December 18, 2005

Jesus: The Hope of the World
John 1:10-13

Jesus once told a parable about a certain king who gave a wedding banquet for his son (Matt. 22:1-14). Knowing how extravagant kings—both past and present—typically act on such occasions, I can only guess the extent of the festivities that this king had in mind. Beautiful floral arrangements. Dazzling ice-carvings. Gourmet foods. World-renowned entertainment. All within the grandest hall that architects could design and contractors construct. And the guest list? It must have been a virtual “Who’s Who” of the Mediterranean world—from local officials to foreign dignitaries. Picture the most magnificent celebration that you have ever witnessed—the inauguration of a president, the opening of the Olympic Games, or the marriage ceremony of Lady Diana and Prince Charles—and you might begin to imagine the wedding banquet sponsored by the king.

And yet—stunningly—when the time came for the banquet to begin, none of the guests appeared. Many of us here have been involved in planning events of considerable importance to us, only to be disappointed by the turn-out. People get busy. They forget commitments they’ve made. Unexpected interruptions occur. That is often the way it is. But in the case of the king’s banquet, the invited guests did not forget the event, nor were there unplanned distractions. Again and again, the king sent his messengers to remind and gather the guests, but to no avail. They simply refused to come! Finally, in sheer desperation, the king, not wanting the food and festivities to go to waste, invited all of the no-names wandering around on the streets. And they came. Having often seen the faces of homeless people at the Bowery Mission in New York or Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg as they dig into prepared feasts that admittedly paled in comparison to this one prepared by the king, I can in my mind see the expressions on the faces of these surprised attendees. The tragedy of the invited guests who inexplicably refused to come to the banquet. The triumph—the excitement!—of the assembled crowd who, five minutes before, had no idea they would ever attend.

It is with that same sense of tension—tragedy and triumph—that John, the evangelist, continues to introduce Jesus to his readers here in 1:10-13. Earlier, John told us that Jesus is the “Word” of God, and that he was with God at the very beginning of time. All things—land, animals, plants and people—came into being through him. John, furthermore, informed us that this same Word—Jesus—is the true light of the world, light that helps us see who we are and where we are going. Light that enables us to detect the evil around us and within us. And light that offers us the possibility of genuine life and transformation. Now, as John brings Jesus closer and closer to us, he moves from theory to encounter. Jesus, alive and well before the beginning of time, is now in the world (v. 10). And with the presence of Jesus, the Word, comes both tragedy and triumph.

First, the tragedy. Jesus, John points out, was in the world, the very same world that he had himself created. Jesus had selected the color schemes. He chose the fabric for the curtains and furniture. His finger prints are all over the wallpaper. He came to the world that he himself had made. Yet surprisingly, that world did not know him, did not recognize him, did not welcome him. The tragedy of this is hardly lost on John, who regularly repeats words and phrases for the sake of emphasis. Jesus came “to what was his own,” John states again, no doubt with an element of near disbelief. He uses precisely the same words here that he uses later when recounting the crucifixion of our Lord (19:27). As Jesus looked down from the cross, he asked his beloved disciple to care for his mother, Mary. In response, the disciple—John?—took Mary “to what was his own”—his own home. Jesus, the Word of God, had come home, John sadly declares, and no one recognized him.

In an old episode of Law and Order that I watched recently, a teenager named Justin had been charged with shooting four people on the streets of New York. As the case moved forward, investigators soon discovered that Justin—inextricably tied to a controlling and manipulative man whom everyone assumed was his father—was not the person they thought he was. Instead, Justin had been kidnapped as a young child and raised by this man. When the District Attorney’s office located Justin’s real mother and sister—his father had died a few years before—they brought them to the city to be reunited with their son. Still grieving, this mother and her daughter waited anxiously for Justin to enter the room. When he finally arrived, he did not recognize them. In fact, he quickly burst out of the room, not even wanting to be with them. Gnawing on their knuckles, the forsaken mother and sister wept in overwhelming disappointment.

Had Jesus first come to the game lands of Africa, perhaps the sense of disbelief surrounding his rejection would be greatly lessened. Had he been born in the jungles of Brazil, the far reaches of China, or even the hills of Montana, we might understand the noticeable lack of enthusiasm at his arrival. But Jesus, John tells us more than once, came, not as an alien or foreigner, but to his own. He came to the people in Israel who told and retold the stories. He came to the people who grew up with the traditions. He came to those who had overheard the prophets. He came home, and no one knew him.

It is, I know, a cause for great concern that roughly 1/3 of the world’s population today consists of non-Christians who live in areas without any Christian witness. It is likewise troubling to learn that another 1/3 of the world’s population today consists of non-Christians who live in areas where there is at least some Christian presence. Clearly, we have our work cut out for us. But in reading through John’s introduction of Jesus, do you know what seems so tragic to me this morning? The number of people—in our own communities, our own families, our own churches—who have heard the stories and grown up with the traditions, and yet don’t know the Living Word. Don’t recognize him. Don’t want him. People, including some of us—our parents, sons and daughters, friends—who refuse to make room for Jesus in their hearts, their minds, their lives. Jesus came to his own, John reminds us, yet they did not know him. What else can you call that but a tragedy?

But Jesus, like the extravagant king in the parable of the wedding banquet, refuses to allow the food to go to waste. Unlike any of us—at least me—who, when feeling rejected often run off, lick our wounds, and stubbornly set our plans aside, Jesus offers a new and wider invitation. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name,” John now adds, “he gave power to become children of God.” Here, then, is the triumph. All is not lost. Not everyone is stubborn and hard-hearted. Look at this short but loaded verse with me for just a moment. Five striking words beg for our immediate attention:
1. All: no one is excluded, regardless of who you are or what you might have done. No one is too rich or too poor. No one speaks the wrong language. No one has committed an unforgivable sin. Everyone, John assures us, is now invited to the festivities, including you and me.
2 and 3. Receive and Gave: words of grace. We don’t earn God’s favor. We don’t buy it. God extends his unsolicited invitation to us freely. We are asked only to receive it and to come.
4. Power: actually, the NIV gets it closer than the NRSV on this one. We need to read “right” rather than “power.” The term “power” conjures up images of God enabling us to change ourselves on our own, as though he hands us a battery or energy-pack and then leaves us to read the instructions. This is, instead, a word of status or privilege. God, John warmly informs us, extends to us an invitation that no one else can offer.
5. Children: not employees, servants, or acquaintances, but children. If for some of you this is a negative term that conjures up all sorts of unwelcome memories from your own childhood, think instead of the most wonderful parents you ever knew or heard about. Think of the parents of a friend whom you always wished were your parents. God far surpasses them all in love, grace and mercy, and it is he who invites us here to be his children.

Interestingly enough, the New Testament consistently views God as the Father, the parent, of all people. John has himself informed us that “All things came into being through him (Jesus), and without him not one thing came into being (1:3).” In this sense, the hippies in the 60’s and many people since then had it right when they claimed that everyone is a child of the same God. He made every last one of us, and in him we move and breathe and have our being. Whether we know it or not.

But in another sense, the hippies got it all wrong. While the New Testament considers God to be the Father of all people, it does not at the same time suggest that all people are his children in the deepest sense of the term. We are his because he made us, but we become his children through receiving his Son, Jesus, the living Word. If you wish to be alienated offspring wandering far away from the loving care of God, you can do that on your own. But if you long to be sons and daughters, fully integrated into the family of God and at home at his dinner table, you come, John makes plain, through Jesus.

A few years ago, two of my dear friends in Nairobi adopted two young Kenyan children. Jim and Ann, already raising three children of their own and no spring chickens anymore, felt overwhelmed by the needs of these tiny orphans. Through the ensuing process, the lives of Jo Jo and Luca changed dramatically, and they both became “Millers.” The past, with all of its despair and desperation, was gone, and hope was everywhere. You’ve heard similar stories nearby. Three Colombian children joining the Wolgemuth family. Haitian children adopted by Marc and Christie Fry, the son and daughter-in-law, of Eldon and Ginger. You talk about dramatic changes. John speaks of one even more dramatic than these: “…to all who received him (Jesus), who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

Jesus Christ. The Word in the world. There is a degree of disappointment surrounding his coming, the tragedy of being rejected by the very people who should have recognized him. It is perhaps impossible to fully sense the magnitude of the pain. But, as is always the case when God is truly involved in something, tragedy is not the final word. Triumph is. Hope springs eternal. Like the king gathering people off of the streets to attend his banquet, so Jesus came into the world to adopt people like you and me into God’s eternal family. Jesus, the Word and Light, is the hope of the world, embracing restless renegades and transforming them into children.