Preachers will tackle this text when people are still more aware of endings than of beginnings. The posts and tweets and memes describing 2020 as a sack of garbage inside a dumpster fire have been shared now for months. The urgent desire to put that calendar year in the rearview mirror has only grown in its intensity. The sighs of relief, the “Phew! Glad that’s over!” declarations will be ubiquitous.
We are surely glad to be done with that year.
Of course, the difference from December 31, 2020, to January 1, 2021, is twenty-four hours, just like any other diurnal cycle. The ending is, quite literally, all in our heads. We have great hopes that vaccines will be effective, that policies will be forthcoming, and that normalcy will return. But really, most endings come gradually, not with a whoosh.
For most of us, by this time Christmas has been over for a week and a half. But liturgically, the Christmas season isn’t quite over when we get to this text. We still have a couple of days to go before we get to Epiphany. The season will sort of peter out in the middle of the week, and few people will even notice. The text itself dwells not a word on endings. It is about The Beginning – not just any old start-up, but rather The Beginning of all things in The Word made flesh.
First off, I would never read only a portion of John’s prologue. Read it all, or don’t read it. But don’t split it in half. If you’re going to do justice to the text, you’ll end up referring to something you didn’t read anyway. So, just read it all. Every time. “While John 1:1-9 is optional,” writes Karoline Lewis, “verses 10-18 make little sense without the premises set out in the opening verses. The Prologue to John’s Gospel is John’s birth story of Jesus.” Lewis reminds us. “To view these 18 verses as such is both homiletically and hermeneutically helpful.”
Second, no one can preach a sermon that takes in the depth and breadth, the beauty and majesty, the poetry and power of John’s Prologue. You can’t do that in a ten (or twenty) minute sermon. You can’t do that in an hour-long Bible study. You certainly can’t do it in a few thousand words of amateur commentary. So, pick your spot and remember that this text comes around again.
“In the beginning was the Word,” John writes. The “Word” has central place in these opening verses and yet seems to disappear in the rest of John’s account. Some scholars have suggested on this basis that the Prologue was therefore not part of the original gospel account. There is, however, very little manuscript evidence to support this contention. Instead, I appreciate the take we get from Malina and Rohrbaugh in the Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John:
“One term that appears prominently in this opening poem, yet seems to disappear through the rest of the Gospel, is ‘Word.’ To think of it disappearing, however, would be misleading. In v. 14 we are told that this Word becomes ‘enfleshed’ in Jesus of Nazareth. Hence, it is as the story of Jesus that the ‘Word’ appears in the rest of John.” (page 30).
They note that in the Hebrew scriptures, God’s Word is connected with God’s action of and in Creation, and God’s self-disclosure to and through the prophets. We can see those two works of the Word in the Prologue as well. The revelation in the Hebrew scriptures is not contradicted or superseded by the Word.
Instead, this is another place in the Christian scriptures that notes how Jesus fulfills the Word spoken to the prophets. We can read similar language, for example, in Hebrews 1:1-4. “The Word that was with God in the beginning,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “refers to God’s total utterance that has resulted in everything created, visible and invisible” (page 35).
Jesus is not plan B. And the Law was not a mistake. “The law indeed was given through Moses,” John writes, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Holly Hearon writes, “it is important to notice that the word ‘but’ never appears in the sentence. In other words, John is not claiming that grace and truth belongs to Jesus but not to the law. Both grace and truth are found in the law.”
J. Ramsey Michaels puts it this way in his commentary: “God’s gift of the Jewish law, he says, makes way for grace and truth, the gift of the Spirit through Jesus Christ. The distinction is not between law and grace as contrasting ways of salvation, but between two gifts of grace: the law and the Spirit (cf. Paul in 2 Cor. 3: 7– 18).” (page 24).
“The difference, from John’s perspective,” Holly Hearon continues, “is between reading a book and going directly to the author. Going to the author neither sets the book aside nor negates its contents. For Christians, the book (or the ‘law’) anticipates the direct revelation we experience in Jesus Christ.”
John makes an early appearance in this Gospel, not as Baptizer but as Witness. Karoline Lewis notes this as she writes, “Yet the presence of John here, particularly for our Christmas preaching, suggests that a critical response to Christmas is witness. Christmas,” she reminds us, “is not over when the trees are put out to the curb. Christmas is just getting started for those who confess Jesus as God who has become flesh.” Malina and Rohrbaugh note that John is only the first of many witnesses to Jesus in John’s gospel (see page 32).
“The Word became flesh and lived among us,” the NRSV translates, too tame by half. It is astonishing beyond words that the One who dwells beyond the categories of being and becoming should enter into our limited and transient existence for our sake and for the sake of the whole cosmos. That coming into existence was not a tourist excursion.
The Creating Word “pitched his tent” among us (the literal translation) and settles in for the long haul. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that the term “may have been intended to draw associations with Israel’s exodus story, in which the tent (or tabernacle) symbolizes the presence of God in the midst of Israel” (page 33).
John’s prologue emphasizes the cosmic dimension of the Incarnation. “The purpose of the Gospel writer is to place the story of Jesus in a cosmic perspective,” Michaels notes. “The light that came into the world in Jesus Christ is the same light that illumined every human creature from the beginning.”
In just a few chapters, we will hear that God loves the cosmos by giving the only-begotten Son so the whole cosmos may be saved. The context of the prologue, according to Michaels, “strongly suggests that in a wider sense Jesus’ own country is the world to which he was sent and his own people are human beings of every race or nation, all those on whom God’s light shines (cf. vv. 4, 9). These wider implications will become apparent when Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the last time (cf. 12: 19, 32) and when he confronts Pilate and the authority of Rome.
Within this cosmic framework, there is a relationship of infinite intimacy between the Father and the only-begotten Son. It is not the Father’s “heart” that describes the relationship of Jesus to the Father. The Greek word is “kolpos” and would be better translated as “bosom” or “breast.” Karoline Lewis writes, “Jesus, as God’s unique expression of God and God’s son, dwells at the bosom of the father. The meaning conveyed in this picture of Jesus at the bosom of God is extraordinary tenderness. One would be hard-pressed,” she concludes, “to secure a description of relationship more intimate than the nursing of a child.”
“Thus, the poem ends where it began,” observe Malina and Rohrbaugh, “the close personal relationship between Father and Son is what makes it possible for the Son to reveal the Father. As the Gospel proceeds,” they suggest, “it will also be the bond that creates and enables bonding among the group members to Jesus and to each other” (page 34).
In the beginning was the Word. There is meaning, purpose, order, life and light underneath and in the middle of the chaotic darkness. Humans, at our worst and at our best, ask, “So, what’s the point?” We seek meaning. We find meaning. We make meaning. Or not.
But the promise at the beginning of John’s Gospel is that, whether we know it or not, the point is there. And the point is love beyond deserving, light no darkness can hem in or snuff out. I can’t cram all that into my little brain, my mini-mind, my haunted heart, my stifled spirit. Sometimes I can glimpse or sniff or taste a bit of it. Sometimes I shiver as the mystery brushes the back of my neck. Mostly I trust that the point is there somewhere, and it is enfleshed in Jesus.
References and Resources
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) [Kindle Android version].
Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Ephesians.” Address to the Scottish Church Theology society conference, January 2013, and published in Theology in Scotland.