The first chapter of John’s Gospel is one of those quintessential readings we hear at this time of year. Traditionally, the last one read at a service of lessons and carols, it takes a different approach to other readings about the events leading up to and surrounding Jesus’ birth. It is typical of John’s Gospel to make it so distinct from the other three gospel accounts.
While many hold the tenet that the Bible is to be taken literally and is the unquestionable, unchanging word of God, the Bible is a collection of writings written in a particular time and culture and also contains much wisdom to influence how we live in our own time and culture.
And yet, in places the Bible is boring, repetitive, confusing and you get told the climax of particular events well before you get to the ending. It is so badly written in places.
And that is why it is to be precious for us. Because our lives demonstrate something that is often boring, repetitive and confusing – and at times badly written.
One of the many reasons why I am a Christian is because of passages such as this one from John’s Gospel. Not so much because of what it says but also because it is quite confusing.
Just take verse 1: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.’
Word, light, life – what’s all that about? All these different metaphors that the gospel writer uses.
John, who may or may not have been one of Jesus’ disciples probably wrote or dictated it about 40-50 years after Jesus had died and he gives Jesus the title ‘the Word’ and also gives him the names ‘the light’ and ‘the life’.
So we could read it as: ‘In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God’ – this ties in with words in Genesis, Jesus was there at the beginning and also an indication there of Jesus being fully divine.
‘All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being’. Bit of tautology there but it emphasises the point. ‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.’
So John is combining those titles to really emphasise the point about Jesus and who he was.
Verse 6: ‘A man sent from God whose name was John.’ (That’s John the Baptist not John the gospel writer.) ‘He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, Jesus, was coming in to the world.’
So John the Baptist came to talk about Jesus – they were distant cousins and you may recall the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth when both women were pregnant. Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother and that wonderful song of Mary that came about – the Magnificat.
The Gospel continues… verse 10 ‘He,’ so we’re back to Jesus now, ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him yet the world did not know him.’
Spoiler alert: ‘Jesus came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’
John giving away a bit of end of the story – ultimately Jesus would not be accepted by those he came to save – events we recall at Easter.
But, verse 12, ‘to all who received Jesus, who believed in his name, Jesus gave power to become children of God’.
Wow! We’re getting to the heart of the message of John’s Gospel, the heart of the message of the Christian faith, the heart of the message of Christmas. That through Jesus we can become children of God.
This passage, this introduction is in many ways, to draw a parallel with an article that might appear in an academic journal, an ‘abstract’: a summary of the whole piece.
And in one line, John gives a summary of the summary, verse 14: ‘And the Word – so remember that from before – the Word became flesh and lived among us.’
This is the Jesus whose birth we now celebrate, the Word, the Light, the Life. The man who was with God and is God, is born a human being.
‘And we (those who receive Jesus, who believe in his name) have seen his glory. The glory as of a father’s only son.’ In that culture, with its very patristic attitudes, the son of a father was held in very high regard. ‘We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’
That is what we celebrate this Christmas. The glory of God’s son, full of grace and truth.
But what of our lives? What does this say to our time and culture?
We live in difficult times and have done so for quite a long time. The pandemic, the continued presence of Covid, many struggling with heat or eat decisions, the rising cost of living, the impact of industrial action, the events in the world around us. And then for some there may be the first Christmas without a loved one… the list goes on. We live in dark times and thus it is that this time of celebrating the light, Jesus, is so important.
The writer David Cole said this: ‘What is darkness? Darkness is not actually a thing. You can’t switch it on, and it only exists when there is a lack of light.’
But also it’s my feeling that those times of darkness need to exist in order that we can see the light more clearly.
This a message for us as we live in our own time and culture.
For as John also writes, back to verse 5, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’
So this Christmas, each of us has a choice about whether or not to hear and receive God’s message of life and light. We can choose to live in darkness or we can choose to live in the light of life.
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With my prayers and best wishes for Christmas and the coming year.