He came to give life


Text: John 1:1-18

On this first Sunday after Christmas, we look at the incarnation through a completely different lens.  Whereas both Luke and Matthew begin with the story of Jesus born to human parents - stories of promises kept within the scope of human history and decorated with either angels and shepherds or magi and a star - the Gospel of John is cosmic in scope, beginning outside the constraints of time and place and even human understanding.  

Through just a few lines of exquisite poetry, this passage, known as the prologue, brings forward a number of big themes from the Hebrew scriptures:  creation; the Word as the expression of God in the world; light; the appearance and manifestation of God’s glory; God dwelling among God’s people; and the whole Wisdom tradition.  

And at the same time, it sets out all the themes that will appear in this particular Gospel:  light vs darkness; testimony and witness; grace and truth; Father and Son; belief and acceptance; death and rebirth; seeing and knowing; and above all, life.

Amid all this extravagance in these few lines, John also explains plainly who Jesus is and why he came:  to reveal God as the presence of God on earth.  Jesus has brought divine life, heaven, into this world. 

Therefore, John goes on, and this is a major point for John, it is our job to respond appropriately - to believe the testimony that God’s one desire is to give us real, true, grace-filled, glorious, love-infused life.

The message of Christmas in THIS book is that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, but I like the version from The Message best:  “The Word was made flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” God has come to us in the person of Jesus to give us true life. He’s our neighbor, not just a spirit in the sky. What could be better news for Christmas?

But if we keep reading through this Gospel, we start getting the picture that this Jesus turns out to be like the neighbor who paints his house purple and never mows the lawn.  He’s the kind of neighbor who brings the good wine to the first party we invite him to, but then makes a big ruckus and turns over all the tables out there in the narthex at the next one. Uh-oh.

If we already know that Jesus is the one who reveals God to us, which John has pointed out right up front, then what is our response not only to the abundance of wine but also to the upturned tables?  What is our response to the offer of life when it comes from a man who has a favorite disciple?  A man who tells his friends he will not go to the festival in Jerusalem but then sneaks in anyway?  A man who plays word games with Nicodemus and becomes irritated with his mother?  What is our response to a man who seems to piddle around while his friend Lazarus dies and then weeps bitterly before finally calling him out of the tomb?

This doesn’t seem very God-like, does it?  Raising Lazarus, yes, but crying, piddling, rabble rousing in the temple, playing favorites?  We expect God to be powerful and consistent.  Not passionate and emotional, mixing up new life and healing with frustration at what he sometimes sees going on around him.

Yet this is what we see of God all through all the Scriptures.  God punishes and then mourns the people taken in exile and God’s anger burns hot against their enemies, enemies God also claims to love.  God appears before Job as one who takes pleasure in the creation of the great armored crocodile that can destroy at will, and God also directs Isaiah to tell the people that God will wipe away every tear.

Do we expect God to be consistent?  To conform to the rules we have made to keep us from making ourselves vulnerable to the world around us?  Do we expect to understand God and God’s ways?  

Perhaps our response to John’s question about how we should respond to Jesus must first be grounded in an understanding that life, real life, like God, includes all these things.  And thus perhaps our response should be to try to live in this world - as it is - with true passion.

Later in the story Jesus will say that he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly.  And abundant life is not just happiness.  It’s not the safety of sameness or the security of tameness or the absence of pain.

Instead, Jesus shows us that we are to experience all that life has to offer - from the pleasure of deep friendship to the hot face of righteous anger to the surrender of body shaking grief and much in between.  These are in fact what make us fully alive.  And as St Irenaeus says, a human being fully alive is the glory of God.

We always hear this text on the first Sunday after Christmas - after we have worshiped at the manger and perhaps also at the toy or electronics store.  I think it is meant to shake us up - to shake us out of any notion that accumulation of stuff is how we live the good life.  And to shake us out of any complacency that might have settled in after we’ve cozied up to the baby Jesus in the hay.  We get to play with our new toys and relish that pastoral scene for a few days and then John grabs us by the lapels and says, “Hey! No less than God almighty has moved into the neighborhood.  How are you going to respond?”

(No wonder we don’t get the big crowds at church on this Sunday.)

But of course, Jesus shows us how we ought to respond as we follow him through the rest of the Gospel, like this:  Be passionate.  Love your friends.  Be angry when you see injustice and do something about it.  Mourn and grieve death and destruction.  Be generous.  Be faithful to your religious tradition.  Spend time away with your family and friends.  Feed people.  Wash their feet.  Be curious.  Stand up for what you believe in.  Develop your talents.  Go fishing.  Be open to wonder.  Look for God in unlikely places. Let go of your fears. Change your mind.  

Spread the Good News - that the Word was made flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of a human fully alive, full of grace and truth. 

And then, go out and live like Jesus yourself.