1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 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.
I have to admit it, I am an absolute sucker for Christmas. Just the other week, I brought a cheesy Christmas jumper, me and my family over-decorated the Christmas tree, and we listened to Christmas carols- both great and terrible- on repeat, eating and drinking to the point that we had to loosen our belts. It is by far my favourite time of year. And I know I am not alone. I too have seen the photos and videos on social media showing that we, generally speaking, enjoy the holiday season. And when you look at these photos and videos you notice that there is a heightened sense of joy, a heightened sense of connection. And this tells me that there really is more meaning in the air during this time of year- a sense of connection around this time of year, a sense of good will to all people, that life, that joy, that things really matter. Have you ever noticed that it doesn’t matter what you believe about the significance of this holiday- that people still long for connection, for good vibes, for nothing less than meaning itself? Even for those who struggle around Christmas time, the absence of the connection feels stronger because of the heightened sense of meaning all around us. So needless to say, around Christmas- whether for richer or poorer- the atmosphere becomes potent with a longing for meaning amongst nearly all people. It is this near universal longing for meaning, especially around Christmas, that we can turn to Johns gospel in chapter 1, what I call the cosmic origin story of meaning.
When it comes to speaking about Jesus’ origins, I picture the four writers of Jesus’ life- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John- sitting around talking about Jesus’ origins story, along with an eager listening audience. Mark starts the conversation saying, “Well in my origin story of Jesus, I start with a bang! An all grown up Jesus, lock and loaded, coming straight outta the waters of being ceremonial washed in the Jordan river. Jesus origins begin with his revolution kicking into gear with God affirming Jesus’ identity as God’s main man, and then Jesus going around and doing his revolutionary actions that reveal what it looks like for God to take charge of the world- that’s my origin story!”. Matthew and Luke then pike up and say to Mark “Oh that’s nothing! We go right back to the very birth of Jesus, and when we tell the origin story of Jesus, we show people through his birth that He is the long-awaited ruler of the world, and that his rulership will bring peace to the whole world- that’s how we start it. You Mark start with the beginning of the revolution when he is an adult, we show the birth of Jesus starts it then”. And then there’s John, just waiting, as the other three tell their origin stories of Jesus. He turns to someone and says “Hold my beer”, and then tell his grand origin story. “You think that’s good” John says, “How about this? 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. 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”. There is silence before the awe of this cosmic origin story. A story that goes back to before time itself, a story that links Jesus with God as Creator, as the very one who- as depicted in the creation story found in Genesis- created all things. John’s origin story doesn’t just launch with Jesus’ public career, it doesn’t just start with Jesus’ birth, rather, John’s origin story makes a bold claim. Jesus has been with God for all eternity, and Jesus is also God, and this God, this Jesus, is the one who created everything and who has now taken on human flesh. He has come to make his home amongst us in order to birth something new like he had done in the beginning- a world made new through what he came to do. And when we see Him, we see the full weight of who God is, and what God has always been like. We see Jesus, the one full of grace and truth. I can imagine John being like “You think Jesus is a big deal in how he starts his ministry, or in his birth. Great stuff, however, Jesus is a bigger deal then even that. In fact, he has been a big deal for literally forever. He is “the deal” itself. He is the person that the world has been trying to fully articulate- yet not fully grasping- when they say that there is a force, a spark, an engine, a mover & shaker behind the whole cosmos. Jesus is that that people have been trying to get at all along. Jesus is God, the ground of all Being. The Great I AM”.
After saying this, John winks and nudges the Jewish people around Him through his choice of words. Jesus, John says, is “The Word”. When the Jewish people heard John call Jesus “the Word” they would of thought of the very Jewish concept of how God makes the world through his Word. “The Word” in the Jewish sense, was God’s way of making or shaking things up. So when we say “I love you” to someone for the first time, it can light up someone’s world. Or when we say “You’re fired” it can rob a whole career. But in any case, something happens, something changes, a new reality is birthed when one had not previously existed. So to with the Jewish understandings of God’s “word”. So, when John chooses to call Jesus “The Word”, it was his way of saying to His Jewish audience that “God’s is creating, and He is creating through this Jesus. For Jesus is “The Word””. For this Jewish audience this would have been astounding on a cosmic level, and yet this cosmic level would have had a real-world effect in their lives. For a long time, their people were waiting for the day that God would do a shake up of their world, to renew their world. They had been under one bad empire under another, and now they are under the Roman Empire. They were longing for the promise that was made of old, that one day God will act in the world in a decisive way, to bring a new word of the Lord, that will shake things up. And not only shake things up for a time, but shake things up forever. To shake things up forever it would take a Forever event to occur. John says that it is nothing short of God himself coming into the flesh that changes the world for good and for the better. Their longings are fulfilled in the arrival of The Word made flesh. In our day and age, we look around and see the pain and the hurt of 2020. But it’s not just 2020- it’s a world where there has been so much pain, hurt, injustice, and suffering. We to can relate to the Jewish longing for a world made new. And John says that in Jesus, this has occurred.
But in the same way the Jewish people were astounded hearing John speaking of Jesus as “The Word”, so were John’s non-Jewish audience being mind blown in their own way. Because the concept of “The Word” also meant something to non-Jewish people listening to John tell his gospel. In the ancient world, philosophers spoke of the “Word”. For them, the “word” was about the underlying meaning behind the universe and within human people. They believed that to get in touch with this underlying principle that you would find the meaning behind all things. So, when John chooses to call Jesus “The Word”, it is also his way of saying “Your philosophers rightly believe that there is meaning behind the universe, behind the big questions of life- but the “Word” isn’t some sort of abstract principle or impersonal energy- it’s a Person, and guess what? You can get to know Him, and therefore gain the very meaning of your existence in Him”. This would of both offended and amazed people. Offended, because it is saying that their noble philosophers were on the right track but not fully there. Excited, because it is saying that which they were looking for and longing for in their philosophers has now come full circle in this Jesus. In our day and age, this same offence and excitement would likely be present. We are all looking for meaning, and especially during this time of year. Christmas shows that we are meaning making people in our prime. Maybe in the same way that that the philosophers of old were onto something, so is our culture when it comes to meaning making. We want there to be more to life, and so we have turned to certain philosophies, gurus, self-help books, and spiritual guides. John comes along, and, on one hand, affirms that- unlike those that believe that there is no real meaning to life- says “actually there is”. Yet, on the other hand, affirms that this meaning isn’t for our own making, but that actually our deepest intuitions need to have a form and a face.
At this point, we now have the whole audience asking John some questions. Everywhere from the person who doesn’t even believe in pre-existent meaning, to those who think that they can be the master of their own destiny. To those who are listening and saying “Actually, I believe we can make our own meaning without a belief in God” John might turn to us and say “Of course you can make meaning without a belief in God, because you believing in meaning is not predicated on whether or not you personally believe there is a God or not who gives meaning. However, my question is this: how long can you go on justifying that meaning is truly meaningful with intellectual integrity in a meaningless universe?”. You see, if there is no God, then all our meaning is what we make- for no one gave meaning, so logically we are only left with making it. Yet the universe came from meaninglessness, and billions of years from now everything will be gone and no one will be there to remember or observe. Now, we can still be thankful and perhaps make meaning. But John insists that meaning can be made precisely because we live in a universe that’s charged, that has baked into it, meaning in the first place. With a view of the universe that doesn’t have meaning, we are left to our own brain to make meaning, yet even the very thing we would use to create meaning- our brain- is itself a piece of meat that itself collectively emerges from a world with no meaning in it, at least from this view of a godless universe. From nothing to nothing, we can only make meaning like people using dried sand to make a sand castle in a windy world. We can do it, but really, what makes more sense of our deepest intuitions? John says “In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind”, that when God created all things, that this “word”, this “meaning” as the ancient philosophers used to say, has infused all things with meaning. If we believe that there no inherent meaning, we shouldn’t fathom a meaningless universe for too long because we wouldn’t cope, or at least if we do cope we are coping because we are ignoring the facts of our existence- but if we do that then we aren’t living with a worldview integrity or coherency. Unless we dare to change our worldview premise: maybe there is a meaning behind the universe. If we choose to change that premise, then we have to ask another question: not if there is meaning, but what is the meaning behind the universe?
That brings us to the next question someone will ask John: “You say that this meaning is Jesus? What makes you say that?”. John would say, “Well, we have seen God in the flesh. For 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”. Now, I am not going to give a message on how I think the gospels give us a very good enough picture of the very real Jesus they speak of, so good that we can trust these gospels as gospel, and therefore trust that this Jesus is historically real. If you’re interested in that, then there are books you can go to which will give the claim that these gospels make some street cred. So, for the sake of time and energy, let’s assume for a second that these Gospels are accurate. Do you realise the implications that has? If Jesus did the things that he did, then he shows the world that he is the God that has come to us. Why? He came as one where we can see the glory of God. In the Old Testament, glory was a way of speaking of the heavy weightiness of what God was up to. Like, we would say “Oh wow, God is here because things are happening”. Jesus comes, John says, and brings the glory of God as God himself. And with Jesus, a lot of heavy things go on. Jesus goes around healing people, rising people from the dead, and finally rising himself from the dead to never die again. This is the glory of God on display. This ain’t some dude saying that he is the glory of God, this is Jesus who shows us that He is the very glory of God through His actions. God with us. I know that sounds terribly narrow to speak about God being fully revealed in one person. I know in our culture that’s a super exclusive truth claim. But here is what ultimately has to be asked: is it true? And does it being true make it narrow for narrow sake? Or simply narrow because Jesus simply is true? I know some people will say that there are many pictures of God that are all equally accurate. I have often heard the metaphor that everybody and every religion are like blind people grabbing different parts of an elephant. Some people grab the tail only and so think that the creature they are grabbing is skinny and long, another person feels the long flat back of the elephant and think that’s what the creature is like, and another the trunk, and so on. The analogy goes that this is what God is like- that we are all blind people grabbing different parts of this one God but that no one has the correct whole picture. The problem with the metaphor is that it assumes that somebody is seeing the elephant and all the blind people grabbing the elephant- otherwise how would the metaphor be told? Another problem is that it assumes that everyone’s view of God is complimentary like the different parts of an elephant, but any philosopher of religion will easily breakdown for us that- once you start to ask the big questions of the world’s major religions, such as what’s wrong with the world, how do we fix the world, and what is the world ultimate destiny- that you start to discover divergence quite quickly. There is a lot of common ground amongst the world’s religions, yet there is also a lot of non-common ground. The truth is, we are all blind, and we can’t all be right. And yet, John insists that the Word has come, that the light has come, and that we can now behold God in the flesh. We are no longer blind, but see. Is that narrow? Or is that just simply true?
But even if we grant John this, we are faced with another question for John. This time, it has to do with people we know who do live a life of meaning and purpose, and who don’t locate that meaning and purpose in Jesus. We say to John “I know plenty of people who have a real sense of meaning without Jesus- what do we say to that?”. Once again, we have John looking at his prologue saying “In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind”. In that verse, we discover that- if we are made by the Creator- then part of the Creator is enmeshed into our very being. And so, because we are made in God’s image, we should not be surprised that people stumble upon meaning no matter who they are. It’s in our DNA. However, like run away children, we might not have the whole picture of what our parental heritage is like until we go back to where it all begun. When speaking in Rome in Acts 17, the apostle Paul affirms that people have real meaning in their poets and philosophers, yet he then draws them further to the completion of their own meanings. Paul saw the people of Athens as like people who have reached into a foggy sky, truly stumbling upon some truth that they grab onto. Yet, without the complete picture, they gave their own interpretations and meanings to that in which they truly have grabbed. But because it’s not the whole picture, they can skew that which they grabbed but not fully known or understood. At some point, that which they grabbed can’t be interpreted forever in that way. And this is the same for us. With a cluster of different theories, interpretations of reality, and our susceptibility to misconceptions and misunderstandings, (even in the midst of perhaps some genuine meaning) we have to have John tell us not only what it is that we have stumbled upon, but what this we have stumbled upon looks like, sounds, like, and longs for, for the destiny, meaning, and direction of the human race. We can’t go on forever assuming these things, we have to have the answer come to us. And this is why Jesus as the word is so important, because John tells us that God has become grounded. We are no longer reaching our hands into a foggy sky, grabbing on genuine meaning, yet then misinterpreting what we are only feeling around in the air. Rather, the meaning we have been grasping- yet not fully grasping- is now seen. For we see and behold, God, full of grace and truth. And when this happens, we can put flesh on our longings and critique our misconceptions and misunderstandings that lead us down different paths and different ways of living, moving, and having our being. This both affirms our journey without leaving us where we are or pulling us down the interpretive rabbit hole. Like the people in Athens, God meets us in our meanings, but longs for us to follow Him to Jesus who will reveal to us the whole journey, along with everything else. There aren’t many roads to God- but God will go down any road and meet people there. Just as God did in Acts 17, and just as he did with the astrologer Magi in Matthew’s birth narrative. Matthew’s gospel is a great example, for it is astrologers studying the stars that learn of the new born King, and this God meets them in their own practice in order to take them all the way to Jesus. There are many many stories of people who have met Jesus in their own cultural, religious, and spiritual backgrounds, for God is not far from any one of us. God does not shame these backgrounds, rather, God calls us to have these backgrounds have a completed story in Jesus, and then for us to follow Jesus.
But the final pushback might be that we really don’t need Jesus as the meaning of all things. People says “I am my own commander of my destiny- I just need myself”. But I can imagine John, looking rather perplexed, asking “And then what? How does that stop the darkness in the world?”. John then says that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. It’s commendable to be held together by our own abilities, and it’s also a good thing that we do good in the world- but this doesn’t stop the darkness on a global & cosmic level. Heck, we are going to be dead one day, so the very lives we are commanding is- on a ultimate level- going to lose in the end, and we can’t stop that. John insists that Jesus is coming into the world to defeat all evil, suffering, sin, death, injustice, and all that is partnering with death. Our own abilities to have it all together can only takes us so far- but if the world will one day be filled with the love of God as the waters cover the sea, then how does this very individualistic spirituality create the cosmic victory that’s indefinite? It can’t. I am just a person, and you are just a person. We need to participate in something bigger than ourselves that will actually lead all of creation somewhere. And we need to be rightly guided by this Creator, and to be guided by this Creator isn’t just to assume our own ability to have the right direction based on our own intuitions. If someone is going to operate on me, I don’t just need intuition, I want someone who is explicitly trained and guided. In the same way, if we are going to know how the world is to be, then we need humility on our part, and instead be guided by the wise and loving creator who shows us the way to go in Jesus. Even the best self-help techniques (such as mindfulness) can only ground us- but that won’t solve the world’s problems. We can become very mindful people, but then mindfully commit evil things. It is the “Word” who shows us the life, and the life we are to live mindfully, unto a day where the Word will have the final victory that we ourselves can partner with, but cannot achieve on our own.
And so, we ask these questions of John, and John pushes us forward to Jesus as the Word. He is the one we have been looking for all our lives. And John also says that this Word, this meaning of all life, is coming to birth new life into the world. Part of Johns opening words isn’t just that Jesus is the Word, part of Johns opening words is that this life saving word has come into the world to make all things new. Imagine that there are three different people in a forest, and that this forest suddenly captures on fire. The three people find themselves at a cross road. These three people are seeking to get out of the burning forest, and they each now find themselves at a cross road where there are two ways they can go. One says “I don’t believe there is a way out”, the other says “all roads lead to the way out”, and the third says “Actually I think there is only one way out”. Then, out comes the forest ranger from one of the pathways. Now what do you think happened next? You would think that this means they are to simply follow the ranger to safety, right? That maybe he’ll say to the one who said that there was only one way out that this person was correct and the others were wrong. Actually, the forest ranger brings a fire house, and extinguishes the fire. And instead of getting people out of the forest, he turns to them and says “Now it’s time to plant the seeds, and make this forest new again- who’s with me?”. And this is how that story ends- with an invitation to become co-labours with the ranger. My friends, this is what John is saying in his cosmic Christmas story.
John could of simply said that- because Jesus is the only true God- that his story only affirms Jesus as correct (A bit like what we might of expected in the forest fire story- we know the path, so let’s just go down it). But- like the forest fire story ending with the forest ranger wanting to extinguish the fire, to then having people partner with him to make the forest new again- so too does John have Jesus coming into the world to make all things new again. Yes, there is only one God, yes this God is fully revealed in Jesus, yes all of history and meaning is about this God who is fully revealed in Jesus, and yes to live out the right side of history is to therefore follow this Jesus. And yet, the story isn’t “In the beginning the Word was with God and was God, and the Word stayed in heaven and got people to come to him by guessing correctly and saying to others “I told you so””. Rather, it is “In the beginning the Word was with God and was God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. The cosmic Christmas story is that God has come among us, and that this God has come to defeat the darkness and make his home amongst us. And when God does come to us, Johns friends Matthew and Luke tell us that he comes so as a baby, in a dark mucky backwater joint, as the light of the world. And Johns mate Mark says that this baby becomes a man, and starts his ministry- that he comes healing people, cleansing people of evil spirits, feeding people- all in all showing us the new world that He is coming to birth in himself; showing us a world where he’ll be King, and all will one day be well. And Jesus calls people to follow him, and join him in his project of making all things new through Himself. And all four gospel writers- John, Matthew, Mark, and Luke- eventually tell us that Jesus, “The Word”, dies on a cross. And yet, it is in this death that Johns opening words of Jesus defeating darkness comes full circle. On the cross, Jesus defeats the darkness by taking on all the darkness of the world into Himself, and killing it in His death. We then see the victory that John alludes to when he sees Jesus rises again from the dead three days later, showing that indeed darkness does not win. Jesus took on the darkness, Jesus took on the dread, Jesus took on death- and won. We see his victory as truly true in that on the 3rd day when he rose again, birthing God’s New Creation. His death becomes the way the light destroys the darkness, how his life overcomes the powers of death, and Jesus- as the ever-making Word, the mover and shaker over reality, the meaning of life- makes a new world where the darkness will not overcome. And indeed, darkness will not overcome, for later John tell us in his final book in the Bible that, when Jesus appears again, that “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”. That Jesus will fully implement that which started on that third day, and that which continues with his church by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we step away from our time with John, he leaves us with an invitation. As I said at the beginning, this season we start to intuitively sense a deeper meaning to all things- from connection, to joy, to, ultimately, love. Perhaps behind these deepest longings is the longing for a world charged with the grandeur of God; with a God who is indeed full of grace and truth, who will wipe away all tears, whose light will conquer the darkness, and whose life has the final say over what often feels like a world of death. In John’s cosmic Christmas, we discover God’s dream for all creation. John makes it quite clear: anyone can come and embrace this dream by embracing their true identity as a child of God. You don’t have to have it all figured out, you don’t have to have it all together, you don’t have to dress a particular way, come from a particular family, or have a particular pedigree. Rather, you are only asked to trust- to trust that there is more to life than what’s currently on offer, to trust that their something bigger happening in the world, and that this happening and something bigger is Jesus. And as we do this together, we can become like another John that is described in these words of scripture: John the Baptist. John comes to testify to the light. And so, to in our summons in following Jesus this Christmas, may we testify to the true light, God’s true Word, and partner with God in God’s making of all things new, that we might have ourselves a very cosmic Christmas.