Prologue: In the Beginning Was the Word

Scripture: John 1:1-15

Most of us are familiar with the story of Christmas.  There is the virgin who gets a surprise visit from an angel with a job for her to do.  There is her unsuspecting fiancé, who nonetheless decides to stick around.  There is the journey to Bethlehem at 40 weeks pregnant, no room in the inn, a baby born in a stable and swaddled and placed in a manger.  Sprinkle in some cows and sheep and shepherds and wise men and maybe some more angels to complete the scene.

This is the Christmas story as told mostly by Luke and a little bit by Matthew, and it’s the story that pageants are made of.

John, however, has a different story to tell.  For John there is no inn with no room, no manger, no virgin.  There are no shepherds or wise men or cows or sheep.  This story doesn’t take place in the Roman province of Judea – at least not at first.  This story doesn’t begin with the birth of a baby, or a trip to Bethlehem, or an angelic announcement, or even prophetic promises made long ago.

Instead it takes place in heaven, in creation, before creation, at the beginning of time.

This is the story John tells in the first chapter of his Gospel, the prologue, the poem that sets the tone for the whole Gospel to follow.

In the beginning, it goes, and we are instantly transported back to Genesis, to the very first words of the Bible.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.  In the beginning, God said “Let there be light.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  In the beginning, there was not just God the Father, the Creator, but the Word who was with God and who was also God.

There’s a reason we don’t make a pageant out of this story.  It’s hard to even preach on John without starting to sound all philosophical and ephemeral and otherworldly, which is exactly how John sounds – much less try to act it out.

In the beginning was the Word, in Greek, the LogosLogos means word but it’s more than just a word on a page.  It is reason, ordering principle, the “blueprint or Primordial Pattern for reality,”[1] (Rohr), the “creative plan of God that governs the world.”[2]  It is the source of our suffix –ology: theology, theo-logos.  It is, in a sense, wisdom, though there is a different Greek word for that; but in fact, in Proverbs we meet a character, Wisdom, who was “formed in ancient times, at the beginning, before the earth was.”  “I was there,” she says, “when he established the heavens, when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea, when he thickened the clouds above” (Proverbs 8:23-28).  Logos is all of these things.

But in its simplest form, Logos means word.  God’s Word is present with God in the beginning.

We’re used to thinking of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  I suspect we’re less used to thinking of him as God’s Word.

Once, at a church bazaar, I picked up a book of Children’s Letters to God.  You can probably imagine the kinds of letters they collected: some cute, some funny, some poignant, many of them questions, things like “Dear God, how did you know that you were God?” and “Are you really invisible, or is that a trick?”  I have no idea where all these letters came from and have some suspicions as to whether they are all actually real, but they are worth thinking about, because I imagine we might have some letters of our own to write if we got the chance.  Some questions to ask.  Dear God, did this thing in my life really have a higher purpose, or was it just random?  Dear God, what do I do next?

It also made me wonder what God might say if God wrote a letter to us.

What kind of letter do you think God would write?

I think that maybe it would be a love letter, with words full of care and comfort or even passion for us, assuring us that we are beautiful, and that God loves us exactly as we are.  Or maybe it would be more like a letter of introduction, meant to tell us just a little bit about who God really is.  Maybe it would be a letter full of advice and instructions about how to live a meaningful life, or how to gain eternal life.  Maybe it would express some disappointment about the ways we haven’t followed those instructions. Or maybe it would be an invitation to God’s Kingdom banquet.

You can see why this might be a hard letter to write, even for God.  There’s a lot to be said, and words can only say so much.  You might of course say that the Bible itself is the letter God writes to us, and it’s true that the Bible contains pretty much all of the material I just said and more.  John, though, would tell us that rather than the whole of Scripture, Jesus is that letter God writes to us.

There’s the famous saying often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words if necessary.” It’s a saying beloved by all of us who don’t actually like to the preach the Gospel in words, especially outside of church. But maybe that’s what God did, because God used human life itself to preach the Gospel.  Jesus’ very life, his whole life, from birth to ministry to crucifixion to resurrection, is what God wants to tell us.  It is hope and joy and welcome and conviction and mercy and justice and peace.  Jesus is God’s love letter, God’s letter of introduction, God’s instruction, God’s invitation.

And that is true precisely because those two stories I mentioned at the beginning – the Christmas story we all know, with the manger and shepherds and angels, and the one John tells that takes place from the beginning of time – are actually the same story.  This baby in a manger, surrounded by cows and sheep and shepherds and wise men, is in fact, God the eternal, God the creator, in whom and through whom all things were brought into being.  This child wrapped in swaddling clothes is none other than the God who gives us life, the one the theologian Paul Tillich calls “the ground of being.”  He’s not a messenger, not a representative, not an earthly Messiah.  Instead, in this small, human, vulnerable, finite baby we meet the second person of the Trinity, the one who has existed, loved, created, shined light, breathed life, for all time.  He is the very revelation of God.

In this baby, and the person he grows up to be, God says to us, “It’s me.”

And so each earthy detail of that scene at the manger becomes something more, something that points us to God’s eternity.

In Jesus, we have life, because he is the very source of life.  And that life is light for all people.

In Advent, the prologue to the church year and prologue to our Christian story, our work is to open ourselves to that life that is coming into the world. The ongoing work of faith is nothing less than to join our lives with his life, which he opens to us by becoming one of us.

And when we do, we, too, become light for the world.

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ

[2] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 519