Jeremiah 31.7-14 or Ecclesiasticus 24.1-12; Wisdom 10.15-end or Psalm 147.13-end; Ephesians 1.3-14; John 1[1-9] 10-18
Almighty God, in the birth of your Son you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word, and shown us the fullness of your love: help us to walk in his light and dwell in his love that we may know the fullness of his joy; who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
THE scene-setting and vocabulary of this week’s readings transported me back to the distant days of Sunday school, and to a morning devoted to the idea that God has a plan for each one of us. This was the pre-PowerPoint era, and the lesson was illustrated by a large poster, adorned with photos cut out of magazines, illustrating human life at all the stages from infancy to old age.
The message seemed to be that God longed for us to flourish, and that this was foreseen in the possibilities of the lives that we were invited to live. An internet search for “God’s Plan” much more recently produced 4,830,000 results. Most of them led not to the benign and, on the whole, non-deterministic picture of my childhood memory, but to the darker recesses of Pandora’s box.
What is so attractive about a God who has everything worked out in advance — a God who holds out the inducement of prosperity and physical comfort to those who will comply with a certain kind of rigid and exclusive doctrinal scheme? This is certainly not the God envisaged in Ephesians 1.3-14 and John 1.1-18, who undoubtedly has a plan, but one whose generous architecture and sheer majesty have nothing in common with the controlling reward system that trades under the same name.
The outburst of praise in Ephesians’ bravura opening performs what James Dunn describes as an enormous circular movement (“Ephesians”, The Oxford Bible Commentary, OUP, 2001, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman). It begins with a divine act of choice “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1.4), and has as its final intention the “gathering up of all things” when time itself will have come to an end (Ephesians 1.10).
All of this happens “in” and “through” Christ (Ephesians 1.3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11), who brings redemption from sin, and reveals “the mystery of God’s will” (Ephesians 1.9).
The fact that the letter’s recipients have faith at all is part of the plan of a God who, in John Muddiman’s translation, willed that they “might be the first who hoped in Christ” (The Epistle to the Ephesians, Continuum, 2001). The purpose of this thoroughly planned project of the divine will appears to be “the praise of God’s glory” (Ephesians 1.6, 12, 14), an object that might momentarily arouse suspicions of narcissism.
Any fears are allayed, as the letter unfolds the revelation of God’s glory in Christ. It is the privilege and calling of human beings to grow “to maturity, to the full measure of the stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13), and thus to take an active part in displaying this glory. Only after that will the writer discuss the way in which the Christian life should be lived: it is placed in the context and at the service of God’s glory, and not presented as an end in itself (Ephesians 4.17-6.17).
John, too, begins his Gospel by summarising a plan (John 1.1-5). Unlike the author of Ephesians, however, he suggests possible impediments to the plan’s success in a series of what might almost be called riddles. The light that is life fights with pervading darkness (John 1.5); John testifies to the light, but is not the light (John 1.6-8); the true light is in the world, which exists only through him, and yet the world does not recognise him (John 1.10).
There are other riddles: the mysterious rebirth of those who believe (John 1.12-13, and see John 3.1-10), and the fact that the one who comes after John the Baptist existed before him (John 1.15, and see John 8.53-59).
It might have seemed to Nicodemus (John 3), and to the Jews who had believed in Jesus (John 8.31-59), as perhaps it sometimes seems to readers of this Gospel, that there is a deliberate desire to tease and to tie the less agile participant in the dialogue in verbal knots. But God does not play games with us, like the “wanton boys” imagined by Shakespeare’s miserable Duke of Gloucester, who kill flies for sport, in King Lear.
God invites us as privileged participants into a mystery that language, however sophisticated, cannot encompass. It is truer to that mystery to wrestle with circles and paradoxes than to try to make it simple in the wrong sense. And yet, in another sense, it is very simple indeed. We are asked only to see what is in our midst, and what is offered as our destiny: the glory of God (John 1.14).