Carry the Light

January 2nd, 2022 homily on Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1:1-18 by Pastor Galen

A New Year?

Happy New Year! Many people are saying that it really doesn’t feel like a new year, that it feels like nothing has changed so far. Personally, I spent the first two waking hours of this new year standing outside in the rain, waiting in line to get a COVID test. How’s your New Year going so far? (fortunately I had a good umbrella, and even more fortunately the COVID test result was negative). 

So far 2022 feels like it might be a repeat of 2021, or even 2020. My kids have even been jokingly calling this year 2020 – part 2. The rainy, dreary weather here in Maryland between Christmas and New Nears, and the surge in COVID cases and the omicron variant certainly doesn’t help. Last week even my 5-year-old said that this year it didn’t really feel like Christmas. She said, “how can it rain on Christmas?”

Not All That Different

I’ve been thinking that perhaps this is how it felt for many of the people surrounding Jesus after he was born – Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men. Sure, the time right before and after Jesus’s birth was a rather exciting time for Joseph and Mary, to say the least – an unexpected pregnancy, having to flee to Egypt after Jesus’s birth to escape the wrath of King Herod. But then they came back home, and life would have seemed rather normal for many years, as Jesus grew up, and went to school, and learned his father’s carpentry trade.

For the shepherds, too, it may have seemed like life just sort of carried on as normal. Sure, there was the flurry of excitement when the angels appeared to them and when they rushed to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus and told everyone what had happened. But my guess is that after that they probably just went back to tending their flocks of sheep every night. 

And for the magi – after their epic journey to visit the newborn king, went back home, and life would have gotten back to normal – whatever “normal” life was like for the magi! 

Now sure, Joseph and Mary, and the shepherds, and the magi believed that Jesus was going to change the world as they knew it. But the first 30 years of his life probably seemed pretty normal. We get only a small glimpse into his childhood in the Bible. We know that when he was twelve years old his parents took him on a trip to the temple in Jerusalem, and that while he was there he astounded the teachers with his insight. And yet we really don’t hear anything about him until he turned thirty years old. 

The Bible refers to Jesus as a tekton (Mark 6:3), which is usually translated “carpenter,” but it’s really a more generic term for “builder.” And so it seems that Jesus spent the majority of his years on this earth building or making things. 

In her book Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep, Anglican priest and author Tish Harrison Warren writes about all those years that Jesus spent as a builder. She says, 

God came to earth and apparently thought it was worth his while to take some wood or stone or metal and make something. What did he make? We have no idea. Apparently nothing earth-shattering enough to have kept around. But in this dark world, where men and women were dying, where people were suffering, where injustice raged in a vast and violent empire, God became flesh and built some furniture. During all those decades he wasn’t preaching, healing or clearing out temples. He wasn’t starting a movement or raising the dead. The light came into the darkness and did ordinary work.

But she goes on to suggest that

All [italics mine] of Jesus’ work brought redemption. Not just the work that awed the crowds – the feeding of the multitude, the Sermon on the Mount, the raising of Jaurus’s daughter, but also his quiet craft.” And she goes on to describe Jesus’s life, which was a rhythm of prayer, and ministry, and work.

And yet, although Jesus lived the majority of the years of his life in relative obscurity, he did indeed change the world – so much so that even our calendar system points to Jesus’s time on this earth. We count the years based upon when Jesus was born, rather than when Caesar or any other early ruler was born. And here we are gathered today, 2,000 years later, to worship Jesus, just as the shepherds and magi did, and to study his teachings and learn from his wisdom, just as the teachers of the law did when he was twelve years old sitting in the temple. 

His Life was Light

The Gospel of John describes Jesus’s life and ministry using the poetic imagery of light, which is an apt description, given what we’ve been talking about. It’s taken right from the mouth of Jesus, who claimed to be the Light of the World (John 8:12). John says that “in [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

Jesus’s life was like a candle that could not be snuffed out. His life burned quietly much of the time, and yet no matter where he went, he brought light. To those who were in despair, his light was a gentle glow that brought hope. To those who were mourning, his light brought joy. To those who were feeling unloved, it brought a gentle warmth that reassured them of God’s love for them.

And wherever Jesus went he brought peace – true peace – not the absence of conflict, but shalom peace that seeks to get to the root of the issue, as we talked about during Advent. During those times, Jesus’s life was like a spotlight that shed light on the corrupt religious and political systems of his day. It illuminated the wicked thoughts and evil actions of those who sought to wield their power in ways that hurt and abused others. Jesus’s life brought to light those things that others sought to keep hidden. Sometimes his mere presence caused people to completely change their entire lifestyle – as in the case of Zaccheaus, when Jesus simply came to his house. Other times, Jesus’s light was glaringly bright, as when he turned the tables over in the temple in Jerusalem, bathing the entire corrupt system in light so as to expose the grave injustices that were occurring. 

No matter where he went, Jesus brought life, and truth, and light. 

The True Light, Which Enlightens Everyone

John refers to Jesus as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). This is not teaching a universal salvation – as though everyone has the light of Christ inside of them. In fact, John points out that even though Jesus “was in the world…the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11). 

But rather, Jesus’s life reveals the truth of what is really in our hearts. How we respond to Jesus says a lot about who we really are. Are we intrigued and drawn in by Jesus, or do we run the other way? Are we compelled to follow him, to seek to model our life after his, or do we simply ignore those things that he said that don’t fit with what we want for our lives?

There are many people who claim the name of Christ and yet twist his words to fit their own agenda. Much damage has been done in the world by people who claim to be Christ-followers. And yet when their lives are placed alongside the life of Christ – when we allow Christ’s light to illuminate their actions – we see that they are in no way following Christ.

On the other hand, we see people who may reject the label of Christian, but who love Jesus and seek to model their lives after him. They seek to be Christlike in their thoughts and words and deeds. 

But no matter who we are, or how we identify ourselves, the light of Jesus’s life illuminates our lives. When we compare ourselves with Christ, we see who we really are, and who we are not.

Children of God

John then goes on to say that to those who receive Jesus, “who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). Not just “created beings.” Not robots who are forced to carry out the functions of the creator who made us. But rather, “children of God” – with all of the rights and privileges that come along with that status. John says that those who receive Christ, who believe in his name, are given the power to become children of God. 

This is the vision that Jeremiah had in Jeremiah 31 – of the remnant of Israel being brought back from the farthest parts of the earth – with weeping and consolations, and with God being their Father. Except that in Christ, this family has been extended not just to the nation of Israel, but to anyone and everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. 

The fact that we have been given the power to become children of God is indeed cause for great celebration, as Jeremiah prophesied. For in Christ we have received “grace upon grace,” as John says in verse 16. “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

We Carry the Light

The proper response to such amazing grace as this is to dedicate our lives to Christ, in response to the amazing love that he has shown us. This is in fact what it means to be children of God. As children of God, as those who have believed in Christ’s name, we carry on Christ’s mission in the world. We are called to carry Christ’s light. In fact, in Matthew 5:14, Jesus even said that we – his followers are the light of the world. As Christ is and was the light of the world, now we as Christ’s followers are to bear Christ’s light to those around us.

We do that when we tell the truth, and when we work for justice. when we shed light on those places where power has been abused. We spread Christ’s light when we do acts of mercy – bringing God’s hope and love to those who are downtrodden or in need. We do that when we show kindness to strangers. 

We can even bear Christ’s light in the midst of our normal, everyday activities in life – whether at work, or school, or at home with our families, whether we’re working with wood, or stone, or computers, or food, or whatever it is that we do. If we are truly children of God, then even our seemingly normal, ordinary activities are a participation in the redemptive work of Christ in this world, because we bear the light of Christ wherever we go.

Into the New Year

And so, as we enter into this new year that may not seem all that different from last year, may we trust that God can work even in the midst of seemingly ordinary, everyday activities. May we recommit ourselves to being bearers of Christ’s light in this world, wherever we go, and whatever we do. May we seek to bring hope, and joy, and peace and love wherever we go. May we seek to tell the truth, even when it is difficult. 

May we have the courage to speak up when called to do so. May we pray and work for peace – true peace, not just the absence of conflict, but peace that involves justice. And may we show mercy, and love, and kindness even to strangers. As bearers of Christ’s light, may we spread that light to others. And as people who have received grace upon grace, may we too be agents of grace in this world. 

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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