Commentary on John 1:[1-9], 10-18
When I was a kid, I was sick a lot.
I had childhood epilepsy, experienced some learning disabilities from a difficult birth, was often sick, and had numerous allergies. I spent a lot of time in doctor’s offices for all of these issues. So hospitals, tests, and doctors were part of my life. As a kid you are supposed to be foot loose and fancy free — without a care in the world. So it was a bit weird to be so focused on the physical issues I had to address in my younger years. My life was often about how my body was acting and reacting.
Dealing with embodied issues can often be problematic in our culture. Womens’ and young girls’ bodies are objectified on a daily basis. Vulnerable persons are abused and exploited physically and sexually. Men and boys are taught to be tough and that their physical strength is their greatest asset. We live in a society obsessed with the physical beauty and attributes of celebrities — even with pseudo-celebrities who are only famous for being famous. Negative obsession with the flesh, sex, gender, and sexuality issues by some in the church has reached epic proportions. Often these fleshly obsessions are hard to understand and cause significant pain, division, and confusion.
So, too, is the situation related to reading the opening lines to the Gospel of John. It is a passage known to many — Christians and non-Christians. John clearly holds the incarnation as significant as he portrays it in such an important manner (verses 1-14). His gospel is the only one that does not begin with the birth story of Jesus. Instead he opens his gospel with a song of sorts, extoling the power of God becoming flesh and celebrates the grace that comes to all through Jesus Christ. (verses 12-14) It is part song, part poetry, and part prose and it is full of biblical allusions.1
When I first read this pericope as a young pastor I was confused by the opening lines referring to the Word and the chronology of God’s being in the text’s meaning (verses 1-2). The pericope is separated into five sections each related to the Word — the Word and God (verses 1-2), the Word and creation (verses 3-5), the Word and John (verses 6-8), the Word and the world (verses 9-13), the Word and the community (verses 14-18).2 These sections can help the preacher understand what is happening in the text and help to determine particular emphases for preaching related to their context.
However in preaching and teaching on this text I am often asked about two major concerns. First, “Who came first, God the Creator or the Logos? Why does it matter?” And second, “What does it mean that God became flesh? Why would God put Godself into that kind of situation?”
These types of questions often come about in discussing complex issues of life and faith. God was before time, in time, and outside of time. Time is different when discussing God and the incarnation.
Jesus is the Word and the Word is also God. The Word gives light and life. And the Word is not always accepted. The Word was Jesus and the Word is the biblical text understood through the life and actions of Jesus. The Word is the embodiment of God in the world (verses 9-18)
God choosing to put skin on and walk among us is one of the pivotal points in salvation history, which begins with the redemption of the Hebrew people and continues in the story of Jesus, his ministry with his disciples, and his death and resurrection (verse 14). This point of Jesus being fully human and fully divine has been a bone of contention in history and continues to baffle some in the faith today. But for me it is one of the most important tenets of the faith — that God loved the world so much that God came to dwell among us, teach us, and die for us (John 3: 16).
One of my seminary professors, Emilie Townes, taught her seminary students that being in ministry means being more than just a tourist. Tourists come to a place and visit, while maintaining their own unique traditions and customs. They buy trinkets and take snapshots. She taught us that pastors and preachers need to be pilgrims and “pitch tent” with the people. Pilgrim pastors learn the “language” of the people they are sent to pastor. Pilgrims pitching tent take up their people’s traditions and customs, but they can also, like Jesus, transform the world in which they live through their ministry to and with the people.
Pitching tent means coming to be fully part of the world in which you live and minister. The Word in this text is doing just that — coming to “pitch tent” with humanity. The Word made flesh comes to be in the world and to change the world. “This text is the simple and dramatic telling of the mystery of the Word made flesh, dwelling among us, and empowering us to become children of God.”3 (verses 11-14)
The telling of Jesus’ birth in simple and homely ways in Matthew, Mark and Luke make for powerful images and create a sense of connection we can see replayed every year in Christmas Pageants across the globe. But John goes another way. He utilizes “grander theological declarations” in his Prologue to bring us into the story of salvation.4
When Mary’s baby walked the earth things changed.
When Mary’s baby walked this earth
People came from miles around to sit at his feet
And hear the wisdom that could only come from God.
They brought the sick, the lame,
And those who were troubled
In their minds.
The winds and the seas had to obey him
Because he was Emmanuel, God with us.
Formidable demons trembled
And ran away screaming
When Mary’s baby walked upon this earth.5
God is Emmanuel. Jesus, the Word, was made flesh. God walked around in skin. And it changed the world. Embodiment matters.
1 Commentary in Wesley Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 1286.
2 R. Alan Culpepper, “Second Sunday after Christmas Day Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 189.
3 General Board of Discipleship Lectionary Resources, Year A Advent. http://www.gbod.org/lead-your-church/lectionary-planning-helps/christmas-day (accessed August 30, 2013)
4 Thomas H. Troeger, ‘Homiletical Perspective for John 1: (1-9) 10-18″ in Feasting on the Word, 191.
5 Safiyah Fosua. Part of the poem “Finding Joy in Unexpected Places.” http://www.gbod.org/lead-your-church/21st-century-liturgy/resource/finding-joy-in-unexpected-places (accessed August 30, 2013).