I consider it an honor and a pleasure to be with you all today, and even more so since I will be with you again next week. It is hard for someone to come into a church, preach one time, and somehow mess things up. Once you bring someone back for consecutive weeks, their potential for doing damage increases dramatically. But, their potential for doing good and building up the body of Christ also increases dramatically, and I hope that my ministry before you today and next week will have the latter effect. It is no small confidence that Rev Rob and you all have shown in me by allowing me to minister to you in this way, and that confidence is greatly appreciated.
As some of you may remember, and for those of you who do not know, I served as a pastoral intern here at Cornerstone during the summer of 2006. Other duties have kept me away from you since that time, except for a visit now and again, but I have kept in contact with Rev Rob and Chris TerryNelson keeps me well informed of everything going on down here in Jackson. The result is that although I have not often been with you in body, I have often been with you in mind and spirit.
Just by way of personal update... [excised]
One of the aspects of my time with you that I remember most fondly was the weeknights spent in XXXXX’s living-room talking about the life and teaching of John Calvin. Ever since then Rev Rob has viewed me as something of a Calvin specialist, and I suppose that I do know a fair bit about Calvin even though I know of many others who know much more than I. So, when Rob asked me to come down and speak to you, he suggested that I talk about Calvin in order to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his birth coming up on July 10th. And while Rob and I both liked the idea, Calvin would have hated the thought of a sermon preached about him, as if he were a subject worthy of the church’s proclamation. Instead, Calvin would want me to preach from Scripture and about Jesus Christ. So, that is what I am going to do during these two weeks.
This does not mean that I will leave Calvin behind, however. He will influence my time with you in two ways. First, one of the most important things for Calvin in his own sermons was communicating what Scripture says. He wanted his congregation to know what the biblical text means. So, the first part of my sermon will walk through today’s text step by step in an effort to help us all better understand what it means. Be sure to keep your Bibles open so that you can follow along. Second, Calvin’s definition of faith provides the overarching structure for what I will be talking with you about in these two sermons. Here is his definition:
“[W]e shall posses a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ” (Institutes, 3.2.7).So, today we will be talking about the foundation of a firm and certain knowledge of God, and next week we will address the knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us. Both of these things – as we will see – depend upon Jesus Christ. So, let us turn to the text before us.
In the beginning was the Word… There are two things to note in this first phrase from our passage. First, the first clause, “In the beginning,” is a clear allusion to Genesis 1.1. Indeed, it replicates in Greek what was the first Hebrew clause of the entire Bible. This is not a coincidence. The apostle John knew what he was doing when he began his Gospel in this manner. He wants us to have in mind not the beginning of our lives, our church, or even of Jesus’ life on earth. Rather, we are talking about the beginning of the world.
Second, this notion of “the Word” is very important. It is a term that became central as the church developed its theology, and two origins of John’s use here might be supposed. Some think that it refers to the Old Testament concept and personification of Wisdom, which is central in the book of Proverbs. On this reading, Lady Wisdom could be read as an Old Testament prefiguration of Jesus. Others think that this is an allusion to Greek philosophy, where the Word – logos in Greek – is the term for the inner rationality that governs the order of the world. But, neither of these views is central to what John is doing, although both – and especially the Lady Wisdom bit – are almost certainly in the background of his mind. For John, “the Word” is a placeholder, an abstract symbol, for Jesus Christ. This becomes clear if we consider the rest of this chapter. Verse 6 introduces us to John – not the author, the apostle John, but John the Baptist – who is a witness, as verses 7 and 15 note, to this Word becoming human and living a human life, as it says in verse 14. Verses 19-28 tell us more about John the Baptist, about how he is not himself the Word but one who was sent ahead to prepare the world for his coming, and to point him out when he comes. This pointing out is what John does in verse 29. Who is it that John points to? Jesus.
…and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Here we have the building blocks of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Word – which we now know to be a reference to Jesus – was in the beginning with God. “With” means that there is one thing in proximity to another thing, so here we have the Word and God as distinct from each other. They are two. But, the text also tells us that the Word “was” God, positing an identity of these two terms. They are one. This paradox of identity and difference is what lies at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity: the affirmation that God is one being in three persons, Father, Son or Word or Jesus, and Holy Spirit.
Verse 3a: All things…came into being. This verse reinforces what has thus far been seen. The Word – Jesus Christ – is a member of Trinity and was as such at the beginning of time. He was thus involved with the creation of the world, and there is no created thing that was created outside of his involvement. This goes not only for monarch butterflies and rainbow trout, but for each and every one of us. Remember: Jesus had a hand in your creation. But, Jesus had a different sort of hand in our creation than he did in the creation of butterflies and trout. Genesis 1.27 says that human beings, male and female, are created “in the image of God.” Colossians 1.15 tells us that Jesus Christ is the “image of the invisible God.” To say that we are created in the image of God is to say that we are created in Jesus Christ. Our human existence finds its basis, origin, and form in Jesus. He is our prototype and fulfillment. Without Jesus Christ, humanity is nothing – not only from the standpoint of salvation, but from that of creation.
Verses 3b-4: What has come…did not overcome it. John introduces here two important themes for his Gospel, namely, “light” and “life.” Both are ways of describing Jesus: as John recounts Jesus saying later on, “I am the light of the world” and “I am the way and the truth and the life” (8.12 and 14.6, respectively).
Verses 5-9 We have already mentioned verses 6-8, which introduce us to John the Baptist and his relationship to Jesus. Verses 5 and 9 go together and make two important points. First, just as the Word – Jesus Christ – is light, everything else is darkness. We are darkness. This, of course, means sin and, along with and perhaps even more importantly, the absence of truth or knowledge. Think about it: how much do you know when you are surrounded by darkness? Even if you have a flashlight or something, that light only shines so far, giving you knowledge only of a very small area. But, in this case we don’t even have a flashlight. We are the source of this darkness. We produce it. It flows out of us and follows us wherever we go. Left to ourselves, we have no way of escaping this darkness. John tells us in verse 5, however, that the light of the Word shines in our darkness. Furthermore, our darkness – our sin and un-truth – does not overcome this light. This light reveals all and, as verse 9 tells us, it does so for everyone. There is nothing that this light does not reveal, and no one for whom this light is not available. And, to emphasize this availability, John tells us that this light “was coming into the world.”
Verses 10-13 Not only was this light coming into the world; he actually made it into the world. And yet, this world that he had been involved in making did not recognize him. The group of people that he had gathered together and made his own – the ancient Israelites – did not accept him. They were still blinded by their darkness. They were not yet able to call upon his light. But, those who do receive him receive his light. We know Jesus’ light because we have accepted him as our light. We have trusted in his power to make us children of God. Still, we are no better than anyone else because this ability to receive Jesus, this ability to see the world as illuminated by his light, does not come from “the will of man, but [from] God.”
We’ll talk more about salvation next week. For now, the important point is that not everyone recognizes Jesus for the light that he is. The light is there, driving away the darkness, but they are not yet able to see it.
Verses 14-17 These verses tell us more about John the Baptist, Jesus, and what Jesus has done for us. We are told that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Let’s stop for a minute and think about what that means. We have already read that the Word is God, and was with God at the beginning, and was involved in creation – in our creation. This is where it gets really weird. This Word – the one who made us out of nothing – became one of us. The God of creation became part of that creation, without ever ceasing to be God. In Jesus Christ we find not only a great human being, an insightful teacher, an inspiring spiritual guide; no, we find the God who created us living among us as one of us. Mindboggling! We get so used to this idea as Christians that we tend to forget how weird it is, but it is really the strangest thing you will ever hear.
Verse 18 Here we find hammered home one of the key points in this whole section. This super-strange thing is vitally important. Remember that the Word – Jesus Christ – is the light that drives away the darkness of our ignorance and untruth, our mistakes and our lies. Why is Jesus able to do this? Because he is God, as the first verse was so careful to explain. Have you ever seen God? I haven’t, and I’d be willing to bet a large sum of money that you haven’t either. In fact, that wouldn’t even be a wager: it’s a sure thing! Oh, sure, there are some people who have had near-death experiences and seen a bright light, or a kindly old man with a white beard who started to lead them to “the other side.” Sure, there are some people who have had visions and dreams wherein they claim that God has appeared to them. But, I’m here today to echo the apostle John and tell you that “No one has ever seen God.”
Well, that isn’t exactly true. There is one person who has seen God: “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart” has seen God. Jesus has seen God. Why? Because Jesus, as God, is with God. Mindboggling logic again, I know. But, it is vitally important for John’s argument and for our faith. Because Jesus is with God as God, he is capable of revealing God to us. He is capable of showing God to us. And he has in fact done this. As John says, Jesus “has made [God] known.” The Greek word here that is translated as “made known” could be translated more literally by saying that Jesus has “explained” God to us. And, since Jesus is God, you can’t beat this explanation.
Sometimes, when we stop and think about God, we might get the idea that we can never know anything about him. This pops into my head at least. I spend a good chunk of my life thinking about God, trying to figure God out, trying to describe what God does and how God does it, trying to explain what it means for us and our lives. Sometimes I bump into a mental wall and wonder if all this effort is even worth it. God is so big and we are so small – how are we supposed to wrap our minds around infinity? Then I remember Jesus.
In Jesus that super-big God who is far beyond my mental capacity has become my size. In Jesus we have a human being who is perfectly coordinate with God – because he is God. All the pieces match up. We could even think of Jesus as a human version of God. When we see Jesus, we see God. When Jesus does something, God does something. When we look at Jesus’ life and see what he did for us and how he lived, we know not only what Jesus is like, but also what God is like. Jesus explains God to us.
This, then, is the foundation of the firm and certain knowledge of God that defines our faith. Jesus Christ is this foundation. Jesus was in the beginning with God, Jesus was involved in creating everything that exists including you and me. In fact, Jesus is God; the eternal Son of God and second member of the Trinity to be precise. And because this human being, Jesus of Nazareth, was born around 2000 years ago, we know God.
Almighty Father, thank you for Jesus Christ. Thank you for sending him, your eternal Son, your Word, who is with you and – in the infinite mystery of the Trinity – is as much God as you are, and exists in one being with you. Thank you for shining his light in our darkness, and for giving us the power to be your children. We pray that you would give us chances this week to share your light with those who have not yet seen it. All this we pray in the name of your Son our savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.