Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for Epiphany Sunday.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a breath from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
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.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
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.
Let there be light.
According to scripture, these are the first words God ever spoke. The first commandment. The first creation. The first words. Let there be light.
So perhaps it is no wonder that light—illuminating, guiding, revealing, life-giving light—is used over and over in scripture as a metaphor for God. O Lord, you are my light and my salvation, sings the Psalmist. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
There are metaphors for God that use darkness, too, metaphors where God covers, shelters, shades us, gives us rest. But still, those first words have power. Let there be light.
It is no coincidence that when the writer of John’s gospel wanted to explain just who this Jesus was who had captured his heart, he turned to that same powerful metaphor. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world,” he wrote.
Let there be light.
Light—illumination—does not create anything that isn’t already there. Imagine your bedroom in the dark. You may not be able to see anything, but the bureau is still there; your glasses are on the bedside; your piles of laundry are still placed exactly where you’ll most trip over them. It’s all there, in the dark. But you don’t see it until you turn on the lights.
We are entering the season of Epiphany now, the season that follows the expectant darkness of Advent. The word epiphany literally means “to shine all around”—it is the season where we see in the light of day all the promises we heard about in Advent. It’s the season when we celebrate that the Light of the World has come.
To have an epiphany is to have a revelation—to have something revealed to us that was there all along. I like to think of epiphany as what happens when God turns on the lights in our mind, or our hearts.
A few years ago I went to an exhibit at Xavier University on the St. John’s Bible. A friend invited me; I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But once I was there, I was spellbound.
The St. John’s Bible is what’s known as an illuminated manuscript. Technically, illuminated because it includes illustrations of the text that are overlaid with precious metals like gold. Literally, the pages shine.
But the pages are also illuminating. I read some part of the Bible almost every day; it’s a tool in my work, the same way an accountant reaches for a calculator or a dentist her drill. Mostly this happens on my computer screen or phone. Sometimes I can grow numb to the glory of it, the fact that this book is a window through which we can see God. But while I wandered around looking at the pages of the St. John’s Bible, God turned the lights on for me once again. I do believe that the Bible is the Word of God, a witness that testifies to the light. It isn’t the light, but it is a darn good testimony to the light.
The St. John’s Bible was commissioned in the 1990s by a Catholic Benedictine community in Minnesota, under the artistic vision and direction of Donald Jackson, an elite calligrapher who had long dreamed of creating an entire illuminated Bible. After plenty of conversation—and of course, the formation of a committee or two—he began work on Ash Wednesday of the year 2000, with the very words we read this morning: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. The entire book, all seven volumes, is hand-scribed, hand-illustrated, and hand-illuminated by a team of artists.
It was important to the artists that they were not merely illustrating stories, turning words into pictures. Creating the art of the manuscript was a spiritual practice, by which they uncovered—revealed—illumined—what God was saying to them.
Donald Jackson wrote, “The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.”
It is no wonder that the St. John’s Bible can do the same for us. Over the next two months, during the season of Epiphany, we are going to look at images from the St. John’s Bible, and see what they illumine about the scripture we love—and sometimes struggle to understand.
We are starting today with creation—one of the most famous and formative stories of scripture. The story itself is poetry, with repetition and crescendo. It is not history; it is not science; and the Hebrew people who first told it too each other never expected it to be. Instead, it is God-talk. It is the truth of how God does things—orderly, beautifully, creatively. All-powerfully.
There are seven vertical strips, one for each day of creation, as they grow and elide into each other, moving from roiling chaos to geometric, golden rest. According to commentary by the Library of Congress, Day three contains satellite pictures of the Nile Delta, suggesting the division of land and water and the beginnings of vegetation. The creation of human beings on the sixth day is represented by images from aboriginal rock paintings in Africa and Australia.” A snake twists around Eve’s feet.
Do you see that thin gold line down the middle of all those bursting brushstrokes in the first vertical strip? That is the moment God said, “let there be light.” In order to speak, God first had to breathe—and that breath soars over the waters like a bird.
I wish we could have the actual book here, so that you could see the shimmer of the gold in these paintings. They come bursting to life that way. And do you know how they get the gold on the pages? Breath. The artist breathes through a bamboo tube, and the bit of moisture in human breath activates the glue in the gesso until it bonds with the gold leaf.
First, breath. Then, light. This is how creation begins.
Let’s take a look at the second image now, the frontispiece for the Gospel of John. There’s no doubt that when John wrote the prologue to his gospel, he was thinking about that first creation story. For John, Jesus’ coming into the world was no less important, no less universe-shattering than the creation of the world itself. Though Christ, God was making the world all over again.
Donald Jackson’s paintings show the same connecting line from first creation to new creation. Jesus appears as a golden figure materializing from the cosmos; the colors and stenciled patterns are the same as used in the creation artwork for the day God created suns and stars and night—which were inspired by a picture taken by the Hubble Telescope.
Dr. Kevin Estep an assistant professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies at Creighton University, talks about how Jesus seems to flow out of the words of John 1 and Colossians 1 that appear on the page, as if formed from droplets of golden ink. The creator, Estep says, is now writing himself into creation.
It is also important, Estep says, to note that Jesus is not a mere apparition. Jesus “didn’t commute from heaven, but lived among us.” The word became flesh. Became real. We have words in this book that testify to the light. On our best days, they flip the lights on in our minds and hearts, so we can see that Christ was there all along.
And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Illuminations of God’s glory are all around us. In art; in science; in history; in conversations with friends; in quiet silence; in scripture; in metaphor; in truth. The question for us is, are we looking? Are we looking closely enough to see the beauty of the Word made Flesh, who lives among us?
God, turn the lights on in this new year. Help us see you’ve been here all along.