The Word on the Twelfth Night
A sermon based on John 1:1-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 5, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Our wonderful greens are still up because on the Christian calendar, today is the last day of Christmastide, more commonly known as “The Twelfth Day of Christmas.” In some traditions the day is marked as starting in the evening and continuing to the next morning. It was such an honored and revered day that George and Martha Washington chose to be married on such a morning on The Twelfth Day of Christmas back in 1759. Perhaps more famously Shakespeare named my favorite play ever written “Twelfth Night.” The Bard wrote that play to be performed on the evening of The Twelfth Night when it was the most festive and celebrated day of the Christmas season in the Western world. In days of yore The Twelfth Night was full of revelry, fun, role reversals and a flip flop of social order, all of which happens in Shakespeare’s brilliant and very funny play.
Instead of starting today’s sermon off by quoting Shakespeare or making us sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” I decided instead on this the last day of Christmastide on this The Twelfth Day of Christmas to wish you all one last “Merry Christmas!” for the season. For those of you who had hoped we put Christmas to rest already, please remember we could be singing about partridges and turtle doves.
The word “Christmas” as you might have guessed comes from the words “Christ’s Mass” a name rising out of the church’s decision in the 3rd Century to worship and commemorate Jesus’ birth during the solstice with mass. In case you are wondering “mass” refers to the Eucharist (Communion) in worship services. The Bible does not tell us Jesus’ birth date or even the season he arrived but there was a popular Pagan holiday celebrating the sun at the winter solstice– and the church just co-opted the holiday and the festive time of year and re-dubbed it Christmas.
I am not sure the pun was there in the language of the ancients but you know I like that the sun’s holiday became the Son of God’s holiday– a serendipitous pun. Either way both are about the promise of Light in the darkness– which is intentional. We have twelve days of Christmas –which I will explain in a moment.
By Shakespeare’s time the Christmas season had got super rowdy, and culminated with the Twelfth Night being so full of drunkenness and lewdness that our Puritan and Pilgrim ancestors banned Christmas all together when they came to America. Some church people nowadays complain about Christmas not being on business’s coffee cups but some of the earliest churches in America banned the holiday! It was not until the nineteenth century that the Anglican church with Charles Dickens’ help revive Christmas’ good name making it more honorable and about kindness and giving, rather than debauchery. Mostly the reviving has held. So in a way the Holiday season we have now is in a sense a second coming of Christmas. Which brings me to our Lectionary text from John.
I mentioned a few week ago that only Matthew and Luke have Gospel infant Nativity narratives. Which is true, but the Gospel of John also has verses about Christ’s beginning, actually the eighteen short verses we heard Ann read so nicely , arguably have two beginnings for Christ. The first is heavenly in both the cosmic and God’s realm sense, and the second is in an earthly this world in humanity sense. In the gospel of John Christ is God’s Word that spoke creation into being and soaks all of existence and Christ is incarnated in experiences of a human named Jesus, all the while remaining the Word of God that is everywhere.
The Twelve Days of Christmas are based on calendar compromises. As I understand it, when the west and east churches were trying to merge, the west had Christmas late in December and the east had it early in January, so they covered them both and all the days in between with Christmastide. Whatever its origin, I like to think metaphorically, so in my mind each of the twelve days of Christmas represents the incarnation of God in the twelve months of year. Which is to say that God is here and everywhere all the time. Month in and month out . . . always and forever.
And we can see how the Gospel of John’s Lectionary lesson for today teaches that. From the beginning we are told that the WORD existed, was with God, and was God. That’s always and forever – if ever it was! Indeed the reading states “The Word,” (Christ) created everything and still soaks everything. Verse 3 notes that “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Verse 10 reemphasizes it “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him.”
All of creation has “The Word” of God in it. All of it. It has been ever so since the beginning– Literally and undeniably . . . Biblically speaking. Consequently we can understand John to teach that Christ is the Word of God that spoke creation into being in Genesis and speaks creation into being now– and stays in and with it twelve months of the year. All the time. Everywhere.
I consider our eighteen verses for today very important in discussing Christianity, and respect for other paths to God. I have found it particularly helpful in conversations where people think the Gospel of John is about Christianity claiming to be the One Way “the be all end all” of religions. Some wield parts of the John to claim God is exclusively Christian, others run from Christianity believing the wielders are right that John says that, and that Christianity is about that. The verses typically cherry picked in such discussions include John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Also usually included is John 14:6 “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
Those who want to diminish and belittle other paths to God claim those verses prove Christianity is the only way to God and heaven. But those claims are suspect when read in the context of how John defines Christ in today’s Lectionary reading. Christ in John is defined as The Word made flesh, making Christ in the context of every single verse in John as experiences of God who has been around since the beginning as the creator and presence of God in everything all the time. God’s enfleshment through Jesus did not limit God being just in Jesus. In the Gospel of John Christ is the presence of God everywhere. To John’s actual way of telling the story, Christ means God in all of creation experienced in Jesus. While Jesus is the decisive revelation of “The Word of God” to Christians, God remains the big wide cosmic being. God remains the truth and light. God remains The Word.
All of which is to say that The Way to God remains through God incarnate. Which is pretty obvious if we think about it. I mean it is not rocket science that we get to God through experiencing God in creation. And John is not confining God to Jesus the Christ, but rather expanding Jesus the Christ to God–all of God in creation. The point being, when anyone finds truth and light, when any one finds God by whatever means whether through Jesus or otherwise, it is through God’s incarnation in creation – what John calls the “The Word of God” and names Jesus enfleshing that part of God.
Logically, whether we believe it or not, no matter how a person finds God, it is through God, which John names “The Word of God,” and Christ. John can be heard to teach that everyone who finds God by whatever means finds the same God that is enfleshed in Jesus. John is claiming God is experienced in Jesus. That’s very different than saying truth and light is only found only through Jesus. This God-by-any-other-name is God idea, can be understood as a form of monotheism which allows that people of all faiths can name and experience the same God differently. Yes, Jesus is the deceive revelation of God for us. As the invocation from Pslam 147 indicates The Word for Isaiah is in the law. But God can be – and is– revealed by other Ways, all of them through The Word found in every nook and cranny of existence, not just in Jesus, no just in the law of Torah.
On this the Twelfth Day of Christmas, let us remember the good news that the Gospel of John begins with a beginning of Christ story, two of them. Christ as the cosmic Word and that cosmic Word enfleshed in Jesus. As John put it in the lesson
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 . . .
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him . . .
[T]o 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. . .
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
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