God So Loved the World (Gen. 1:1-5, Jn. 1:1-18)
(This sermon is indebted to William P. Brown, Sacred Sense (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015): esp. 113-117 as well as his earlier volume The Seven Pillars of Creation (NY: Oxford, 2010), esp. 33-77).
Most of our time during Advent and Christmas have been spent on the very human birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem in, as Matthew put it, “the days of Herod the King.” Most of our songs and carols of Advent and Christmas (including those we have sung and will sing today) focus on that same reality. We all know that the shepherds are in Luke’s Gospel and the magi in Matthew’s. I have a mentor and friend who recently opined that the reason there are two Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth is to appeal to two different sorts of us. The story of the shepherds appeals to those who need the drama of the heavenly host, and a once for all experience to assure us we’re in the flock (as he put it). The story of the magi is for those who tend to brood about things and search for the Messiah all our lives. And, as he said, there’s plenty of room for both. I like that.
But there is another Gospel account of Jesus’ coming, one with no angels, shepherds, magi, or even Mary or Joseph. Even Jesus himself only gets into toward the end. The tone is that of the cosmos and of eternity. If it were music, it might be something with trumpets, French horns, and tympanies. One scholar suggested Also Sprach Zarathustra (or the theme from 2001: Space Odyssey) by Richard Strauss. Such is the account of the Gospel of John which is all about what God was doing in the world through something (or someone) called “The Word.” And, we’ve read this material so often, we often jump to what we already know about Jesus from the end, rather than let John unfold it for us, but that’s not fair to John or his story.
He began by, so to speak saying, “Keep your thumb in the story you’re reading, but flip back to the beginning of the Bible – the very first verse in fact. And if we do that and flip back to Genesis 1, the best way to translate those first words (rather than the way most of us learned them from the King James) is “In the beginning of God’s creating…” In other words, Genesis 1 is not talking about the absolute beginning but of the beginning of God’s work of creation. In John, on the other hand, we have “In the beginning was the word” (at least we’ll leave it there for now). John looks behind the beginning of God’s creative work to the absolute beginning, and there he sees “the word.” “The word” is an idea that has a background both in the Bible and the world of Greek philosophy, and would have been wonderfully ambiguous to John’s various hearers and readers. To a Hebrew, the “word” (dabar is the Hebrew) was not only something said, but something done. The dabar is both word and deed. The word of God is not only what God says, but what God makes. What I say to students is that, in the Old and New Testament “the word” is a metaphor for the active presence of God in the world. In Greek philosophy the “word” (logos is the Greek) is, more or less, the rationale behind the universe and its ordering principle. The hearers of “in the beginning was the word” would have heard all these things kind of squashed together.
Now, having said that, what they might have heard in that line is something like, “When all things began the word already was.” Even the beginning wasn’t the beginning for the word. It was already there. In addition there’s also a bit of an echo from Proverbs 3:1 here: “By wisdom the LORD founded the earth, by understanding God established the heavens.” In Proverbs wisdom was the impersonal agent of creation, in John, it is the word. John, however, is going to make a move that Proverbs didn’t. At the end of this passage John says that the word became flesh (1:14), and in verse 17, that the word had the name Jesus Christ. The word, unlike wisdom, is a person. Now, although John named Jesus here, he remains more interested in the what God was doing in the world as the word becomes flesh. John’s Christmas story is decidedly a cosmic Christmas.
Another image that John plays with in this passage is light. In Genesis 1, God created light before creating lights. Light is the source of all the other creations that follows, it is the very first thing God called “good.” For John the light of the word is the source of all life, the light of all people (and more as we’ll see), the light enlightens all people, as well as the light the darkness cannot conquer. When John’s Jesus calls himself the light of the world in John chapters 8 and 9, it is a reference back to this cosmic Christmas story. He is the source of new light and life.
In that most famous verse in the New Testament, John carries a slightly veiled reference to this passage: “For God so loved the world,” or better, “for God loved the world so (this way).” One way God loves the world is that “the word became flesh.” In Hebrew, the word “flesh” connotes all that is earthly, temporary, that decays and returns to the earth. Genesis 3:19 puts this in a metaphor for our earthbound human nature, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” The second creation story in Genesis 2 picks up this side of earthly being clearly. Humans (Hebrew adam) were taken from the dirt (adamah). According to Genesis 2, we also share our dirt-nature with all creatures great and small. And, of course, there is a way in which this is scientifically accurate, we decay and go back to the elements after a while. When John writes the line “the word became flesh,” “the word became flesh,” he is not just saying that “the word (the light, the source of wisdom and enlightenment, and all that) became dirt once. The word did not just visit and deign to bless us in Jesus for a few years. God in the word became embedded within our dirt, our world. As Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases: “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” In Genesis 1 God creates the world in all its wonderful structure and complexity. In John 1 God moves into the world, yes into the world, identifies with us, as one of us. The divine word, the ordering principle of the universe, that spoke in and through prophets, that which is the active presence of God in the world fully entered creation. John is saying that in Christ, God becomes joined to all creation, united with it, embedded in it. God so loved the world.
And, I mean the world. John had never heard of DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule that carries most of the genetic instructions for the development, function, and reproduction of all living organisms. John wasn’t thinking about DNA, therefore, when he wrote. But we know of it now, and we can think of it this morning, to bring some depth to this already very deep passage of scripture. Scientists now know how closely all of life is related in its DNA. Nearly every cell in our bodies has the same DNA. Furthermore, our DNA is far more like that of other life than unlike it. By our DNA we are deeply (and I mean that in a literal way) related not only to other primates, but to horses, giraffes, codfish, butterflies, earthworms, and oak trees. We are all bound together in this intricate web of life on this world by our DNA. To speak of God in the word becoming flesh, dirt if you will, God is enfleshed not only in humans, but in the whole world. For God so loved the world.
I want to lift up one more theme from this remarkable passage, that, in a sense, casts an eye forward to the mission of Jesus in whom the word became flesh. Again, John’s chief interest here seems to be what God was doing when the word became flesh . When it happened that God became dirt, as I have said somewhat infelicitously perhaps, God (in the word) became intimately involved in such earthly things as gestation, birth, life, eating, drinking, and dying (among others). God in Christ experiences all that and more from the inside.
Now, it is simply historically true that the death of Jesus on a Roman cross as a criminal was awkward for the early Christians to think about, let alone talk about in their wider world. Much of the writings of the New Testament are concerned with thinking all this through. John cannot help, even here in the prologue to his Gospel, but contribute to that project. I think we often conceive of the incarnation (the word becoming flesh) too shallowly. We think of it as God “inhabiting” (or choose another word) Jesus for a few years, and, then shucking off that body and “getting out of town” after Jesus’ death and resurrection (many think that’s what the ascension is about). I have been suggesting to you this morning, however, that John is more serious about the word “becoming flesh” than that. It amounts to God moving into the world for good. The depth of God’s moving in is as deep as death itself. God’s grace is as deep as that. Concerning this point William Brown wrote: “God’s presence fills the earth, but at great cost, not to the earth, but to God.” (Brown, Sacred Sense: 117.) God so loved the world.
And so, this one, this Jesus, through whom we have seen God’s glory (according to 1:14) helps us to understand God’s way, and that the world into which God has moved, in which God is embedded, is not a world that will yield easily to the fact that God has moved in. This passage in John reflects resistance: the darkness that struggles against the light, but cannot quite overcome it (1:3), the rejection, not by sworn enemies, but by those who should know better (1:11). It describes the imperfect world in which God has chosen to become enfleshed. How, then, should we, as those who have received from God’s fullness, grace upon grace (John’s words again) live? Is it too simplistic to say, by being the human face of grace?
As God in Christ has chosen to “move into the neighbourhood” of the world, so we should move in as well. We should identify, not only with those who, if you will, share our exact DNA, but with those who seemingly do not, for we are all more alike than different. Whether this means the poor, the outcasts, those whose habits or lifestyles or politics or religion is unlike ours, I think that God’s incarnation in Jesus can help us understand that those matters are trivial when considered beside the fact that God has entered the whole world of flesh and that all of us in this world share. And that we ought to love the world by loving the whole world.
One of the nicest things for me about the Iverson Freking award has been the nice things that have been said to me about you by some people you don’t even know. One of my former colleagues in Canada, whose knowledge of what we do is limited to talks on the phone with Maxine and me and faithful reading of sermons on the website said this.
“This event is a wonderful example of the fact that when in our actions we respond appropriately to the divine saving activity in our midst everyone is both agent and recipient of divine grace and blessing. Many of the hundreds of people who over the years have been the direct recipients of grace mediated through your…congregation’s efforts might not think of this in religious terms, but undoubtedly would testify to it in words such as: “I don’t understand everything they say and do, but this one thing I know – they are good, kind people who offered help when I needed it.” But what is this, if it is not divine grace operating through your agency?”
Wow. May it be so.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.