Commentary on John 1:[1-9], 10-18
John 1:1-18, also known as the prologue to John’s Gospel, is a richly layered text that introduces the major themes of the Gospel, offering countless homiletical possibilities. Where, then, to focus for the second Sunday of Christmas?
One possibility would be to focus on verse 14, which so vividly expresses the substance of the incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (NRSV).
As many commentators have remarked, the Greek verb translated “lived” in this verse is skenoo, which means more literally, “pitched his tent.” Just as God traveled with the people of Israel in the wilderness by means of the “tent of meeting” in their midst, John announces that God has chosen to “tabernacle” among us in an even more radical way, by the Word embodied in human flesh.
In our digital world, we have multiple means of communicating with one another. Yet for all our advances in technology, there are still some messages best delivered in person—a proposal of marriage, for example, or news of a loved one’s death. In such cases, delivering the message in person makes an enormous difference. Not only can we say the words face-to-face, but we can also give and receive tangible expressions of love and compassion.
The pandemic of Covid-19 has brought home to many of us just how important physical presence is. For the sake of our own health and that of others, we have had to communicate by electronic means with family and friends. Perhaps the most heartbreaking reality of this pandemic is that so many families have had to say their final goodbyes to loved ones from the screen of a telephone or tablet, and that so many have died without a loved one by their side.
The God who created and loves this world understands the need and longing for physical presence. The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God has always been present with God’s people and has always spoken to God’s people through human voices such as those of the prophets. “But in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds,” says the writer of Hebrews.
In Jesus, God decided to come closer, to deliver the Word in person, the person of God’s Son. This Word-made-flesh brings us a message that it would be hard for us to understand otherwise.
We might well speculate about the majesty of God by witnessing the beauty and wonders of creation, all of which came into being by the Word. But when creation seems to go awry, when we are devastated by a drought, a flood, or a tornado, when we are threatened by a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or cancer, it is difficult to see anything in nature but God’s fury.
Similarly, we might well reflect on the justice and faithfulness of God as expressed in the words of the prophets. But the prophets also give voice to some terrifying visions of God’s judgment and wrath. And so, if we were left only with these ways of knowing God, we might well be confused and afraid.
God has not left us in fear and confusion. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In order that we might know beyond a doubt that God’s love and compassion for us will have the final word, the Word took on our flesh. The Word came to us in the form of a frail and vulnerable infant to dwell among us and to show us firsthand the depth of God’s love for us.
Martin Luther expresses this truth so well in his Christmas sermons. He says that reflection on the divinity and majesty of God may very well terrify and crush us. That is why Christ took on our humanity, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console us. For what could be less intimidating or more comforting than a baby? Luther writes:
See how God invites you in many ways. He places before you a babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to a person than a babe. Are you afraid? Then come to him, lying in the lap of the fairest and sweetest maid. You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair. Trust him! Trust him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. To me there is no greater consolation given to humankind than this, that Christ became human, a child, a babe, playing in the lap of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to see this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.1
Of course, the baby in the manger is only the beginning of God’s message to us in the Word-made-flesh. But in this baby, we begin to see and understand the very heart of God. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). In the Word-made-flesh, we see a heart so full of love for us that it will go to any length to reach us. It will stop at nothing to make us God’s own. Not even the frailty of human flesh nor the darkness of suffering and death can keep God from us, nor us from God.
For “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
- Roland H. Bainton, Ed., Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997) Kindle location 274 of 592.