Close to God’s Heart

Sunday, January 4
Second Sunday after Christmas

Focus Theme
Close to God’s Heart

Weekly Prayer
Gracious God, You have redeemed us through Jesus Christ, the first-born of all creation, whose birth we celebrate as the child of Bethlehem. Bless us with every spiritual blessing, that we may live as your adopted children and witness to your glory with unending praise and thanksgiving. Amen.

Focus Scripture
John 1: [1-9] 10-18

[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.

All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9], 10-18

Focus Questions

1. In what ways do you feel the fullness of God’s blessings in your life this day?

2. Do you see other people as “bearers of divine mystery”?

3. What good news are you waiting to hear, or waiting to see fulfilled?

4. What word does your congregation bring to life?

5. What difference has the light shining on your life made in the life of the world?

Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey

We’ve just come through a long season of celebration, of parties in our homes and offices, in gathering places out in a world festively adorned with twinkling lights and illuminated Santas and, underneath, its own sound track of much-loved music: this has been a time for many families and friends to gather for fun and warmth and good cheer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…but by now the thought of one more celebration might finding us looking instead for a little peace and quiet. And yet here we are, “celebrating the feast” of the Epiphany, a word we rarely use anymore, unless we’re talking about a sudden realization or insight that we’ve had, usually about ourselves, that is, and not so much about anything spiritual. And we find ourselves in a world that seems even more troubled than usual, with so much tragedy, so much unrest, so much violence and fear, and, it seems, so little that we can do about it all. So we may be too worn out, too overwhelmed to contemplate, let alone celebrate, the immense majesty and profound joy of John’s prologue to his Gospel.

Perhaps we understand the religious meaning of “epiphany” only as a way to talk about three wise men coming to see the baby Jesus. Why would we highlight this text from John, then, instead of the much more accessible, more “human” story of those travelers from afar (with one more Christmas carol all of their own)? However, there is a whole season of Epiphany, and many ways to speak about Jesus being made known, or shown, in the world. John’s elegant poem, or hymn, is one of those epiphany (“manifestation”) texts that shows us who Jesus is. What better place to start another year of our lives than where John begins his story of Jesus, at the beginning of it all?

Unlike the other three Gospel writers, John begins his story long before human history begins, at the very dawn of creation. In this “overture” to his Gospel, he lays out the very themes he will develop later on. The transcendent beauty and lofty theology in John’s Prologue may seem too immense, too high-flown, for us to comprehend, but that is, after all, the point of this text: that the transcendent, beyond-words God took on flesh, came to us, found us, sought us out, took on our own existence, with its pains, its sorrows, its vulnerability and its joys. Stephen Bauman says it especially well: “God,” he writes, “is embedded with us in the human predicament.” In fact, scholars love to say that the Word “pitched a tent” in our midst, a down-to-earth image for such a hard-to-grasp concept. In any case, Fred Craddock eloquently sums up “the bottom line” of what John is saying here about God and that human predicament: “Whatever else John 1:14 means, it does state without question the depth, the intensity, and the pursuit of God’s love for the world.” What difference would it make if we thought of ourselves, the whole world, as “pursued” by God’s love?

Jesus Christ shows us who God is, and we have received from his fullness, “grace upon grace.” This phrase sets a tone for this new year, as it lays a foundation for a theology of abundance, an almost-daring thing to speak of in times like ours of growing economic hardship for many. However, a theology of abundance is a beginning-of-all-things perspective that focuses on God, while our economic dislocation says much more about us and the way we’ve managed the abundance God has blessed us with. As people of faith, we take a long view, back to “the beginning,” when God showered us with an overflowing abundance of grace and a good and beautiful creation. Watch how often such generosity appears in Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage: “generous inside and out, true from start to finish….We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift. We got the basics from Moses, and then this exuberant giving and receiving” (The Message). Gift after gift after gift! Or, as Charles Cousar puts it, “To behold God is to be a recipient of wave after wave of the divine generosity (grace) and to experience God’s faithfulness to the ancient promises (truth).”

Yes, as another year begins, we’re still struggling on our way out of deep economic troubles, and the gap between the rich and poor grows wider as more wealth moves upward to a small percentage of the population, and too many of us are still out of work or underemployed or feeling insecure in our jobs. It may be secular heresy to see abundance, to see fullness even in a time like this. However, if we can claim that there is more than enough of everything our spirits need most–forgiveness and reconciliation, grace, life, truth, joy, generosity, healing, justice–perhaps we can also believe that there is more than enough of what our bodies need to live on: food, water, land, clothing, and shelter. Beverly Gaventa reminds us that we’re not the only ones blessed by the light of God, for “all people, whether they believe it or not, live in a world illuminated by the light just as they live in a world created by the Word.” Gaventa then challenges us to live our lives “discovering the divine benevolence and reliability.” Might this even be a first step on the path to world peace, if we truly believe there is not just more than enough light for all, but more than enough of everything we need, if we just learn to share?

A phrase in this passage, “close to the Father’s heart,” tries to describe the relationship between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. However, the translation in the NRSV might be improved, according to The New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels: “‘with God’ (v.1) is really ‘towards God,’ and ‘close to the Father’s heart’ (v. 18) is really ‘into the bosom/embrace of the Father,’ both expressing a vibrant and active exchange.” Barbara Brown Taylor reflects beautifully on the word “‘bosom,’ an image that evokes the maternal as well as the paternal body of God. While no one has seen God, Jesus apparently knows where to lay his head….this Son knows how to listen to the heartbeat of his Father.”

John speaks of “the Word” that was present at creation, a mighty God, above our imaginings or description, and yet this Word came into the world as a baby, small and vulnerable and sweet. It’s hard to relate to a transcendent God, but we can relate to a baby, a mother, and, strangely enough, the shepherds who came to give homage (even though most of us have never been shepherds). The Word, then, isn’t an intellectualized, conceptual God but an enfleshed, living, breathing God who shared our sorrows and joys, our suffering and struggles and hope. As Stephen Bauman puts it, “There is no darkness, even unto death, in which God is not intimately acquainted and engaged, present and powerful, loving and true.” Perhaps this paradox explains why singing Christmas carols helps us in our humble attempts to express the inexpressible–we cannot put into words the incredible mystery of God-made-flesh, and yet we have known it in our bones. We have felt God with us even when we could never explain how that could be.

Such knowledge, however, is not just “head” knowledge but an embodied experience that moves us to encounter one another, and God’s creation, differently. Jesus was not a drastic reversal or turn on God’s part, away from God’s original plan. John Dominic Crossan writes, “The Logos, or Word, means God’s inaugural vision for the world at the dawn of creation. It is not as if God came up with a new idea or a new program at the time of Christ. The divine vision of freedom and justice, of nonviolence and peace, and of an earth in which all have a fair and equitable share was there from creation itself.” Perhaps this perspective, of God’s grand vision from the very beginning of more than enough for all, prepares us to address the problems of scarcity and injustice that seem to hold sway over our hearts and minds during these difficult economic times. (Indeed, even if our economy continues its slow improvement, there is the larger issue of economic justice around the world.)

Richard Burridge finds lovely meaning in this reading as it “affirms the world’s goodness and the Word’s involvement in creation” and “inspires the great Christian involvement in both the arts and the sciences.” He observes that “[s]cientific inquiry is possible if the world is not some malicious fantasy but the result of a creator’s love–to study the laws of physics is to search out the mind of God,” and “rather than trying to escape the material body, our humanity can be explored in sculpture and paint, poetry and prose, dance and drama, music and song–because ‘in him was life’ (1:4).” Burridge’s words remind me of a quote from Albert Einstein: “I want to know God’s thoughts–the rest are mere details.” Other writers focus on a greater appreciation for human nature itself; Dianne Bergant says, “It was good enough for God to embrace, and so we should highly revere it.” Even more, she writes, we should “look with new eyes at those others with whom we share that same human nature, all those whom we might have considered ‘most unlikely’ bearers of divine mystery.”

In her sermon, “Waiting in the Dark,” Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on what it feels like to wait for some all-important thing, as John the Baptist did: before Jesus arrived, “John’s life was one long Advent, a waiting in the dark for the light, a waiting without knowing for the one thing that would change everything.” Many of us are waiting for a messenger who will tell us that the tide has turned, that the day of vindication and hope has arrived, that God is still with us. Some of us have secretly, privately, in the deepest places of our hearts, given up hope. Or, worse, we may assume that it’s all up to us, or that we can somehow make everything right, all by our own efforts, without a God who has chosen to be right here, right in the midst of everything that we face. As we wait, Taylor writes, we can live in hope and trust: “We may be short on details,” she writes, “but we are not short on hope or wonder at this mystery whose good hands we are in.”

Our text does more than remind us of what God did, long ago; rather, it proclaims that God is active in the world today, in this setting of history. We might feel tired and relieved that Christmas is over, but it would be better to feel energized and renewed by the good news of the gift of Jesus Christ every day, not just on one morning, or season, each year. After all, Richard Swanson observes, “Christmas takes a while to celebrate. The Incarnation takes a long time to think about.” Barbara Brown Taylor develops the theme of bringing a word to life, a word that each one of us “has a gift for bringing to life,” whether that word is compassion, justice, generosity, patience, or love. “Until someone acts upon these words,” she observes, “they remain abstract concepts–very good ideas that few people have ever seen. The moment someone acts on them, the words become flesh. They live among us, so we can see their glory.” Taylor makes the same observation about congregations, who “embody words as well.”

God’s grace has brought us light, has brought us truth, has brought us home. According to Dianne Bergant, our readings today suggest that we ask God, “Where do you live?” Would it be obvious to the surrounding community that God lives in the midst of your congregation? Mary Lin Hudson’s pastoral reflection on this text considers the way the Word is embodied in the life that we share together, “in the extraordinary care that opens a home to a broken body in need. The Word is embodied in the extravagant feeding of people who can no longer cook warm meals for themselves. The Word becomes flesh when it embraces with love the stranger who has come home.” How is the Word embodied in your midst? We might wonder today how our churches would be transformed if all of our members thought of themselves as witnesses who testify to the Light, as John did. And then we might dream of how the world around us would be transformed as well.

For further reflection

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“The thing about light is that it really isn’t yours; it’s what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself.”

Mother Teresa, 20th century
“Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.”

Helen Keller, 20th century
“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”

Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century
“There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness.”

Augustine of Hippo, 5th century
“You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.