"The life was the light"-Sermon for Christmas 1, John 1:1-18
“Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day. First there is nothing. Two hours are lost to lava and meteors. Life doesn’t show up until three or four a.m. Even then, it’s just the barest self-copying bits and pieces. From dawn to late morning—a million million years of branching—nothing more exists than lean and simple cells. Then there is everything. Something wild happens, not long after noon. One kind of simple cell enslaves a couple of others. Nuclei get membranes. Cells evolve organelles. What was once a solo campsite grows into a town. The day is two-thirds done when animals and plants part ways. And still life is only single cells. Dusk falls before compound life takes hold. Every large living thing is a latecomer, showing up after dark. Nine p.m. brings jellyfish and worms. Later that hour comes the breakout—backbones, cartilage, an explosion of body forms. From one instant to the next, countless new stems and twigs in the spreading crown burst open and run. Plants make it up on land just before ten [p.m.]. Then insects, who instantly take to the air. Moments later, tetrapods crawl up from the tidal muck, carrying around on their skin and in their guts whole worlds of earlier creatures. By eleven, dinosaurs have shot their bolt, leaving the mammals and birds in charge for an hour. Somewhere in that last sixty minutes, high up in the phylogenetic canopy, life grows aware. Creatures start to speculate. Animals start teaching their children about the past and the future. Animals learn to hold rituals. Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appear three seconds later. And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand, life solves the mystery of DNA and starts to map the tree of life itself. By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species [ours]. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.”
This quote is a part of speech found almost at the end of Richard Power’s prize-winning novel, “Overstory”. The speech is given by a biologist named Patricia, who though a fictional character, is based on a real-life scientist named Dr. Suzanne Simard who first researched how trees communicate. In the novel, Patricia is speaking to an audience at Stanford University, a diverse audience of scholars, politicians and leading women and men of industry, who are gathered together to think about how to save the earth’s living biome…humans, plants and animals…all living things…facing the devastating consequences of climate change. Patricia speaks passionately about the gift of life and the interconnectedness of all living things…our relationship with trees, plants, and animals of all sorts…the ways our lives…our ability to thrive…literally depend on each other. And, she reminds the audience that at some point in our geological and biological history…human, trees, plants and animals were born from the same cells…so that we, in a sense, share a common ancestor and remain inextricably all bound up together.
And, in the quote I shared, she, also, talks about the fact that humans, who now dominate the world’s landscapes, have really only been birthed by earth’s biome very recently. As she suggests…if you squeeze the whole earth’s history into one 24-hour day…we, meaning the human species, shows up about 4 seconds before midnight. But, in that very little bit of time geologically speaking, we have had a huge impact on the balance of power among earth’s living things…and not all to the good…at least, in terms of the heath, vitality and future of our own species. For we, humans, are entirely dependent on the earth’s bounty for our food, shelter, water, and temperate climate…while the earth’s biome, though ever evolving and changing, is really not that dependent on us at all. Our choices and behaviors may very well lead to mass sorts of extinctions of various plant and animal life…but science tells us, in the end, earth and the abundant life it produces, will outlast us all. Thus, as Patricia ends this part of her speech, again, she says, “By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species [ours]. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.” And the teetering tree trunk to which she refers, the very tree of life, is the very one of which we humans are grafted into…are a part of and dependent on.
And this sermon is actually not intended to be guilt inducing or remotely nihilistic. It is not intended to muse on the ills and evils of human behavior wrought on God’s creation…the gift of the earth…from which God has shaped us and formed us. Thus, this is not intended to be solely a sermon on environmental stewardship. Though we all, beginning with the preacher, can and should be reminded that God has made everything that is…loves it all…and whose plan of salvation is not for us alone…but everyting that God has made…the universe, galaxies and solar systems…sun, moon, and stars…earth, winds and waters…plants, animals, and humans. Thus, we should care about all of it…everything that God has lovingly made, which hopefully does then have impact on how we live, how we consume, how we relate to and steward the created order, whose thriving we utterly depend on. Further, we should be grateful for the gift of creation, and recognize, revel in and sustain its beauty…that points us all so powerfully to the beautiful mind, God’s own, behind it all…the one who made it all just so wonderful and lovely. I hope our time in the great outdoors, cavorting with trees, fishing its streams, taking in the earthy smells it produces, filling our lungs with fresh air, enjoying the good and satisfying food it produces, that all of these life-giving encounters with the created world…lead us to songs of praise and prayers of thanksgiving…to God alone…the great maker of it all.
But, this sermon is intended, on this first Sunday in the Season of Christmas, to be just that…a Christmas sermon. I want to remind us, as the prologue of John’s Gospel that we just heard together so beautifully sings out, that Jesus, come down to earth, is life…and that life is the everlasting light of all living things. Though it may feel like we have arrived at the end of the day…we may feel like it is the very darkest time of the night…we may question whether a new day will even dawn…we may be living with a strong, internal sense that the giant trunk of the tree of life is, indeed, teetering…and I speak hear not only about a warming earth, whose oceans are overflowing our various communities’ banks, but just of life…the challenges we face in an ideologically and sorely divided world…families gathered at Christmas…that are houses that feel painfully divided. I speak of illness and aging…of job loss and grief…of income inequality and homelessness…of those living in tents on our borders desperately seeking to escape unspeakable poverty and violence…only to find themselves lost between two worlds. I speak of ruptured relationships and job-loss…of betrayal and bigotry…in other words…I speak of warming temperatures and tensions of all sorts and conditions. And, it is into this world, on this good earth, and the lives we live on it, that John reminds us that Jesus, the light of the world, comes…that Jesus is born…the one who made it all, who sustains it all, who redeems all things…moving, in time, forever forward and backward. As John writes, “All things came into being through [Jesus], 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.”
And, I will add, no darkness can or will ever overcome it…overcome life. Jesus, love in flesh, through his birth, life, death and resurrection…has made it so…from before time and forever. Jesus is an unquenchable light, a light fueled not by elements like hydrogen and oxygen that burn out, but by love, which is the universe’s first ordering principle, that which made all things and redeems, remakes, and resurrects all things, even the fragile tree, on whose teetering trunk and swaying branches, we just feel like we are barely hanging on to. The very tree of life will stand…be forever reborn…and our own lives that are grafted into it…will stand with it…in this age and the next…from forever to forever. Jesus’ birth, his willingness to become flesh and bone…atoms and cells…as a vulnerable baby here at the end of the day, so very recently when speaking in terms of earth’s history, is God’s great promise that life, the earth’s and ours, enlightened by love alone, like Jesus, will be birthed into a new day. For the roots of the tree of life are fed, nurtured, and sustained by the well of life, which is God’s own love and whose living waters are everlasting…from the beginning and forever.
And I hope, this Christmas promise, given to us in Jesus’ own life incarnated among us is the very source of our hope…that sustains the living of our days…light when our own present darkness feels overwhelming, filling our own trunks with all the good and satisfying resources we need to find our way forward and live a life that is fully alive…full of purpose, meaning and joy. And I hope this Christmas promise, given to us in Jesus’ own life incarnated among us gives us the strength and courage we need to participate in God’s on-going, Easter and Christmas like work, of making all living things new. That we might be a stabilizing force for good and for God, as the very tree of life opens its blossoms and extends its leaves in welcome of the new day that is dawning, the approaching light, as the son, the son of God, rises to meet us. Amen.