This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on January 3, 2016.
I’m never entirely sure what to do when the lectionary hands me a set of verses, half of which are in parentheses. Does that mean those verses are a suggestion or does it indicate they are less crucial to the liturgical season on hand? Or does the lectionary committee simply mean to honor my skill as a preacher treating me like a quarterback with an ability to call an audible after a quick look at the congregation. “This bunch looks engaged, I think I’ll unpack the cryptic prologue,” or “This group looks like they’ve been to a Christmas party thrown by Christians who’ve found their freedom in Christ, I better stick with the basics.”
Then again I find that I’m always asking that sort of question of John, no matter what the season is or what verses I’m assigned. I have to slow down for John more than any other gospel. It has been said that the fourth evangelist provides waters in which elephants can swim and children can wade. John is consistently assigned the eagle when the church is distributing the images of the four creatures found in Ezekiel and Revelation. Why? Because with that eagle we share a high-flying omniscient perspective. That’s helpful because in John we are constantly looking at the layers of meaning. Take for example Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus in chapter three when Jesus tells him that he will be “lifted up.” The Greek word is hypso and it can me just that, lifted up, as in Jesus was lifted up off of the ground on a cross or it can mean exalted, as in being an elevated object of worship. John uses this kind of double entendre often, leaving clever interpretation to his readers.
Soaring above the text readers have to look at the layers of depth in John and make choices about who Jesus is. The prologue, then, becomes crucial because in it we find not only a comprehensive overview of John’s trajectory, but also a hermeneutical key for reading each story in his gospel. Readers read with a sense of irony watching questions be asked of Jesus that the prologue answers. In John 7, the Pharisees ask “where will Jesus go?” Or the string of “how” questions from chapter 6, “How can he come from heaven?” “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” “How can this man become learned, having never been educated?”
Preachers and readers have the answer to all of these questions. It is crucial then, for homilies to help listeners connect to Jesus theological identity as mapped by John in the prologue.
Of equal importance is the term logos itself which figures prominently in the prologue and while it appears again later in the gospel, it never does in the same theological form. Developing the robust etymological history of the term can make for rich sermon development. Here’s a brief survey. Logos is first a mathematical term used to describe reckoning accounts. In the pre-Socratic philosophers it takes on a cosmic connotation, meaning something like balance or reckoning in the universe (see Pythagoras). Heraclitus was the first Greek philosopher to imbue metaphysical meaning arguing that the term meant universal coherence. The Sophists, who offered professional instruction in speaking, taught the art of logos, which was speech, reasoning, and argumentation. After Plato and Aristotle emptied logos of some of the metaphysical connotations that it had developed, the Hellenistic philosopher reclaimed it. Of note is Philo, who combined his knowledge of Jewish scripture with Greek philosophy. He reasoned that logos was God’s mediator with creation. This idea become popular with Christians.
All of these connotations, and others, are in the background of John’s opening verses. To make matters more exciting, it is almost certain that John crafted his prologue with his Septuagint open to Genesis 1. Here the meaning and use of logos is deepened. Jesus is the origin of God’s story and at the same time the full revelation of God. Just as God’s Hebrew Word davar created in the beginning, so now God is recreating or renewing with his Word logos.
The claim that Jesus is the full revelation of God, or more specifically, the display of God’s glory, is also programmatic for John. In vv. 14-18 we learn that until Jesus came, no one has seen God, but now, in Jesus, we see the full revelation of God’s glory. This theme is developed throughout the rest of the gospel and worth emphasizing here.
Another way for preachers to approach this text is by observing its place in the calendar. This text comes to us on the second week of Christmas. One might make a pithy observation such as John does not include an infancy narrative, he includes an infinity narrative, but the prologue has more to say about Jesus and Christmas than that. There are some scholars who locate John further down the spectrum towards Gnosticism than the synoptics. But John 1 presents the strongest antidote to that claim. This may be the boldest claim about God becoming flesh in the scriptures. John celebrates incarnation and the restoration of this world in an unforgettable introduction. The other observation to make is this. John shows us the cosmic reach of God’s redemptive project in Jesus from the beginning. In John, salvation does not start a slow growth from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem and so on. Salvation arrives from beyond time and space indicating that Jesus’ arrival has ramifications for the whole creation and as Colossians 1 echoes, the cosmos. Whereas the lectionary’s gospel text from the previous week, Luke 2:41-52 shows Jesus’ human nature, John 1 serves as an appropriate response emphasizing the divine nature. These texts taken together offer preachers a chance to introduce Jesus at the beginning of the calendar year in the same way that the early church introduced Jesus to the world.
University Baptist Church, Waco, TX
Tags: logos, Christology, prologue, incarnation, four creatures