November 27, 2005

Jesus: the Eternal Word
John 1:1-5

Frank Bateman Stanger was for many years the president of Asbury Seminary. During his presidency, Dr. Stanger gained notoriety for any number of accomplishments. The seminary grew dramatically, new buildings were erected and programs established, and the seminary in general became a major player in theological education, both in the U.S. and abroad. But for those of us who were students at Asbury during his presidency and who came to regard him with considerable affection, Dr. Stanger was and remains world-renowned for one additional skill—introducing people! He mastered the art. It made no difference whether the speaker was an internationally known theologian like Wolfhart Pannenberg or a local grocer named Fred Fitch. By the time Frank Stanger completed his meticulously prepared introduction, little more needed to be said. Dr. Stanger’s introductions, come to think of it, often served as the highlight of our weekly chapels!

Introductions, as most of you well know, are often important and even touchy. Certain impressions frequently grow out of first-time encounters, impressions that often last for months and even years. Whether you are introducing a job-hunting friend to your employer, your boyfriend or girlfriend to mom and dad, or a speaker to an awaiting audience, you organize your thoughts and choose your words carefully. “What should I say?” you wonder. “Should I include this? Leave out that?” “And relax,” we remind ourselves, hoping not to get our tongues twisted and make a mess of things. The same questions no doubt went through John’s mind as he wrote these opening phrases, the introduction, of his gospel.

I’ve read through John 1:1-18 more times than I can count in recent weeks. Reading texts like this one involves so much more than merely analyzing words and identifying tenses, for in these lines John most certainly writes from deep within his own soul. Like Luis Bettencourt, a Portuguese guitarist—and my wife’s cousin—who I heard play near Boston on Friday night. As I watched and listened, engrossed and totally unaware of anything else going on around me, I couldn’t help but notice that Luis not only played the guitar—he loved the guitar. In the middle of this musical trance in which I found myself, I suddenly felt a nudge on my shoulder. “Luis always played with his heart,” Debbie whispered. So, too, with John as he writes here. He is, after all, making the most important introduction of his entire life. He is preparing to tell his readers—and us—about someone who is dear to him, someone who he longs for everyone to know. “I’ve written these words,” John informs us later with reference to the entire Gospel, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (20:31).” John, here in 1:1-18, introduces us to Jesus.

As with any important introduction, John no doubt thought carefully about what he wanted to say. “Jesus,” he begins, “is the Word.” Such imagery would immediately stir up various thoughts among the readers. For the Greeks, the “Word” was the guiding and eternal principle that kept the entire world on track. The “Word” was that divine power in the universe that enabled men and women to think and to reason. The “Word” was, in short, the very soul of the cosmos. Even the uneducated people on the streets—those who lacked the sophistication and training needed to “philosophize”—knew that the “Word” was at the center of everything around them.

In the Jewish mind, so familiar to John, mention of the “Word” would open up a virtual treasure chest of Old Testament images. In the first two chapters of Genesis, chapters which John unmistakably had in mind when crafting his introduction, God spoke and his words brought the entire world into being. In the Psalms, God’s word is a source of direction, correction and life. In the Wisdom Literature, the “word” is virtually equivalent with wisdom, and everyone should desire it. And throughout the Prophetic Literature, the “Word of the Lord” comes with power on the wicked and faithful alike. “The Word of God will not return void,” Isaiah announced (55:11). From the beginning of the Old Testament to the end, God’s “Word” is a transforming agent that accomplishes all of his purposes in the world. In effect, John here announces to everyone—Greeks and Jews—that if they want to come face to face with the divine principle guiding the universe, and if they want to encounter the very word of God, they need look no further than Jesus. “Jesus,” John writes, is the “Word.”

But set theology—or at least theory—aside for just a moment. John 1:1-18 contains much of what was likely an early Christian hymn that John used to fashion this introduction. We want to read it, therefore, not simply as a document to be analyzed for information, but as a poem to be savored for artistic impressions. When John refers to Jesus as the “Word,” I can’t help but recall the fact that, in the ancient world, words were viewed as real creations. When Isaac was deceived and pronounced the blessing over Jacob rather than Esau, he could not simply withdraw his words. Once spoken, words exist—they are there, and they are as real as the pews that you are sitting on.

The sheer reality of words, then, is one of the reasons why I laugh—although it really is not funny—when someone says something like, “Why does it matter if I use correct grammar or vary my wording? Why does it matter how I say something so long as people understand me?” Such comments clearly betray a failure to appreciate the power and beauty of words. Words well chosen can alter our perspectives and lift our spirits. While I may get the point when someone casually remarks, “The evil rulers of the world are all born losers,” I feel surprisingly encouraged to read these words of Gandhi: “Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers and, for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end they always fail.” Or think of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s “Sonnet #43: From the Portugese.” While Browning might simply have said to her husband, “I love you,” she wrote instead: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the breadth and depth and height my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of Being and Ideal Grace….” And she ended the poem with these lines: “I love thee with the breath—smiles, tears of all my life—and if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” Words matter. Words move us, free us, and empower us.

God, John assures us, speaks himself, and everything he says, like everything he does, is wonderful. And what does God say? What is his greatest announcement? His most perfectly crafted poetic line? Jesus. Jesus is the “Word.”

John, in introducing Jesus, adds three qualifiers here that fill out the picture and help us to understand this image of the “Word” all the more. The “Word,” John informs us, “was in the beginning, was with God, and was God.” But what exactly do these mean for us, and why does John point them out? When we keep in mind John’s primary purpose—to convince people that Jesus is the Son of God and that they may have life through believing in his name—we note that each of these three characteristics is crucial:
1. The “Word” was in the beginning. Jesus stands before and outside of time, and he is not himself a part of the created order. When you read the various creation accounts found throughout the ancient Near East, you quickly discover that the gods and humans are thoroughly intertwined. If you trace a person’s genealogy back far enough, you will at some point find a god. The divine and the human–the finite and the infinite–blur. But Jesus, the eternal “Word,” was not created, nor was he the odd offspring of some human-divine sexual encounter. When Jesus later took on flesh, as John will announce in 1:14, it was temporary and by choice.

This means, of course, that Jesus is not hindered by the limitations and sins that go
along with being human. It also means that he has a profound and broad view of both creation and history, which he himself was involved in forming. We all know how important it is to understand how something is put together and how it works. We also know how helpful it can be to step back from a difficult situation and look at the big picture. Even here in my work at the church, I have frequently benefited from the insight of those of you who have been here a long time and can share with me a broader perspective of the past, present, and possible future. Jesus, the “Word” was in the beginning, and he understands who we are and the long journey that we have been on.

2. The “Word” was with God. Although Jesus stands outside of creation, he is right next to God. That the “Word” was with God suggests the closest possible connection between Jesus and the Father. Jesus understands the world, and he also knows the very heart of God. This places Jesus in the perfect position to make known to us the thoughts and ways of God—Jesus has the right “contacts.”

You recognize how helpful it can be when you talk to someone who knows well a person who you would like to know more about yourself. A grandparent disclosing secrets about your mom or dad. A brother or sister-in-law reminiscing about your husband or wife and their adventures together as little children. I’ve learned a great deal over the years about certain people by listening to the stories of those who knew them well before I ever entered the picture. So it is with Jesus, the “Word.” From the very beginning he was with God, and that enables him to make the Father known to us in intimate ways.

3. The “Word” was God. John, as he continues to build one phrase upon the other, reaches a climax of sorts and informs us that Jesus, the eternal “Word,” was not only with God, but is himself God. John is careful, however, not to equate directly the “Word” and God as though the two are totally and exhaustively identical. What John suggests is that, while there may be more to the Father than the “Word,” there is nothing about the “Word” that is less than or other than God. Jesus, the eternal “Word,” is himself fully divine.

This means, in John’s mind, that Jesus is in a position to do whatever is necessary to bring about the redemption and transformation of the world. The same “Word” who created the world and knows fully the heart of the Father can also act on the world’s behalf. This, I can’t help but recall, is precisely what Jesus, the “Word,” will do at the conclusion of the story.

Introductions. Recall for a moment one occasion when you found, whatever the situation, the responsibility of making an important introduction. Who did you introduce? What did you say? It could hardly have been as important as the one found here by John – to introduce Jesus to the world. Jesus, the eternal “Word.”