[This sermon was preached January 2, 2005 at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Muskogee, OK, the Reverend Kevin Tully pastor. Posted here 1/3/05]
The passage I have just read from the Gospel of John is typically referred to as the “Prologue” to the whole gospel. In it we have one of the most profound and influential statements of the significance of Jesus of Nazareth that exists anywhere in the literature of the early church. It is fair to say that what came to be known as the ‘orthodox’ tradition of the church was deeply dependent on the language and theology of the Gospel of John.
It is, I hope, a special blessing for us to have this text as the lectionary reading for this Second Sunday of Christmas, at the beginning of this new year of 2005. I propose to give the text a close reading and interpretation in the hope we all might find ourselves better grounded in the understanding of Jesus as the Incarnate Word of God and enlivened in our faithful living by that understanding.
Let us start by looking closely at the first five verses:
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.
In its originating context—a largely Hellenistic world in Palestine under Roman rule and domination—anyone who might be entrusted to read the scroll upon which this whole gospel was written would know that the gospel is about Jesus the Jewish prophet from Nazareth. And in knowing that, they would also know that he preached the coming Kingdom of God, was crucified on a cross of shame by the principalities and powers of his first century world in Palestine, and that his followers had claimed that—though he died a terrible and brutal death—he was raised from the dead by the One he called Father, the God of Israel.
We can now understand that anyone reading this gospel in that early context would be astonished at the claims now being made about the significance and reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. If anything is clear in this gospel, Jesus of Nazareth is being placed in a cosmic drama with significance for every being that has existed, does now exist, and might exist in that cosmos. But we will not get very far in our understanding if we do not appreciate some dimensions of the Palestinian world in Jesus’ time.
Remembering now that the New Testament was written in Greek by Jewish followers of Jesus, let us look at two Greek words that are crucial to this text: theos and logos. Our translators have rendered them “God” and “Word.” We should not suppose however that, in their Palestinian setting in a Roman subjugated world with many religions, these terms had agreed on—or common—meanings and references. Quite simply, theosrefers to whatever is regarded as in some sense divine. As such the word theos does not tell us anything further about who or what is divine. Hence, the divine could be the many gods of the Roman mythological pantheon, and a succession of Roman Caesars claimed to be divine, while the various philosophers had teachings as to what should be regarded as divine. Hence, there was a continuing linguistic battle going on as to what or who is divine.
The sole exception is that among Jews—and Jesus and this gospel writer were Jews—theos referred first and only to the God of Israel, who created all things, elected and covenanted with Israel, spoke to Israel in giving her commandments and in giving her guidance through prophets who declared God’s Word to the people of Israel.
That other word, logos, had a rich linguistic context as well. We certainly must believe that the writer of this gospel was reaching into the deep resonances of other uses of this word in the Hellenistic world. Logos is translated “Word” here largely because of its Jewish background: the God of Israel is a God who speaks words, who creates a world by speaking and who sends prophets to speak God’s truth and commandments.
But even a Jew in this Hellenistic world would know that the word logos was related to logic, to right order and meaning among words and to right order within the world, to the basic rationality that it is at the heart of how things go in the world. To have fathomed the logos—the intelligent and understandable order—of the world was to have grasped what it means to live as a human being in this world. To grasp the word or logos is to have grasped something meaningful and intelligible.
A skilled carpenter—who knows how to identify types of wood, who knows how to read the grains of the wood and knows how to use tools to fashion wood into attractive and useful forms—is a person who has understood the logos of wood and carpentry.
In our time we do not seem to value words very highly, being aware that people often use them superficially and chaotically. But I have argued elsewhere that the length and breath of the language we have available to us and in which we are skilled in speaking, in hearing, and in writing is precisely the most basic way in which we have a world and live in it. The language a person possesses is the foundation of how she has a world, and the limits of her language is the limit of her understanding.
Put another way, I think one of the most basic challenges to any one of us is how to make sense out of our lives and the world in which we live. Sense-making is a fundamental human activity and it is profoundly dependent on the words—on the language—we know how to use and understand.
If we call ourselves ‘people of the book,’ then surely we all know that words do matter and that the words of this gospel matter; these are the words that we need to be able to speak and to understand and by which our lives should be formed.
Further, the very words “In the beginning…,” which come first in this Prologue, reminds us of the words in Genesis chapter one: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God speaks the cosmos into being. And this God who creates by speaking is the God whose Word forms and orders and enlightens all things and is the Word that comes into the world in Jesus Christ.
So, let us note firmly that this profound language is referring to that reality that is Jesus of Nazareth and is saying something like this: if you want to understand how things are and who is finally in charge of all life and light and truth, then come to grips with the reality witnessed in the narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
As the prologue narrative goes on, the One who is the Word and light of the world came to his own Jewish people who by and large “did not accept him.”[v.11] We know, of course, that all of Jesus’ earliest followers were themselves Jews, and they did “receive him,” and “believed in his name,” and to them he “gave power to become children of God.”[v.12]
These followers, however, became children of God born “not of blood, or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man,” but born of the grace of God.[v.13] This means that they are so decisively born of the Word of God that it is sheer grace that they come to believe and to become children of God. They are not children of God by their own arduous exercise of their presumably free wills: they are children by the grace of God.
Then, the narrative goes on: whether the Word was well received by all, whether the Word that enlightens every person that comes into the world is acknowledged or not, and whether the persons of the world cry ‘hallelujah’ or not, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[v.14] Here the narrative joyfully exclaims: “we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”[v.14]
The stark boldness of this claim should not escape us—I mean escape us present-day Christians. Some of us say loosely that Jesus is God but we say it without passion and life-shaping power. Some of us prefer to say Jesus is merely a man, perhaps a good and interesting man, but nevertheless finally only a man. It should not escape us that this gospel writer is claiming that the very Word that is God and is the Word of truth and light that is at the heart of the universe, has become a human being—a Jewish human being, born of a Jewish mother in the turbulent times of first century Palestine, and named Jesus, which any good Jew would know means “God saves.”
The gospel writer is careful not to say that the Word that is with God and is God became flesh in such a way that the Word ceased to be God and became instead a human being. Rather, let us read this carefully: it means that the Divine Word itself became a human being without ceasing to be the sovereign reality of the Divine Word itself. It also means that in Jesus, the Incarnate Word, the reality of God becomes vulnerable to the human world. Yet it is a vulnerability—even on the cross—for the sake of the redemption of the world.
This is not entirely easy of understanding, and the church has grappled through the centuries in trying to unfold the thick richness and boldness and beauty of this claim about the Word becoming the human being Jesus of Nazareth.
The gospel writer goes on to say: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”[v.18] A palpable bodiliness of God was not what a Jew would expect of God. Yet to see this bodily Jesus with the eyes of faith is to see that love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace that are the heart of God, even at the heart of the universe.
However much people repeatedly choose to live in the darkness of hate and lies, the darkness of violence cloaked as justice—choose to live, in other words, as though the darkness is itself the power and truth that engulfs and rules over every human that comes into the world, Jesus nevertheless reveals the true heart of God and the universe.
Let us pause now and think about what is being said in this Prologue. We have seen that it starts out using words many of us would regard as somewhat abstract and even obscure: words like “Word” or “logos,” and “that all things came into being through” this Word or logos. I have already called our attention to the fact that the God of Genesis is a God who speaks the world into existence, is a God who speaks through the covenantal law and speaks through the prophets. Surely our awareness of these uses of the phrase ‘God speaks and it is so’ gets us more anchored.
This gospel writer is telling us here in the Prologue—will tell us throughout the following gospel text—that it is only in Jesus that we are to understand how we ourselves are to grasp and speak such words as “God,” “logos,” “truth,” “light,” and “life.” It should now be apparent to us that this Jesus of Nazareth—the one who proclaimed a Kingdom of peace and reconciliation, who was crucified by the powers in charge of the political order of the day, and who was raised from the dead in vindication of his life—this Jesus speaks and enacts that power and truth that is at the heart of the universe and that is the gracious truth about every human being that has come into being or will come into being.
Jesus as the Word made flesh has enacted how things really are about a world that has repeatedly refused to dwell in the light of truth and peace. Jesus enacts that “grace upon grace” that is the rational, intelligent, and sense-making Light at the heart of all things.
Notice further that—because Jesus was himself crucified by those who thought themselves in control of the known world—it is also the case that Jesus is the suffering of God on the cross of human arrogance, pride, and violence. Jesus—the logos of all things—has suffered death on a cross that symbolizes the human claim that we humans are in charge of the world.
In all of the world’s dark messiness, in all of its violence, we humans—just like the Romans—repeatedly claim that we are just doing what is realistically necessary to protect ourselves from the rage of others who envy our power. We live as though the real logos of the world is the power to do as we please and to impose our will on others as we please. In fear we rush to embrace this darkness of power and conflict.
God suffers this arrogance of ours and yet offers us grace and reconciliation—offers the most basic truth of the universe—and those who receive this Jesus gladly will know the very heart of God.
Here we must emphatically say that, for the church and Christians, the word “God” can never be used to refer to a reality that vaguely transcends the world and is hidden behind the scenes. The word “God” for Christians can never again be used to refer to One who is above the fray of human life and aloof from human affairs. No, now our use of the word “God” is tethered to and ruled by Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The words Jesus spoke and preached and enacted, the pattern of life he lived and died, the suffering he endured on behalf of the world, the grace he expressed—these are the clues to who God is and what is the final logos of the whole creation.
We live in a turbulent time as well. We live in a time when some church leaders teach that the logos of the world is quite different from what John has declared to us. As these teachers forecast the imminent end of the world, they see a different Jesus coming back to do something vengeful and destructive to those who will be “left behind” by Jesus. They see a Jesus who is not the grace upon grace, the truth and light, that is at the heart of world God has created. They see a dark angel of violence bent on revenge.
But I ask you, could anyone who has seen Jesus with the eyes of faith ever construe Jesus as the One who is out to destroy and incinerate this world God has created? Could anyone construe this Jesus as the great provocateur of hate for enemies near and far? Could anyone construe God, therefore, as the One who will finally punish and banish to hell all those who might still live in darkness unaware of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ? Is it not then the case that folk who continue to construe God in ways that repudiate Jesus as the very gracious truth about human life and God—these folk speak lies and covet the darkness, even if they know it not.
Yet is it not also true that those who live in the darkness of untruth have not overcome or extinguished the truth and light of Jesus? He still shines brightly and is that ultimate Word of Grace that is already in charge of the destiny of the world and of all of us humans that live in the world. God’s truth, God’s true word from the beginning of all things, is undefeatable and irresistible grace. We come to be through acts of grace, and even when we and the world fall into darkness, God’s grace is the true and final Word that will be spoken even unto the end of the ages.
There is much herein for us to ponder. May it be that as we enter this new year, we Christians might become knowledgeable—even intelligent—about that Word that is at the heart of the world God has created and is intent on redeeming. Grace upon grace! Can we hear it, can we feel it, can we live it?
All this dear friends in Christ I have dared to preach in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all. Amen.
[This sermon was preached January 2, 2005 at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Muskogee, OK, the Reverend Kevin Tully pastor. Posted here 1/3/05]