God’s Resolution to Us

Readings for the First Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Psalm 147

Galatians 3:23-25. 4:4-7

John 1:1-18

This sermon was preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley CA on January 1, 2012. (Watch a vlog of this sermon here)

Happy New Year! This morning is the first morning of 2012. And I can’t think of a better way to welcome the new year than to gather together, hear the Word of God, give thanks for His many blessings and pray for His continual guidance and protection.

Many of us try to embrace this opportunity for a new beginning by making new year resolutions. Personally, I think this a great endeavor. It was the power of a new year resolution that helped me quit smoking as I know it has helped many others quit unhealthy habits and replace them with more life-giving practices. At the same time, new year resolutions, as we all know, can be very frustrating as they tend to reveal our lack of resolve come February or March or January 2nd. The short term of resolutions has become so apparent that we actually wish good fortune for one another by saying, “May all your troubles last as long as your New Year resolutions (!)”

I heard a person share how his resolutions changed from 2008 to 2011 in light of their short term. In 2008, his resolution was: “I will get my weight down below 180 pounds.” After that unsuccessful resolution, in 2009, he said, “I will follow my diet religiously until I get below 200 pounds.” After that didn’t go too well, in 2010, he said, “I will work out 3 days a week.” And finally, in 2011, he said, “I will try to drive past a gym at least once a week.” I don’t know what his resolution is for 2012, but I’d like to think he was successful with that last one and maybe feels ready to raise the bar a little bit this year. Yet his progression or regression sounds a lot like most of my resolutions through the years (especially when it comes to diet and exercise). Oscar Wilde quipped, “Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.” Resolutions often (painfully) reveal our bankruptcy in the area of tenacity and stick-to-it-ive-ness (and for those whose resolution is to learn a new word each day, “Stick-to-it-ive-ness” is actually a real word in the dictionary).

Although resolutions reveal our finitude and tendency to fail, the Gospel for today offers a helpful perspective that I hope will empower and encourage us this New Year. The Gospel today proclaims God’s dogged resolution to us; a resolution with which He will never fail to follow through.

The poetic prologue in John introduces us intimately to the Word of God. However, our appreciation of the Word deepens as we come to understand the literary and philosophical context. Before the Cappadocian understanding of the Trinity in the fourth century and the Chalcedonian understanding of Christ as fully human and fully divine in the fifth century, there was a Jewish understanding of a divine mediator as part of the Godhead. Rabbinic Judaism eventually rejected this idea as heresy probably in reaction to emerging Christianity.[1] But when the Gospel of John was written, the idea of a divine mediator between heaven and earth was well known and was able to fit within Jewish monotheism. We see this in the book of Proverbs, where the Wisdom of God (Sophia), personified as a woman, exists before Creation and is active during creation and continually calls out in the streets, eager to share her many blessings with humanity.[2] Sophia can be understood as a divine entity who is part of the one God. We also see this divine mediator in the works of Philo, a Jewish mystic of the early first century, who explained that the wisdom of God is the logos of God[3] and writes, “This Logos of God pleads with the immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject.”[4] When the author of John wrote his prologue, he brilliantly synthesized the Wisdom of God in Proverbs with the Logos of God in Philo to describe the Word of God in the Gospel, who became flesh and dwelt among us.

When first century Jewish readers heard the Word of God in John, they would have thought of a divine mediator, of one who “pleads with the immortal” on our behalf, and of one who calls out to us, eager to share heavenly blessings. The sad tragedy is that the world, according to the prologue, did not know him and his own people did not accept him. In fact, the world rejected him and murdered him. The same world that the fourth Gospel says God so loved.[5]

But here’s what’s so amazing to me about the Gospel, the good news. The Word of God, the divine mediator, came into the world and even while the world rejected him and murdered him, he still “pleaded” with God on our behalf and offered us grace. Before the name of Jesus is even mentioned in the Gospel, he is already rejected by the world. And furthermore, he has already responded to the world’s rejection with grace. There is a beautiful verse that I often overlook in the prologue, which reads: “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16). And this verse comes after the world has rejected him.

This is God’s resolution to us. He is committed to us. He has committed to love us like a Father loves his children; and to open our eyes, to enlighten us (as the Gospel says, “to enlighten everyone” v.9) to the awesome power that is inherent in being the children of God. No matter how many resolutions we break this year, God’s resolution to love us and to empower us as his children remains firm and unyielding. And that is really good news.

Jewish studies professor Daniel Boyarin at Cal argues that John’s prologue is in fact midrash on the first Creation account in Genesis. Midrash is a Jewish mode of interpreting Scripture which uses creative imagination and other biblical texts in order to plumb the deeper meaning of the Torah.[6] Boyarin sees the author of John employing this method in the prologue, which elaborates on the word that God spoke into the darkness at creation, when He said, “Let there be light.” So the same divine mediator, the same one committed to us no matter what, was present at Creation as the very word of God that brought all things into being.

The same Word permeates all throughout the Scriptures and other Jewish midrash elaborate on its quality as the divine mediator committed to humanity no matter what. One midrash describes the Word that spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. The rabbis share answers as to why the burning bush was a thorn bush. (They think it was a thorn bush because the Hebrew implies it with the word “Seneh” a dis legomenon which means “thorn” elsewhere). One creative answer explains that when a hand goes into a thorn bush it does not get cut because the thorns face down, but when the hand tries to pull out of the thorn bush, it goes against the direction of the thorns and gets cut. So when you put your hand into a thorn bush, you’re making a real commitment to say there, unless you want to get sliced. In the same way, the Word of God made a serious commitment to stay with us when he entered into the thorny bush of our world. This Jewish midrash pulses with meaning in light of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation and the Passion of the Christ who enters into a world that rejects him and crowns him with thorns, thus symbolizing his commitment to us, no matter how painful.[7]  And even when Jesus, the Word of God, is on the cross dying, he continues to play the role of divine mediator, praying for humanity even as humanity crucifies him, saying, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

The Word of God has resolved to commit himself to us no matter what. And this Word of the Lord is present to us, reminding us of God’s resolution to us, every time we hear the Scriptures, which are replete with proof of God’s commitment. That is why we have the Liturgy of the Word and that is why every time we hear the Scriptures read, we acknowledge, “The Word of the Lord” and respond “Thanks be to God.” Thanks be to God that our power and identity as children of God is not dependent on our own tenacity and ability to keep our resolutions. Our power and identity as children of God depends fully on the Word’s resolute commitment to us, on God’s stick-to-it-ive-ness.

Paul says, “You are no longer a slave but a child.” We are no longer slaves to our own finitude and failures. We are children beloved by God who remains committed to us no matter how many times we fail, no matter how many times we complain, no matter how many times we hurt ourselves or others or God. God responds with “grace upon grace” to the darkest parts of our hearts, the violence within each of us, our anger and our hate; because even while humanity crucified Christ, he remained committed to loving us and praying for us. That is a profound resolution.

So this year I hope we can keep our resolutions. But more than that, my hope is that we can relax into God’s resolution to us as his beloved children. And by allowing God’s loving commitment to us to transform our hearts, perhaps we can learn the power of what it means to be a child of God and maybe learn to show that same loving commitment to others not because we think we have the drive to really do it this year but because we are loved so tenaciously by God. Amen.

[1] The heresy is called “Two Powers in Heaven” b. Hag. 15a

[3] Allegorical Interpretation 1:65

[4] Who is the Heir of Divine Things, 205-206.

[5] Our participation in oppression, marginalization and violence (whether direct in the form of actual violence or indirect by being part of or benefiting from a system that is violent) is our participation in the murder of Christ. It is our rejection of the Word and Wisdom of God. And it is very hard for any of us to claim innocence in this regard. I’m not talking about us as totally depraved sinners as the Calvinists claim. I’m talking about us as beautiful people made in the image of God who live in a violent world and get caught up in this violence (whether we see it or not) and end up desecrating the image of God in others and in ourselves. And in so doing, we wound Christ in each of us.

[6] “One of the most characteristic forms of Midrash is a homily on a scriptural passage from the Pentateuch that invokes… texts from either the Prophets or the [Wisdom literature like the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, etc.] as the framework of ideas and language that is used to interpret and expand the Pentateuchal text being preached” (Boyarin, 548)

[7] Midrash Yalkut Shimoni 169


2 thoughts on “God’s Resolution to Us

  1. DDL: I love the way you bring Judaism and Christianity together. I’m beginning to think that in our church we do that far too little. An example of a skewed view is a fellow choir member commenting on a picture of the Star of David on an Advent bulletin, “What’s that doing on the cover?” S.

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