John’s Gospel is obviously different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Those Gospels, which we know as the Synoptic Gospels, are story-telling Gospels. They proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ by describing his life and ministry in biographical terms—Jesus went to this place, he had this experience, he interacted with this person, he said these things. The story these three Gospel writers weave together offers us perspective and encourages our ethical choices in daily life. John’s Gospel is framed a little different. Instead of telling us the story of Jesus’s life in biographical terms, he has a more episodic approach.
John describes scenes from Jesus’s life, experiences, and interactions in order to say something theologically about God. Think about it, we only have three years in the Sunday morning lectionary—the guide that tells us what to read each Sunday in church. We read Matthew in Year A, the current year, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C. That means that every three years we are reading through a particular Synoptic Gospel to hear the story of Jesus. But have you ever noticed that during high, holy feast days or times of the year we often read John? This morning for instance, we always read John the first Sunday after Christmas and we have the option to read John on Christmas. We read John in Holy Week—the week leading up to Easter. We have the option to read John on Easter. There are other times during the year when we read John, and typically those times are when the lectionary is trying to do something more than tells us the story of Jesus—it is trying to help us understand what we believe about God.
John’s Gospel more than any of the other Gospels, tells the story in order to define our beliefs about God. This, in part, is why the beginning of his Gospel is so different from the others. Whereas Matthew and Luke both begin with genealogies that lead straight into the Christmas story and Mark starts with Jesus’s baptism, John starts “in the beginning”—literally. John doesn’t simply mean that time restarted with the birth of Jesus, John situates Jesus in the beginning of creation, when God created the heavens and the earth, as the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and nothing came into being without Him.”
God speaks and the Word creates—Jesus is the Word and as such was here in the beginning. Though we understand Christmas to mark Jesus’s incarnation, it is important that we don’t limit our understanding of Jesus simply to His incarnation. Jesus is part of the divine, he is an aspect of the triune God we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Jesus, himself, is God made manifest, Word, Light, Son, baby, the incarnate Christ—he was, and is, and will be again. In Christmastide, we celebrate the gift God gives us in humbling himself to become one of us because we have forgotten his original gift of creative life and have fallen away from the Word made manifest in that same gift of creation. And unbelievable as it may seem, God still desires to be in relationship with us—for us to love him as he loves us.
Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian, tells a parable regarding God’s incarnation:
“Once upon a time, there was a prince who was single and very eager to marry a lovely maiden for his future queen. Near his palace was a large city, and often he rode his carriage down to the city to take care of various chores for his father. One day, to reach a particular merchant, he had to go through a rather poor section. He happened to glance out of the window and right into the eyes of a beautiful maiden.
“He had occasion on the next few days to return to the section of the city–drawn as he was by the eyes of the maiden. And more than that, he had the good fortune once or twice actually to meet this young girl. Soon he began to feel that he was in love with her. But now he had a problem. How should he proceed to procure her hand?
“Of course, he could order her to the palace and there propose marriage. But even a prince would like to feel that the girl he marries wants to marry him. Or perhaps, somewhat more graciously, he could arrive at her door in his most resplendent uniform and, with a bow, ask her hand. But even a prince wants to marry for love.
“Again, he could masquerade as a peasant and try to gain her interest. After he proposed, he could pull off his ‘mask.’ Still, the masquerade would be ‘phony.’ He really could not manage it.
“Finally a real solution presented itself to his mind. He would give up his kingly role and move into her neighborhood. There he would take up work as, say, a carpenter. During his work in the day and during his time off in the evening, he would get acquainted with the people, begin to share their interests and concerns, begin to talk their language. And in due time, should fortune be with him, he would make her acquaintance in a natural way. And should she come to love him, as he had already come to love her, then he would ask for her hand.”
God doesn’t want to force us to love him. Instead God wants us to choose to love him. In order for that love to be authentic, God enters in to what he has created and offers himself as part of that creation. Instead of forcing us to love him or even telling us what we need to do to be in relationship with him, God simply extends himself, reaching out to us and inviting us to be with him. Sure, he will meet some needs along the way—feed 5000 folks, heal people who cross his path, even raise a few from the dead—but his primary purpose is simply to relate to us and make himself available for us.
That is what its all about—inviting others into relationship with us through invitation and humility. Instead of deciding we know what is best for others, we simply offer ourselves in relationship with others, especially those who aren’t like us. And when a need arises and we can do something about it, we do what we can and recognize that if it is authentic to our relationship with God and one another, then it is enough. That is what it means to be incarnate—to enter in.
The first chapter of John is drastically different in prose and purpose from the other three because it doesn’t tell us how Jesus came to be but why. But there is more to this chapter than theology—it is believed that much of this chapter was a liturgical retelling of creation entwined with incarnation as the beginning of the communal worship. Whereas we begin with an opening acclamation and collect for purity, John’s church started every gathering by retelling the origin story of Christ akin to the way we tell the story if the Last Supper at every communion gathering. It is in that focus that helps define us. Whereas we consider ourselves Easter people with a focus on resurrection, I wonder if John’s congregation would have considered themselves Christmas people with a focus on incarnation when Word is made flesh and light shines in the darkness.
If we were to tell this story of incarnation, start with John’s liturgy each Sunday, I wonder how different our beliefs and actions might be? Instead of simply focusing on our own salvation, might we humble ourselves to enter in to the experience of the other—to be more concerned with this world as the kingdom of God than the next one? If we put the same amount of attention and focus on incarnation as we do crucifixion and resurrection, would we be more aware and intentional in how we engaged with one another and responded to the needs of the world? When we read John’s Gospel, we are invited not simply to hear and know the story of Jesus but to be a part of it. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” Amen.
Christmas 1A: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147: 13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Church of the Ascension- Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, December 29, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer