West Newton Massachusetts
January 3, 2010
I wish that there were some wonderful place
Called the Land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all of our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,
And never be put on again.
- Louisa Fletcher Tarkington, The Land of Beginning Again
Once Upon a Time…
Two years ago, as I finished up my college degree and prepared to enter seminary, I took a job working in a bookstore in a local mall. The best part of the job was watching the faces of the children as they entered the store and ran to the Kids’ Section in the back, screeching in delight.
This was a section I could never keep in order. Often a child would enter in a frenzy and leave with a pile of books left scattered all over the floor. But I didn’t mind. For the kids it was like digging for treasure. After pulling everything off the shelves, they’d carry the book they’d chosen to the register and reach up on their tippy toes to set it on the counter, their eyes stretched wide with excitement.
Their frazzled parents would often complain about how many books the child already had at home and how quickly they’ll read this one before requesting yet another. Too often, the child never made it to the register, and instead was carried screaming from the store as the parent rattled off a list of errands they needed to run, and places they needed to be.
“We don’t have time for stories,” they’d say.
But their children knew better.
There is always time for a story.
We are a people who love stories.
When we hear the words:
Once upon a time…
In a land long ago…
In a galaxy far, far away…
We can’t help but prick up our ears and stop what we are doing.
Our full attention is given the source of these words.
Whether we read them on the printed page, see them scrolling across a movie screen, or hear them tripping off the tongue of a wizened elder, an exuberant child, or a stranger on the street.
One thing that all human beings have in common is the love of storytelling.
Before we even had language our species was scratching stick figure images onto cave walls because we couldn’t resist the urge to tell the story of our existence.
We drew pictures of the people we lived with and the animals that fed us, and the first hunters told tales of the one that got away. Storytelling was so easy, a caveman could do it.
With the development of language came not just the ability to give commands and express wants and needs verbally, but the ability to take those images off the cave walls and bring them to life in the minds of others using words alone.
Now some 35,000 years after the first cave drawings appeared, we’re still enamored by the art of story telling. In the form of books, movies, television, or theatre; and in good old-fashioned oral form – from stories passed on from generation to generation, to a simple retelling of what we did over the weekend.
Whether tales of truth or fiction, it is through story that we put aside the harsh realities of our own lives, and live vicariously through the experiences of others.
When we hear a story, we often put ourselves in the place of the characters involved and imagine how the plot would unfold with us in the driver’s seat, or we see our own lives mirrored in the stories of others and we feel a little less alone in the world.
You each have a book in front of you right now that is said to contain the Greatest Story Ever Told. If we got around to cracking its pages every once and a while we’d see that there’s stuff in there to rival even the most gripping of mystery novels, the most exciting of adventure movies, and the most voyeuristic of reality TV.
The Bible is the collective effort of a people living in a particular time and place, to explain how our world - how WE - came to be.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep…Then God said let there be light, and there was light, and God saw that the light was good.” (Genesis 1:1-4)
These are the opening words of the Torah, the beginning of what we Christians call the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, we hear an echo of this creation story in the opening words of the Gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
While the opening words of Genesis tell the story of our beginning, the opening words of the Gospel of John tell the story of Jesus’ beginning. This, believe it or not, is John’s version of the Christmas story.
This is not the story we’re accustomed to hearing.
While Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth using imagery that is identifiably from the human experience, John has another story in mind. In John’s version of the Christmas story there are no shepherds, no traveling wise men or guiding stars. Instead, John takes us all the way back to the formless void that we encountered in Genesis.
In the beginning there was God, AND in the beginning there was the Word.
For John, the Word, or Logos of God, did not enter into our history when the baby Jesus drew his first breath in a cold and lowly manger. The Word has been with us, with God, since the beginning.
Now truth be told, for many of us this is point in the story where our eyes usually glaze over.
We can relate to stories of shepherds, overcrowded inns, and newborn babies. And while some us struggle with the idea of angelic apparitions and virgin births, Matthew and Luke’s Christmas stories are at least told in a language that we can understand.
In comparison, John may as well be speaking in a foreign tongue.
As one seminary professor told his students:
“'In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God?' How do you explain this in a sermon? You can't. You could say those words every day for the rest of your life and still not understand them."
Which is probably why Richard left the preaching for me today.
In reality, the author of John’s gospel WAS speaking in a foreign tongue.
He was speaking to a Greek audience who lived in the waning years of the first century.
In John’s time the philosophy of Hellenism was in vogue, and thus he employed the language of Hellenism – using words like Logic, light, and life - to tell the story of Jesus to a people who would have found it difficult to relate to the older, culturally specific language found in the earlier gospels.
In contemporary terms, we can imagine that Matthew and Luke were writing for rural farmers and blue-collar city dwellers in the 1950’s, while John is a modern day professor of Philosophy writing for an audience of university students and college professors.
And yet while many of us here, are now or have been university students or college professors, our eyes still glaze over when we read the Gospel of John.
The passage from Jeremiah that we heard this morning, while also written for another time and another people, is much easier for us to comprehend.
Because it tells a story that we recognize and can relate to.
Jeremiah 31 is essentially the story of the prodigal son told on a national scale.
Those who had been scattered to far away lands were to be gathered back together.
God told Jeremiah:
“With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back” (Jeremiah 31:9)
Jeremiah 31 carries a message of hope. It comes near the end of a book that consists primarily of dire predictions of the evil that would befall the nation of Judah over its refusal to follow the covenant of Moses. But in chapter 31 a ray of hope bursts forth – although Judah’s people will have to face exile and punishment for their misbehavior, God makes the promise that once the punishment has brought about the desired humbling effect, the people of Judah will once again be restored to their beloved Promised Land. The end of the story will read: “And they lived happily ever after.”
Like many of the ‘happily ever after’ tales found in the Bible, Jeremiah 31 is a promise for the future. We read these stories and identify with the suffering and the isolation and recognize that although we, like the people of Judah, are still living in the middle of the story there is hope to be found in the end yet to come. But how does the promise of a happily ever after help us in the here and now?
How does a promise made to a people living some 2600 years ago, a promise of a utopia that has yet to be realized, have any bearing on how we live today?
For one possible answer, lets return to the opening words of the Gospel of John.
“The Word was God…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:1,14)
All four writers of the gospels agree that Jesus is the embodiment of the hope that is yet to come. Jesus is the Happily Ever After. Jesus is a physical manifestation of the divine presence that we are meant to be, the example that we are meant to follow, the vehicle by which we are meant to come to know God. It is through following Jesus that we make our way to the Promised Land.
In literary terms, the birth of Jesus is the climatic moment in the Christian story. Everything that came before, from Genesis onward, was merely foreshadowing of what was to come.
But while Matthew and Luke have Jesus entering in the middle of our story, and returning at the end, John writes him in at the beginning.
While it can be argued that this was John’s way of blatantly expressing a belief that the other gospel writers merely danced around – the belief that Jesus was in fact God incarnate, I would offer another interpretation.
One that relies not on the language of philosophy but on the language of story.
Once upon a time, in a land long ago, a baby is born.
A baby that in many ways is just like you and me, and in many ways is the personification of who we are meant to be. This baby embodies the hope and potential that each new life has to offer the world. Yet this baby does not come into this world alone. This baby has guardians, teachers, companions and friends. This baby is born helpless just as we all are, and without the gift of human love and compassion, this baby will never grow to be the guiding light that many will come to rely on. This baby is the expression of God’s love and grace entering into the world, and it is up to us to nurture it to fruition.
One way of interpreting the opening words of the Gospel of John is to recognize that this baby is not one life but ALL life. Genesis tells us that God spoke the world into existence; Creation itself is the Word of God. John tells us that the Word is the conduit by which God enters humanity and writes sacred history into our history. John writes:
“The Word 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.” (John 1:2-4)
For John, the human being that we came to know as Jesus was the ultimate personification of the Word, but the Word has been with us from the beginning. We might say, the Word is the life in each of us.
Admittedly, this is not the traditional way to interpret John’s gospel, as John most certainly believes that Jesus alone is the personification of the divine Word. In fact, in this respect John’s portrayal of Jesus is radically different then the other gospels.
John’s Jesus knows who he is and is not secretive at all when it comes to making sure everyone else knows it too. John’s Jesus performs a multitude of miracles; he teaches using truth statements rather than parables; and while he expresses emotions as evidence of his humanity, characteristically he is more God-like than he is human.
Personally, I prefer Matthew, Mark and Luke’s portrayal of Jesus. The Jesus who upset the status quo by telling stories and asking pointed questions; the Jesus who cried out in anguish in the garden as he prayed; the Jesus who questioned God and asked to be let off the hook when the time came for him to fulfill the divine plan. I prefer the Jesus who came into the world the same way that we do – wide-eyed and screaming, and who left the world the same way that we do – with a mixture of joy and pain, and uncertainty and hope.
The reality is that none of the gospels gives us a complete picture of who Jesus really was. Journalistic accuracy, while important to us, was of little concern to the writers of the gospels, the point was to tell the story of Jesus in a way that would resonate with the audience each was addressing. The point was to make the story come alive for the listener, with poetic license fully invoked.
Ultimately, it is through story telling that we look to the heavens and ask:
“What is the meaning of life?” “What is our purpose?” “What ending are we working towards?” And it is through storytelling that we explore all the possible answers. Through religion, science and philosophy we craft different stories containing a multitude of answers to these questions.
As individuals some of these stories resonate with us, while others do not.
Like children rummaging through storybooks on a bookshelf we choose the one that has the most colorful pictures and the plot line that makes us want to hear it again and again.
We choose the story that speaks to us.
In the story that resonates with me, God answers our questions by becoming one of us. In this story, the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, the Word made flesh, was not just to point to a future hope, a far-off happily ever after, like the one that God promised Jeremiah many years ago.
God became one of us to show us that living was our purpose.
The meaning of life, is life itself.
Complete with the joy and the pain; the laughter and the tears; the beginnings and the endings.
In this story God says: ‘The Promised Land is the land on which you now stand. Make of it what you will, and I will be right there with you offering strength and assurance.’
God created us to live out the story of creation. In a way, we are the Word made flesh. Just as God spoke us into existence, we speak God into existence through our actions and our words.
As we come together today to celebrate the continuation of the Christmas story, the birth of a new year, and the baptism of a new member of the body of Christ, it’s as good a time as any to think about the story that resonates with us.
What story do we choose to take off the shelf and read again and again?
And just as importantly, what story are we helping to create?
What plot lines would we like to begin, and which ones do we need to bring to an end?
How do our stories intertwine with those around us, and how might we interject some of our God given love and compassion into the stories of those who find it lacking?
What world do we imagine when hear the words: “Once Upon a Time…”
And how can we work together, to write our own, “Happily Ever After.”