A sermon on John 1: 1-18 by Nathan Nettleton
One of the things we say in our liturgy each Sunday that people sometimes raise questions about is the line that our scripture readers use when they are introducing the readings: “Let us listen for the Word of God.” The question, of course, is “why do we speak of listening forthe Word of God rather than listening to the Word of God?” It is quite common in our evangelical circles to refer to the Bible as “the Word of God”, and so some folks think we should talk of listening to the scripture readings as listening to the Word of God. Now I’m not suggesting that to do that would be wrong, but the language we use certainly fits better with the reading we heard from the beginning of John’s gospel a few minutes ago. For in that passage, the one who is identified as “the Word” is not the Bible, but the Messiah, Jesus. So what we are saying when we say “Let us listen for the Word of God” is let us listen for the Christ, the living Christ, the one who can stand among us now and make the words on these pages come to life, opening us up and shining the light of his life into our hearts.
This is important. Without in any way wishing to diminish the importance of the Bible for our life of faith, it is important to keep clear in our minds that God’s definitive self-revelation in not the Bible, but a person — Jesus the Christ. In some ways it is surprising that this is a contentious issue in our circles, because we evangelicals have always laid a strong emphasis on the idea of a personal relationship with Christ. We have championed the idea that the Christian faith is not about the meticulous following of a set of rules, but about a dynamic relationship with a living Lord. In championing such an idea and saying that God interacts with us and with our world; we are acknowledging that it is what God does — God’s actions in history, past and present — that stands as the primary revelation of God. What we have got in the Bible then, is not the revelation itself, but the primary witness to God’s self-revelation. That witness is crucial, because we do not have direct experiential access to what God has already done, or to anything that anyone else has already done for that matter. All we have are the accounts of faithful witnesses. We cannot personally experience the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, so we are dependent on the primary witness accounts which we have in the Bible.
Now you are probably wondering by now why on earth I am talking about this on the Second Sunday of Christmas, and if I don’t start making the connection soon, I might lose track of it myself! So let me see if I can get there now.
What we have in the gospel accounts of the story of Jesus is not a set of simple reports of what happened. Rather they are interpreted reports, or reflections on what happened and what it meant, written from the perspective of committed believers who have already seen Jesus crucified and experienced his risen presence and power in their lives. So this primary witness that we have in the biblical accounts is not a bald account of the historical facts, but rather some of the early attempts to make sense of the historical facts — four early attempts that the church found to be particularly effective in explaining and deepening their experience of the living Christ. Now for the connection to the Christmas season. When the gospel writers are trying to make sense of their experience of Jesus, the real question they are asking is “who is this person?” And one of the ways of attempting to answer a who-is-this type question is to try to explain his origins. “Who is this person?” “Well, you need to understand where he came from. He was born….” And thus we have the nativity stories.
The nativity stories then must be understood as part of the early church’s attempts to make sense of the life story of Jesus in light of their ongoing experience of his living presence and resurrection power. And one of the things we notice when we put the four gospels alongside each other, is that their attempts to explain their experience of Christ have something in common with our attempts: the further you go and the more you think about it, the bigger the question gets and the more cosmic in scale the explanations become. Let me show you what I mean from the gospel accounts.
The first of the gospels written, almost without doubt, was Mark’s. And Mark’s gospel has no nativity stories. Mark shows no interest in the birth or childhood of Jesus. Mark begins with the story of Jesus being baptised by John. Presumably, when Mark wrote, the attempts to explain Jesus in terms of his origins had only gone as far as looking at the religious movement that he emerged from. To Mark, Jesus was a person who was nothing out of the ordinary until he was uniquely claimed and anointed by God at his baptism. It was this moment of life-conversion for the adult Jesus that explained the origin of this unprecedented fusion of humanity and divinity.
Perhaps a couple of decades later, the next two gospels were written: Matthew and Luke. With another couple of decades of reflection, the questions have gotten bigger. As the church has continued to live in union with the risen Christ and reflect on the stories of Jesus in light of their experience, they are continuing to ask “Who was this man?” And specifically they are asking, “Could this really have been someone who was no different to anyone else until a moment of conversion at his baptism?” And pretty much universally they are answering that question, “No! there must be more to it than that.” And so Matthew and Luke push their explanations back beyond the baptism. Since we have concluded that Jesus was both truly human and and truly God, surely the explanation must go back to his conception and birth. So in Matthew and Luke’s accounts, we have attempts to explain the uniqueness of Jesus by reference to the unique circumstances of his conception and birth.
The gospel reading we heard tonight was the beginning of the last gospel written: the gospel according to John. It was written perhaps a couple of decades later again, and so reflects the fruits of much longer contemplation on the relationship between their present experience of the risen Christ and the past stories of the life and death of Jesus. By this time the question has pushed back further still. By now the church is asking, “Given that it is now clear to us that Christ’s life was the primary self-revelation of God, and that in his resurrection, a new creation has begun; is it really possible that he didn’t exist and had no part in God’s creative and redemptive work until just a century ago?” And increasingly their answer was “No!”
And so, as the church enters its second century, we get John summarising its beliefs about how the origins of Jesus can best be explained:
At the very start, there was one who is called the Word.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
From day one, God and the Word were inseparable,
and it was through the Word that everything was created.
In these twelve days of Christmas each year, when we focus our thinking and our prayer around the theme of God’s incarnation in Jesus, we are doing far more than celebrating a birthday. We are exploring and celebrating some of the deepest mysteries of God and of the nature of God’s relationship to our world. And the longer we do that, and more we allow our unfolding experience of the risen Christ to shape our thinking and sink deep roots into our hearts, the bigger our thinking will get and the wider our recognition of its implications will become. And if we continue to think and discuss and pray, that growth will go on all through our lives.
As we reflect, year by year, on this awesome teaching, the implications of God becoming flesh and rolling out his swag in our midst will continue to grow within us and transform us through and through. In Christ we have seen the full glory of God, like father, like son; warm and generous to a fault, solid and true to the core. As we continue to reflect on the connections between our experience of life in Christ and the witness we hear in the reading of the scriptures, we will indeed be listening for the Word of God and allowing that Word to continue to take flesh in us. For as John puts it, the fact that no one has ever seen what God looks like is no obstacle to getting to know God; for the one who is closest to God’s heart, the one and only Son, has put God within reach of us all.