Sermon for December 22, 2019
Texts: Jeremiah 31:7-14/John 1:1-18
Title: “The Stamp of an Original”
“The mark of genius, the stamp of the original does not come to a man simply by performing his craft better than any of his contemporaries. It comes when a man reinvents a form.” It was the hockey great Wayne Gretzky who inspired those words by Gary Smith, a staff writer for “Sport’s Illustrated” magazine.
Sports, politics, science, architecture, music, name the activity, there are people who by virtue of their ability to compose a piece of music, design a building, or shoot a basketball elevate the whole character of the field in which they happen to labor. As the cliché goes, they take their discipline to “the next level.”
God doesn’t squander genius, does he? There are only a select few who rise to the stature of a Brahms in music, Picasso in painting, or Dickens in literature. The vast majority of us make due with modest accomplishment, several rungs on the ladder beneath the “greats.”
“The mark of genius, the stamp of the original,” comes to those who reinvent the form, reshape the essential character of the activity in which they engage. In all of history no one wore the mark of genius, the stamp of the original more conspicuously than Jesus. He was referred to by many titles. For some he was a prophet, for others a healer, still others called him “rabbi,” or “teacher.” Yet no title by itself defined the inescapable essence of Jesus. New vocabulary was needed.
Some Jewish folk protested. “Hey, wait a minute,” they interjected, “we don’t need to invent new vocabulary for Jesus, our religious tradition has ample vocabulary already. Let’s call him ‘messiah,’ the ‘anointed of God.’” The idea caught on. Jesus, this carpenter’s son from Nazareth, in the minds of many, embodied all of the attributes that messiah was expected to have. Not a mere prophet or teacher, this man was deemed capable of delivering Israel to her proper rank and station in history. Israel’s proudest days were yet to come under this Messiah.
“Jesus, the anointed, the messiah of God.” A regal enough title, but, having pondered the person and work of Jesus, many could not convince themselves that the title adequately celebrated the special qualities that set Jesus apart from all the other priests, prophets, and teachers who had ministered in God’s name. The man was one of a kind. He was “the stamp of the original.” No doubt an original, but how to describe those special qualities he possessed? There was the challenge.
From the time of his first appearing on earth people have asked all kinds of questions about Jesus. In fact, the author of John’s Gospel, the gospel from which our second lesson this morning is taken, concludes his work by confessing the poverty of his efforts, stating, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Hyperbole? Certainly. But the fact remains that Jesus, born, crucified, and raised from the dead over two thousand years ago, remains to this day the subject of hundreds of books and articles exploring his life and work. Millions will gather today to profess their faith in Jesus, poised to celebrate his birth.
Jesus challenges human comprehension for we want to say that this Jesus who walked the earth as we do, and shared in all aspects of human life, is also God. Imagine. Unique in all history, we Christians confess that Jesus the Christ or “anointed one,” fully human, fully dive, is the decisive revelation of God; decisive, as in “most perfect,” “most complete.” So central is this notion to the Christian faith that the New Testament is introduced with a title page that reads as follows: “The New Covenant commonly called The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
At the very outset the reader is informed that old forms have taken a new shapes, given way, this is something new; a new covenant—a contract between God and his people, a new testament, new testimony affirming one reality: Jesus is Savior and Lord.
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets [so begins the letter to the Hebrews], but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
A language to describe this “reflection of God’s glory [bearing the] exact imprint of God’s very being”—where do you find it? How to understand this new thing God has done in Jesus? Early Christians faced that dilemma.
Language to describe Jesus. “The New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”—that’s how the story opens. The New Testament speaks in the distinctive voice and vocabulary of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in whose names the four gospels were composed. Each of these writings reveals unique and important facets of the Christ. They are four separate voices, but they are united around the common conviction that Jesus is Lord. Add to the four voices, the voice of Paul, the apostle. Paul rightly takes his place in the first rank with the gospel writers as an expositor of Jesus’ works and wisdom.
But others, whose faith was equally earnest, though perhaps less ardently or thoroughly elaborated, took their turns, adding their individual lines to the Greatest Story Ever Told. Each contributor to the twenty-seven books of the New Testament had his turn at defining the singular attributes of Jesus, or the message he taught.
You are a first century disciple of Jesus, and you set out to write about him. So how will you do it? If you are the evangelist John writing late in the first century, you collect as much information about Jesus as you can—some of which may have come from your own personal encounters with the man—and then, using your familiarity with the traditions of Judaism and the Greek thought world, you try to say that which the Holy Spirit has placed on your heart.
Jesus Christ is your subject. So how will you treat it? How about beginning your story as the writer of Genesis began his story [after all this Jesus you intend to write about opened a new chapter in human history] and so you write: “In the beginning,” but this is in the beginning with a twist. If you are John you want your reader to know that Jesus, being God himself, was right there on the scene at the world’s creation. In the beginning was the Word. (The Word was there, that is Jesus, God’s agent of God’s self-disclosure was there.) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [If you are John you underline that last bit—the Word was God.] he was in the beginning with 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 darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Warming to his subject, John continues to write.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. [Jesus really didn’t need a publicist, but it would expedite things if someone like John (also known as “the Baptist”) could prepare people for his coming.] John came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightened everyone, was coming into the world. [Jesus: light of God, Word of God.]
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. [People didn’t get it. God had come to earth in human form, but the people, most specifically the Jews, God’s chosen, Jesus’ own flesh and blood, were too blind to understand. They had eyes to see and ears to hear, why couldn’t they see reality for what it was? Yet, praise God, some did get it]: But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.”
Some did “get it.” But why did they “get it?” What John is telling us is that some inner conversion must occur in us if we are to apprehend Christ in his fullness. God reveals, God discloses himself in Jesus, yet our flesh and blood senses may be blind to these new realities, effectively leaving us with no means to embrace these realities short of a spiritual rebirth.
“And the Word, Jesus, 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. 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.’ From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” With those words the opening section of John’s Gospel concludes.
“The mark of genius, the stamp of the original, does not come to a man simply by performing his craft better than any of his contemporaries. It comes when a man reinvents a form.” Jesus Christ “bore the stamp of the original… [reinventing the]form” in which God’s people conceived of God. In Jesus, God became incarnate. He took on flesh, and in human flesh waged a battle no human being before or since has undertaken. On behalf of all humankind he assaulted the powers of darkness and death, in his resurrection he defeated those powers, delivering us from death to eternal life. Generations have come and gone and the Church continues to affirm that Jesus Christ is light, and darkness shall never overcome it.
The evangelist John is an extraordinary contributor to the Christian faith. He was given to see God in a new dimension: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” Stamp of the original, indeed.
No, John did not say it all, and he may not even have said it best, but what he did was to open up an important line of inquiry into God’s nature that generations have followed; an inquiry which leads not only into the depths of God, but into the depths of each of us whom God created.
John was a trailblazer, certainly, but on the subject of God and God’s self-revelation in Jesus there may be volumes of words, but no one final word. We still probe, we still explore this wonder which is Christ, but not merely to know Christ better, we do it that we might know ourselves better. Friends, to know Christ well is to know our authentic selves well. “Jesus shows us what it means to be divine and what it means to be human [professor Stacey Johnson has written.] Apart from Jesus Christ we are without genuine and complete knowledge of either God or ourselves. Jesus’ humanity gives us license to speak of God’s true humanity and it shows us the path to our own authentic humanity.”
Who are in the eyes of God? Jesus came to demonstrate the wonderful possibilities available to us. It is up to decide if those wonderful possibilities are to continue to exist as mere possibilities, or become a gateway to the abundant life.
Lord Jesus, we know that words are indispensable to life, and of all the words of our generation, or any generation, you, O Christ, are the most indispensable word of all. A word spoken by God at the beginning of time, you are the source of life itself.
Speak through us, dear Christ, living word, that as you gain greater and greater authority over our lives we might be apostles of hope in a world awash in words, but deprived of the truth your word proclaims. Consecrate this worship by your Spirit that your word, read and interpreted, and sung here today, may be what in truth it is, a holy vessel bearing grace, a word offering the confused, the lost, the tempted, a secure mooring.
O God who has enriched our lives with opportunity, we thank you for the gift of opportunity we have enjoyed this year. We praise you for prosperity, the good living we derive from our work. We praise you for health, and the medical care to which we have access when we are ill. We praise you for the love of family and friends surrounding us. We praise you for the delights we have discovered in our leisure time activities. We praise you for the simple pleasures that add luster to life, a nap in the afternoon, a walk in the sun, the familiar piece of music that stirs fond remembrances, warm coat to keep out the winter chill.
O God, your have been gracious. We have been favored with good gifts. Yet as we reflect upon the blessings granted, we also remember the obstacles we have faced, the hurt we have suffered, and the hurt we have inflicted. We pray for healing and wholeness where obstacles still detain us. We pray for those in our acquaintance who are ill, or unemployed, stressed or forlorn.
O God, as we anticipate the dawn of a new year, we pray that we might leave old baggage behind us and resolve to change what needs to be changed in our lives. Grant us the gift of patience, the wisdom to slow down and live in the moment rather than focusing our thoughts on the future.
Finally, for the gift of another year of life, the friends and family surrounding us in worship we give thanks, praying…