Isaiah 60:1-7, John 1:1-6
November 29, 2009
“In the beginning was the word.” Those are the opening words from the beginning of John’s Gospel, which has often been referred to as “the prologue.” Maybe you’ve heard it called that. And maybe you’ve also heard that the prologue of John’s Gospel has been considered to be among the greatest words ever written in all of literature. I would agree with that!
I’ve often used this passage as the very last scripture reading in advent. Think about it. On Christmas Eve at the end of the service, as all other lights have been extinguished, and only the light of the Christ Candle is still burning, you’ve heard me read “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never conquer it.” And then from the flame of the Christ Candle, we’ve lit all the candles we’re holding for the singing of “Silent Night.” We’ll do that again this year! It’s one of our greatest traditions here! And it’s such a wonderful symbol of Jesus as the light of the world.
Well, this year we’re also using John 1 as the first passage in Advent. And we’ll be continuing to use it throughout the Advent season. These words will serve as the basis for our Advent theme “Celebrate Jesus.” We’ll be hearing parts of it at different times woven into our Advent Wreath celebration, and off and on during the rest of the services, as well.
“In the beginning was the word.” John wrote. And the Greek word here is “logos.” “In the beginning was the logos.” I tell you that because “logos” carries a deeper meaning than just “word.” It is not simply a series of letters arranged in a sequence that represent or convey a thought or action. (That almost sounds like a definition, doesn’t it?) In the Greek word “Logos” there is the idea of knowledge or study or understanding of something.
We actually use a form of that Greek word all the time. We see it in words that end in “ology.” I’m talking about words like “meteorology” or “psychology.” Those words mean the “study of” or “knowledge of” something, don’t they. “Ge-ology,” for example, is the study of, or knowledge of, rocks and minerals. “Bi-ology” is the study of living organisms. How about “etem-ology?” That’s the study or knowledge of what? It’s the study of “words.” How about “Entomology?” That’s the study of or knowledge of what? Bugs! (I always used to get those two mixed up!) Then of course, there’s “Theology,” which is the study of or the knowledge of (?) God. So you’ve got the picture.
Well, John refers to Jesus as “the Logos” or in our Bible, “the word.” And that makes sense when you think that we sometimes refer to Jesus as the “living word” of God. Maybe you’ve heard that. In the same way, we also think of the Bible as the “Written Word,” and we think of the sermon as the “Spoken Word.” And if you think about it, all three of those are ways in which we come to a better “understanding of” God. Each gives us “knowledge” or “Logos.”
So in his prologue, John tells us in such wonderful words about “the word” – Jesus. And Jesus helps us in our knowledge of, and understanding of, God. And if you think about it, what better way for God to teach us about himself, than to come to earth himself – “in the flesh.” So John tells us of how “the word” – Jesus – “became flesh and dwelt among us.” That leads us to another word we use at Christmas time, the word “incarnation.” And that means just what John was saying. It literally means “becoming flesh.”
I’d like for the moment to give you a little bit more background on this passage. Many scholars believe John wrote this prologue as a direct response to a movement in the early church called “Gnosticism.” Maybe you’ve heard that term. Well, Gnosticism often used this term “logos.” The Gnostics believed that a person should strive to have that “logos,” which they saw as a “special understanding of God.” The problem with that was that they believed that if you had this “logos,” this understanding of God, then that was separate from your physical existence. If you had that understanding, if you were “in with God,” then it didn’t matter what you did with your physical body! They believed it was just fine to go to the Roman temples and visit the temple prostitutes! The body and the spirit were two separate things that didn’t affect each other. Well, John (along with many others) argued vehemently against that understanding. He said you can’t separate the body and the spirit like that. They are one!
The reason I bring in that bit of history is that there are too many people who live their faith today with that Gnostic kind of understanding. They want to be spiritual, but they don’t want to let that affect their physical lives. And no, there are no temple prostitutes any more. But I think you’ll agree that there are many other things that demand our attention. And there are too many believers who live one thing in Church on Sunday morning, but who live an entirely different way the rest of the week. They think if you “know about God,” that’s good enough. If you believe the right things, “that’s good enough.” “But,” they would say, “don’t ask me to change the way I live!”
John turned the Gnostic world on its ear. He said, “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us!” And he did so using their favorite word, “logos.” Not only are the body and the spirit one and inseparable, he said, but in this one time in history, God himself became “one like us” to show us that.
It was even more than that, though. The word became flesh in Jesus to show us what God is like. And again, what’s the best way for God to tell us about himself and to show us how to live this life with joy and abundance? By “dwelling among us.”
As we’re thinking about that, I want you to open your bulletins and look at the Call to worship. As we’re thinking about Jesus the word – the one through whom we have “knowledge of God,” I want you to see again what Isaiah wrote about him, some 800 years before his time.
“And the spirit of the Lord shall be upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge [and fear] of the Lord.” He would be the word – the Logos! He would have that knowledge of God, and through him we would have the knowledge of God. We would see what God is like. But it may be different than we might think! Look at this description he gives of the world of the messiah. Look at the symbolism here. “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” That’s amazing! Even in nature, there would be none of the strife that we humans tend to bring about in this world! That’s the picture of this Messiah! That’s the vision we have of God!
Again, though, the important part of this is not just “knowledge about” God. It is knowing God. That’s what the “dwelling among us” part is about! What the early church knew, what the Hebrews knew, though they often forgot it, is that God is not a set of rules. God is not a formula. It’s not “Do such and such and you get such and such.” Sadly, God is that for too many people! (And by the way, you’d better have my formula or my understanding!) God is much more than that! God came to earth in the form of a person to show us that he is a person! That means God has personality. God has emotions and feelings and desires. And there are so many places in the Bible where we see that.
We could read passage after passage where God expresses his anguish over his people. We could read so many words about how God feels deeply! In that way, God is just like us! Actually it’s the other way around. We have personality, and emotions just like God! For we are created in his image! That’s what that means! And Advent and Christmas tell us that. The God of the universe doesn’t want formulas. He doesn’t want sacrifices. He wants our hearts. From the Old Testament we are told a woman would bear a son, and he shall be called “Immanuel,” which means (?) “God over us”? “God speaks from afar?” “God with us.” And Christmas tells us being with us is what God has wanted all along!
So we celebrate once again this event that took place so long ago. It was an event that the people had longed for and anticipated for centuries. In good times, and especially in bad, the prophets told them a Messiah would come. A Savior. A King. He would come. He would walk this earth. He would reach out touch us in ways no one would have thought, even though the prophecies talked of one who would “bring good tidings to the afflicted, who would bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of prisons to those who are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1)
We know God through that one who came to this earth. We can still know God today as we celebrate this time of Advent. And my prayer is that we might be open to all that means! May that knowledge of God not be confined to our own limited human understanding. But may we seek to know God as he knows us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of Grace and Truth. And we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father!”
Eternal God, we cannot fathom the love through which you sent your son into our world. But we are glad that wanted us to know you that much! Help us to see you in this child of Bethlehem. Help us to see in him the kind of people you want us to be! Bless us, we ask, in his name, Amen.