Draw Close to God's Heart
Scripture: John 1:10-18
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. 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.
And the Word 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.
My kids and I love to talk about the movies we see, and a few months ago, I told them this bit of wisdom I had learned somewhere that all movies and stories ever made have two basic plots:
- Someone goes on a journey.
- A stranger comes to town.
And when you think about it, it kind of holds up.
Sometimes, the kids and I sit around and talk about our favorite movies and classify them in one of those two categories:
- A movie like Rise of the Skywalker about Rey, a Jedi Warrior, who goes on a journey to find the hidden base of the evil bad guy. (No Spoilers)
- Or a movie like Knives Out about a detective, a stranger, who steps into the lives of a dysfunctional family to solve a murder mystery.
Now there might be movies that break the mold, but we probably don’t have one that comes to mind right away. Who would want to watch a movie about a hero who stays at home watching TV all day?
Both plots suggest something happens - change unfolds, either from the outside or from characters going to a place they have never been before.
One of our favorites captures both - Princess Bride. A masked man who goes on a journey to rescue his true love. His refrain is as you wish - which really means I love you.
But to shift gears a little bit, I’m curious - what plot fits your life right now in this New Year? Are you prepared to embark on a journey into the unknown, or has a stranger showed up and knocked your world upside down?
Today on this Epiphany Sunday, we transition from Christmas and celebrate God’s light in this New Year. This is a day when we sometimes think about the wise ones, magi, astrologers, who go on a journey, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to pay homage to the King of the Jews, as told in the Gospel of Matthew. But this is also day when we think about and sit with the incredible gift that is the Light of God come into our midst through Jesus, a child who came like a stranger into an insignificant family’s life in a tiny remote village far away from the thrones of power, and by doing so brought upheaval to his world and our world.
In some way, both of those basic kinds of stories line up with the gospel story about Jesus.
The Gospel tells us God says to us - as you wish!
In our scripture from John 1, verse 10 and 11, Jesus is described like a stranger who shows up out of the blue:
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.
Especially in the light of recent events among anti-semitic violence against Jewish neighbors, I recognize this scripture passage is confusing. For far too long, Christians used verses like these to justify harassment and violence against Jews - that our Jewish neighbors rejected Jesus or were responsible for Jesus’ death. But let me be clear - we sin when we use and abuse scripture to justify any kind of harm against anyone.
A better understanding of this scripture is that Jesus was rejected just like so many prophets are - rejected especially by those who are powerful, those who prefer status quo, those who only later begun to understand the what his life meant.
Jesus was the stranger - and only after the people thought they had lost him, even some of his own disciples, did they realize who he truly was.
In verse 14, John describes the most epic of journey stories:
And the Word 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.
Numerous theologians remind us that the Greek words could literally be translated to “pitched a tent among us”. God came and walked the earth in human form, just like we walk it. Most religions - and lots of Christian conversation - is about getting to heaven, getting to where God is. And yet, God’s movement through Jesus appears to be in the opposite way. While we want to get up there, God is risking everything to go on an adventure to be among us, to walk through a beloved Creation.
That’s a divine journey!
Both of these movements, God as pilgrim and stranger in our midst, are grounded in grace - and it’s why we look forward to Christmas, why we celebrate the presence of God in our midst on Epiphany, why we journey with Jesus to the cross, and why we are perplexed and confused by the Risen Lord among us on Easter.
- Jesus is that stranger waiting to be discovered by us - through prayer, worship, and reflection - through our service among those who are suffering, our care of our neighbors and family. When we find Jesus, our world changes. Our lives change. We might experience a complete 180 in our life, like Saul who was even given a new name and vocation after meeting Jesus. Or like the Canaanite woman who cries out for Jesus to hear her pleading, experiencing a sudden, unexplainable healing for our family and a generous welcome into the abundant grace of God.
- Jesus is also that one who invites us to get up and go to a land we may not know, to do something different and new, to let ourselves be stretched and vulnerable. Even as a church, Jesus says, come and follow me. And that journey, if we dare risk it, will transform us. We are like those disciples, scattered to the ends of the earth after Jesus gives the Great Commission. According to church legend, some, like St. Thomas, even went as far as India to proclaim Jesus as Lord.
What’s clear and I affirm powerfully from our scripture is that when people met Jesus, they felt close to God’s heart. Jesus was not a stranger who brought misery to those he met, except perhaps those set on causing harm to God’s beloved - when people saw Jesus, they felt close to the very presence of God. And out of that experience, they sought to share this light to others.
And Jesus encouraged it, saying - “You are the light of the world…. Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
This has only become more real to me as I prepare to board a plane to Israel and Palestine for the next 11 days. I will join a group of clergy and colleagues to visit Holy Sites, be in deep conversation, seek to understand the conflict, and tread on the ground where Jesus and his disciples walked. Please pray for us!
And we go right now as it seems like our country is poised to extend and deepen existing conflict, already when we have been at wars for years in Afghanistan so much so that we sort of stop thinking about it, when even here in the US anti-semitic attacks remind certain groups of people that they are not safe, when our polarization and distrust are as high as they have ever been…
I shared in my blog post on the website this week that I was hopeful that this New Year would bring a change, and so far, I am not impressed.
And yet, as one who has experienced the Light of Christ, I am asking myself - how can I let my light shine before others?
I am going on this trip in hopes that I will find Jesus over there - to walk those ancient paths where he and his disciples walked - to find hope buried in the midst of conflict, walls, oppression, and fear. To find Jesus in the eyes and stories of strangers, who are in all things trying to be faithful. And maybe bring back some clues to share with you all…
But in truth, we are all on that journey in this New Year - we are all being asked, how will you let your light shine before others?
How will we, University Christian Church, let our lights shine in a time of division and anger and injustice?
How will we let our lights shine in opposition to more conflict and more war?
How will we let our lights shine among our Jewish neighbors and Muslim neighbors and our non-religious neighbors, revealing the grace and love of God?
How will we let our lights shine enough that this community, our families, each of us will experience the fullness of God’s grace and glory, right here and now?
In one of our readings for the trip, Jean Zaru, a Palestinian Quaker leader, shared about her own experience of walking with Jesus and finding Jesus even in her enemies. She suggests that “love your neighbor” and “love your enemy” are not that dissimilar, quoting GK Chesteron who wrote, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” For Jean, who struggles to advocate for freedom and justice for her Palestinian people and the Palestinian Christian community, it is agonizing and challenging to try to love those who seem intent on disrupting your lives for the worse. And yet - it is the journey that reveals our light - and God’s light. When we find the courage to listen, when we find the strength to resist the pessimism and war-mongering of our time, when we dare reach across boundaries, when we seek each day to honor the light of God in every stranger we met along this journey, we too draw close to God’s heart. We radiate with the light of our Risen Lord.
Maybe you need to go on a journey this year with God - into a new place, following Jesus and being stretched and transformed.
Maybe you need God to show up in flesh in your life - to walk with you, to disrupt your status quo, to shake things up.
May you be blessed in that new beginning today!
As a signal to begin this journey, I have a small gift for you to take with you. Your very own nugget of Frankincense. The wise ones journeyed from long distance to worship Jesus. This gift of Frankincense is a gift of fragrance. You can place it in your fireplace or in your grill - and the smoke will rise up like our prayers for each other and our world. I invite you to take it with you - hold it til you are ready - and then use it. As the smoke rises, as the fragrance fills your home, experience God’s presence. Welcome Jesus - and
(posted January 5, 2020)