The prologue to John’s Gospel is one of the most read – and perhaps least understood – passages in Scripture. We hear part of it every Christmas Eve, just before the Christ Candle enters the room. The poetic structure of the first few verses has led some scholars to believe that it was a hymn already being sung by the early church before John set down his version of the gospel story. Others, of course, dispute that theory. Whether the Evangelist borrowed this ‘Hymn to the Word’ from another source or composed it himself, countless Christians have been moved and encouraged by John’s simply worded, yet deeply profound, introduction to the story of Jesus, the Son of God.
John tells his gospel story differently than the other evangelists do. Unlike Matthew and Luke, there is no “birth story” in John’s gospel. Unlike Mark, John does not begin with an explanation of the ministry of John the Baptist, though the Baptizer does have an important role to play in this prologue to the gospel. We might wonder, “Why did John find it necessary to write a gospel at all? Mark had already set down his urgent rough draft, and both Matthew and Luke had refined that telling, filling in gaps and explaining the confusing parts. And why did John begin his story in such a peculiar way, leaving out those shepherds and magI we enjoy remembering during this season of Christmastide?
Ancient tradition holds that the Evangelist wrote from Ephesus, near the end of the first century. The temple had probably already been destroyed by the time John wrote, and the Jews had been dispersed, leaving Jerusalem behind as they resettled in other cities. John’s story is directed to these Jews, who have been scattered throughout the provinces, bereft of a location they could call their spiritual home. John also was writing for Greeks who had been converted to the Jewish faith.
John’s purpose for writing his distinctive gospel message is woven throughout today’s passage, but he states it most clearly in chapter 20, near the end of the story: “These things have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” This phrase “that you might believe” may be interpreted two ways. First, that you may come to faith, believing in Christ for salvation, but also, that you might persevere in faith, continuing to believe. John wrote the gospel story to convince those Jews who remained skeptical, that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah for whom they longed. And to those who already believed, John hoped to encourage their faith and sustain them through the hardships the early church was beginning to face. Those Christians needed – as we often do – a reminder of what they had first believed: that Jesus was the Christ, and that they belonged to God.
Today’s passage is the introduction, the prologue to John’s story. Let us prepare our hearts to hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us by John the Evangelist.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
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.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him,
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
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
nor of the will of the flesh
nor of the will of man,
but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth;
(John testified to him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.'”)
From his fullness we have all received,
grace upon grace.
The law indeed was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
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. – John 1:1-18
Scholars have puzzled over this prologue to the Gospel of John for centuries. John opens his story the same way Genesis starts; “In the beginning…”, drawing his Jewish readers into the creation story that is, for them, familiar, comfortable ground. Ah yes, “in the beginning” – we know how this goes, they think. But John adds a shocking twist to those familiar thoughts: In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God. The Evangelist uses simple vocabulary, but his message is far from simple.
The Greek word ‘logos’ means ‘word,’ but it can indicate the action of speaking a word as well as the actual word being spoken. John’s use of logos to describe God’s act of creation draws on this idea. Both Jews and Greek converts to the Jewish faith would connect the action of God, speaking the world into existence, with the word God had pronounced to accomplish this creative act. The Word as a flesh-and-blood person, however, would have been a startling idea to both Greek and Hebrew readers. I think that was John’s intent. Identifying the Word of the Creation story with a real human ought to have grabbed the attention of the Fourth Gospel’s first readers– and it should also grab ours.
Sometimes we need to be shaken up a little. We need to be reminded that this miracle of grace we have experienced cannot be taken for granted. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming complacent, lukewarm. So John the Evangelist uses language meant to grab us and shake us up. First, he uses poetry when referring to the Word, then he interrupts the poem with a story about the witness of John the Baptist. Or maybe it’s the poetry doing the interrupting, giving us a summary of the whole gospel’s message. That message is this: God has broken in on our everyday lives, just as John’s poem about the Word breaks through the story of the Baptizer’s witness to the Son of God. God has come among us, interjecting himself into human lives through the person of Jesus Christ. John was among the last alive who had seen and known Jesus, and he feared for a church that might forget what it was to personally know the Savior. “I have seen him,” John says. “ I bear witness, just as John the Baptizer did, that this man who lived among us is God.”
A few years ago, archeologists uncovered a small house, about 900 square feet, in the old city of Nazareth, dating from the time Jesus lived there. Nazareth was a small village of maybe 50 families, probably very poor, and quite likely related to one another. As the archeologists were digging, it was easy to speculate how Jesus might have played and worked in the very spot where they were standing. The personhood of Jesus seems more real when holding a shard of a pot he might actually have touched. The Word became flesh, John writes. And we have seen his glory.
Imagine, if you can, being told that a guy who went to high school with you, graduated in your class, grew up with you and hung out with you under the bleachers while your brothers played Little League together, spitting hulls from sunflower seeds – that guy … is God. John was doing exactly that in this introduction to his gospel. John was bearing witness to what he himself had seen and heard. He knew ‘that guy’ – and he recognized that Jesus was more than just a buddy hanging out under the bleachers: he was God, and he was God from before the beginning, before the creation of the world. John’s point is that God has revealed himself in one very like us, and yet not like us at all. The light has come into the world, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory.
Not only have we seen the Light, John tells us, that Light coming into the world, invading our reality, cannot be overcome – or even ‘understood’ by the darkness. But that light can transform our darkness, if we believe. Last week, we considered how God is present with us, even in the face of great darkness, even in the midst of unspeakable evil. While God is continually present with us in the brokenness of our world, God’s presence can only begin to change us and the darkness around us when we trust in God, when we believe in the saving grace God offers us through his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the question each of us must answer: Do you believe?
Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth – that guy – is the Son of God? If you have not yet made that leap of faith, I urge you to take up John’s gospel and read it through, today. Football can wait. And if you haven’t taken down your Christmas tree yet, another day is not going to matter. It is John the Evangelist’s deepest desire that you come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. As we approach the Communion Table today, this is also my deep desire for you.
John writes, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Names mean something in the Bible. A name represents all that a person is; it reflects a person’s character and identity. God’s name was considered sacred by the ancient Hebrews because it represents all that God is. For John, believing in the Name meant believing that Jesus bore God’s name, that he was, in fact, divine.
“… he gave power to become children of God.” We who believe in his Name, who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we have the power to become children of God. This word, translated as ‘power’ in the NRSV, and as ‘right’ in the NIV, is the Greek word for ‘authority’. We have been given authority to become children of God. 1 John 3:1-2 exclaims, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God – and that is what we are!” God has granted us authority to claim God as our Father. And this authority bears with it some responsibility.
Just as Jesus humbled himself to go into the world to seek and to save that which was lost, so he calls us to go into the world, seeking out those who need God, who hunger for truth, who could use a little grace in their lives. Claiming our authority as God’s children, we have a job to do: we are to be salt and light in the world around us. And we are to be grace and glory for one other, too, as we receive grace and truth from our brothers and sisters within this faith community.
The language is simple, but the truth it expresses is deeply profound. It may be difficult to understand completely, but our task is not to try to make sense of it. Our task is to let it make sense of us. As we submit ourselves to the Word of God, the Word that was made flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, we are changed. We become the children of God. This transformation is grace. We dare not keep it to ourselves. Like John, we must eagerly share this good news, so that others might come to believe, and might keep on believing.
Amanda Highben puts it another way in her poem, “Let us believe”. She writes:
Let us believe in the bright light now before us.
Brighter still is this—
the knowledge that I have placed your love
like a smooth seed in my heart, and there it pulses
and stirs in a hope-hollowed space,
deep in dark soil cradled.
We have not come so far, this far, for nothing.
We have come that we might be changed.
And let us believe that, in time, we will come to love
our bright and curving world
without inclining towards fear.
For I have come to believe in this bright truth—
quietly, from the core, we change
and quietly, from the core, we love. – Amanda Highben (b. 1978)
God calls us to be transformed, so that we can go out into the world, bearing his light and his truth. Our transformation begins in God’s mercy and grace. It develops through our belief in his Son, Jesus Christ. And our transformation is made complete when we can love, as Jesus loved, those around us who need God’s saving grace. Quietly, from the core, let us grow in faith and love. Openly, as children of God, let us share the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Almighty God, you have filled us with the light of the Word, who became flesh and lived among us; let the light of faith shine in all that we do; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 (William H Willimon, Pastor, 150).