This is John’s beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Whereas the reading from Mark’s gospel last week pulsed with Mark’s characteristic impatience, energy, and hurry, John takes us to the time before time: to the very beginning of everything.
Here is the christological reprise of the opening verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). But John tells us (in effect), “In the beginning … Jesus!”
The Story to end all stories
Of course, what he actually says is that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God! It is in verse 3 that John goes on to rehearse the opening verse of Genesis, with the creation of all things. This is quite deliberate. To get into the “mood” of John’s gospel, we need to imagine ourselves sitting comfortably at the feet of an old man. And when we’re all sitting comfortably, he begins. With those two short sentences (vv 1-2) John tells us that the story we know from Genesis is not the full story. It is actually a Christian story – the story of God and God’s Word. It is only when we have learned that we cannot think of God apart from the active presence and companionship of God’s Word that we can re-member the creation story truly. The Word is a “him” – a person. Of course, we know that the Bible uses symbolic language about Word and Life and Light. We know that Wisdom is spoken about as a woman who is present at the creation. Yet there’s something tantalisingly suggestive in John’s prose that awakens anticipation. This is a story about Someone – not just a story about beginnings! The point about going back to the beginning is surely that this is going to be a story that discloses the truth of all things. Who is the Word – if, indeed, we are right to trust out intuition that this is going to be the story to end all stories?
With that preamble, just look at how anticlimactic verse 6 is! Here we are, in the swirling mists of pre-time, with God and the Word moving and active … and then the stark, “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John”. What a let-down! Here was a story that began so well and promised so much – and now here we are, back on familiar territory. God sends some bloke. Granted, that is not insignificant. And certainly, if God sent him, we ought to pay attention to him. But we know about prophets and stuff. More of the same. So all that exciting stuff about the Word is just symbol! And as we settle (metaphorically) into a well-worn groove about how God acts in the world, John (with the glint of mischief and the gentle conceit of the master story-teller who knows just how to press the audience’s buttons) goes on: “Oh no. This isn’t a story about John! John is just the Prologue. He comes on stage to introduce the main character – the Light. John has already come – but just you wait: the Light is on the very threshold!”
The “Ta dah!” moment is, of course, verse 14: “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!” All right! This is something else altogether! We’re not just getting a story about some prophet (however special) who does some of the usual stuff (however unusual and marvellous). This is a story of something never before conceived, imagined or paralleled: God’s one and only Son becoming a human being and living among us. Not just visiting, mind, but living! And, lest there be any confusion about who the main character in this story is, we are told that this is the one about whom John testified to as being greater than he (John) was (v15).
This becoming flesh of the Word takes us places we’ve never been before in the whole, long story of God’s saving love affair with the world. Verse 18 is our (the audience’s) line: “Hey, just a moment! No one has ever seen God! That’s an absolute rule! God doesn’t present God’s self to human eyes and experience. God is above all that! God doesn’t get involved in time, in change, in decay, in darkness! The bad bits – those are no-go areas for God! So how can you (John) claim to be telling us a story that is the Truth not only about our world but about God?” And the next sentence is John’s reply: “Ah, but you see, God the only Son, who comes from the very heart of the Father, is the one who has made God known!”
John the Baptist: the warm-up act
Of course, vv9-18 are omitted by this week’s Lectionary. We’re looking at the testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus. But we won’t understand that John’s opening section focuses time and again on John only to make the point that the focus is actually Jesus, not John! The Baptist’s role in John’s gospel is to say, again and again, “I am not the One! Stop looking at me. Stop wasting time asking me questions about who I am, and what I’m doing here, and instead look at him, and ask yourselves who he is and what he’s doing here!”
All this is, in all probability, against a background of some sort of conflict between the Christians and disciples of the Baptist. We ought not to underestimate the effect of John’s ministry. He was a very public figure, with an astonishingly and disturbingly successful ministry down in the Jordan outside Bethany. Crowds flocked. He was an uncompromising figure with an uncompromising message. He was fearless when it came to telling the truth. It didn’t matter if you were peasant or royalty: you got your shortcomings and sins right between the eyes! No wonder there was frenetic speculation about who John might be. That he was a prophet was clear: just how significant a prophet was the important question! After all, it seemed possible … no, likely – that he was actually tied up with the kingdom! Perhaps he was the sign of God’s saving power that seemed about to break in?
What John gives us, then (being the storyteller that he is), is the most remarkable downgrading that any messenger from God has ever received! What he effectively has the Baptist say is, “For goodness sake! What’s wrong with you people? Stop getting hung up on the warm-up act and get ready for the Performance!”
And to the obvious question (“So what’s all your preaching and baptism about, John, if we’re not to focus on what God is doing through you?”), John will go on to make clear in vv29ff: “it’s all about preparation! My job is to reveal the Word made flesh to you all! And to whatever degree I’m special, this will serve only to show how much more special the Word made flesh is! So with my baptism: yes, it’s important. Yes, it’s of God. But it’s all preparation for the Word who will baptise not with water but the Spirit! And that’s how we’ll know him – it will be the one on whom the Spirit descends and remains! That’s how we’ll know he’s more than mere prophet: the Spirit will remain on him because it is the Sprit of God and he is the Son of God!” (vv 33-34)
Come to save
John gives us what has been termed by scholars as a “Christology from above”. It begins with the divinity of Jesus as the incarnate Word and Son of God. That is Jesus’ importance: he is “from above”, as the gospel endlessly reminds us. He is the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world – the world’s saviour as well as its creator. That is John’s first word of testimony about Jesus (1:29). In other words, we are told about Jesus’ divinity not as a lesson in correct metaphysics, or to describe the mode of being of the Godhead, but in order to understand that it is God who has come among us to save us! In John’s gospel, Jesus time and again uses the divine name formula, “I am …” These are statements which, in pointing to Jesus, point to God. This is how we are to understand God to be like. Whatever he is in these statements – the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, the Way, the Truth and the Life etc – is metaphorical, save in the astounding declaration, “Before Abraham was, I AM!” We can trust that God is as he is in Jesus (cf David Jenkins) because Jesus is God! And it is in John’s gospel that we have the only non-metaphorical statement about the nature of God: “God is Love”.
In other words, the importance of John’s story about Jesus is that this is the story of God coming into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world (3:17). John’s high Christology is actually only to emphasise God’s saving love. Theologically, Christology in this gospel is always controlled by soteriology.
But John’s gospel does not only emphasise the fact that Jesus is Son of God by virtue of his pre-existence and heavenly origin. Jesus is also Son of God for two other reasons: he is indwelt by the Spirit and is obedient to the will of the Father, thus showing us that he is the legitimate Son of God. And these are modes of being for Jesus as the Word made flesh – the human Jesus. In other words, John is showing us that we discover in Jesus not only what God is like, but what it means to be truly human! To be truly human is to share in Jesus’ relationship to God as Father, to be indwelt by the Spirit and to be obedient.
Justice and salvation: the God-who-delivers (Isaiah 61/Luke 1)
We turn, therefore, to the other Lectionary texts this week. The Old Testament passages and the Magnificat all link to the connections between the prophets, the Spirit of the Lord and the passionate concern for justice. Isaiah 61, in particular, is one of the great deliverance texts that affirms that Yahweh is God-who-delivers. Walter Brueggemann comments, “The God who delivers is the God who can disrupt any circumstance of social bondage and exploitation, overthrow ruthless orderings of public life, and authorize new circumstances of dancing freedom, dignity and justice. The verbs of deliverance refuse to accept as a given any circumstances of oppression” (Theology of the Old Testament p208).
To call God God-who-delivers is to link God with the Exodus. If God’s name was revealed at Sinaii, God’s character and fundamental predisposition towards the world is revealed in the Exodus. The God of Isaiah and the God of Mary (Luke 1: 47-55) is the God of the Exodus – of liberation and of justice for the least first. Indeed, Brueggemann has argued compellingly in a chapter in The Covenanted Self, entitled “Justice: the earthly form of God’s holiness”, that the Exodus narrative shapes Israel’s sacred texts. There is a 3-fold dynamic in the story, the movements of which are repeated again and again and are certainly clearly visible in this week’s texts:
(a) Israel, powerless, yearning for an alternative, ever again an exploited, oppressed community in need of a deliverer.
(b) Israel’s antagonist is Pharaoh, the cipher in the Bible for every ruthless agent of exploitative power, a type who appears in many guises in Israel’s historical experience.
(c) The third character is Yahweh, who enters the drama inexplicably (and therefore graciously), appearing in response to Israel’s voiced hurt and need. Yahweh’s characteristic role is to stand over against Pharaoh with enough power and authority to overturn the oppressive structures. Israel escapes its oppressor, exercises freedom for its own life and becomes “the subject of its own history” (The Covenanted Self, pp 48-9).
For the least first
This is where God’s preferential option for the poor is to be located: in God’s love, grace, mercy and determination to deliver. So God’s Spirit empowers the prophets of old to speak on behalf of the voiceless. And we are meant to recall that John’s Jesus, on whom the Spirit descends and remains, is also Luke’s Jesus who makes Isaiah 61 his manifesto in Nazareth. Have you ever wondered what it is that makes Jesus Christian? Or makes the kingdom he preached and made present truly Good News? It is the fact that the Good News he brought is to the least first. The best of our systems is geared to the greatest good of the greatest number. But in all of our human systems, the ones who lose out are the weakest, most vulnerable and most marginalised. It is to these – the ones who always lose out and remain excluded – that Jesus comes first. For, if it is to the very least first, then it is truly Good News to all. But that means, for those of us who are not the least, taking sides with them! It means denying our own interests in their favour, but in the knowledge that their liberation is actually also our own as it is for all people. When the powers that imprison the captives are broken, the captors, too, discover the extent to which they were held captive. That sort of solidarity with the poor and suffering is only possible through the Spirit.
One way of anticipating the advent of the Word made flesh is to consider again our own baptism. Christian life for us is, as it was for Jesus, a life of dying to self and rising to new life. It is about being transformed by the Holy Spirit, who, in Paul’s words, makes us sons and daughters of God. But being filled with the Holy Spirit has a particular, Jesus-shaped content. It is not the ultimate consumer product or kick – getting high on Holy Spirit – nor is it about self-sufficiency. The Holy Spirit is the power by which we, like Jesus, live lives of obedience as children of God. That obedience is seen as we, like Jesus, become involved in the struggles for justice and peace – the holiness of God on earth. We are to become the answers to the Advent prayers of those who hunger and thirst after justice, who cry out for liberation and who yearn for the promise of the Word made flesh, because the God who comes to us in Jesus is the One who “brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty”. If we do so at no other season of the year, let us be reminded that our Advent hope is Jesus, hope of the hopeless, voice of the voiceless, liberator of the captives and wealth of the poor. For Advent, as our texts remind us, is their season, precisely because it is God who comes to walk among us in Jesus, the Word made flesh.