A Christmas Story
The Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us:
John’s Prologue as a Christmas Story
By Andrew K. Barnett
First Sunday of Christmas (Year A)
There’s more than one way to tell a story,
And some stories are so good, you have to tell someone.
Imagine an old family yarn told
Over potatoes and roast meat.
Everyone remembers a different part.
Uncle Bill tells the the heroic actions
of a certain young William.
Aunt Gretchen describes the golden crab cakes, butter-knife beef, and crisp lettuce
In other words, the food was delicious. Do you remember?
Gramma wants you to know that everything turned out alright.
The kids made it to school and Gretchen and Bill stopped fighting.
They’re all telling the same story, really, but each teller finds her own voice.
The emphasis shifts,
The characters develop,
The tradition passes on.
So it was with the Christmas story.
Luke wants orderly details,
And we often hear his telling on Christmas Eve.
Luke’s interested in the untold stories of people often-ignored.
That’s why he shares Mary’s song
That’s why he has the shepherds- dirty farm people really-
sing Glory in the highest heaven.
Of course Matthew has tale to tell as well.
We think that Matthew was a Jewish scribe,
Bent on fulfilling the prophecies at every turn.
Hence three wise men from the East, an Exodus-style flight to Egypt,
And the birth story told from Joseph’s perspective.
As if Joseph delivered the child
and had the harder time with pregnancy out of wedlock.
Patriarchy- you have a call from Matthew on line 4.
Though the Gospel writers almost certainly didn’t know each other,
I can imagine a meal where they gather to tell the stories.
Can’t you just hear Matthew interjecting after every bite
“All this happened to fulfill the scriptures”
And Luke stopping everyone, all the time, to get the details in order.
“Wait. Hold on. He’s from Nazareth, but born in Bethlehem?
Will somebody please write an ‘orderly account’”?
Then of course… there’s John.
I imagine him as the mystic grandfather in the room.
Writing the last gospel, and definitely keen to get the last word,
John does theology through the story of Jesus
He writes “so that you may believe,” but he also offers a running commentary.
In this imaginary dinner,
I can just see Matthew and Luke hashing out the details while
John sits there quietly, considering them over a cup of herbal tea.
He waits for a pause then issues
What has been called the boldest opening in all Literature.
“In the beginning was the word,
and the Word was with God and Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God”
Matthew and Luke stare at each other,
Probably as confused as we are when we hear John’s prologue.
Maybe they go back to Shepherd counting, or Wise Man navigation tactics.
“Identify the Larger of the two dippers, then locate the last two stars.
Proceed laterally to the handle of the smaller dipper,
and there you will find the North Star. From here, your camel advances 20 paces…”
While John drawls on, “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.”
Dude. What are you talking about?
Matthew and Luke thought it’d be helpful to deliver the baby and introduce the family.
You start like you’re in Genesis, indulge in Greek philosophy,
and then hop straight to Jesus’ baptism.
What’s the deal John?
What are you saying in your prologue?
I’ve long struggled with John’s prologue.
It’s always seemed dense, maybe even coded.
So I hit the books over the past few weeks,
And I learned, that it actually is coded.
Through secret phrases and double meanings,
John sets the stage for the rest of his book.
The prologue truly is an introduction to the Gospel,
And though John covers a lot of territory,
I’d like to focus here on three ideas: historical context,
The symbolism of Life and Light
First, let’s look at the culture John was writing in,
Beginning with what he wants to say.
He’s very clear about his goal for the story.
John writes so “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that believing you may have life in his name.” (20:31).
In other words his goal is more theology than biography,
But he talks about God through the story of Jesus.
He tells you something, then he gives commentary
So that you will believe in Jesus and have eternal life.
John even gives commentary in the prologue.
It’s basically 11 couplets of a poem, with a few lines to clarify the point.
For example, to make it clear that John the Baptist was important, but not Christ,
Check out the aside in verses 6-10. That’s commentary outside the poem.
In between light shining, and people not knowing Jesus,
The Evangelist clarifies who the Baptist is,
Because that was a dispute within John’s community.
There were even some breakaway sects who followed John the Baptist as Messiah.
This gospel wants to end to that discussion.
John’s often called the evangelist, because he has a clear goal:
to tell you the good news of Jesus.
And he’s telling that story from a unique community.
John’s Gospel was probably written around 100 AD
Within a Messianic Jewish community that knew the Torah law of the Pharisees
And the Greek philosophy of the Gnostics,
Who believed that knowledge, light, and truth would save.
We’ll see lots of knowledge, light, and truth in John’s work.
The Gnostics had special codes so folks who were in the know-
Would get it. And everybody else would stay confused.
So don’t feel bad,
Those of us who don’t know the code-
we’re supposed to feel stumped when we read Gnostic writings.
These John-following communities
Wrote in code because they were often preparing for war.
Light and Dark were battle calls- like bugles before a charge.
Many lived in desolate caves far from the city’s safety.
They withdrew, and spent their days preparing for a cosmic battle
Between the children of light and the children of darkness.
John’s followers had reason to fear, because they had already seen
Rome brutally crush Jerusalem in 70 AD
And they expected the Roman children of darkness to find them in their secret caves.
Light took on special meaning here, underneath the sand.
So secondly, let’s consider Light and Life in John’s prologue.
Light was a symbol for God’s truth, shining in the darkness.
John sings, “The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5)
The light of Christ was code, and it
Meant different things to different listeners,
But it clearly spoke truth to citizens of a brutal empire
And this truth would spread like wildfire.
Episcopal Priest Jim Liggett writes
“By that light we can begin to see who we are and who we are created to be.
For it is in the person of Jesus that what it means to be a human being is finally made clear.
In him we see that our lives are made whole only as we surrender in love and service;
in him we see that really being alive means risking everything for – and because of –
the love of God and the Kingdom of God” (Rev. James Liggett, Sermons that Work).
Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright thinks the light was just as profound,
He says, “John's Gospel is not about Jesus speaking the truth
and everyone saying "Of course! Why didn't we realize it before?"
It is about God shining this clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world,
our lives, our hearts, our imaginations—
and the darkness not comprehending it.
It's about God, God as a little child, speaking words of truth,
and nobody knowing what God’s talking about.”
Imagine a very dark place, and suddenly light takes on new meaning.
As darkness approaches at daybreak, danger lurks everywhere.
You can’t see 10 feet in front of you
You’re confused and scared.
All sorts of creatures and villains could kill in the darkness
And here in the darkness, light becomes a loaded term.
Light promises protection, trust, foundation, strength, and a way of knowing.
What a symbol for the living God.
For John, Jesus is the light, and he came to bring life.
In Chapter 10, Jesus says “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
I think it’s dramatic that John writes so beautifully
About abundant life from his culture of scarcity.
Faced with fear and shortage, John tells good news.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about abundant life
When people we love are dead or dying.
What does abundant life mean when you’re dying?
I don’t have an easy answer, but I know that
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells of
Life giving water, bread that fills forever,
the knowledge and love of God, and eternal life.
Light is truth, and Life is abundant.
Jesus promises both, and people turned their heads to see what that was about.
Perhaps they still do.
The life-light takes on meat and bones of course, with the incarnation,
The incarnation is the person of Jesus,
Who had a body: metacarpals, femurs, a liver, a heart, and a skull, just like us.
The person of Jesus knew what it meant to love and to lose,
To laugh and to cry,
To eat and to die.
And this incarnation is the especially radical part of the story.
Up until verse 14, John’s talkin’ philosophy that most folks could get on board with.
Now, in one sentence, he calmly drops the idea
that God became a person and lived with us.
That the fully perfect God, without sin,
Would become fully human. Not just God in a people suit,
God would get born.
This is radical stuff.
John tells his Christmas story in nine short words,
“The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Can you imagine a Christmas Eve service with nothing but a 9-word gospel:
“The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
That’s John’s nativity.
The English translation “word,” comes from the Greek logos, or “divine reason”.
So when John says logos, He means Jesus.
The embodied, fully human, guy who knew our lot.
John believes that the life of Jesus was the event creation had been waiting for
Since the beginning.
For John, the person of Jesus is the cosmic singularity
from which all other meaning comes.
Put him in a manger, or a temple, or on the road to Jerusalem,
John doesn’t care about that part of the birth story.
He wants you to know that Jesus has been around
Since the beginning of time, fully human, AND one with God.
I think God could have chosen to stay in Heaven.
Could have set up a cozy little reading group with the saints
Could have ignored what it’s like to live on Earth.
But- tune in because this is a really good news-
God. Didn’t. Do. That.
John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”
Like a parent caring for a child in the hospital,
God could have phoned it in from the office.
But instead God spent every night at the child’s bedside.
Present with the beloved in a time of suffering.
Present with the beloved in all things,
God came to Earth to be with us,
To know our human story as real as bread and tears.
What kind of guy was Jesus?
The kind who would lay down his life for a friend.
The kind who would challenge the empire and principalities
The kind who would turn temple tables and shout that love wins.
That love is more powerful than anything Rome could threaten.
Jesus was the kind of king who would preach sermons on mountains
The kind of king who would unroll Torah in the hometown temple
Declaring release to the captive and good news to the poor.
John Dominic Crossan says “Jesus was a king of nuisances and nobodies.”
He was the kind of king who
Refused to give Death the last word.
Because Jesus dies a cruel death at the hands of the military state,
but that’s just Friday.
Sunday rolls around and takes the stone with it.
Resurrection strolls out of the empty tomb,
and God is still in charge.
Remember though, that Jesus doesn’t promise easy living.
Jesus does not say that the temple remains,
that we avoid death, or that pain goes away.
But Jesus does promise that God is with us to the end of the age,
God is still in charge, and we can trust in God
when we can no longer trust anything else.
Yes, there’s more than one way to tell a story.
Looking back on that time, it’s amazing that we have anything to tell at all
About Jesus of Nazareth.
Crazy men set their faces toward Jerusalem on a regular basis
Claiming to be the Son of God.
Like clockwork, Rome tortured and crucified each one for blasphemy
And life went on.
Part of the miracle of the early Church
Is that people kept telling the Jesus story
In spite of Rome’s brutal oppression.
The story was too compelling
The news was too good
The truth was too transformative
The abundant life was too fulfilling
And the light was so bright, that the darkness could not overcome it.
Yea, though the darkness tried really, really hard!
The story said that “love wins” and people kept telling it.
John, along with the other story tellers
Risked their lives to proclaim good news to the poor,
recovery of sight to the blind, and release to the captives.
This is our story too- one that we might tell with passion and joy,
Yet, we often find it hard to tell outside these walls.
If Evangelism makes us cringe,
Maybe it’s because the word has too often been coupled with
Politics and ideology.
At the core, great evangelists do exactly what John does in today’s gospel.
We find our authentic way to tell the story of Jesus.
What would you say if someone asked you “Why do you follow Jesus?”
We might go the tops of mountains to tell that Jesus Christ is born,
But we might also sit in a living room and listen
While a friend opens up about his deepest fears, yearnings, joys.
Yes, there’s more than one way to tell a story,
And some stories are so good, you have to tell someone.
Brothers and sisters,
I would submit to you that this Jesus story-
A story of light and life,
Of deep satisfaction over cheap thrills,
Of love over profit motives,
Of generosity over greed,
A story of a living God who loves us so much God sends
A son to love and die and rise again-
This is the radical good news of Jesus.
And it’s worth telling
Even and especially when we leave this place.