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The gift of John’s cosmic retelling

by
18 December 2020

No manger, no baby, but all the drama is here, says Barbara Brown Taylor

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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.

John 1.1-4

 

THIS is John’s birth narrative, which explains why there are no Christmas pageants based on it. The stories that Matthew and Luke tell are full of things you can put costumes on: shepherds, angels, wise men, sheep. They are full of things you can paint on the backdrop: a stable, a manger, a guiding star overhead.

We love them because they stay put, coming out of storage once a year with their invitation to remember a holy night long ago when all was calm, all was bright. They let us be children again, before putting our heavy coats back on and heading into a world that is going who-knows-where, with a bunch of swollen egos changing the script every 24-hour news cycle.

But there is no Bethlehem in John’s Gospel, no holy family, no inn with no room, no manger. There’s not even a baby in this story, because John’s nativity begins before any of those things existed. It begins “in the beginning”, the same way the Bible does.

It begins with the Big Bang of God’s Word, bringing the world into being one utterance at a time. In the Genesis story there were six days full of words. “God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light” (Genesis 1.3).

After that came day, night, sky, earth, seas, plants, and planets. After that came living creatures of every kind, including humankind. All God had to do was say them and there they were: fish, birds, wild animals, creeping things, earthlings. They all came forth on the breath of God, taking shape through the power of God’s creative Word.

But if you’re thinking of phonics and sound waves, you’re thinking too small. You might try thinking of “the Logos” instead, since that’s the term John used, and it’s not as tame as “the Word”. In the world of Genesis, God’s Logos is God’s agency, God’s dynamic intelligence entering the cosmos like a meteor, taking on shape as it passes from the unbounded dimension of eternity into the bounded atmosphere of earth.

God’s Logos is God’s rocket ship of self-revelation, the manifestation of God’s divine reason and creativity in the material realm, where it both brings things into being and then holds them together so they don’t fly apart. John didn’t invent the term: Greek and Jewish philosophers used it before him, and they weren’t referring to Jesus when they did.

But John made the connection for his Christian community, and it stuck. From his time to ours, Christians identify the Logos as the Christ, the dynamic agency and intelligence of God that came to earth in the flesh.

His human name was Jesus. He landed in Galilee. It was a whole new beginning, but how was John going to write about that? A manger was too small to contain the divine Logos. Shepherds were a dime a dozen. Even Mary, God bless her, was so provincial. So John did not include any of that in his story.

He wrote a cosmic story instead — a second Genesis — about the pre-existent Logos who was with God in the beginning, long before there was a Bethlehem, a Caesar, or a single star in the sky. In John’s birth story, the Logos is singular, and it does not come out of God’s mouth — at least, not at first.

The Logos is with God. The Logos is God. It both is and isn’t God, which may be why it doesn’t have a name in the beginning — because it is not yet separate from God. God is bound to put breath behind the Word soon, because, for some unknown reason, God does not love being alone.

 

GOD loves company. God loves “being with”. How else did God know that Adam needed a partner, that it was not good for him to be alone? But there is no Adam in John’s origin story yet.

There is no Jesus. There is not even a world. There is just this primordial intimacy between God and God’s Logos — God’s dynamic energy, wanting to become something, even if that means leaving the divine womb and entering a too-bright cosmos full of loud noises, hard surfaces, and the smell of blood.

Before that happens, however, John wants to make sure we understand several crucial things. The first is the Logos’s relationship to darkness (“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” verse 5). The second is the Logos’s relationship to John the Baptiser (“He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light,” verse 8).

The third is the nature of the Logos’ birth (“not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God,” verse 13). There is no need for a gender reveal. The Logos has been “he” from the start, since John already knows whom he is talking about, but he still takes his time getting to the verse that passes for a birth in his story: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” he says at last, “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (verse 14).

That’s when God finally exhales and changes everything, releasing the Logos into the world like an only child, although not to remain one. Paradoxically, the twofold mission of this only child is to make his Father known and to make more children for him. All who receive the Logos, John says — all who breathe in what God has breathed out — will receive the power to become God’s children, too.

AlamyGod looked into the Torah the way an architect looks into a blueprint Torah scroll at the Western Wall, Jerusalem

I know we put all kinds of conditions around that — yes, sure, we’re all God’s children, too, but not like Jesus. He alone is the only. He alone is our clear window into the heart of God. Yet there it is, right on the page: this only child does not love being alone any more than his Father does.

He means to enlarge the family, filling the world with more brothers and sisters who are willing to become God’s Logos made flesh. He has high expectations of his siblings, too. When it is time for him to go back to where he came from, the Logos will turn to them and say: “Truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14.12).

The good news is that this transmission is built into the grand scheme of things, beginning in creation and stretching into the future further than any of us can see. If evolution isn’t a bad word for you, you might think of it as divine evolution — the way the Logos keeps coming into the world in different forms at different times, showing us as much of God as we can take in until the next time, when the form may be different but the Logos is the same.

When Jesus goes to the Father, he says, God will send another Comforter to be with them — the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who will go forth from God as Jesus did. The Spirit will not act the same way Jesus did. It won’t have a human body, for one thing (unless you’re a fan of The Shack), but it, too, was with God in the beginning, moving over the waters at the genesis of creation — one more life-giving expression of God’s energy and purpose.

 

CHRISTIANS traditionally draw the line there. The Logos has one name, and that name is Jesus. Along with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, he completes the Trinity that has been part of baseline Christian belief from the earliest centuries of the Church.

Yet the same scripture that informed the Trinity contains intriguing glimpses of other Logos-like energies coming forth from the mouth of God.

In Jewish tradition, Torah is God’s energetic word, given to God’s people that they might choose life and not death. In one old story, the Torah rested in God’s bosom before the creation of the world.

Another says that, when it came time to start making things, God looked into the Torah the way an architect looks into a blueprint, creating the world for the purpose of revealing the Torah. Only later did God spell the whole thing out for Moses so he could write it down.

Proverbs 8 introduces another Logos-like energy, named Wisdom, sometimes known by her Greek name, Sophia. “Ages ago I was set up,” she says, “at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (verse 23). When God established the heavens, she was there.

“When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker,” she says, “and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (verses 29b–31).

She appears again in the book of Sirach, which was written too late for inclusion in the Jewish Bible, but which shows up in a set of books between the First and Second Testaments in some Christian Bibles. Sirach is approved for use in worship on occasion — as on the second after Christmas Day, when Sophia is on the list of potential speakers along with Jeremiah, Solomon, and John.

The preacher gets to choose whose voices will be heard, but, as far as I recall, I have never heard Lady Wisdom’s voice in church. Have you?

The book of Sirach comes right after the Wisdom of Solomon and right before the book of Baruch. It might be called Ecclesiasticus in your Bible. Sirach, chapter 24, beginning at the first verse:

Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
and traversed the depths of the abyss.
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
Among all these I sought a resting place;
in whose territory should I abide?
Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.’
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion.
Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place,
and in Jerusalem was my domain.
I took root in an honoured people,
in the portion of the Lord, his heritage” (24.1-12)

Did any of that sound familiar to you? It sounded familiar to me. Wisdom came forth from the mouth of the Most High. She dwelt in the highest heavens, her throne in a pillar of cloud. She could have stayed there, but she wanted a resting place on earth. How Logos-like of her. . .

She didn’t want to cover the earth like mist any more; she wanted a zip code, a place to pitch her tent — the same word John used when he said that the Logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us.

Wisdom wanted to move into the neighbourhood, and God was happy to oblige. Looking down at the map, God said, “There: ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’” So she took root there, hoping for as many new children as her tent could hold.

It’s a pattern you can see over and over again in the sacred story: God’s eternal energy for sending the Logos to take up residence in the world, bringing the creation close enough to the creator to be kissed — by Torah, by Wisdom, by Jesus Christ, by Holy Spirit — all of them offering us direct access to the fierce love and creative intelligence that is always looking for a new place to call home.

 

TOO often, I think, religious people want to restrict that divine access: the Logos comes only by this name, not that name, to this people only, not that. The last verse of today’s Gospel reading certainly sounds like that. “No one has ever seen God,” John says in the last line of his prologue. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (verse 18).

istockWisdom wanted to move into the neighbourhood, and God was happy to oblige Statue of Sophia/Wisdom at Ephesus

What John doesn’t say is that the only Son is the only one who has ever made God known. Make of that what you will, but I think it’s why we need to keep John’s Christmas story in the mix.

Matthew and Luke have captured our hearts with their stories of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem a long time ago. We can see the baby; we can hear him. The script is familiar, and the costumes have a lot of wear on them. That’s part of why we love it: because we know the ropes.

John alone reminds us that the Logos is eternally being born. His story isn’t set in the time of King Herod in a town six miles south of Jerusalem: it’s set in the cosmos, where the Logos has no beginning or end.

This is much more difficult to imagine: that the Logos has been coming into the world for ever, spoken by the God whom no one has ever seen, to make the divine energy and purpose known on earth. What kind of costume do you put on that? Is one outfit enough?

During the Christmas season, we recognise the one that is definitive for us — the Logos made Jesus, the Logos made flesh — even as we affirm his coming again in a form we may not recognise next time, and the coming of the Holy Spirit between now and then. The creativity of the Logos is never spent.

You may feel bound to point out Jesus’s famous saying in John’s Gospel, that “‘No one comes to the Father except through me’” (14.6). Yet this is also the Gospel in which he says, “‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me’” (12.44). What a Logos-like thing to say! John couldn’t see the Sender; no one can. But he couldn’t take his eyes off the One the Sender sent, whose story John was given to tell.

That made John the Logos for the Logos, the one who got to put his own breath behind God’s Word as it landed in his own time and place.

I hate to press the point, but it’s your turn now. Jesus said so. Those who believe in him will do the works he did — greater, in fact — now that he has returned to the Source. It is our turn to put our breath behind God’s Word so that it lands in our own time and place.

However well or poorly things seem to be working out for us, there is something else at work here that has been pouring itself out for us for ever, which the darkness does not overcome. Light from light. Fullness from which we have all received, grace upon grace. Christmas every day.

 

This is an edited sermon from Always a Guest: Speaking of faith far from home, a collection of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons, published by Canterbury Press at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £14.99) and reviewed here.

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