Isaiah 61:10-62:3+Psalm 147:13-21+Galatians 3:23-24, 4:4-7+John 1:1-18
At the end of Thornton Wilder’s classic play, Our Town, Emily, the protagonist who is now deceased and looking wistfully back at a scene from her life, asks the Stage Manager, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” “No,” he replied. “The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”
Saints and poets and artists, theirs is the language of “In the beginning was the Word.”
Philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart published a new translation of the New Testament a couple of years ago that included a section at the end devoted to these first eighteen verses of John’s gospel that we’ve just heard, and this end-note is entitled “A Note on the Prologue of John’s Gospel: An Exemplary Case of the Untranslatable” (David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) 533).
It is the language of poetry and art, grounded in the Greek philosophy of John’s time, and yet it tells the same story as Matthew and Luke in their infancy narratives. It just doesn’t start with a baby; it starts at the beginning of time.
Many of you know that I am the youngest of six children, and when the six of us get together and start reminiscing about our childhoods, you would swear that we came from different families. Someone will remember in minute detail some event that made a huge impact on their childhood, and another sibling will have a completely different memory of that same event. Some things were completely forgotten by one but recounted in living color by someone else. And somewhere in the midst of all of this storytelling lies the truth.
I think of the gospel stories in this way. No, they authors were not related. They didn’t even know each other. John was probably familiar with Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts, but those two would probably not have known about each other’s, and certainly not anything about John, who came later.
You will note that I haven’t mentioned Mark, because Mark doesn’t even have a birth narrative but instead jumps right in with John the Baptist. He’s kind of like my older brother who doesn’t remember a lot of stuff about our childhood. He was more focused on other things.
So we have three gospel accounts, all different, yet all equally “true” if we understand these stories as the word of God. One of the reasons they differ so is because of their audience. Luke was an outsider, a Greek physician and therefore a Gentile Christian. He accompanied the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys and recorded much of what we know about Paul in the sequel to his gospel, which we know as the Acts of the Apostles. As an outsider, Luke was directing his message largely to outsiders. The Magnificat he gives to Mary is all about God lifting up those on the margins. The proclamation of the birth of Jesus to shepherds, of all things, is Luke’s way of making sure we don’t miss the point: the Good News is not just for those on the inside of Jewish faith and culture.
Matthew wants to make sure we understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophesied Messiah, the one who will save God’s people and inaugurate God’s reign. Magi from the East confirm this identity, and the Flight into Egypt and subsequent return point directly to Jesus as inheritor of Moses. In this traditional telling, the story gives us Joseph’s perspective, not Mary’s.
So just what is John trying to tell us? John is obviously not trying to write a history. He is a philosopher and theologian, and his expansive view of the incarnation takes us all the way back to the beginning when the Word was both with God and was God. John is establishing Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation which was from before time began. The Logos, which means ‘word’ and then some, is what David Bentley Hart found impossible to translate in any way that it might be understood. So he leaves it as logos in his translation.
Franciscan Richard Rohr translates logos as blueprint, God’s plan from the beginning. I rather prefer leaving it alone, and just knowing that God became flesh, one of us, and pitched a tent among us. Right here in our very midst, in the muck and mess of humankind, God came.
There is one similarity between these gospel accounts that it is important not to miss, one aspect on which they all agree. For Matthew it emanates from the star in the East; for Luke the glory of the Lord that shone around the shepherds; for John, it’s the light shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome. Isaiah wrote, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).
God’s revelation of God’s self in the person of Jesus puts an end to the darkness of sin and death under which humankind suffers. This promise may yet be incomplete until God reigns on earth as in heaven, but the assurance of John’s gospel is that the darkness will not, cannot, overcome the light that is ours in Christ Jesus.
In 2015, Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book called “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” In it, she explores fear of darkness, both rational and irrational kinds of fear, as well as the promise of the dark. She writes, “new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in darkness” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2015).
Creation started in the void. Before there was light, there was the Word. Jesus was born at night, burst free from the tomb before the first light of dawn, and continues to come to us in those dark places of our world where demons dwell. The Word made flesh is with the outcast and sinner, migrants and refugees, the hungry and homeless, and with each and every one of us.
We have all endured some kind of dark night of the soul. And if you haven’t, you will, because not one of us is immune to hardship and pain and loss that shake the foundations of our world. If you are currently walking in the dark, hear the good news that the light has come, not just to other people, but to you. And even if it doesn’t feel very bright where you are, know that you are not alone.
You see, this also is what incarnation means: each of us is a light-bearer, helping to share the burdens of our neighbor, making sorrows a little less heavy, loneliness a bit less isolating. As followers of Jesus, we walk together through this world.
The light of Christ shines in the darkness and will never be overcome.
Thanks be to God.