Scripture: John 1:1-13
The Christmas season is a time we may be thinking about welcome. Some of us may be preparing to welcome family or other guests for the holidays. The house will need to be clean, fresh sheets on the guest bed, holiday menu prepared and groceries shopped for, the obligatory day trip to the Smithsonians planned. Others of us may be planning to be guests ourselves. We may be in the awkward place of joining new friends or neighbors for the first time, meeting the families of significant others, or wondering even how welcome we will be among our own families. Some of us may wish we had a place to go.
I’d like you to take a minute just to think about your experience with the word welcome. When is a time when you found yourself welcomed? (It doesn’t necessarily have to be at the holidays.) How did you know you were welcome? How did you feel, before the experience and after?
As the year 2011 drew to a close, I happened to find myself with no place to go for Christmas. Christmas was on a Sunday that year, and I had to be in Williamsburg for our Christmas morning worship service. My parents and brother were headed up to visit my dad’s extended family in Philadelphia, as we always did. There was no way to make it home in time to join them. The previous year I had spent Christmas Day with my then-boyfriend’s family but, being recently single again, that was no longer an option.
I ended up spending that Christmas Day with my friend Jenny’s family – another pastor in the same situation, whose family came to her that year. I was nervous at first about intruding on someone else’s family Christmas. I had only met Jenny that summer when she moved to a church close-ish to mine. I’d met her twin sister a couple times since then, but I had never met her parents before. I was glad to have somewhere to go, but I didn’t just want to be someone they included because they felt sorry for me.
But I didn’t end up feeling like that at all. Our friend Jessie came too – yet another Christmas orphan pastor. There were places set for us around the table. We were included in the conversation – they wanted to get to know us, and for us to get to know them. Nothing made me feel like I was an interloper or an afterthought. I’d been worried about Christmas being lonely that year, but in the end, I left feeling like my circle of people had grown.
Maybe you’ve had an experience like that. Of course, maybe you’ve had the opposite one, too: of holidays or other visits where you just never quite felt at home, or worse, were outright rejected for who you are, or what you believe, or choices that you made. There’s plenty of that this time of year, too.
As we continue on in the prologue to John’s Gospel today, we come to this theme of welcome and rejection. So far we have met Jesus as the Logos, the Word of God, and the Light that shines in the darkness. Last week we read that the true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. Today we move to what the world did with that. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. This is especially sad considering the light is its source and origin. There is a tragic disconnect there, a sense of amnesia.
The Light came to his own people, John writes – or just his own – and his own didn’t welcome him. This is not the awkwardness of trying to fit in with strangers. It is the estrangement of family.
I talked a lot last week about the imagery of darkness and light and how that language can be tricky, and perhaps problematic, and a similar caveat applies here. When John talks about the Light’s own people, that on one level probably means the Jewish people, of whom Jesus was one. In the rest of John’s Gospel, those who oppose Jesus are often simply labeled “the Jews.” There is not a lot of good, historically, that has come from painting Jewish people with a broad brush as Jesus haters. It also doesn’t even make sense, because almost every character in John’s Gospel, whether positively or negatively portrayed, is, in fact, a Jew. For this reason many recent translations use “Jewish leaders” where context demands it, or sometimes the more literal “Judeans,” which has less contemporary significance to us. So let’s be clear. Though through Jesus and his first followers the idea of what it means to be God’s people will be expanded beyond an ethnic group, this is not a story of “the Jews” rejecting Jesus.
Who are Jesus’ “own”? Well, if the whole world came into being through the Light, then, that’s all of us. This is a story about all of us, and our response to the Light as it (he) comes into the world, and whether we will welcome him.
We also talk a lot about welcoming Jesus a lot this time of year. We talk about opening our hearts for the Christ child and making room for him to be born in us at Christmas, but in my experience, if we’re not careful, that kind of talk can be vague and sentimental. Have I welcomed Jesus into my heart if I feel all warm and fuzzy singing Silent Night? What does it really mean to welcome him?
For John, those who welcomed Jesus are the ones who believed in him, who put their faith in him. They recognized the Light for who he was. I said last week that John’s Gospel is all about seeing as a metaphor for faith, and throughout the Gospel there are people who see and people who don’t. And those who don’t, don’t for different reasons: he doesn’t meet their needs in the way that they demand. He’s a threat to the institutions they’ve invested everything in. They’re scared of what believing might mean – a very reversal of the world order as they know it (resurrection, anyone?) And, sometimes, it’s all simply too unbelievable. The claims he makes are just too much. They do not see, they do not recognize him, they do not have faith, they do not welcome.
But we would have, though, right?
A church member came to me the other day with a question. She said, I hear of people making claims that certain politicians are sent by God. This seems dangerous to me. But if Jesus is supposed to come again one day, how will we know for sure?
The more I thought about that question the more I thought it was not only a good question but specifically a good Advent question, because Advent is, traditionally, a time to talk not just about the first coming of Jesus, but the next one, too. Would we welcome Jesus if he came into the world today? How would we know?
I told this church member how Jesus himself answers the question. In John, when people demand he prove himself, he says “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me” (10:25). In Matthew and Luke, when disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus if he’s really the one they’ve been waiting for, he says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22). In other words, we know a tree by its fruit; we’ll know it’s him (or perhaps next time, her or them) because we see and know and understand God through him.
I said in the meantime it’s probably good to be skeptical.
But then maybe I thought that instead of being skeptical, we should open that door wide. What if, instead, we welcomed everyone as if they were sent by God? Not in the sense that every thing they do and decision they make is God-ordained. But in the sense that they bear God’s image, and because of that, they reflect God’s light, and we can know something of God through them.
The word the CEB translates “welcome” in John’s prologue is sometimes translated “receive” instead. And I like “welcome” because it sounds active, on our part – but I like “receive,” because it sounds like a gift is being given.
Jesus said that whoever welcomes a stranger – whether they know it or not – has welcomed him (Matthew 25.) Or – have you ever stopped and read the Rune of Hospitality that hangs outside our prayer room? I like how that puts it: Often, often, often, goes Christ in the stranger’s guise. Our response to Christ as we meet him now will tell us a lot about what our response might have been the first time, and what it might be the next.
I asked you at the outset here to reflect on a time when you were welcomed. Take a minute again, now, and think about a time when you were the one who welcomed. Did you do so willingly, or reluctantly? How did you feel, before and after?
Three years ago when Jon and I were preparing for Evelyn to be born, we may not have been ready mentally, but we were ready logistically. The nursery was set up and decorated, the necessary equipment acquired, the clothes folded and put away. I spent the week before she came, when I was already on maternity leave, cleaning the house. It’s possible that I’m idealizing things in retrospect, but we checked everything off the list that we were supposed to do to welcome her.
This summer when we were preparing for Lydia to be born, we had nothing ready. We already had a toddler, for one thing. My dad was in the hospital for most of my third trimester. We still had all the necessary equipment, but a lot of it was stuffed away in the attic or in the back of closets somewhere – we still don’t know where some of it is. Rooms had to be reconfigured. As Lydia’s due date grew closer, I had this growing desperate, helpless feeling of being completely unprepared to welcome her.
It was during that time that friends reminded me that all we really needed was a carseat, a safe place for her to sleep, and to love her.
Welcoming someone is, in some ways, easier than we imagine.
Your house doesn’t need to be spotless. You don’t need to have your life together. What people need is to be loved. It’s easier than we imagine.
But it’s harder, too. Welcoming can be a scary thing, because to welcome is to be vulnerable. To welcome – to really welcome – is not just about hosting somebody in your house or pulling up a chair at your table – but about opening up your life to someone new, and all of the ways that might change everything.
John says that Jesus’ own people didn’t welcome him. But then he says that some of them did. Some of them saw something in him that they had never seen before. And they believed that what they saw was God. And they welcomed the Light among them in the world.
And those, John tells us, he made children of God.
In other words, their reward was that through their welcome of this divine stranger in their midst, they got to know and be in relationship with God in a new way.
And that’s what Advent, and Christmas, are all about.
So this season, open your hearts to that little baby born in Bethlehem. And even better, open your lives to the strangers who bear his image today.