John 1 (NRSV)
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.
The song playing on the radio declares, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” For many, the statement declared by the song may be true. Children look forward to presents and time with extended family while adults look back on those memories with nostalgia. It’s definitely the “most wonderful time of the year” for the retail industry—otherwise empty malls are filled to the brim with shoppers rushing to find gifts that Amazon.com won’t deliver to them.
Still, the month of December is nothing special for many. It’s just as dark and dreary as January and February. Many people wake up and go to work before the sun rises and return home after it has set. Add to that the stress of shopping, the piles of requests for charitable donations, the sharing of cold and flu viruses, and the busyness of work and home—and the Advent and Christmas season quickly becomes everything but the most wonderful time of the year.
Even if you ignore everything else going on in our world, the Advent season is filled with literal darkness. And with the darkness comes an uncomfortable silence. Being out here in the country, away from the bright lights of the city, the nights are long and quiet. Once the sun goes down, everything seems to grind to a halt.
Worst of all, aside from our moments in worship together, even God can seem silent, distant, and hidden in the darkness.
To be sure, the voice of God and the feeling of God’s presence can be removed from us any time of year. We can feel alone when it is bright and beautiful outside just as we can when it is dark. When there is division within our families, when there is trouble at work, when we grieve a loss or face health struggles we often feel as if God is silent.
Yet, there is something significant in our faith about reflecting on God’s silence in the Advent season. This is what Advent is for—recognizing the darkness of our world and the silence of God as we wait patiently for the coming of Christ.
In our loneliness, in our grief, in our struggle to find light in the darkness we wonder, “where is God when bad things happen? Why is God often silent?”
As Christians, we come up with all sorts of answers to these questions. Most of them aren’t worth much, and we recognize this. As we comfort our friends and loved ones, we fall back on trite expressions of sympathy that even feel uncomfortable as they leave our lips. We wish there was something more we could say.
Each of us, in our own times of need, have searched the Scriptures for answers. We’ve all had to face the problem of God’s apparent absence.
And in Scripture, we have found the voices of others who have dealt with similar questions. We started our reflection this morning with the words of Isaiah 45—“I [the Lord] form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” In response, the prophet declares, “truly you are a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”
The prophet expresses in Scripture what we know to be true. Sometimes God is as present with us as the person sitting next to us in the pew, while God often feels as distant as the stars in the sky. Since God is all powerful, this must be a conscious choice on God’s part. God chooses to be hidden and silent on purpose, out of God’s power and love!
The hymn we opened with expresses this well, drawing from the words of 1 Timothy 1:17—“immortal, invisible God only wise / In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”
The words offer us some reassurance—God does not cease to exist when we do not feel God’s presence or hear God’s voice. God is always present behind the scenes, dwelling in light even when we feel captive to darkness. We can’t directly look at God’s light, but we know it is there behind the darkness of this season.
Reading between the lines of Christian Scripture, we notice times when God appears to be silent, or at least, not apparent in the usual ways. There is roughly 430 years, for example, between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Jesus. Why did God not speak through the prophets during those centuries? Surely, it must have also felt like God was silent when Israel was conquered by Assyria and Jerusalem was captured by Babylon.
For Jews in Europe during the Second World War, it certainly felt to many like God was silent. And yet, as Europe was liberated and Allied troops searched for survivors, they found an inscription on a basement wall in Germany where someone was hiding from the Nazi Gestapo:
I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.
I believe in love even when feeling it not.
I believe in God even when God is silent.
We know that even Jesus experienced God’s silence. The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus’s last words from the cross, quoting Psalm 22, were, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Sometimes this is all we can do: trust God when God is silent, have faith when things seem grim.
Yet, our faith in times that are dark is not without a foundation. Faith in times of uncertainty is not simply blind assent to what we cannot see. Rather, it is trusting in the ways our immortal and invisible God has revealed himself to us.
Just as Advent begins in the dark of the changing seasons, our cause for joy, the knowledge of God’s presence, begins in the darkness before the creation of the world. Before the sun, moon, and stars were created, in moments known only to God, the Gospel of John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
These opening words of John’s Gospel call us back to Genesis 1, which tell us that God created the heavens and the earth through speech: “God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light…and it was good!” John’s opening tells us that this divine, creative speech is not just a verb, but a noun: “the Word” that proceeds from the Father. Truly, without this Word, nothing came into being. This Word was with God and was God from the beginning.
The term John uses for “word” here is special. It’s not just any word that John equates with the one who came into our world as Jesus. The “Word” John tells us about is reason itself. It is the fundamental ordering principle of the universe, according to Greek Stoic thought.
What John is telling us is that even in the silence of the moments before creation, known only to God, the Father and the Son were present. Through the Father, the Son, and the Spirit that Genesis tells us “hovered over the waters,” everything we see came into being. It is on the foundation of the Word, the Son of God, that the universe is built.
Modern science tells us a lot about the universe. We know about the atoms that make up matter and the galaxies that make up the universe. Science tells us that all sorts of laws of physics govern the universe, even if they are still uncertain about how it all works together.
What Scripture tells us is that all of these pieces and principles of the universe are founded on the Word whose incarnation we celebrate at Christmas.
The good news is that even when God seems silent and far removed from us, we believe that God is even now sustaining the universe through the Word and the Spirit. Even when we walk through what the Psalmist calls “the valley of the shadow of death,” or go through what we call in this season “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” God is in and behind all things, giving us life.
In the Advent and Christmas season, we look back to the first moments of creation and stand in awe of all that God has made. We read with John that through Mary, “the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son…[giving us] grace and truth.”
As John tells us, no one has ever seen God the Father. Even Moses only saw God’s backside. Yet, through Jesus the Word made flesh, God has been made known to us.
Madeline L’Engle asks us to imagine, “was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song and the angels clapped their hands for joy?”
It should instill a sense of awe within us that the foundation of the universe would be born in human flesh all those years ago.
Yet, the joy of the incarnation, the birth of Jesus can seem distant from us. It did happen over 2,000 years ago, after all! Why aren’t things any better? Why does the world continue in the ways of darkness rather than light? Why has Jesus not returned to set things right and will he ever return as he promised us?
The Advent season does not give us any easy answers to those questions. The ways of God are a mystery to us. As Isaiah reminded us, God is one who both reveals himself to us and hides himself from us.
Yet, the opening words of John gives us a firm foundation upon which to place our faith, our trust: “In the beginning, was the Word…all things came into being through him. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not [and will not] overcome it.”
This is a faith we can hold to even when the night is long and the future looks grim. Underneath it all, God is. Behind the darkness and the light, underneath weal and woe—God is. Just as we know that the sun will rise and set, just as we know that gravity brings down what goes up, we know that God is behind this universe of ours and enlivens every living thing. We can’t see God directly, but we can see evidence of God in everything.
We place our faith/trust in many things — our friends and family, our earthly leaders, the power of modern medicine. We even place trust in the elusive (and consumption oriented) “spirit of Christmas” that is supposed to fill us with perpetual good cheer. The truth is that we’re often disappointed. Human beings will fail us. The holidays will lose their power as the decorations come down.
But there is one in whom we can put our faith and trust. God: the creator of the universe, the Word through which all things were created and the Word which was born in human flesh. Let us give God our faith and trust in this season of Advent, knowing that because God has revealed himself to humanity in the past, God will reveal himself to us now and in the time to come!
Advent often feels to us like a long night of waiting, letting go of sin, and placing our trust in what we cannot see. Even still, we have turned a corner in our preparation for the coming of Christ. As we lit the third Advent candle today, notice that something is different—the candle is pink instead of purple. That’s because the third week of Advent is a time of joy—joy in Christ who has come, Christ who is present with us, and Christ who will return in glory.
Truly, as the Psalmist declares, “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Let’s stand and sing, “Joy to the World” as we rejoice in the goodness of God.