“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…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.”
The prologue of the first chapter of John, read this morning, is pretty heady stuff compared to the down to earth, human story of the birth of a baby we have been hearing about and celebrating through four weeks of Advent and our glorious celebration of Christmas here at Kenilworth Union Church. We have talked about hope, joy, love and peace in the beauty of candlelight and the glory of Christmas music. Now, this second Sunday after Christmas the lectionary has us contemplating the meaning of the Christmas story in the context of a philosophical discussion of Jesus and his origins. The camera, zoomed in on the earthy, warm, living baby in the gospel of Luke has now zoomed out, and we are looking at the story from a totally different perspective. The gospel writer John begins his story at the beginning of time. He tells how the Word, present with God at the dawn of creation, came to the world seeking to dwell with his own and to reveal God to all. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Echoing the creation story at the beginning of Genesis, John launches into his Gospel with a description, not of a baby in a manger, but with Jesus, the Word, a rich Greek term that can also be translated as “reason” and “wisdom.” Beautiful as the words are, they can sound a bit lofty and cold. But John does not leave us high in the ethereal heavens because our God, he tells us, is not a distant God. John writes that the Word became flesh, one of us, and made his dwelling with us. “The Christmas story,” writes John Buchanan, “means that in this vast and mysterious universe, in this sometimes frightening world, we are not alone. And it means that God cares about how life is lived in the world.” God cares enough to have come and taken root in the world.
Which takes us to our lovely passage from Sirach in which Lady Wisdom tells how, at the dawn of creation, she came forth from the mouth of God and, like the mist created by an enormous wave crashing on a rocky shore, she covered the earth. “I dwelt in the highest heavens,” says Wisdom, “and my throne was a pillar of cloud, Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Among all these I sought a resting place.” God gave her a command to make her dwelling in Israel and she went and “took root in an honored people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.” “[Wisdom] logged all those miles,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “because she was looking for something. She was seeking a resting place on earth, and a place to pitch her tent. As nice as it was to cover the earth like a mist, what Wisdom really wanted was a physical address….She wanted to take root somewhere; she wanted to belong to someone.”
The lectionary intertwines these two passages today because it is at this time of year that we are reminded again that there is one who cares about us who is not only the almighty and often mysterious author of creation but is also one who has come to take root, to live among us and with us on intimate terms.
In John Updike’s Bech Is Back, a character in the book describes his wife this way: “Many of her crowd went to church as faithfully as they played tennis and golf and attended rallies to keep out developers. Yet, their God, for all his colorful history and spangled attributes, lay above the earth like a layer of icy cirrus, a tenacious and diffident other whose tendrils failed to entwine with fibrous blood and muscle.” Buchanan comments on this passage saying, “…as usual Updike put his finger on central theological questions: Is our God distant, ethereal, hypothetical? Does our religion operate on the same plane and by the same rules as middle-class and upper-class American culture?”
The passages from John and Sirach answer Buchanan’s question with an emphatic “no.” John and the author of Sirach remind us concretely that God does not “lie above the earth like a layer of icy cirrus.” They tell us that God’s tendrils have deeply entwined with fibrous blood and muscle in Jesus and in our own flesh and blood. God is rooted deeply within us and the world. Our job is to open our lives to God so that God can become more deeply rooted in us.
A root is an anchor that holds us firmly in a particular place. Rootedness is the quality of being firmly established, settled, or entrenched. Roots are the metaphors for solid grounding and endurance. To John Cavanagh and Robin Broad, authors of an article for Yes! Magazine, a lack of rootedness is rampant today throughout the world. “It seems that almost everyone we know” they write, “is feeling vulnerable these days – whether they are rich or poor, employed or unemployed, their lives feel fragile. So we are setting out to discover places where people are finding ways to counter that vulnerability, creating more secure paths of living based on a concept we are calling “rootedness.” They suggest that there are three ways one defines and measures rootedness. There is economic rootedness, environmental rootedness and social rootedness. According to the authors, economic rootedness focuses on the locality of production, environmental rootedness focuses on the management of natural resources for sustainability and social rootedness focuses on creating a society that is healthy with a strong sense of equality and community. They believe that “rooted communities and nations make more sense than ones that are vulnerable to the whims of global fluctuations.”
Cavanagh and Broad however, have left out one important category. Over and over again the Bible tells us, that spiritual rootedness, rootedness in God, is the most important kind of rootedness of all. Walt Walker writes that you can divide people into two fundamental groups; not necessarily good and evil or even Christian and non-Christian. The two groups are rooted and non-rooted. There are people who are firmly rooted in their beliefs, wants, and values. Then there are those who change belief and value systems as easily as a set of clothes. In the parable of the sower in Matthew’s gospel
Jesus describes not two but three different kinds of people. The first kind of person is someone who lacks a deep root into God, and when trouble comes, loses faith and abandons God. The second person is one whose root, as Jesus describes it, is choked off from God by the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth.” The third person is one who is deeply rooted in God, who claims their rootedness, who waters and feeds the root and as a result bears the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
Perhaps the best way to understand the power of being rooted in love, in faith or in God is to think about other kinds of “rootedness.” In 1st Timothy Paul reminds us that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” There are also those who have a root of bitterness, lust, insecurity or fear and find that their perceptions, attitudes, and actions are constantly controlled by what has been growing in their lives for years. Anger and revenge fueled by a root of bitterness or fear is very difficult to stop. As a result, when faced with ingratitude or slander, our only resources that we can draw on are anger or bitterness. But those people whose lives are lived firmly rooted in God and in whom God is deeply rooted develop a keel that keeps them on a flexible but grounded path that guides them through whatever life brings their way.
In their book Made For Goodness Desmond Tutu and his daughter tell story after story of people who have realized their rootedness in the goodness of God and, acting on that knowledge, have helped create a good and flourishing life for themselves and others. The book tells the story of Beyers Naude, Afrikaner cleric who was born, Tutu writes, into the royalty of Afrikanerdom. At twenty-five Byers became the youngest member of the Broderbund, the group that was committed to preserving apartheid in South Africa. He was the leader of a prestigious Johannesburg Dutch Reformed congregation and a moderator of his synod of the Dutch reformed church. “But,” writes Tutu, “his seemingly perfect life was built on an untenable foundation. The South African Dutch Reformed church had constructed the theological pillars on which apartheid was established.” Over the years, “Beyer’s prayer, study and reflection had led him to conclude that apartheid was unbiblical and unchristian and that its effects were indefensible.” Forced to choose between his new beliefs and those of his church, he chose “obedience to conscience.” On a Sunday in 1963, he announced to his congregation his decision to leave the church. ‘We must show greater loyalty to God than to man,’ and he hung his gown on the pulpit and walked out of the church.” For more than 30 years he was shunned by his church and the government that placed him under a banning order, not allowing him to attend worship or be in a room with more than one person. Finally, after the election of Nelson Mandela and the vindication of Beyer’s views, his was able to freely participate in worship and gatherings with his family.
Rootedness in God and God’s desires for us are the solid ground for which we are all searching. In the vacillations of life it offers a steady hand to guide us. It gives us the courage to be faithful to those we love, honest when we are tempted to skirt the truth, to take action when we see injustice, to hold our children responsible for their actions and to love them unconditionally at the same time, to be generous to those we would rather ignore, to use the gifts of each day gratefully and to face our trials bravely.
As we come this morning to the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate again our grounding in God and God’s grounding in us. God has given us this meal so that after sharing it together, we can go from this place with a renewed sense of God’s presence in our lives. So much of our time is spent, like Lady Wisdom, looking for something and seeking a resting place, a place to pitch our tent on solid ground. We want to be rooted and know that we belong somewhere to someone. Being rooted in God gives us that solid grounding that we take with us no matter where we go. Plant your roots deep into God. Eat this meal and know that God is entwined in your very blood and muscle. Claim God’s solid presence in your life and then act on it. Go with God. Amen.