Commentary on John 1:1-14
While John 1:1-14 is the appointed Gospel lesson for Christmas Day (Proper III), I prefer to preach on the first 18 verses.1
The Prologue to John’s Gospel is John’s birth story of Jesus. The themes we have come to know for Christmas preaching are certainly present in how John begins his gospel. A preacher could focus on any of the themes outlined below to create a meaningful Christmas sermon.
Christmas as the rebirth of God
The first verse of John 1 is deceptively complex. “In the beginning” should stir up biblical resonances, particularly that what follows will have something to do with creation. The next verses (1:2-4) secure Jesus’ role as creator with God. Furthermore, God has chosen to recreate God’s very self in Jesus. God has been reborn into the world, now as God’s creating Word in the flesh. The threefold claim, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” reveals the origin of Jesus, his relationship with God, and his identity as God.
Christmas as the light shining in the darkness
Verse 5 has been a topic of ongoing debate for Johannine scholars with regard to pinpointing the moment of the incarnation, either here or in John 1:14, “the Word became flesh.” The fact that the incarnation of God is first presented as light shining in darkness evokes the creation story in Genesis. The verb “overcome” can be translated “grasp” or “seize,” and has connotations of “comprehending.” Festivals of light are essential in the darkest days of the year and so Christmas originated as a celebration that could rival Saturnalia (See Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History). A preacher might explore the importance of light, for Christmas, for our lives.
Christmas as witnessing to the light
The introduction of John in the next verses, not the Baptist but the Witness, is a rather strange interlude in this cosmic birth story. What is John doing here anyway? Commentators explain away John’s presence as a later interpolation that does not belong in such a majestic narration of Jesus’ origins and identity. Yet the presence of John here, particularly for our Christmas preaching, suggests that a critical response to Christmas is witness. Christmas is not over when the trees are put out to the curb. Christmas is just getting started for those who confess Jesus as God who has become flesh.
Christmas is Jesus as a child and is who we are
John 1:9-13 suggest that just as Jesus is a child of God, so are we. Jesus as a baby cannot devolve into sentimentality but has everything to do with its promise for us. To be a child of God is a literal claim for the Fourth Gospel. This Gospel imagines that every single aspect of the parent–child relationship is operative in our relationship with God. Everything a child needs from a parent, for survival, protection, to be sustained and nurtured, to grow and mature is what God provides. Preach the promise of Christmas that puts us in the manger with Jesus and helps us sense the dependence of Jesus as that which we have on God.
Christmas is the word became flesh
“The Word became flesh” states most clearly the theological promise of John. This primordial Word, which was in the beginning with God, a partner in creation, in relationship with God and who is God, has now become human. While the NRSV translates the verse, “and lived among us” the verb here is skenoo, “to tent” or “to tabernacle.” Most readers of the Gospel of John will be familiar with the translation “and dwelt among us.” The verb can also be translated, “took up residence” and thus Peterson’s The Message, “moved into the neighborhood.”
The dwelling of God is a deeply intimate, personal claim and assumes God’s commitment to and continuity with God’s people. Moreover, in the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, now God not only goes where God’s people go, but is who they are.
Christmas is grace upon grace
“From his fullness” (John 1:16) has the sense of the “sum total,” “complete,” and can also connote “superabundance.” The word “grace” is used only four times in the Gospel of John (1:14, 16, 17) and only in the Prologue. Once the Word becomes flesh, grace is then incarnated in the rest of the Gospel. That is, the entirety of the Gospel will show what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like, and feels like. This is Christmas preaching. For John, God in becoming flesh in Jesus has committed God’s self not only to revealing what God’s grace looks like, but that God wants to know it and feel it as well.
A few Christmas sermon possibilities.
1. This commentary was adapted from one first published on this site on Jan. 4, 2015. It is also featured in the new ebook, “Preaching Year A with Anna Carter Florence,” which is available for download from Luther Seminary.