Texts: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:[1-9] 10-18
It’s whole new year. And who knows what will happen, right? Few of us could have imagined the events that came to pass last year in every aspect of social life. Let the record show that we have a long road ahead in matters of racism, elections, and public health. But that should not deter us from looking for new images; better still, God-inspired images, for what will yet be.
John, the writer of the fourth and final gospel to be written and included in the bible, lived in a world that was markedly like this one. One which is flawed and in desperate need of new images; fresh imagination.
He knew the danger of God being seen as little more than a projection of human desires.
He knew the danger of humans being made into gods.
He knew the danger of equating the accepted structures of his own society with God’s reign.
He knew he had to find a way to speak about God in an unexpected way.
So John chose as his reference point, Creation - the first dawning awareness of God. Why creation? Because it was a time:
before ever the name of God was known.
before God was relegated to a temple.
before ever God was naturalized or nationalized.
When God was entirely unrestrained Light and unutterable Word.
How do you share the idea of this God without defining and thereby limiting God?
How do you adequately tell others about your insights and experience of the Divine One?
How do you spread your hope and invite others to expand their own vision Godward?
All this and more is what we call the Prologue to the Gospel of John. This last gospel is not like the first three. Here John undertook the task of speaking of God in terms of intimate and full lovingkindness without veering into sentimentality. To the best of his ability John tried to describe with his limited human language, the transcendence of God.
John gives his prologue as a stern notice before getting into the details of the life of Jesus Christ.
Warning: you are about to hear an astonishing story, but woe to anyone who makes the story itself the main thing rather than the divine life that the story attempts to invite you, the hearer into.
Warning: Resist the urge to identify any ordinary human actor in the narrative as having special insight into God’s revelation. The Word is God’s self-revelation – do not become distracted from this Word.
John had as his predecessor the prophet Jeremiah. The prophet, typically for his time, expressed Yahweh as Israel’s tribal God. Gathering, consoling, leading, ransoming, comforting, and satisfying the tribe. Not just the best and the brightest, but the blind, lame, the vulnerable members of the tribe too. It’s a beautiful vision. One that is similarly expressed in psalm 147.
Yet, is God a tribal God? John did not believe so.
Another of John’s precursors is Paul the Apostle. In the letter to Christians in Asia Minor, Paul wrote with repetitive insistence that God is for “us” too. The claim was that God loved all gentiles too – people denied full access to Israel’s God. Since Paul was himself born into the tribe of Israel, his testimony about the inclusion of gentile outsiders was especially powerful. The letter encouraged people to believe that in Christ, God gathers up all things both earthly and heavenly. Not just a few things. All things.
But does this letter adequately express the radically inclusive love and purposes of God? Was it sufficient to prevent the gentiles from making their own exclusive God claims - that God is God of the tribe of the gentiles too but that’s as far as it goes. John thought not. This letter could end up inspiring little more than the expansion of God’s gracious invitation to “just us too”, or worse, “just me”? How could John say clearly that God is not a tribal God. God is God of all and everything?
Considering these and other biblical writings, John took a different approach. He was determined to tackle real shortcomings in all the oral traditions and writings about God that he knew.
John wanted to say this: God exists beyond human conceptions of existence.
(Which means that all our attempts to explain the existence of God will be inadequate.)
And…God is a concept beyond anything we can fully conceive.
(Which means that all our concepts of God are partial, and imperfect.)
And…God is the Word is before, and surpasses all, human speech.
(Which means no human language perfectly tells the world about God)
And…God is authority beyond any human expression of authority.
(Which means no single nation can claim to act with God’s authority.)
And…God is God. God is not us, or like us. But God loves us. Amen.
All this and more, is what John wants us to consider before we hear anything about a man named Jesus Christ, whose two-part name means God saves, God frees, God delivers, and the Anointed.
John hoped to offer new language about God to prepare people to believe in that Name. To believe that the very name Jesus Christ is God’s Word of promise to deliver, set free, and save all people. And that inasmuch as all of us are compromised, all of us stand in need of deliverance into light. Jesus Christ is life and light, of such quality as the darkness cannot comprehend.
All three writers today, Jeremiah, Paul, and John deliver God’s Word as best they can. It was always impossible that any single ordinary human could ever completely express the fullness of God. But that doesn’t mean what all these witnesses have to say is irrelevant.
Because, listening with truly open ears to the Word (God) speaking to us through the witness of scripture, listening to God speaking in the deepest part of our souls, and meditating on God’s Word, it is possible that Jesus can deliver us. Jesus can: Change the way we think about the world. Change the way we act in the world. Change the world.
Seems like this is just the Word of God we need to hear as we embark on a whole new year. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.