Creating Grace

 Inspired by John 1:1-18

I love plot twists. The Bible is full of them as we’ve seen but I think this one in the first chapter of John often gets overlooked. Plot twists are usually given in the middle of a story or sometimes at the very end. I love the kind that come at the end and makes you want to watch the movie all over again because the ending changes the story so much. Alfred Hitchcock had a masterful way of giving you all the answers you needed throughout the story to solve whatever the mystery was, and you didn’t even know you had them! And that’s exactly the kind of plot twist that I see when I read the opening words of John’s gospel, “In the beginning…” I remember telling you back on September 12th, when we began reading through the Hebrew scriptures with Genesis 1 that it was kind of odd that they waited until the fourth and final year of the Narrative Lectionary readings to have us read Genesis 1. 

Well, this is why, because they paired those Hebrew scripture readings with the Gospel for that year and this one makes this beautiful connection to Genesis, as well as sets up this plot twist. Because when you begin reading John 1, you realize two things. One, that because John makes this obvious connection to Genesis 1, that God must be up to God’s ol’ creative business again. And not only that but that God never stopped! That God has continued the work of creation ever since! And now John tells us that this Word character, which he eventually reveals the identity of but not right away, because John loves being mysterious, is somehow connected to creation, as far back as Genesis 1 even! What is this thing! What is this mysterious Word that he speaks of? How is it connected to creation? 

So many questions arise just from John’s opening lines! It’s the kind of plot twist that, by the end of John, will make you want to go back to the Hebrew scriptures and reread them in this new light of Jesus that John has provided us. Thankfully, we’ve already done that for the past three months, so let’s forge ahead, because John may like to be mysterious but he’s also very excited to reveal this plot twist to you so he dives right in by saying, “In the beginning there was the Word”, ok, “and the Word was in God’s presence”, so the word was with God in the beginning, alright, “and the Word was God.” Wait a sec, say again? The word was God? How can the word be with God and be God at the same time? 

Now, in light of last week's reading from Isaiah, we might be tempted to assume that the Word here is God’s promise, referring to God’s covenant, God’s vow to love us no matter what. Well, you wouldn’t be wrong, that’s just not the whole picture. John continues by saying that the Word was life and light, more creation imagery, a light shining in the darkness, a darkness that cannot overtake it. Ok, so John is still being a bit dodgy with the facts. Just get to the point John! What is this Word? John finally says, “And the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us.” Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere! So, the Word isn’t just a concept, nor is it just an action of God’s. This is a person! Flesh! Like you and me! Who is it, John! Well, he filled with grace, filled with truth too! Damn it, John, just tell us who it is! Jesus Christ! 

My goodness, John, you don’t have to use such language. No, John says, I’m telling you, it’s Jesus Christ! Ohhhhhh. The Word, is Jesus Christ. The Word that became flesh, is Jesus Christ. The One who stayed for a little while among us, is Jesus Christ. The One filled with Grace and Truth, is Jesus Christ. The One who is creating with God, from the beginning, is Jesus Christ. The Word, Jesus Christ, is God. Whoa. For the first readers of this Gospel, that was a let me sit down and give me a moment kind of Bible verse. This changes everything. And to be fair, for the Jewish community, who protected God’s oneness at all costs, those were fighting words! That would have seemed like a heretical idea for them. Too hard for many to swallow. 

But John doesn’t let up. John yearns for the reader to stick with it, don’t give up, hear what he has to say, and then at the end, you decide. Because for John, this is the heart of the Gospel. What Jesus does in the coming chapters, the miracles, the teachings, the sacrificial nature of his ministry, even the resurrection, none of that makes any sense to John without both the divine and human nature of Christ. It was a bold proclamation. It was a risky proclamation. It’s not only a plot twist but a rhetorical twist as well. Usually, an author tries to win the audience over before throwing something controversial at them! Not John. This is just too important for John. The other Gospel writers beat around the bush about this compared to John. And I love him for his boldness right outta the gate. 

Don’t’ get me wrong, many of you know that this is my least favorite Gospel, and that John is going to frustrate the hell outta me in the coming months. But if I’m honest, it’s hard not to fall in love with this guy from day one. Alright, before I get too sappy, let’s not forget where this all started. “In the beginning…” Our God is the god of creation, and John tells us that this work of creation has never ceased and that somehow Jesus is a part of that. So, it begs the question, what have they been creating? I mean, it’s not like new plants and trees have been appearing out of thin air. Or new fish in the sea. Or new bugs, although that would be cool. Especially a new spider whose bite gives you superpowers? Yeah, it’s a good thing I’m not God. So, if it’s not those things, what have they been creating all this time? 

This is gonna sound like a Lutheran cliché but hear me out, grace. I believe with all my heart that what they have been creating since day one, is grace. And that work of creating grace is about to come to a head in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. But what is grace? Well, I could tell you, but I’m gonna take a page out of John’s book and remain mysterious about it for now. One of my favorite scholars on John, Karoline Lewis, pointed something out that I had not known, or I wasn’t paying attention that day in class, which is highly possible, but I found this fascinating. She points out that the word grace is used only four times in the entire gospel and all four of those occurrences are in these opening verses of John. And here’s why. 

If Jesus was the Word that became flesh, then he is grace incarnate. The very embodiment of grace. And so, as such, the rest of the gospel of John, rather than tell you about grace, shows you “what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like, and feels like”, through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. That’s good stuff, isn’t it! I’m not gonna lie, I’m looking forward to reading through this with you! I have a feeling there’s a lot of good stuff coming our way, as well as a lot of plot twists. If we’ve learned nothing else about God, we’ve learned that our God is full of surprises! Before I let you go though, I have some homework for you. 

Earlier I mentioned that the story of Jesus as presented by John should lead you to reread the Hebrew scriptures in light of this Word that became flesh, the Christ event as it has come to be known. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna ask you to reread those again. But I would like you to do some rereading of a sort. In the same way that Christ has given us the opportunity to see grace in the Hebrew scriptures that we may not have seen before, Christ also gives us the opportunity to reread our lives, in the light of Christ; to look back on our pasts and see the creative work that has been at play in it; to see Christ's handiwork throughout our lives; to reinterpret events from our lives knowing that Christ was weaving grace into it all. That is the kind of rereading I’d encourage you to do this week. And if you’re willing, have those conversations with others, share what you discover in that rereading of your lives, all the many and surprising ways that Christ has been creating grace around you, in you, and through you. Thanks be to God. Amen.


The Promise of God

 Inspired by Isaiah 55

So, we have come to the end of our readings from the Hebrew scriptures. I know, some of you are probably thinking, “Thank God!” Ok, it’s only been three months, calm down! I get it though, it can feel like a long haul from our first reading in Genesis on September twelfth to this reading from Isaiah. But I still think it’s a worthy journey. Traveling with God’s people from their earliest stories all the way to being on the cusp of the baby Jesus.  

Hearing how they survived life’s challenges, hearing how God was with them every step of the way, recognizing how similar they are to us, has made this journey we’ve taken the past four Autumns, a rich, robust foundation for the reading of the gospel every Winter and Spring. As an intern in Alabama, I once had a family ask me why we even bother with the “Old Testament.” “We’re Christians not Jews!” they said. If you get nothing else from this journey, I hope you get this, that the Hebrew scriptures are not only ripe with grace, but that they form the foundation of the Gospels, without which, would make no sense. 

So, let’s dive into this last reading from the Hebrew scriptures, from Isaiah, and speaking of foundation, this reading is the perfect set up to the Gospel of John reading that we have next week, let alone being a perfect reading during the Advent season. Isaiah is writing during the end of the exile, as God’s people are returning home, if that’s what you want to call it. Imagine your house being ransacked while you are away, your church burned to the ground, your city pillaged, and you’ll begin to imagine what they were coming “home” to. I’m reminded of the words of Frodo Baggins from the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy when he says, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand...there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.” 

This was their state of mind as they returned home, and their prophet, Isaiah, who had walked with them for some time, had some words of comfort for them, in the words of an invitation! But like all prophets, his words also come with a challenge. In the version we are reading from, this entire portion of Isaiah comes to us in the first person, and I absolutely love that. Isaiah uses God’s own voice to send us these words of comfort and challenge, directly from God’s own heart, to our hearts. First an invitation, an invitation to a dinner party to end all dinner parties, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk!” 

In their context, these were words of grace like no other. Remember, they were returning home with nothing, to nothing. No jobs, no homes, no savings accounts, no food but what they could carry and find. So, the idea that God had something that cost them nothing! That was good news! The only thing that was required, was to be thirsty and hungry. And God was even willing to throw in some wine too! God is even willing to go beyond the basic necessities of life! What’s more, this invitation was for everyone, not just the people that God had been traveling with up to that point. But for anyone who wanted what God was offering. Again, the only requirement was to be thirsty and hungry. When Sara and I were newly married, we fell on some pretty hard times like many young couples do.  

She was pregnant with our first child and we both lost our jobs around the same time, our food stamps had run out, and we literally didn’t know where our next meal was gonna come from let alone how our bills were gonna be paid. In the midst of all this, one day we were standing in the entry way to our little apartment, saying goodbye as I went off to look for work again, when all of a sudden there’s a knock on the door. We open the door and it was our pastor. She said that she was in the neighborhood and felt like she should stop by and see how we were doing. Well, we both could barley talk we were so moved by her timely visit. After explaining our situation she immediately grabbed her church checkbook and took care of that month’s bills and food. We did nothing to earn or deserve that gift, other than being in need. 

Isaiah continues with a bit of a challenge, which turns out to be quite timely during this Advent season. God says, “Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?” In other words, keep your priorities in check! Don’t spend your resources, whether that be your time or your talents or your treasure, on things that don’t nourish, on things that don’t bring life. One theologian said, it’s the opposite message of Black Friday! Instead of spend, spend, spend; instead of go into debt for a futile attempt to find happiness, either for yourself or others, focus on what is lasting, on what is sure, on what you can count on, on what will really see you through when times are tough. And what might that be? This is where this passage sets up the Gospel of John so beautifully. 

Because the answer to that question is: God’s word. Toward the end of our passage God says, “Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend.” I love the confidence with which God says that! The question is, what is God’s word? If you answered the Bible, you’d be wrong! But I think that’s what a lot of people think when they hear the term, God’s word. But what it’s really referring to is God’s promise. Think of it this way, what do we say when we ask someone to swear they will do something, to promise to do something, we say, give me your word. 

That’s the kind of word that God is talking about here in Isaiah. God’s promise to all, to provide in ways that only God can, in ways that go beyond the basic necessities of life even. God’s promise to provide hope when all else seems lost. God’s promise to love when you feel unlovable, to your last dying breath and beyond. God’s promise to provide peace, the kind that only God can give. These are what God’s word is all about. Not some words written on a scroll thousands of years ago, but the very promise of God to never cease being God. The very promise of God that took on flesh and bone in the form of a little baby on one fateful night in Bethlehem. Thanks be to God. Amen.