December 24, 2010

John 1:1-18 “Incarnation”

The first eighteen verses of John’s Gospel (or the Prologue to John’s Gospel, as it is often called) is typically read in Christian churches at Christmas each year. In the church where I grew up, this passage was read every Xmas Eve at the evening worship service, usually by the same person.

George Lee was an elder at St. Giles, kind of a grandfather-figure to many of us kids, and George had just the right voice for reading the Prologue to John’s Gospel. It was a deep voice, and somewhat mysterious sounding. But it was more than just the sound of his voice, I think, that made his reading of those 18 verses so special to our community. It was also the way he read those poetic and powerful words.

Somehow you knew, as he read, that he truly believed what he was saying.  He proclaimed that the Word had existed from the beginning with God. He witnessed to the Word coming into the world, to its becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. And he called those who listened to accept the Word made flesh, to believe in him, and to come into relationship with God as God’s children.

All the scripture texts of Christmas are about the incarnation. They’re about God coming into the world as a human person – God becoming flesh and blood – experiencing the world from a human point of view – making connections with people on a human level. But this text is unique – it’s different. It contains none of the conventional elements of the Christmas story. Instead of manger, angels, shepherds, and magi, John 1:1-18 presents the church with its explicit theological vision of the difference the incarnation makes in the life of the world.

It begins with that mysterious and powerful image of Christ as the WORD…
In the beginning was the WORD,

and the WORD was with God,
and the WORD was God.

The phrase, “in the beginning,” draws both Christian and Jewish readers back to the opening of the Book of Genesis and the first creation story. “In the beginning” before there was anything else, there was God. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

You may remember that in that first creation story, God created everything that exists by speaking it into existence. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind,” and it was so. God created by speech – by Word.

And then, as God continued in relationship to the human people that by the Word had been created, God continued to speak to them – to relate to them through the Word. God gave them instructions. God gave them Laws. God spoke to them through the prophets, and called the people to faithfulness in relationship with him.

John’s concept of the Word of God that existed from the beginning would have brought to mind for his readers both the creation stories of Genesis, as well as God’s continuing relationship with Israel through the Word, but it also carried with it associations to the Jewish Wisdom tradition. In the Book of Proverbs, we read about WISDOM, who has been God’s companion since “before the beginning of the earth.” Jewish Christians would have been familiar with WISDOM who existed from the beginning, working alongside God to accomplish God’s plan for humanity.

The author of John’s Gospel makes a shift in terminology though, from WISDOM OF GOD to WORD OF GOD, while retaining many of the same characteristics. WISDOM, from the Greek sophia, becomes WORD, from the Greek logos, and the switch from a feminine noun (sophia) to the masculine noun (logos) reshapes the wisdom tradition to reflect the historical reality of the incarnation.

The WORD of God came into the world and lived among human people. The WORD of God became flesh – became human – and lived as a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Emmanuel, God-with-us, The WORD, incarnate.

Commentaries on this particular passage from John’s Gospel go on and on about the terminology that the fourth Evangelist used. They speculate about whether this passage was originally an early Christian hymn, or whether parts of it were a hymn, later edited and added to by the Gospel writer. The commentators note the important theological themes that are introduced in this short passage, and they trace the ways in which they reappear throughout the Gospel stories.

But I think, on this Christmas Eve, I would like to talk about the incarnation as a divine act of LOVE. On Sunday, we lit the Candle of LOVE, and more than anything, LOVE is what Christmas is all about. LOVE is what the incarnation is all about.

God loved human people – God loved us so much – that he sent his only son. God sent Jesus – the WORD – into the world to live with and among us. It’s not that the WORD hadn’t already been active among us. It had… in the creation, in the Law, through the prophets… but we humans needed something more. We needed a personal encounter with God.

Imagine, for a moment, some long-estranged parents who have been trying to form a relationship with their daughter. The initial connection is there. The child is theirs because they created her. But right after birth, the daughter was taken away. She’s grown up away from her parents – away from any parents. She doesn’t even know that she has parents.

The mother and father desperately want to reconnect with their child. They want to care for her and nurture her. They want to know her, and teach her, and guide her into adult life. So they begin by writing some letters. They introduce themselves and explain that they created her and they want to be involved in her life. They give her some advice on how to live and explain some rules that will help her to get along well with her neighbours. They tell her that they love her and that they care about her well-being. They even invite her to come home, to live with them and learn from them. But the daughter doesn’t come home. She writes a quick note saying how nice it was to receive their letter, but then goes right back to her solitary life.

Over time, news comes back to the parents about their daughter, and they begin to worry even more. She’s had a string of broken relationships. She doesn’t seem happy at all, and she’s drowning her sorrows in alcohol and cigarettes. They even heard from a neighbour that she’d been arrested on some sort of charge recently – breaking and entering, or maybe it was possession of illegal substances. And still, no matter how often they write, she won’t seem to acknowledge them as her parents. She acts like they’re just trying to control her life and she stops even opening their mail.

So the parents send messengers to their daughter. They use people in her life that they can trust… people who believe that they truly are her parents. They look out for their daughter and give her advice for them. And it helps a bit, but soon enough she goes back to her old ways. She ignores the advice and begins to live only for the pleasure of the moment again.

he parents soon realize that the only way to reach her is to go to her in person – to speak to her in person. And so that’s what they do. They show up on her doorstep one afternoon and tell her, “Look, we’re your parents, and we’re here to help. We’re here to love you. We want a relationship with you.”

Now, perhaps the daughter won’t recognize her father and mother. She’s never really known them. She might reject them outright. She might not let them in the door, claiming she has no parents. But if she chooses to receive them, if she chooses to believe in them, she will be able to truly become their daughter. She will give them the opportunity to love her and care for her. She will have the opportunity to grow in love and wisdom, health and wholeness as she lives in relationship with her parents and learns from their example and their advice.

When the Word of God became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and lived among us, that was God coming to us in person – God speaking to us in person. When Jesus taught the crowds in stories and parables and sayings, that was God coming in person to teach us. When Jesus multiplied the loaves, and shared bread with his disciples, that was God (in person) feeding and blessing his children. When Jesus healed the sick and cast out evil spirits, those were the hands of God touching and restoring his suffering people. When Jesus was rejected and tortured and killed, that was God loving us so much that he accepted our hatred. He wouldn’t fight back, but continued to love and forgive us. When Jesus rose from the dead, that was God showing us (in person) that love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.

This Christmas, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus once again. We are telling the stories about the angels and the birth, about the shepherds and the magi who came to worship and to bring gifts to the special child. But it wasn’t until later, when the child had grown into a man, that people began to know how truly special he was. It wasn’t until later that people began to believe that Jesus was the Word of God made flesh – incarnate – that he was God, in person, here on earth to love and reach out to his people, inviting us into relationship with God as his children.

In Jesus, may we hear God’s Word – God’s invitation to us this Christmas. May we turn to Jesus and believe and become children of God once again. Amen.