In the beginning was the Word. (John 1:1)
As a younger man, I served on a philosophy faculty. And although I enjoyed research and teaching advanced classes, my real love was teaching introductory classes.
Especially freshmen entered those classrooms with a willingness to engage big questions that get to the very bottom of things. They weren’t being flip or ironic when they asked, “What is the meaning of life?”
It was thrilling to watch their eyes light up with discovery and hope and bold vision.
That was a different time. And although I know of many young people who still sincerely wrestle with what makes their life significant and what greater purpose their lives might serve, I am also seeing something else.
Cynicism has become the mark of sophistication. Scoffing at the idea that life has a larger meaning seems more intellectually respectable than searching for some source of meaning beyond ourselves.
For many people today, there is no bottom at the bottom of things.
In part that’s because people have lost faith in almost anything greater than themselves that can give their lives meaning. Rob Bell expresses this better than I can, so let’s listen to him for just a moment:
Cynicism is the new religion of our world. Whatever it is, this religion teaches that it isn’t as good as it seems. It will let you down. It will betray you. That institution? That church? That politician? That authority figure? They’ll all let you down. Whatever you do, don’t get your hopes up. Whatever you think it is, whatever it appears to be, it will burn you, just give it time. (“It’s Not Christmas Yet,” Relevant, Tuesday 20, December 2011)
This posture is tenable so long as you haven’t let anything matter to you yet. But once you’ve invested yourself in a family, a career, a community, or a movement, the world according to the religion of cynicism is a horrifying place to dwell.
Anybody who has been around the block at least a couple of times knows that life is always threatening to fly apart at the seams. Things often fail to go as planned. Sometimes they go frighteningly wrong. We get through these times because we have some sense that life will be turned right side up in the end.
But if the religion of cynicism were true, it all would eventually break apart. As William Butler Yeats famously puts it, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” (The Second Coming)
If the truth be told, this fear has nagged humans since the beginning. Or at least since the fall. Satan murmurs in our ear that things fall apart. “God will let you down in the end,” he whispers. There is no bottom to things.
Slipping into the clutches of this fear is the darkness that the light of the world has come to dissolve. Today we celebrate the Incarnation of the living God in the man Jesus Christ. We celebrate the birth of the only Son of God who gives us proof in the flesh that the religion of cynicism is a phony bill of goods.
Listen to St. John: In the beginning was the Word. (John 1:1)
That’s the familiar translation. But I want you to hear it retranslated, so listen again.
At the bottom of things there is meaning.
Translators usually render the Greek word arche as “beginning,” but it also means at the root of things, at the foundation, at the bottom of things.
What we read as “Word” is the Greek logos, a rich term that can express news or logic or, as I suggest today, meaning.
And so here is what the Apostle John is telling us about Jesus. The Son of God is at the very bottom of things connecting it all together. To race ahead to Revelation, he is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.
In Christ it all hangs together.
It is easy for many of us to imagine God the Father as a Distant Designer. He draws up blue prints and makes plans about how things should work. But he does seem awfully far away.
By contrast, God the Son gets on the inside of things. In Jesus Christ, God insinuated himself right into the middle of the messy muddle we call life. And he acts as the glue that holds it all together, especially after it has broken and threatened to crumble into pieces.
Now here’s the funny thing about glue. We don’t see it at work. And yet it binds together different and varied parts into a beautiful, elegant whole.
The Son of God has come to dwell in our midst; not merely alongside us, but right in the heart of all that we do; at the very center of our lives.
Because the Son of God himself has come to dwell among us, we can persevere through every challenge and endure even the most piercing heart ache, because we know that his love is already making all things whole.
When we get to the bottom of things, we find that Jesus Christ has been dwelling there all along.
This sermon was preached on Christmas Day 2011 at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, Louisiana.