John 1:1-18

From my morning walk….

I am on Skidaway Island, in Georgia, to officiate at a funeral for a good friend. This sermon was to be preached by one of my elders at Bluemont and Mayberry Churches, but because of the winter storm, the Sessions of the two churches have decided to cancel the service for tomorrow (January 30). I do not have a video of this sermon, which I preached at First Presbyterian Church of Hastings, MI on January 9, 2004.

Jeff Garrison
John 1:1-18

As you know, the gospel of John is different from the other gospels.  In a way, John gives us a philosophical biography of Jesus Christ.  Yet, he begins like a traditional biography, with Christ’s beginning.  But he doesn’t start out in a stable in Bethlehem.  Instead, he talks about the eternal Christ, who is present with the Father at the beginning of creation.  John centers Christ’s activity in the cosmos long before the events of the first century, when Christ entered human history and was born of Mary. Of all the four gospel writers, John places the most emphasis on divinity of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is divine; he is God; he is as John records in the 14th chapter, “the way and the truth and the life.”

         John, toward the end of his gospel, says that he wrote his book so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is the Son of God, and that through believing in Him, we may have life in Jesus’ name.[1]  Yet, as John notes, his book is not a complete testimony.  There were many other things Jesus did that didn’t get recorded.  And John says he supposed that if all of them were written down the world could not contain the number of books it would take.[2]  So, instead of John trying to make his book out to be a traditional biography of Jesus Christ, he resorts to philosophical language talking about the nature of Christ.  Today, we’ll look at the opening or the prologue section of John’s Gospel, focusing primarily on the first five verses.  This section sets the tone for the rest of his book.  READ JOHN 1:1-18

Unlike Matthew and Luke, John’s gospel doesn’t give us the standard eyewitness account of the birth of our Savior.  John isn’t interested in mangers, stars, shepherds, angels, or wise men.  John begins his gospel with a theological or, more correctly, a Christological statement.  His words draw our minds back to Genesis, back to the beginning of creation.  Jesus Christ, the word of God, was present at the beginning.  Jesus Christ is responsible for life, and that life emits light to a darkened world.  

Think back to Genesis 1, the story of the world’s creation.  Interestingly, the first act of creation was light.  On the first day, God brought light into the chaos and then separated light and darkness.  If you’ve studied that story, it’s interesting that the sun, that great heavenly body that gives us light during the daytime, is primarily reduced to a clock.  The sun and the heavenly bodies aren’t created until the fourth day!  Genesis, like John’s gospel, opens with a theological statement, reminding us that life and light is from God – not from the sun.

This is exciting, but there is also a problem.  There’s darkness in the world.  Even though Jesus came into the world, and even though the world came into being through Him, the world does not know Him.  Through this darkness, the world is not even sure of its own origins.  The world is lost.  Yet, piercing the darkness is the light of Christ.  And those who come to this light can be reborn a child of God, as John discusses more succinctly in the third chapter.    

By linking Jesus to the eternal word, John emphasizes the co-existence of Christ and the Father, a unity responsible for creation and life.  As to the details of how all this came about or works, we’re not privy. Genesis points to God as the creator, and John picks up that theme. The problem that has occurred between Genesis and John’s gospel is that sin has established itself in the world, thereby keeping people from seeing God as the creator. Sin creates the darkness that engulfs the world.  

         To put John’s esoteric language into equally esoteric theological language, we can no longer know the saving grace of God through Natural Theology. Natural Theology teaches us what we can know about God without appealing to faith or revelation, in other words what we can know about God from reason and experience. John Calvin, early in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, has a discussion of this; he calls it natural endowment. Calvin understands that although there are some things we can know about God, we can’t discover the saving grace of God on our own.[3] That knowledge is only available through revelation and Jesus Christ is the revelation of God. Because the world has been corrupted, our ability to know God from our surroundings has been diminished, and we must wait for God to reveal himself to us, which is what he does through Jesus Christ.

One of the exciting things for me about Christmas is putting up the electric train that goes under our tree. Let me warn you, I’m in a bit of withdrawal. Since our tree disappeared on Friday, I know the train will follow in just a few days.  Christmas is the only time of year I take the train out and I enjoy lying there next to the Christmas tree, running the train and serving as President and engineer of my own railroad, one where featherbedding is encouraged. [4] Thinking about this I recall a story about a home in which Santa had brought a train for Christmas. On that Christmas morning this house looked like a disaster had struck. Tossed across the floor were boxes and wrapping paper and bows, ribbons, and of course new toys.  In this house the most exciting toy was the train. This boy loved racing the train round and round, as fast as it would go, but in the confusion, a discarded box got on the track, and the train derailed.

         Bending down over the train, this young budding engineer kept trying to get it back on the tracks, but he couldn’t get the wheels to seat properly. Finally, his father realized what was happening. “You know, you can’t do that standing up above it,” he said. “You have to get down beside it.” The father then laid down beside the tracks and his son and proceeded to help him put the train back on the tracks.

         That’s one way we can think about the incarnation, the coming of God, how God comes to us as a child. Sin has derailed humanity. We need to be put back on the right track in life.  It just couldn’t be done from up above – God must come down beside us to put us back on track. And that’s what God does in Jesus Christ.

         It all seems so harmless: God loving the world and coming into it to save it.  It seems like we should just rejoice and receive Christ with open arms and be like the shepherds or wise men. Yet, even there with the wise men, we learn of the opposition from Herod.[5] Here in John’s gospel, as we’ve seen, this opposition manifest itself as darkness. We know, looking back on the story from our perspective, that the opposition will eventually lead to the crucifixion of the Messiah.

         The world that we live in is in rebellion. Our world doesn’t want to hear the message, which is why it was so easy to crucify Christ. This hasn’t changed in the centuries and millenniums since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven. For some reason, we find the light of Christ painful. For some strange reason we prefer darkness. Sin has such a shaming effect on us, that we avoid light, lest we be shown for who we really are. We prefer to live with lies rather than in the truth. We forget we can only find true freedom in the light, allowing God through Jesus Christ to point out our shortcomings, so that we might confess and repent. We should rejoice and be thankful that God hasn’t give up on us, that our God continues to reach out into a world that rebels against its Creator.

         Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the better-known Christian martyrs of the 20th Century, was killed by the Nazi’s at the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer spent most of his final two years in a Nazi prison, during which time some of his writings were smuggled out, including a poem titled “Christians and Pagans.” Let me read it; there are three short sections:

         Men go to God when they are sore bestead,

         Pray to him for succor, for his peace, for bread,

         For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;

         All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

         Men go to God when he is sore bestead,

         Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,

         Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;

         Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

         God goes to every man when sore bestead,

         Feeds body and spirit with his bread;

         For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead,

         And both alike forgiving.[6]

I like the way Bonhoeffer structures this poem. Christians are the ones who are willing to stand by God in his hour of need. That’s good, that’s what we’re suppose to do. But the heart of the poem is in the final verse, God comes to us when we are suffering. Bonhoeffer makes it clear that God died for all, and I’m sure when he refers to the Pagans he has in mind members of the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer like John, accepts the fact that God through Christ came to save a lost world. 

         Ask yourselves what difference does it make that God entered human history? What difference does it make? God’s coming gives meaning to life.  Without God, life itself would have no meaning and philosophically, we’d all be nihilists.[7] But there is something inside of us, that which Calvin called Natural Endowment, that suggests to us there is something beyond us. There is something beyond us that demands our worship and reverence. And we have this desire to reach out and grasp it, which gets us into trouble because we can’t be God. We tried, that’s the meaning of eating the forbidden fruit. We wanted to be like God, and as a result found ourselves even further away from the divine. But all is not lost, because although we can’t fully grasp the glory and majesty of God, our Creator made it easy for us by coming to us in a way that we’d understand.  

What difference does it make? If you believe, it makes all the difference in the world, for it means that we have a God who cares and loves us. And, as we come into God’s light, we too are called to care and love the world. Life is not meaningless, for we are loved and we are to love. Life is not hopeless for we have a God whose majesty engulfs the world, yet who understands the trials and tribulations we face daily because he’s been here. Life does not have to be lonely, for we can know God and through God know who we are created to be. Amen.  

[1] John 20:31.

[2] John 21:25.

[3] See John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.III.1 and 1.IV.1-4.

[4] Featherbedding is a requirement of having more employees than needed to do a job, a practice common on the railroads as they switched from steam to diesel.  

[5] Matthew 2:1-18.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prayers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978), 26.

[7] A philosophical belief that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded, and that existence is senseless and useless.  It denies objective truth.  Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

Jeff Garrison

A view from the marsh tower on my walk on Skidaway Island this morning

12 Replies to “John 1:1-18”

  1. I’m sorry that you have lost a good friend, Jeff! Such a rich and comforting sermon. Thank you!

  2. That is lovely. It took me a long time to realize that pastors and priests would officiate at personal events–like funerals. What a difference your words, your voice would make to those who lost loved ones.

    1. It seems that in the past few years (since moving back south), that I have been called on for more of such sermons–friends from school, an aunt, etc. I drew the line at my grandmother and mother… I needed to be there in the pew as opposed to the pulpit.

  3. My grandmother read something from the Bible every day, and if I remember correctly, she read the Gospel of John many times.

    My condolences on the loss of your friend.

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