HOMILY FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147: 13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 John 1: 1-18
We gathered on Wednesday last to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Now, a few days after celebrating his blessed birth, our readings are grappling with the meaning of the event. Who exactly is Jesus and what change has his birth wrought in our relationship with God?
The Old Testament readings from Isaiah and the Psalm this morning exult in the vindication and restoration of Jerusalem at the hand of the Lord. Jerusalem, Jacob and Israel are greatly favored. There is a special relationship between Israel and God: “I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” As Christians we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesies of restoration for Israel in the birth of Jesus. But who, really, is Jesus?
Today’s readings take a break from the nativity and infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke to focus on who Jesus is. The Gospel reading from John tells us that Jesus is God himself, the Word, come to earth in human form
Our Gospel reading tells us that Jesus is the Word made flesh that lived among us. What is the Word? The term might best be described as the creative manifestation of God, present since the beginning. God himself is beyond human comprehension-he is unknowable. “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”. The Word is the creative force of God which manifests itself in creation and in the relationship of God with mankind. It is the Word that reveals itself to mankind. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”. This creative force has now come into the world. He is Jesus, the true light which enlightens everyone. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him”. Jesus the Word incarnate comes into a world the Word created yet that world is now so far distant from God that it does not know him or recognize him. Darkness has taken hold of the world. Jesus is the light that shines in that darkness, and “the darkness did not overcome it”. Yet that same darkness keeps Jesus from being universally acknowledged as Lord. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”. The darkness will ultimately ensure his rejection by many, and see to it that he is killed.
This prologue to the Gospel according to John seeks to present the theological dimension of Jesus’ birth and ministry. It is a very different account from the other accounts of Jesus’ life. In the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew and Luke, the active part of Jesus’ ministry occurs after his baptism by John in the river Jordan. We call these the synoptic Gospels, because they are accounts, or summaries, of the life of Jesus. The Gospels according to Mark and to John begin at the outset of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and include no infancy narratives or other background materials. The Gospel according to John skirts the question as to whether John baptized Jesus or not. John is baptizing and Jesus is among the people by the Jordan. What is he doing there? Perhaps he is there so that John can bear witness to him as the Son of God. John sees the Spirit descend on Jesus and remain on him, and by this knows that this is the Son of God. In the three other Gospels it is at his baptism that the spirit descends on Jesus and a voice from heaven proclaims him the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased.
Jesus’ active ministry begins either after his baptism by John as described in the Synoptic Gospels, or after he has begun to gather disciples around him who also baptize people as in the Gospel of John. He is around thirty years of age. Where was he during the thirty years before beginning his ministry? Was he in Nazareth growing up in a family? As a young man, was he in Nazareth working as a carpenter, or was he in the desert and wilderness areas of Judea where radical groups of Jews like the Essenes gathered in ascetic communities to study? We know that he read Hebrew (he read from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth). Many of his followers refer to him as rabbi, or teacher. In his various disputations with the religious intelligentsia of his time, he shows himself to be well versed in the intricacies of Jewish Law. I am going to vote for his having spent years in study, for his having prepared, perhaps unknowingly, for the mission revealed to him at his baptism, and in the wilderness, by immersing himself in the Torah and the commentaries known as the Talmud. Does his initial human unawareness of his divine nature detract from his divinity, from his identity as the Word Incarnate? I think not.
Jesus was ultimately rejected by the authorities of Judea. “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 of the will of man but of God”. The Letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians likewise tells us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. Jesus, the Word made flesh, comes to free us from our disciplinarian, the law. Now that Christ has come, says Paul in his Letter to the Galatians we are justified by faith, and no longer subject to the law. “The law was indeed given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” says the Gospel reading.
Jesus, the Word incarnate, came to restore us to a closer relationship with God. He made it possible for us to become children of God. He freed us from the slavery of the law, and from the slavery of sin. “So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child, then also an heir, through God” says Saint Paul to the Galatians. He made us children of God. “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace”. Praise God.