Jesus Is the Message

By Joshua M. Caler

Peace and welcome, friends. If I didn’t have a chance to greet you earlier this week during any of the services between Sundays, then Merry Christmas, also! It is our practice during this Christmas Season to restore the reading of the Last Gospel to the end of our celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The Last Gospel — the proclamation of the prologue to John’s Gospel read from the Altar after the post-communion prayer and blessing — began as a private devotion of the celebrant and evolved, by the 16th century, as a public epilogue to the Mass.

Of course today — since our Gospel lesson is John’s prologue — we will read a different lesson as our Last Gospel. But the practice of proclaiming that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” at the end of each Mass really serves two purposes. The first is that it is a kind of gloss on what has just happened in our midst: just as, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God — the second person of the Trinity — became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man, so also now in the Holy Eucharist has God come to dwell among us under the species of bread and wine, through the same work of the same Spirit.

Each Eucharist is a little Christmas. But perhaps more importantly, this practice serves as an unambiguous reminder that the heart and whole of the Gospel is Jesus himself, God’s most wondrous gift to us; that no aspect of our life beyond those doors can be made sense of without reference to Jesus.

I have been a Christian almost all my adult life and I still find it difficult to read this morning’s Gospel aloud without my voice quavering. It isn’t just that John’s prologue is so beautifully and powerfully written: The remarkable gift of these few verses that introduce us to Jesus in John is their elegant comprehensiveness.

Yet ironically, what has become for me the most powerful and clarifying part of today’s Gospel lesson is not about Jesus at all. At least not directly. It turns out that the section about John the Baptist is an essential and vital clarifier to what real evangelism is, and is not.

During Advent, of course, we spent a great deal of time hearing from and about John. And one of the most striking aspects of his preaching recorded in the New Testament — John’s message to all who would listen — is how similar to Jesus’ it is in all but one vital respect. After all: John preached a gospel of repentance and concern for the poor. John welcomed tax collectors and chastised Pharisees. He traveled around, called to himself disciples, and made sure the hungry were filled with good things. John even died for what he proclaimed in public.

Yet he was absolutely clear that he was not the Messiah; not the one coming into the world to enlighten everyone, but a witness to testify to that light who is to come. This is the heart of the matter that today’s Gospel means to clarify by inserting John into an almost rapturous and poetical account of Jesus: it isn’t that Jesus’ message — what he said and did as a preacher and teacher during his earthly ministry — is particularly extraordinary. John and many others had similarly wise and pointed words to offer.

Yet none of them were the eternal Word of God. What John the Baptist in his preaching — and what John the Evangelist in his Gospel — are at pains to show us is that Jesus is precisely not another in a long line of prophets who has come to preach Good News; he is that Good News himself, proclaimed by God in flesh. It is his person — the very fact that in him the fullness of God dwells among us — that is Good News. He is full of grace and truth: not his words or example or teachings or message!

And this is the contrast between Jesus, the Word who has become flesh, and every other prophet and teacher before or since, that today’s Gospel lesson means to make crystal clear. There can be no evangelism — no Good News — that is not about Jesus. And while that seems obvious, I assure you that it requires great discipline and practice to be faithful to the high standard of today’s Gospel lesson and the pattern it sets for the nature and work of evangelism. Because it means that evangelism is not about Jesus’ message or teaching, about his life or witness.

It is about him; not as an idea, but as a person. I mean, it is so much easier to tell friends and family about our commitment to social justice, our concern for the poor, sheltering and feeding ministries, the new central air-conditioning system, our music program, the low, low prices in our thrift shop, or our lovely Christmas decorations. Those things are wonderful, but if we cannot name how they, along with us, are signposts pointing toward the Incarnate Lord God, then they are not evangelism: they are merely your opinion given as unsolicited advice.

No, the much harder work — the work both Johns made their life’s work, and the calling placed on each of us this morning — is to actually share the Good News! Tell people about Jesus — not his message or ideas or teaching, but about him. Extend an invitation to your friends and family — not to come here to hear good music or enjoy our coffee hour or to learn about Jesus or to give their kids a dose of religion — but to meet the one who is the true light, to be made full of grace from his fullness. Pray to God for opportunities to share the Good News, and risk sounding foolish when God answers your prayer. Invite others to come and see the Word who has become flesh and wells among us still, for it is in him alone that God has been made known.


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