(John 1. 1-18)
TRAILING CLOUDS OF GLORY
Tallula Bankhead was undoubtedly one of the most flamboyant and colorful women of her era. She talked loud, she dressed loud, she was not known for her subtlety. She was also not much given to attending church. But on one occasion she heard that there was to be some real pageantry and ceremony at the local Catholic Cathedral for a famous bishop was coming to town for a special worship service. She decided she wanted to go and see what was happened. Characteristically, she got there early so she could have the seat of her choosing (realizing I suppose that ‘many are called but pews are chosen’) and she positioned herself right on the aisle in the second row so she could look down the aisle and see the whole procession.
The service began promptly on time with the organ cranking up, and then the acolytes and the crucifier started down the aisle followed by the choir, the priests of that particular diocese and finally the bishop himself. The bishop was decked out in a shimmering gold robe, and he had chosen to perform the role of carrying the incenser himself. As he began to proceed down the aisle he was swinging the incenser mightily to the rhythm of the music, and the clouds of incense were going up. Indeed one could say that the whole congregation was getting incensed so permeating was the smell. Finally the bishop reached the spot where Tullula was positioned, standing as was the whole congregation for the procession, and instinctively she reached out and tugged on the bishop’s robe as he went by and said— “Darling your gown is divine, but your purse is on fire.”
The Son of God, unlike the bishop, did not enter the world trailing clouds of glory nor was there a great congregation standing at attention when he came. As we learn at every Christmas, Jesus came into the world in a humble manner and by humble means—a feeding trough in the back of some relative’s house in all probability It has been said that he came this way to make clear that no one, and no condition of life was beneath his dignity. He stooped to conquer, he condescended so we might be lifted up.
But lest we think that Jesus only came from Bethlehem into this world, the prologue to the Gospel of John suggests a much longer journey from a place much further away, a journey set in motion from before the foundation of the world. The first paragraph of John’s Gospel is actually part of a hymn, or at least hymnic prose, and it tells the story of the Word. We are meant to hear echoes of the beginning of Genesis— “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. How did he do it? By speaking a word into the void. Our Evangelist is telling us that God’s work of creation had a sequel which was without equal— the work of redemption.
WORD UP, ABOUT THE WORD THAT CAME DOWN
It was C.S. Lewis who said when the author of the play walks on the stage, you know that the play is over, but in this case we are being told that the author of the whole human drama has come on the scene to fix and finish what we had marred and messed up. He is called here the Word or in Greek the Logos. Our Evangelist believes that where a person has come from, and how far they have come tells us a lot about that person and indeed this is true. It is being suggested that we should in one sense judge a person by how far they have come in life, not how far they have gone. Some people after all are born on third base and think they hit a triple.
But in the case of the Logos there could have been no one who came from further away or longer ago, and no who could have come further to save you and me. The Evangelist says that the Word existed before the foundation of the universe, indeed the Word was co-creator of the universe, such that human creatures were all made in his image. Indeed it even goes so far as to call ‘the Word’ God here. We learn later in the hymn that it is the only begotten Son of God who is called both the Word and God in this hymn, which means there is more than one person in the Godhead. This is, to say the least heavy stuff. God in the end didn’t just send another angelic or a merely human messenger, be it prophet, priest or king. God cared enough to send the very best— God came in person, in the person of the only begotten Son.
But why is he called the Word or Logos here? Because the author wants to make clear that if you are trying to figure out the mind, the wisdom, the logic, the sense of God you need to consider his only begotten Son. He is God’s plan for redemption come in the flesh. The Son of God may not be all we would like to know about God, but in terms of salvation it is all we need to know about God. God comes as Jesus, and we may trust that God is indeed like Jesus. If you want to figure out the character, nature, plan, hopes, dreams of God, you only need look at his Son— he’s the spitting image of the Father.
DARKNESS AT THE EDGE OF DAWN
But this story is very much like a Rembrandt painting—there is darkness which surrounds and frames the piercingly bright light of the Word. Imagine a creator God who made creatures who rejected him. Nothing can be more tragic than when children repudiate their parents, but this is exactly what we are told was afoot in the human drama— “he came unto his own, but his own received him not.” Jesus the Jew arrives in Judea saying “family I am home”, and the locals received him not, indeed the so-called king of the Jews tries to kill him. He stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth, and his neighbors receive him not. In John’s Gospel we are even told that Jesus’ brothers, befuddled and bewildered and envious of their brother (like the story of Joseph and his brothers), did not believe in him during his ministry (Jn. 7.5). Jesus instead had to enlist the least, the last, and the lost as his disciples, IRS men and fishermen and revolutionaries, an odd gaggle of geese, and they often appear not as the Magnificent Twelve but as the Dirty Dozen, or better said, as the DUH-CIPLES. Jesus’s kin and neighbors and Jewish relatives didn’t exactly role out the red carpet for him. His own disciples don’t quite understand him.
In John’s Gospel, the prologue is everything to understanding what follows, because unless you know where Jesus actually came from, which is to say, from God and as God, you are not going to understand Jesus. His story will sound more like a fractured fairy tale than the Gospel truth if you do not know this essential truth– that Jesus is the incarnation of God. John puts it this way— “the Word took on flesh”.
The pre-existent divine Son of God took on a human nature in the womb of Mary without ceasing to be the divine Son of God. That’s a mouth full and it is called the Incarnation. John Donne put it this way— “twas much when man was made like God long before/ but that God should be made like man, much more”.
In John’s Gospel if you know that the Word came from God, as God, and returns to God, you know the whole arc of the story of the Son of God. The earthly ministry is just the middle act of the drama, and you all know how befuddling it can be to come in, in the middle of movie– even more so in the middle of the story of our redemption.
One of my college chums was Thomas V. Morris. We took religion and philosophy classes together at Carolina and he went on to become a famous philosopher teaching at Notre Dame, winning national college teacher of the year awards. He now spends his time speaking to Fortune 500 companies about a philosophy of business and success and lives at Wrightsville Beach N.C. Lucky Him!
While he was still at Notre Dame he wrote an important book entitled “The Logic of God Incarnate”. One of the profound things he says in this book is not that God came so we could know he was real, and could even identify with God (as the popular song says “what if God was one of us….”) though that is true. No, the Logic of God Incarnate involves the notion that Jesus did not come just to hang out with us, or show God was real. We needed more than just to know that God cared.
Rather Jesus came to die for us. We needed more than just an answer to the question— is God real and can He relate to human beings? We need a solution to the human dilemma. The dilemma may be summed up as follows– that we have all fallen and we can’t get up. Jesus himself explains the Logic of the Logos coming in person when he says “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom in place of the many.” Jesus was the man born to die. It is a paradoxical logic, but nonetheless one we can not live without if the least the last and the lost are to become the first the most and the found.
In John’s Gospel Jesus doesn’t just give the resurrection he is the resurrection. He doesn’t just offer life, he is eternal life. He doesn’t just show the way, he is the way—and when he says “before Abraham was, I am” he is claiming to have existed before the time of Abraham, indeed to have existed as God before all time. This is the Savior who came to us in the person of Jesus. The question is— could we possibly take in, comprehend, grasp anything this monumental, this stupendous?
We might well be led to feel like that Peanuts strip where Charlie, Lucy and Linus are looking up at the clouds and describing what they imagine they see in the clouds. Linus speaks first and says “I see Beethoven composing a piano sonata”. Lucy says, “I see Van Gogh painting his famous Starry Night painting”. She then turns to Charlie Brown and says “What do you see Charlie Brown?” He responds: “I was going to say I see a ducky and a pony, but I think I’ll just hush.” Perhaps we feel a bit like Charlie Brown in the presence of this great wonder and mystery. It has been said of this Gospel that in John, Jesus bestrides the stage of history like a God, or it has also been said that this Gospel is shallow enough for a baby to wade in, but deep enough for an elephant to drown. How true— can we possibly understand the logic of this plan and this person the divine Son of God?
THE LAST WORD
Well yes in fact we can. God boiled the whole salvation plan down into a one-man mission, sending his only begotten Son to pull it off, and on top of which, his Son sent the Holy Spirit so we could understand it, and be convicted, convinced, and converted. In the Prologue we come to a climax when it says “and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father. For the Law came through Moses, but grace and truth through Jesus Christ.” If we unpack this a bit here is a short course in Johannine vocabulary— light in this poem means revelation, life means salvation, glory means the radiant presence of God, grace means God’s undeserved favor, and hopefully truth speaks for itself. Certainly when Jesus came, Truth spoke for himself.
We are being told its one stop shopping with Jesus— he is all the things we need wrapped up in one person to save the soul, renew the mind, give hope to the heart, heal the wounds of outrageous fortune, bind us together, create a more perfect union of believers, save the world. And best of all we are being told that if the first disciples, who were theologically challenged, could receive it, believe it, even begin to understand it—if they could see the radiant presence of God in the face of Jesus, so can we.
I must leave you with a final story. I was sitting in the lobby of Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington the other day and there was a mother with her ever so inquisitive child trundling along beside her. The child kept asking his mother about hell. He asked, “could I ever do something bad enough to go to hell?” His mother said “I can’t imagine a child doing something that bad.” He kept pressing the issue. But “who would guard me and keep me from going there? You are my mommy, you wouldn’t let me go there, would you? You would rescue me, right?” The young boy’s mother on the verge of both exasperation and tears said “of course we would rescue you, your parents love you and would never allow you to go there.” This seemed to satisfy him.
John’s Gospel has a similar answer. It says that though we have in fact gone into the dark, though we have in fact loved darkness more than light, though we have lost our way, though we may feel we could never comprehend, never mind deserve to be saved, yet “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son such that whosoever believes in him, shall not perish, but have everlasting Life.” God came all the way down the stairsteps of heaven to rescue his lost and straying children, he came in the person of Jesus, he called us by name, he took us by the hand, and he will not lead us astray— and each one us, each one us has an opportunity to behold his glory, receive his grace, and know his truth. And that indeed is the logic of the Logos, the Word which came down and took on flesh.