of Genesis, as if to say that what has happened in Jesus is the very fulfillment of Genesis 1, and an event of such cosmic significance that it can only be compared to the act of creation itself. It is the story of God’s definitive answer to all the rebellion, sin, suffering, and darkness of the world.

“The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” The Word, through whom all things came into being, the light that illuminates every corner of creation and infuses it with God’s love, became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth.

How often do we not receive him, do we fail to see the light? How often do we miss God incarnate in our lives? How often do we forget that all things came into being through the eternal Word, which means that God is not to be found merely in the extraordinary things that we cannot explain, but also especially in the ordinariness of human joy, routine, pain, relationship, and toil?

How often do we miss seeing the light of Christ shining even in our darkness? How often do we not see Jesus enfleshed in the people and circumstances of our lives? Jesus is to be found among us every day as we live and worship and serve him together. His light is shining all around us, even in deep darkness, if we but look and see.

Word become flesh: A Story1
My mom’s cousin, Helga Schmidt, was doing some last-minute shopping in Alco in Newton one Christmas season in the mid-1970s. She was in the middle of licensed practical nursing school, and Christmas gifts were not the first thing on her mind. Helga got frustrated with the idea of buying gifts for people who had everything, and the cost for a mother in school with kids at home made the experience anything but fun.

She hurriedly found her last-minute items and got in line to check out. In front of her, there were a couple of small children, a brother and sister, dressed in tattered clothes. The girl had a pair of golden house slippers, and the boy had a few dollar bills in his hands. They were quite the sight, and the girl was humming merrily along to the Christmas music playing in the store.

The girl put the shoes on the counter, and the clerk rang them up, a little over six dollars. The boy only came up with a little over three dollars, and told his younger sister that they’d have to put them back and come back some other time, maybe the next day.

His little sister started to cry and said, “But Jesus would have loved those shoes.” “We’ll go home and find some more money somehow and come back,” her brother said. “Don’t cry; we’ll come back,” he said bravely.

Helga overheard the conversation and just gave the clerk three dollars, figuring the kids had been in line a long time, and it was Christmas, after all. The little girl wrapped her arms around Helga’s legs and said, “Thank you, lady.”

She asked the girl what she meant when she said Jesus would like the shoes. The boy explained, “Our mommy is sick and going to Heaven. Daddy said she might go before Christmas to be with Jesus.” The girl added, “My Sunday school teacher said the streets up in Heaven are mad from shiny gold just like these shoes. Won’t my mommy be beautiful walking on those streets to match these shoes.”

“Yes,” Helga answered, “I’m sure she will.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The story of a glimmer of light in the darkness became the basis of a book, a song, a movie. Light. Simple house slippers in a discount store and a small act of compassion.

Focusing the Light
We were in Jerusalem during this past January, which is the season called Epiphany in the church year, and it’s a time of light, so we got to hear lots of sermons about light. Now the church in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, is a church that has weathered many seasons of hardship as it has tried to stand in witness to Christ’s peace amid so much violence, hatred, and oppression, even while its own members tire of living under occupation and migrate elsewhere. But even in such darkness, the preacher proclaimed that the light still shines.

He said it’s like an old-fashioned oil lamp, the kind that has a mirror or reflective surface attached to the back. Like John the Baptist in our reading, we ourselves are not the light, but we can be like the mirror, focusing and reflecting the light as we follow Jesus in witness and proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and declare the year of the Lord’s favor!

I had the opportunity to study the Gospel of John with Jerry Truex, who wrote his dissertation on the Gospel of John. And you could tell how much this gospel, this good news, is a part of his life and ministry. I remember him especially talking about this first chapter of John with such passion and conviction, about the true light, which enlightens every person. And he would say it in Greek to be sure we got it: panta anthropon. Every person.

Jesus was with God in the beginning, when God said “Let there be light,” and just as the sun and the moon and the stars enlighten every person, whether we make much significance of it or not, so too does Jesus enlighten every person. Just as surely as the sun shines during the day, you have the light of Christ. It doesn’t matter who you are, as someone who came into being through the Word, you have the light of Christ, and it’s your calling as one of his followers to hold a magnifying glass or a mirror up to that light and focus it for the world.

We talked some this advent season about changing how we see. Jerry, my John professor, works in Wichita with a lot of people who have addictions and mental illnesses.

He said the place he begins with everyone – drug addict, alcoholic, someone with deep, dark depression, someone who’s been in the church for 40 years, even someone who doesn’t know a thing about Jesus, is by reminding himself that that person has light of Christ just as surely as you and I do, just as surely as we have the sun shining on us from the heavens, so too the Son of God shines on us from the heavens, and he wants to help people identify that light that they already have simply because they’re God’s creatures, to name it, to turn to it, to embrace its illumination and warmth, to follow it.

Jesus once said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life!” (John 8:12)

Mysterious Light
One of my favorite things about light is that its basic make-up remains a mystery. It seems to be both a particle and a wave at the same time. While we don’t know exactly how this works, we can simply name its existence. Scientists simply accept the paradox of light and seek various ways of describing it.

John 1:18 begins by saying, “No one has ever seen God.” We know that there is mystery and paradox to God. One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 55:9: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Something of God always remains a mystery, unknowable, and yet, John 1:18 goes on: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” If you ever want to know something about God; if you want to know God more deeply, look to the light, look to Jesus, know Jesus and follow him, and he will make God known. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life!”

I have never lost that desire first sparked in a dark room on the Bethel College campus overlooking the Lighting of the Green, to be a part of the wreath of warmth and light, to see my little flame dance before my eyes and pass the light on until all was bright, more and more every year as I have grown older and come to understand more and more the meaning of the Light.

I still want to see my own light grow and dance before my eyes, to see my faith grow stronger and closer to God. And I still want to pass on that light, to share the peace and love in the Good News of Christ with those around me, even as others share with me. I want to be a part of that warmth and light that touches even the coldest and darkest of hearts in the coldest, darkest corners of the world. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of humankind.

The world has turned as the word has become flesh and dwelt among us. The shadow of death is driven away by a new burst of light. All of creation, formerly submerged in a darkness and despair, rouses and shakes itself in the brilliant illumination of a new beginning.2 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!

Notes:
1. Originally published as Helga Schmidt, “Golden Slippers for Christmas,” Mennonite Weekly Review (December 21, 1978).
2. Paraphrased from Kharalambos Anstall in Stricken by God?, ed. Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, 488.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

Practicing Loyalty to God

August 27th, 2011 No comments

“Practicing Loyalty to God” (Matthew 7:6-12)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
August 21, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Pondering that Leads to God
As I have read the Scriptures over the years, I have discovered – and maybe you have too – that when you really read the Bible closely and carefully and attempt to fit your life into those stories, there will inevitably be those verses, and passages, and maybe even books of the Bible that are a real challenge to make sense of. And, for me, at least, I have found that when I ponder those passages, over time – weeks or months or years – they lead closer to God.

You see, I may not find the tidiest interpretation over time, or even find an answer that’s really satisfying, but living honestly with the questions that are raised leads closer to God, and to greater faithfulness. So for instance, I still don’t completely understand that story in Genesis, where God tells Abraham to go and sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah as a test, but then intervenes at the last minute. But I’ve found that as I’ve lived with that story, I’ve learned something about steadfast faith and trust in God.

Or when I read the so-called “imprecatory Psalms,” that seem to delight or desire after the destruction of one’s enemies, I struggle to make sense of that as I try to follow Jesus in loving my enemies and practicing forgiveness, just as I have been forgiven by God. But I’ve learned something about living faith fully alive before God, about not trying to hide even my innermost feelings or desires from God, however much I might like to do that sometime.

Well, obviously, the list could go on and on. And today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount is one of those passages that has puzzled interpreters over the centuries. What did Jesus mean, when he said, “Ask, and it will be given to you. . . for everyone who asks receives”? Now I’m sure that many of us have truly amazing stories of the transformative power of prayer and God’s deeds of power, and I recall a little book called The Prayer of Jabez that made quite a splash ten or eleven years ago, in which the author encouraged the readers to pray boldly for God’s “unclaimed blessings.”

But I also think that many of us also have stories of when we have prayed, and yet have not received what we asked for. I recall that when I was little, one of my favorite cats disappeared, and I prayed and prayed and hoped and hoped with a child’s faith that the cat would come back, but it never did. And I recall sitting in the pews and listening during sharing time as church members would stand and share about the pain and loss they suffered, despite earnest prayer – like losing a spouse to cancer at a young age.

Did Jesus really mean that God doesn’t answer prayer with “no,” or that God exists to grant our every wish? Even he would know what it is like to pray and not receive, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest, “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me.” And yet the cup of suffering was not to be removed. So it’s hard to know what exactly Jesus meant when he said, “Ask, and it will be given to you.” But I believe that the honest seeking does, in fact, lead to finding God, if not all the answers.

Traditional Wisdom: Dogs and Pigs
And perhaps even more perplexing is this verse, the most unique in the whole Sermon on the Mount: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” You see, Jesus had just finished teaching his disciples not to have a judging spirit, yet now seems to be saying that we are to judge who are dogs and pigs and deny them what is holy.

And we know that Jews would often refer to Gentiles – that is, outsiders, everyone who was non-Jewish – as unclean animals like stray dogs or pigs. It kind of sounds like Jesus is telling his followers not to give the Gospel to the outsiders – the Gentiles. But that doesn’t quite seem to fit with Jesus’ commission to us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

And we know that Jesus had a heart for Gentiles and unclean and unholy people of all kinds. So some have suggested that this teaching got inserted here either as Matthew was writing his gospel, or in the process of scribal copying over the centuries.

But it’s very interesting what can happen when we read this perplexing verse about not giving dogs and pigs what is holy with what follows. Jesus’ listeners probably picked up, as we have as we’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount, that his teachings often come in 3’s: there’s usually a traditional teaching, and then Jesus describes related ways that people get trapped, and then he offers transforming initiatives to break out of those vicious patterns.

So I’m guessing that Jesus’ listeners recognized this as a traditional teaching about Gentiles: “Don’t give dogs what is holy.” “Don’t cast pearls before the swine.” That was the common wisdom. Now, it’s kind of interesting that pigs/swine were often used when referring to the Romans in particular, because they ate pork and would often do things like sacrificing a pig over a grave to sanctify it.

And then there’s this amazing story that you might remember about the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 4 and parallels). So Jesus was in this Gentile region, when he met an unclean man tormented by many demons. Jesus asked the demons their name, and they said “Legion,” which is unmistakably the same name given to Roman legions. Jesus dismissed the demons – a military command, and they went into a nearby herd of pigs. And interestingly, “herd” was generally used to describe a band of Roman soldiers, rather than a pack of pigs. And the nearby company had a pig for its mascot. Like troops rushing into battle, these pigs rushed into the sea. Many Jews most certainly wished the Roman legion, who was occupying their land, would do likewise. The Gospel writers tell that story in a way that makes an unmistakable connection to the Roman Empire’s occupation.1

The Trap: Getting Trampled and Mauled!
So if you were to go about talking about pigs in Jesus’ day, thoughts of the Roman Empire were not far behind. But what does it mean to give holy things or pearls to the Romans? Jesus goes on to name what happens – the trap – when you do give holy things to the Romans: they trample them under foot and turn and maul you! Now, if we were listening to the whole sermon in one sitting, we might recall that Jesus had said earlier, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

And so you might begin to wonder whether there’s some connection between pigs, or Romans, trampling holy things under foot, and unsalty salt being trampled underfoot. And you might recall that saltiness has to do with being distinct, set apart, a city on a hill, shining forth your light before others as an outpost or beacon of God’s Kingdom on earth, that draws people to come and see, to become pioneers in repenting of conformity to the world and turning to conform and be transformed by Jesus.

But when God’s people stop being distinctive, when they conform to the world instead of to God’s will in Jesus Christ, then they lose their saltiness and are trampled underfoot. Could that be what Jesus is warning about here? Could he be warning his followers not to lose their saltiness by casting it before swine, not to loose their distinctiveness by conforming to the structures of Roman power?

Glen Stassen observes,

Jesus often warned against the temptation of seeking prestige, honor, and wealth within the system of the powers and authorities in the world. He warned against neglecting the weightier matters of the Law of Moses – justice, faithfulness, and mercy-and neglecting to do anything to lift the burden of the needy (Matt. 23:4 and 23). His own temptation during his forty days in the wilderness was to seek to rule over the world by Satan’s means, and he opposed it by teaching loyalty to God alone: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matt. 4:8-10).2

History teaches us that oppression distorts relationships and tempts the oppressed either to rebel against their oppressors or to collaborate with them. Jesus taught his followers to seek deliverance from both temptations. We know that many gave in, that there was a failed rebellion against Rome, just as Jesus predicted multiple times. Jerusalem was trampled and torn to pieces. We also know that many collaborated with Rome’s power. Sadducees and high priests often took the bait, being corrupted by Rome’s power, which they obtained for themselves by collaborating with the occupation. They had their own private police to help Rome sniff out any disloyalty. They lived in luxury, while ordinary people got poorer because of their greediness.

I think we’re familiar with this temptation. We’re surrounded by such tremendous displays of worldly power – in political displays of power, in military pageantry, in humongous corporations who are more powerful than some nations, in performance-enhancement driven prowess of the human body, in popular culture that praises sexual prowess, domination, and conquest. We need to pray as Jesus taught us, “Lead us not into temptation,” that me might not allow ourselves to acquire privilege and status by being conformed to the world.

Stassen, writing before the recession, presciently observed,

We are tempted to try to get ahead by giving support to powers that promise advancement and security even when those powers take advantage of their workers, damage the environment, or fail to contribute to the common good and the needs of their society. We have all seen, as this teaching says, that putting our trust in the powers that be can point to a future in which they “will turn and maul you” We can see this self-destructive future in national budget deficits and trade deficits growing out of control because of policies that reward the very powerful with wealth and take from the less powerful. We are depleting natural resources without regard to future generations. Much mass media entertainment seeks profits by spreading unethical values and showing immorality being rewarded, contrary to sexual faithfulness and the value and dignity of human life. The quality of public services such as schools, health care, hospitals, public transportation, levees, and bridges decays as the powerful shift money to serve their short-term interests. . . Should not truthful assessment today warn that the temptation to get ahead by supporting temporal powers rather than the way of Jesus is having disastrous consequences?3

So Jesus warns us not to give our holy things to the dogs, but rather to God. Jesus knows that throughout Israel’s history, its greatest struggle was with idolatry – disloyalty to God, and its second-greatest struggle in the Scriptures was with unrighteousness – disloyalty to one another. When asked about giving (same word as giving dogs what is holy) loyalty to the Roman Empire in the form of taxes, the climax of Jesus’ teaching is “Give to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21).

Transforming Initiative: Giving Loyalty, Trust, and Prayer to God Alone
For Jesus, the transforming initiative, the path to deliverance from losing saltines, from being trampled underfoot, from being mauled by those seductive powers whom we thought we could trust, is to give our loyalty and trust and prayers to God alone. Jesus had already taught his listeners to trust God, rather than human recognition or prestige in giving alms, or praying, or fasting (Mt. 6:1-18). He taught his listeners to trust God rather than wealth (Mt. 6:19-34). Is he now teaching us to trust God rather than the power of the rulers of the Roman Empire?

I know I’ve mentioned before how during January, while we were in Israel and the West Bank, we visited a place called Masada, which means fortress, and it is a tremendous desert fortress built by Herod the Great. He and many after him sought refuge and safety there, including some of Jesus’ contemporaries, but the fortress ultimately could not deliver those inside from the Roman Army. As we were driving away, our leader had us turn to Psalm 18:2, which says, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, my Masada, and my deliverer, my God in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Biblical faith envisions a different source of trust and providence.

Jesus taught his followers to Give their loyalty to God and God’s way – not to the world and its powers. You see, I think that maybe when Jesus taught us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,” he wasn’t saying that God is like a fabled magic lamp with a Genie inside, ready to satisfy our every desire, but rather that unlike dogs and pigs and powers and emperors, God can be trusted. Again he refers to God as our Father in heaven, saying that God is like parents who care for their children, who provide for them, and give them what they truly need, rather than turning on them or trampling them.

It is our heavenly Father alone who can be trusted with our prayers, our needs, and our desires. We know that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours, that God knows what we truly need, even better than we do, as we heard the prophet Isaiah say so eloquently last week (55:9). Sometimes we think back and even are grateful that we didn’t get what we prayed for, and sometimes not.

You know, it’s interesting that God didn’t grant Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and yet, God did. You see, Jesus prayed, “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me,” and he added, “yet not what I will, but what you will.” Just as he taught his disciples to pray: “Your will be done.” And indeed, that prayer was fulfilled in Jesus’ faithful obedience, even unto death.

Jesus wants us to align our will with God’s will, our desires with God’s desires, and to pray confidently and humbly, as we humble ourselves before God’s ways, and God’s ways are faithful. That is where our trust and loyalty belong.

Giving as God Gives; Doing as God Does
And that is to be how we relate to one another as well: Just as God gives good gifts to us, we are to give good deeds to others, according to the golden rule of doing to others as we would have them do to us, thus fulfilling the Law and the Prophets as Jesus taught. Often the simplest teachings are the most transformative.

And I want to close with a brief comment on this simple yet incredibly important rule:

In our culture, we have become increasingly plagued with a personality disorder whereby we are unable to enter the concerns and points of view of others because we think that would mean rejecting our own concerns and convictions and perspectives. This is more than the problem of individualism that we talk so much about. This is called narcissism. Those who are narcissistic cannot affirm their own perspective while also understanding someone else’s. They see things their way and reject all other ways as a threat to their perspective – or else they affirm someone else’s perspective and deny their own. Neither is healthy. Narcissists appear irrational and oblivious until you realize that they see everything only through their own needs and desires. Jesus’ love is different. Like being multilingual, it can sense what another person cares about without forgetting one’s own language.4

When we practice giving our loyalty and trust to God, who gives us good things, when we humble ourselves to God’s ways and will, only then are we able to share that compassion in doing to others, because then we love with the very heart of God, whose love stretches the world over.

May we give your loyalty, trust, service, and prayers to God alone, who is our loving parent, that we might do unto others with the very heart of God.

Notes:
1. See Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, 169.
2. Stassen, 170.
3. Stassen, 172.
4. See Stassen’s fantastic commentary on this at Stassen, 174-175.

Salt and Light

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Salt and Light” (Matthew 5:13-20)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 26, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Audio: “Salt and Light”

Light is often connected with the presence of God:

  • God is the source of light (Gen. 1:3)
  • God’s presence is likened to a bright shining light (Isa. 60:1-3)
  • Isaiah refers to the Light of the LORD (2:5)
  • Israel is to be the light of the nations (Isa. 49:6)
  • God’s word is light (Ps. 119:105)
  • Doing deeds of obedience means walking in the light (Ps. 112:4; 1 Jn. 1:7)

No transcript is available. Enjoy the audio!