On a Sunday on which the choir and musicians wait in the wings as the preacher rises, a common thought ripples through the congregation. “Sit down and let them sing … and play!” But before they do, I want to make sure you hear our Scripture singing. It shouldn’t take too long. It can’t. I got a mandate at the Armstrong-Levering party yesterday to keep it short! And additional instruction to make it entertaining! Although that was before the champagne punch at the next party!
We’ve been looking this Advent, at our four primary sources of the Jesus story—the four gospels, to see what they offer in terms of Christmas stories … or birth narratives … or stories that precede the baptism and adult ministry of Jesus. And we saw that Mark offers us nothing and lays out the challenge as to why there should be anything anyway. Matthew, for reasons of his own, offers his version of the birth narrative, and Luke, for reasons of his own, offers us his. And now we get to John’s gospel, which, like Mark, doesn’t include any kind of a birth narrative, but like Matthew and Luke does have some material preceding the adult ministry of Jesus.
John gives us what’s commonly known as the prologue to the gospel of John. There’s a certain irony, don’t you think? Calling as prologue—as pro-logos (before the word) the very word that will affirm there was nothing before the word? Rudolf Bultmann calls our text rather the overture to the gospel [Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971) 13], and like a good overture, full of the music of its poetry, it does serve to introduce a variety of themes we will hear again and again throughout the gospel [R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John in Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998) 117-119]—important themes like: the preexistence of the Word, [“So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed” (John 17:5)] the distinctive themes of life [“I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)] and light [“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12)], the stark theme that is the opposition of light and darkness [“And this is judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light …” (John 3:19)], the French horn solo that is the witness of John the Baptist [“This is the testimony given by John …” (John 1:19)] (this is me hearing this overture … you can pick some other instrument if you wish), the dark theme that is the world’s opposition to the Word [“This is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive …” (John 14:17); “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me” (John 14:19); “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18)], the crescendoing strings that is the theme of the children of God [“… to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:52)], born of God [“no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3)], beholding the glory of God (that’s where the brass comes in), the majestic themes of Moses, of the only Son [“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” (John 3:16)] and of seeing God [“You have never heard his voice or seen his form” (John 5:37); “Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46)].
Taking this overture to John’s gospel in—the introduction of all these themes, and thinking about the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, it occurred to me that if the story of Jesus begins with his birth, a very incarnational affirmation to be sure, then it begins, very specifically, at a particular time (Sydney was born at 9:38 a.m.), in a particular place (Audra was born at G.B.M.C.) with the clear image of the most vulnerable and dependent of creatures. So not what John wants at the beginning of the fourth gospel.
So John starts in the beginning … not his beginning—not Jesus’ beginning … the beginning. “In the beginning” echoes those first words of Genesis. And instead of locating vulnerability and dependence in time and space, we have time and space transcended and the divinity of the Word established. We’re not talking, here at the beginning of John’s gospel, about the son of God … not talking about the power of the most high overshadowing … not talking pregnancy … not talking about the birth of baby Jesus. We’re talking God. The Word was God.
And so when we hear, introduced in our overture, the striking theme of light shining in the darkness, what we hear is the eternal truth of God that’s not limited to creation—that’s not limited to the Jewish faith tradition—that’s not limited to the incarnation—that is the eternal truth of God—light shining in the darkness.
Now there’s an obvious chiastic structure to the first verses of the overture (this is so entertaining, isn’t it?). You all remember what a chiastic structure is? From the Greek letter “chi”—“x.” That x structure with repetitions of word and sound, parellel image or affirmation—a structure that points to the center—so that one core affirmation or detail is highlighted. We sometimes think of the chiastic structure as a parenthetical structure, embracing that core affirmation or detail. Some examples of a very basic chiastic structure: you may have heard Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” (and the parentheses are failure with the emphasis falling on preparation in the middle). Or there’s that classic aural example, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy!”
So there’s an obvious chiastic structure to the first couple of verses. “In the beginning (our opening outside parenthesis) was the Word (an opening interior parenthesis), and the Word (opening interior parenthesis repeated) was with God (what’s inside the parenthesis), and God (what’s inside the parenthesis repeated) [alright, now, the opening outside parenthesis is stated, the opening inside parenthesis is stated twice, how many times do we expect to see the heart of the structure? Three times. Sure] was the Word (closing interior parenthesis—so no three repetitions of God—disappointing). This one—this Word (closing interior parenthesis repeated) was in the beginning (closing outside parenthesis) with God” (a third repetition outside all parentheses because God cannot ultimately be contained! Isn’t that wonderful?! I love this.) And we move from the beginning (the beginning that was creation and the beginning of this gospel)—we move from the beginning through the Word to God who’s so very imminently at the heart of these verses and all that is—at the heart of and also beyond—outside of—utterly transcendent.
Now, the obvious chiastic structure of the first two verses indicates the chiastic structure of the entire overture—all 18 verses (Culpepper, 116). We’re going to do this quickly, so grab your Bibles if you don’t have them out, and look at verses 1 and 2, and 18 (the most exterior opening and closing parenthesis)—all about the Word and God. Now look at verses 3 and 17, and they offer us parallel affirmations of what is accomplished through the Word—creation in the beginning, grace and truth through Jesus Christ. Moving on to verses 4 and 5, and 16, we find that which we receive from the Word—life and light and grace upon grace. Verses 6-8 and 15 focus on John the Baptist. Then in verses 9 and 10, and 14, we have the incarnation—the Word coming into the world. Verses 11 and 13 identify those who don’t accept him and then in contrast those who do. And verse 12 is, then, structurally, the heart of the passage. “But to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God—who believed in his name ….”
It’s rather significant, don’t you think? In a text that includes the creation (in the beginning), the incarnation (the word became flesh), the eternal truth of God in time (the light shines in the darkness)—it’s rather significant that the structural heart of such a passage (x marks the spot) would be our response to God.
Now, just one more thing. Two of the themes established in the overture, we noted, were the opposition of light and darkness and the opposition of the world to the Word. It might be more appropriate to hear not themes of specific opposition, but a more general theme of contrast or opposition, with light and darkness, and Word and world simply serving as examples of that more resounding theme that would then have less to do with the juxtaposed extremes as the choice they represent.
Because to look again at the verses at the structural heart of the overture, is to find more juxtapositions—more contrasts—more choices. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. Do we know him, or not? He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. Do we accept him, or not? But to all who received him …. do we receive him, or not? Who believed in his name …. do we believe in his name, or not? Embedded in the sweeping affirmations, the theological claims, the placement within history and faith tradition, the imagery and the poetry, the beauty of the language, the clarity of thought—embedded between those highpoints of salvation history, creation and incarnation, are the options that present us with this most critical of choices. To all who received him he gave power to become children of God.
And so (it’s amazing) the biggest story there is—it’s not about you—but it involves you. It’s not about your initiative, but your response to God’s initiative. You’re not the protagonist, but, somehow, the protagonist succeeds or fails, based on your response. It’s the immense risk God took—yet to be justified—not in creating … though that was certainly a risk—nor in being made incarnate … though that was certainly another risk (and it’s really not that those were insignificant risks!) … but the biggest risk God took was allowing us our free response to God. In like manner, of course, our biggest risk is the freedom within which we make that free response.
John with its high christology, its preexistent logos, its allusions to the Old Testament and Jewish and Hellenistic philosophy, the wisdom tradition has a fitting overture to the story too big to tell—the transcendent story. But it turns out the story too big to tell is our very own! Our own story—yours—mine—intersects the story of God and creation and Jesus, and we have a choice to make at this intersection. Set before you life and death. And you are free to not know the life that truly is life, to not accept, to not receive, to not believe. As we listen to the overture to the gospel of John, it’s not the birth of Jesus that’s so important, but whether or not we will be born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humankind, but of God. We are free to choose death. There’s a reason the author of John’s gospel is sometimes called the evangelist! We take our place on stage—centerstage—in the spotlight—in the middle of the biggest story ever told—to make our response—with cosmic, eternal implications too big to imagine. Choose life. Welcome thou, the King of Glory.