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2nd Sunday before Lent

28 January 2021

Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; Psalm 104.26-end; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14

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FIRST, a word of warning: the NRSV, the Prayer Book, and the Hebrew all number the psalm verses for this service as 104.24-35. The Common Worship Psalter numbers them as 26-37; so, unless you are following that version, you will need to correct the reference, or fall into the trap of setting verses that don’t exist.

Such discrepancies between the CW and BCP Psalters often occur, lectionaries prescribing according to CW, and choirs (usually) singing according to 1662. It’s a useful reminder that the Bible books did not originally have any chapter or verse divisions. Keeping it that way could not stop vain disputation (1 Timothy 6.5-7), but it might slow it down a bit.

From the trivial to the truly sublime — the opening chapter of Colossians is one of the few New Testament lections that can make an adequately exalted companion for the prologue of John (which we recently looked at in its Christmas context). Now that it is Epiphany, the focus has shifted forward (especially if this Sunday is remembered as Sexagesima), and the Gospel has a different aim. In fact, all three readings have the same truth at their heart: the eternal pre-existence of the Word.

Proverbs 8.22 was a favourite weapon in the hands of Arian heretics in the Early Church. They thought that it proved that Wisdom (identified with “the Word” of John 1) was part of the created order, historically and hierarchically secondary to God the Father. The contending faction, who won the fight at a theological level (less so at the level of popular faith), argued that the emphasis belonged on Wisdom’s presence with God in the act of creating, and hence co-equality.

In our time, nearly 1700 years distant from the drafting of the Nicene Creed, it is not easy to convey the heat that this generated. Nor is it easy to imagine modern Christians caring that much whether Jesus the teacher and healer existed before his conception in the Virgin’s womb — even though our faith depends on just that.

When Paul, or A. N. Other, writes in Colossians that Christ is the Beginning (arche), he is not echoing John 1.1. Rather, both texts witness to a like understanding of the incarnate Word and his cosmic significance (“he is the icon of the invisible God”). This makes for creative tension with the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke.

Recently, the word “arche” has come to wider attention through the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose letter for 2021 on their Archewell website urges us to “build a better world, one act of compassion at a time”. They may not have had John’s Gospel in mind; but there is no discrepancy with the Bible view that a world can be built, and rebuilt. After all, this world has been built. In the beginning. By God, together with Wisdom, his master-worker (Proverbs 8.29).

Many commentaries describe the Colossians text as a hymn. That can be mighty puzzling when it isn’t metrical and doesn’t rhyme. There was in those days no such thing as free verse. If it is a hymn (or “song”), then it must be modelled on the psalms. The closest familiar parallel is Gloria in Excelsis (from Greek), or Te Deum (from Latin). Only in the fourth century did hymns as we know them begin to be composed.

The reason that Proverbs is set out like poetry in the NRSV is that it is written in a rhyme-free, metre-free poetic form like the Psalms; it relies on balance and contrast to reveal its poetic nature. A glance at the texts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, and the like will show a similar distinction, expressed in some versions by how the text is laid out. What is set out as verse is likely to be original; prose sections tend to be explanatory or connective texts. It is a rule of thumb — indicative, not diagnostic, but helpful.

John 1.12-13 is difficult, quite apart from the impact of the verse that follows. To be born from blood, or the desire of the flesh or man, stands in opposition to what is born from God. It hints at John 3.3 indicating that we must be “born from above” to be part of the Kingdom. We move quickly to identify this double birth with baptism — not wrongly, but it would be good to consider, even briefly, what John primarily means by being born of blood, or of the will of the flesh or man.

We are being challenged to ask what it means to be human — specifically, what significance our physical body may have in that context. The answer to that challenge could change our future, if we let it, in this world and the next.

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