Sermon on John 1:1-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here. To hear an abridged version of Truman Capote’s story read by the author, click here.
In 1956, Truman Capote published a short story about his childhood called A Christmas Memory. It is a wonderfully evocative tale of how young Truman and his aging cousin, Miss Sook, celebrated Christmas in Depression-era rural Alabama. The story centers around the pair’s Christmas preparations, the most important of which is the baking of thirty fruitcakes for “friends” across the country. Capote describes how he and his cousin collect windfall pecans, purchase candied pineapple at the general store, and procure illegal whiskey from the unsmiling and terrifying Mr. Haha. He also points out that the fruit of their considerable labor does not necessarily benefit their neighbors or relatives. “Indeed,” he observes, “the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter…Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch.” At one point in the story, Miss Sook wonders if Mrs. Roosevelt will serve their cake at Christmas dinner. Of course, we all know that there is no way that that could happen, that the vast majority of recipients probably didn’t know what to do with this fruitcake from these people they barely remember, and I suspect that Capote and Miss Sook understood this at some level. Every year, however, Truman and his cousin would pool their meager savings, invest an incredible amount of time and effort, and send more than thirty fruitcakes around the country to people who might not even want them. From a common sense perspective, this whole enterprise seems inefficient and pointless. If Capote and his cousin were to do a cost benefit analysis, it would be very clear that that this particular Christmas ritual is a waste of time. And yet, they embrace this task with such joy, with such enthusiasm, with such delight that everyone can see why the process of making and sending fruitcake continues to be part of their Christmas experience.
This morning, we heard the extraordinary prologue to John’s gospel. This passage is foundational to the Christian faith, which is part of the reason that it is always read on the first Sunday after Christmas. This text describes the fullness of God’s creative power and then proceeds to illustrate the astonishing surprise of the Incarnation. This passage invites us to meditate on one of the central Christian mysteries: that God became one of us, that the author of all creation became part of that creation, that the Word became flesh and lived among us. But even as John describes the incredible power of the Creator becoming part of creation, he acknowledges that not everyone recognized the Word made flesh, that not everyone embraced the reality of God with us. John tells us that the Word, Jesus Christ, came to what was his own, but that his own people did not accept him. It’s a peculiar reference, particularly in John’s gospel. John’s personality is somewhat unique among the evangelists. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke are perfectly content to depict the humanity of Jesus (all three have Jesus doubting, getting annoyed, and even getting hungry occasionally) John’s portrayal of Jesus is otherworldly and divine. In John’s gospel, Jesus knows exactly what is going to happen to him; Jesus is initiates his own mission and he is in control of his own life and death. So it is surprising, then, that in the sweeping introduction to his gospel, John would mention that people rejected Jesus. The fact that people rejected the Word leads us to wonder about the purpose of the Incarnation. The triumphal tone of John’s gospel seems to suggest the point of the Incarnation was to make Christians, to bring as many people into relationship with God through Jesus Christ as possible. Why else would John make the distinction between those who do not receive Jesus and those who “believe in his name”? Surely, the way to understand this distinction is that those who “believe in his name” are those who are part of the Church, whereas those who reject the Word are those outside the body of the faithful. In this view, those who recognize the presence of God in Jesus Christ are “Incarnation success stories.” But this leaves us wondering how it is possible for anyone to ignore the very presence of the living God among them. If the Incarnation is all about persuading people to adopt a particular religious perspective, then the fact that some people rejected Jesus is problematic. In fact, it means that the Incarnation was a failure, that God’s participation in history was for naught, that the Word becoming flesh was a waste of time.
This limited understanding of the Incarnation is only accurate from a human perspective. John, however, makes it very clear that the Incarnation is about much more than getting people’s names on the rolls. At the end of the prologue, John articulates the true fruit of the Incarnation: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” The Incarnation is not a means of classification, it is the outpouring of God’s own self, the sharing of an unfathomable grace. John affirms that God’s fullness is poured out abundantly, without regard for who receives it or what impact it may have or whether it will be rejected. The Incarnation is not strategically targeted where it will be most effective; it is an extravagant, inefficient outpouring of everything that God is. We see this illustrated in the miracle at Cana in the very next chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus is told that the party has just run out of wine, and his response is not to make a per capita estimate based on consumption trends, but to produce more wine than anybody could possibly drink. Like Miss Sook’s fruitcakes, the Incarnation is not about precise calculation; it is about the expression of joy and delight. The Incarnation cannot be a failure because its only objective is to bring the fullness of God’s abundant grace into creation.
We live in a time when the message we proclaim during this Christmas season is not always well received. If people are not hostile to our proclamation of “good news,” they are often indifferent. For many people, the central figure of the Christmas season is not Jesus, but Santa Claus. Our tendency is to respond to this situation either diagnostically or defensively. Either we attempt to calculate exactly who we need to attract and how we can market the gospel to them or we angrily respond with “Merry Christmas” when people wish us a happy holiday. Today, however, we are reminded that we are not called to diagnose or defend, but to live our lives with joy, to experience life aware of the abundant grace that God has extravagantly poured upon creation. We are called to be beacons of this grace, and we are called to embrace this Christian vocation with such joy, with such enthusiasm, and with such delight that everyone can see how we have been shaped by the fullness of God’s grace.