John 1:(1-9), 10-18
*translation offered by Tom Boomershine, available at www.gotell.org
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and 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 the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He 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 enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 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.
In 70 CE, the world as they knew it fell apart.
The First Jewish Revolt against Rome began as quickly as it ended, but the carnage was impossible to miss. On the ninth and 10th of the month of Av in the year 70, the Roman legions in Jerusalem smashed through the fortress tower of Antonia into the Holy Temple and set it afire. In the blackened remains of the sanctuary lay more than the ruins of the great Jewish revolt for political independence. To many Jews, it appeared that Judaism itself was shattered beyond repair.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes that
“out of approximately four or five million Jews in the world, it is likely that over a million Jews died in the war for independence, many of them from starvation, others by fire and crucifixion. So many Jews were sold into slavery and given over to the gladiatorial arenas and circuses that the price of slaves dropped precipitously, fulfilling the ancient curse: “There you will be offered for sale as slaves, and there will be no one willing to buy.”
The historian Josephus described severe famine that left families fighting over food, the hill of the temple mount teeming with fire and piled high with the slain.
It was a human crisis. But it was also a spiritual crisis. The temple, the symbol of God’s covenant with the world, was gone.
In the years after this awful moment, the people responded in many different ways. Some gave their lives over to the task of mourning. The Talmud says that these people rejected normal life, choosing not to marry or have children. They simply could not imagine going on with life as usual. They spent all their effort trying to restore what was lost.
Others planned for the next rebellion, gathering forces and making plans for what would ultimately be another failed attempt at independence.
And it was into the rawness of that grief and unknowing and despair that one community, perhaps one person in that one community, began to do something remarkable in the decades after the destruction of their world.
They began to tell a story.
Not just any story, mind you. With the grieving and the hurting gathered together, they told the story of the God who made the world. Only, it was different this time. Richard Swanson’s translation of the text goes like this:
“Things used to make sense. And that sense, it was with God. It even WAS god, and that sense made the world, even as the world made sense.”
From the valley of despair, surrounded by death and destruction, John needs his community to see that all is not lost. And so he reaches for the story of creation, only he does not tell it like their ancestors did. Instead, he makes it new. He reshapes the story, and makes space for their lived experience—the experience of a suffering, struggling people who are uncertain of what the future may hold. This is a story that can handle the messiness of the world.
Imagine what it must have been like to meet the destruction and despair of the world with a story of God’s creative and redemptive power. To stand in the rubble of all that was lost and to proclaim: God is not through with us yet. For see, the God who made us, who hovered over the waters of creation, the one whose light shines in the darkness, cannot be overcome. Will not be overcome.
The author Wayne Booth has noted that when we read fiction, we read words that were written in their own times, but that we always, when we read a book, can only read it in our own century. And how we hear a story depends a great deal on what is happening to us.
And so I find myself thinking about this story and wondering: knowing what we know, how can we read it now?
I suspect I am not alone in imagining that perhaps some of us can identify with the experience of the Jewish people. I know that, as I read about the stories of the temple, I cannot help but remember where I was 20 years ago when our world as we know seemed to fall apart. This weekend, as many in our country looked back on the events of twenty years ago I found myself wondering: what is the story that we are telling about this moment?
That may seem like a small question, but I promise you, it matters a great deal. Advances in the study of the mind have revealed that our memories are not a solid thing. Rather, they are shaped by the act of remembering itself—how we tell the stories about our experiences change the way we remember, and even explain why three people can remember the same experience so differently. Each time we tell a story, it is made new, in some way, changed by the very telling itself.
This week, we have been asked to bear witness to the many stories about what happened in our country 20 years ago, about just how much our lives were changed in the past and in the present by that destructive morning. As Christians, we are called to be bear witness to those who suffer, to suffer alongside them even as we seek healing. But that is not all we are called to. We are also called to look to the bigger story, the story that God is telling. We are called to the same radical act that inspired the Johannine community to tell the story of God’s dwelling with the people, from the beginning of time and in the person of Christ. And to find ways to connect the story of what God has done in the past, with what God is doing in this present moment to redeem the world. To envision a God that is bigger than our pain.
I will leave you with a story. In her book, Plan Be: Further Thoughts on Faith, the author Anne Lamott tells a story about a man name AJ Muste. He was a life-long pacifist who, during the Vietnam War, stood in front of the White House every night, for years, holding a single lighted candle.
Well, over time, people started to notice this man with a candle, and eventually, on one very rainy night, a reporter walked up to him and asked him, “Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change anything by standing out here alone every night with a candle?”
“Oh,” Muste replied, “I don’t do it to change them, I do it so they won’t change me.”
May we seek to hold the candle of our faith in the darkness, that we might remember the story God is telling, and witness to the power of the redeeming Christ each and every day. Amen.