The Gospel of John: Seduced by Unhelpful Poetry
Since 2014 seems to be a year of my reimagining my ideas around a lot of Biblical passages and Christian ideas, I thought I’d round out the year with preaching on what in the past has been one of my least favorite portions of scripture up to now, John’s prologue.
The first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John have summed up what for me has always been the problem with the entire Gospel of John. It’s too floaty, too esoteric, too obscure and abstract and idealized.
It’s poetry, yes, but it’s not particularly helpful poetry, and when I read the Bible, I’d like to gather some sort of concrete idea of what to do in my life on an everyday basis.
Even Jesus in the Gospel of John seems to float about three feet off the ground the whole time, aloof and distant and prone to giving long, repetitive speeches that create the same glaze over my eyes that I get when I read my IRS forms at tax time.
But the Holy Spirit is a sneaky and crafty adversary when it comes to my trying to dismiss entire portions of the canon of scripture.
Something struck me a little differently when I read John’s prologue this time around, and I thought I’d take another crack at it.
If John thought poetry was the best way to introduce Jesus and encourage me to encounter Jesus, why was that?
How can I see Jesus the way John does and maybe find a new way to think about following Jesus from what I discover?
I think what I need most as I work with this text is not necessarily to think differently about who Jesus is, because I already believe all the beautiful things that John says about him, but to use that knowledge to help me think differently about who we as disciples are.
It’s very easy as we go about our daily lives making our daily mistakes to get very down on ourselves, to believe we can never do anything right and are constantly disappointing God and everyone else around us.
And while it’s important to never lose sight of our feet of clay, the fact is that God created us but a little lower than the angels, and sometimes we need to rise into the stratosphere with John and live into that a bit.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means being changed.
We are born blessed by God, created in the image of God, but salvation makes us a new creation in Christ.
Listen to how Isaiah talks about how God has changed him in our lesson today: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels…You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. ”
Our trust and faith in God that we struggle so doggedly to maintain and renew, makes us, who are already cherished by God, into souls who shine with new potential and the beauty of life immersed in God.
This is true even when we are sinning, because the underlying reality of our desire and hunger for God will always drive us to stand up again when we’ve fallen, to reach out again when we’ve lost contact with God, to open up again when we’ve hardened our hearts.
What can we learn about what Jesus wants us to be from what we learn about who Jesus is in John’s prologue?
John says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
Far from the old idea of being born in sin and being born into sin, you were part of a process much greater than your parents creating a biological exchange.
Jesus Christ himself, the great and eternal Word, was the vehicle of your creation, was the medium and the messenger that spoke a unique word into the universe that never was before and never will be again.
In case you don’t believe little old you could be that special or important, don’t rely on me. John says it himself: “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.”
You are a child of God born of the will of God.
In fact, we were so important to God that Jesus chose to leave all his heavenly glory, emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave as Philippians says.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,” John goes on.
That’s what we’re celebrating today, on this first Sunday of Christmas.
The Incarnation is almost too big to think about, and is unique among all other revelations in all other religions, that God would choose to humble Godself to the level of a poor, limited, human creature.
And more than that—notice that John adds, “And we have seen his glory.”
Jesus didn’t just become human for a minute or an hour or a day and then go right back to heaven.
He lived among us for thirty three years, enduring the messiness and heartbreak and inconvenience and joy and pain of human life.
And he never walked out on that pain, something that is so important to understand about him.
He could have used his power at so many moments to ease his way.
It would never have affected his healing or his teaching.
There was no reason for him to suffer the pain he went through, from getting sick to getting in arguments to having clueless disciples to having friends die, all the way up to the excruciating suffering he experienced on the Cross.
But he did it because he loves us, and he would never abandon us to suffer alone.
He entered the pain willingly because he wanted to go to the darkest depths of human suffering, because that is where all of us end up at some point in our lives, some of us more than once.
That is what John means when he says “and we have seen his glory.”
Not his glory in the sense of being powerful or mighty or wearing a robe that shines like the sun and ascending to heaven on a cloud.
We have seen his glory as he dwelt among us because there has been and there never will be any place of pain or lostness or suffering or addiction that we can go and not find him there with us, bearing it with us and for us.
“From his fullness we have received, grace upon grace.” This is so important to dwell within.
We as human creatures, perhaps as a byproduct of our evolution which allowed us to survive as long as we have, are hardwired to see things in terms of scarcity.
We are always afraid there is not going to be enough—not enough money, not enough time, not enough love, not enough forgiveness.
But John points out that Jesus’ very nature is fullness, and more than that, it is fullness that is always outpouring onto and into us. Grace upon grace.
There is no better time of year than now, at the close of the year, after the rush of Christmas Day, to settle truly into the spiritual season of the twelve days of Christmas, and give thanks every day, every hour, every minute for the graces God has visited upon us, both large and small.
At the very end of the passage is the phrase that really touched my heart, that got me to quit brushing over the passage and actually pay attention to it. “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.”
This made me think about the Incarnation and the Christmas season in a whole different way.
If Jesus had not been born, that first sentence, “No one has ever seen God,” would still be true.
Mary and Joseph and Peter and John would not have seen God, and we would not have seen God.
But because God made the choice to share Godself with us in human form, we have seen God in Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth, and it is amazing.
And that second sentence, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
This shows us once again what Jesus gave up and sacrificed to come to us, a completely different sacrifice from the giving of his life on the cross.
He was close to the Father’s heart. That was where he lived, in the perfect Trinity of love.
And he left that peaceful, radiant and loving place, the place close to the Father’s heart, for us.
And why? To stay with us forever?
Yes, but more than that.
To bring us to that place.
To bring us close to the Father’s heart.
He told us so himself, “I go to prepare a place for you.”
He doesn’t even take his special place back for himself.
He gives it up for us by giving up his life for us.
And this is the fundamental reordering of the universe that happened on Christmas, that we celebrate today.
I think what I’ve learned studying John’s prologue this time around is that it’s worth living in the poetry sometimes.
For a task-oriented person such as myself, I get frustrated when I don’t have concrete direction to read in a Bible passage or concrete suggestions to offer you in a sermon.
But I’ve realized that the poetry is what explains the why of all the literal actions of discipleship we’re trying to do.
What takes tithing and studying and praying and worshipping and serving from being rote, mechanical actions to being our offering of our very selves to the living God, is the cosmic story of God and humanity of which John sings.
The beauty of the words, and underneath the beauty of the words, the beauty of the truth that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—that poetry is what makes our souls catch fire for God and all God asks of us.
This is why scripture matters so much.
Because when real life comes crashing in, when the divorce papers are served, when the job loss happens, when the cancer or Alzheimer’s diagnosis comes through, we have to have somewhere to anchor our souls.
And we do, in a few simple words a man named John wrote a very long time ago. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The hard knocks of life plus the poetry of scripture give us the chance to build our lives so that we become a word of poetry ourselves, one little phrase expressed by the great Word that is God.
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