David A. Davis
December 16, 2018
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Jesus said,“I am the bread of life” and “the light of the world” and “the door” and “the good shepherd” and “the resurrection and the life” and “the way, the truth and the life” and “the vine”. Jesus said “I am” all of that and he said it in the Gospel of John. Bread. Light. Door. Shepherd. Vine. Resurrection. Life. Way. Truth. Jesus is……But before all of that, before all those “I am’s” in John, Jesus is “Word”. All through the gospels and the New Testament, Jesus is Teacher and Rabbi and Master and Son of Man and King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Savior, Messiah, Christ the Lord. But before all of that in John, Jesus is “Word”. All of the symbols, the metaphors, the imagery that shape our understanding of Jesus, our relationship to Jesus, our prayer life, our spirituality: Jesus is the rock of our salvation, the Balm of Gilead, the Rose of Sharon, the Suffering Servant. Jesus is brother and friend. He is our Jubilee and our peace and our Comforter. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But before everything else in John, Jesus is “Word”.
Yes, Jesus as Word makes it into the hymnody of the tradition every now and then. Think: “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing, O come let us adore him…..”. But more often, more popular, more contemporary, Jesus is grace, peace, love. Jesus is awesome. Jesus is cool. Jesus rocks. Jesus! Friend! Dude! Jesus is the man. Not Jesus is the Word! Jesus is Word. Jesus, you’re so Word. Jesus…..Word.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” No pronoun there, only Word. The Common English translation takes its cue from v.1 and avoids the pronoun while opting for the repetition of the Word, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light“. The Word. The Word. The Word. Jesus….Word.
The word for Word here in Greek is logos. The connotation is more than this word or that word. Logos; word, it’s more than a spoken expression. Logos is word with power, a word that comes with action, a word that shapes, creates, meaning. It is word with all the eventfulness of communication, a “something happens and is happening” kind of word. Professor Eric Barreto has pointed out that the Spanish translations of the opening poetry of John don’t use the Spanish word palabra (word). Instead the word used is verba (verb). Eric notes the compelling connotation of word choice in Spanish that points to a moving, active, dynamic understanding of Word rather than a static, once for all eternity sense of the Word. Jesus….word then, word now, present, active, on the move. Word that is action. Word with an “ing”. Jesus is the “wording” of God.
Years and years ago, at Princeton Seminary, Professor Bob Jacks taught me this monologue about Jesus and the Word.
I open my mouth to speak and the Word is there–
form by lips, the tongue, the organ of voice,
Formed by the brain, transmitting the word by breath.
I open my mouth to speak and the word is there,
traveling between us– caught by the organ of hearing, the ear
transmitting the thought to the brain, through the word.
Just so do we communicate, you and I–
the thought leaping from one mind to the other,
given shape and form and substance
so that we know and are known through the word.
But let me speak to a very small child and the words mean nothing
for she does not know my language.
And so I must show her;
“This is your foot”, I say, “and it is meant for walking”
Or I help her up
“This is how you walk”
Until one day, “walking” shapes in her brain,
through the Word.
God has something to say to us,
but the words mean nothing,
for we do not know God’s language.
And so we are shown, “behold the man.”
God says, “this is the image, the thought in my mind
humanity as I mean it, loving and serving.
I have put him in flesh. Now the Word has shape and form and substance
to travel between us.
Let the Christ Child show forth love, until one day loving shapes in your brain
through the Word.
Logos. Verba. Word. If you will excuse the Advent pun, the Word is pregnant with meaning here in John. Word bursting forth. Word as “performative utterance” the philosophers say. Words that don’t just say something. They do something. Not just saying “peace” for instance, but creating peace. Not just signing “with love” at the end of a handwritten note, but being in love, or loving the other as you write it, as you sign it. The example most often given in the literature is the marriage vow. One doesn’t just say “I do, or I will” or “I, take you, to be my husband”. The words are the action. The promise made, the promise spoken, the promise heard, is the covenant, the marriage covenant. The theology of a marriage ceremony long held in the Christian tradition is that the officiant, the celebrant, the clergy or the one ordained for the occasion is a witness just like everyone else. The couple marries themselves with the promise made, the promise spoken, the promise heard. My explanation to couples about limiting intrusive photography and lots of flashes, it’s not because of a nod to the holiness of the moment or the sacredness of the space, it is simply about distraction and the affirmation that promise not heard…is not a promise.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The Word; not just reason, or rationality, or intellect, or thought, but God communicating life itself, life in all of its fullness, life itself through the Word. God passing on, communicating, bearing, something of God’s own being, through the Word. Word. Light. Promise. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Or as it says in the King James, “The light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” Did not comprehend it. Did not overcome it. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness “comprehend-ith” it, “overcome-ith” it not. God’s word. God’s light, God’s promise, the darkness neither gets it nor dampens it, neither understands it nor crushes it, neither embraces it nor blows it out.
To be honest with you, whenever I find myself quoting or referring to this verse from John in a sermon or in the prayers of the people, I make a change. I’m not sure I’ve thought about it before. But I mess with the tense. I change the tense and strengthen the verb. You’ve heard it over and over again from me. But have you noticed. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall never overcome it.” That’s what I say. That’s what I pray. That’s what I believe. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall never overcome it.” Unapologetic paraphrase by Davis. Because an active, dynamic, present, communicative, life-giving, something of God’s very being understanding of Word overcomes the tense. Word. Light. Promise. The promise overwhelms the tense. It is not just the promise of the angels long ago in a land far away. It is not just the promise of what is to come when the roll is called up yonder. It is the very promise of God today. Now. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, does not, will not, shall not ever overcome it or comprehend it.”
One Christmas Eve when I was in high school, I came home after singing in the choir at the late candlelight service to find my parents with their bags packed. My brother and his young family had moved that fall to Cincinnati, Ohio where my sister already lived. It was going to be the first Christmas Eve at home in Pittsburgh with just the three of us. We were going to make the five-hour drive over on Christmas morning and arrive early in the afternoon. But when I arrived home, my parents were piling the gifts by the door and they both were sort of giddy. They kind of had a sparkle in their eye. Before I said anything, my dad said “We’ve decided to go now”. It was 12:30 on Christmas morning.
So we packed up the yellow Chevy Chevette and headed out on Interstate 70 in the middle of the night. It wasn’t snowing but the temperature was single digits. We stopped for gas in Zanesville, so that would have been about 3 am. I kid you not, the man working at the gas station in the middle of night on Christmas Eve had white hair and a beard. After getting gas, I offered to drive. Surprisingly my father said yes. My parents promptly fell asleep and left the all night driving to the teenager. At one point the check engine light came on. It was 8 degrees and four in the morning. So I just kept driving and never said anything to my folks. Our plan was to arrive at my brother’s apartment. Sneak up and put the gifts on the front stoops. And then wait for my sister to arrive and them make a grand entrance for the best of Christmas surprises. It seems however, you can make pretty good time in the middle of the night when no one else is on the road. It was still dark when we were sitting in the parking lot of my brother’s place. Back then, places closed on Christmas so there was no getting coffee or hanging out at IHOP. So we sat in the car for another hour and a half waiting for my sister to arrive.
We did make a grand entrance. It was a great surprise. And we had a wonderful, unforgettable Christmas morning. At one point my sister’s partner, he said to my dad, “Bob, that might be the dumbest thing you’ve ever done.” I don’t know about dumb, but it was bold, audacious, assertive, a bit courageous, urgent, and immediate. “We’ve decided to go NOW”.
This time of year, some will tell the stories of the birth of Jesus and heave a nostalgic sigh of remembrance like they had been there in Bethlehem that night. Others may yearn for a Christmas get away. Not a trip somewhere but the chance to set everything aside for a night, for a day, for a bit. Take a break from the world, turn away from it all, and just do Christmas and forget about it. But some years in your life, in the life of those you love, some years in the world, there are some seasons of life when the Advent hope and longing is more urgent. When the Advent prayer “Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come” is less about Jesus and the Second Coming and a whole lot more about the bold, audacious, assertive, a bit courageous, urgent, and immediate promise of God.
It is the belief that God’s Word still speaks. That God’s light doesn’t just flicker in the darkness. God’s light shines in the darkness. Word. Light. Promise. Now.
The bold, audacious, assertive, courageous, urgent and immediate love of God made known in Jesus Christ to you, for you and for the world.
Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.