He Pitched His Tent Among Us

(Exodus 40:34-38; John 1:14-18)

The Jews knew how the world worked: God was up there, and we’re down here, and that’s the end of it. He was certainly involved in the world he made—he was at work within it to accomplish his purposes—but the fundamental separation between him and his creation was always there. The pagans around them might believe in gods and goddesses who were part of the natural world and lived within it, but the Jews were too wise for that; they understood that the distance between God and the created world was simply too vast to bridge. The physical world could never contain him—he was far too great, too bright, too glorious, for that. Whatever else might change, that truth never could.

And then in one staggering moment, it did. The eternal Word by whom God created the world, the one who kept the universe from dissolving back into chaos, became flesh. Eternity took on the limitations of time; spirit put on skin and bone; the one who held all creation in the palm of his hand accepted the confinement of the womb; the one who sat on the throne of heaven took a feed trough for his bed; and so Mary’s creator became her son. The unlimited, all-encompassing, holy reality of the life of God took shape in all the messiness and limitations of human flesh, the God who could not be seen became very visible indeed, and we could never think of him in the same way again.

What’s more, if we really understand what he did, we can never look at our world in quite the same way again. If something like this could happen, if the God of the universe could break into our reality in that way, then what else could happen? If that isn’t impossible, how dare we say anything else is?

The unfortunate thing about Christmas as a cultural holiday is that our culture tries to make it safe, when it’s anything but. Christmas is not just about being loving and caring, nor is Christmas faith about seeing the best in people and trying to make the world a better place. Those things are good and noble, but they are far, far smaller than Christmas—they are, I think, efforts to reduce Christmas to something safe and comprehensible and controllable. Christmas is more like wading out into a river and seeing a log floating toward you, and then suddenly realizing that the log is an alligator—look out, it’s alive! Christmas faith is the faith that God can and will do the utterly inconceivable, that nothing is truly impossible.

It’s also the faith that this is true because of his deep love for us, for all people, and for all that he has made. God made us to love us; he made us to know him and to return his love. He created us in relationship with him, but our rebellion alienated us from him, blinding our eyes and darkening our minds; his purpose in opposing our rebellion has always been to repair what we broke, to reconcile us to himself, and thus to everyone and everything else. He doesn’t just want us to know about him, or what he wants us to do; he wants us to know him, and for that we needed more than just to hear about him. It wasn’t enough for us to be told the truth of God, it wasn’t enough to be told about his grace; we needed to see it—ultimately in the cross, but also through all the rest of Jesus’ life. We needed to see it so that we could understand his purpose: that we might know God, not just that he exists, but that we might actually know him personally, and not just as acquaintances or servants, but as his children.

And so, in order that this might be, the Word became flesh, and he pitched his tent among us. Our English translations read so generically here, as we saw a few minutes ago, that we miss the punch of this. This doesn’t just mean he lived among us—the word here really does mean to pitch a tent. Which might seem odd, until you combine it with the line “We have seen his glory,” and then you get the key: John is talking about the tabernacle, the tent sanctuary where the people of Israel worshiped God during the years they were wandering around in the desert. The tabernacle was the center of Israel’s worship from that time all the way through the time of King David, until Solomon succeeded his father David on the throne and built the first temple in Jerusalem; it was the place on earth where God lived and where his glory dwelled, where his people came to worship him and offer sacrifices.

Now, if you were here when we went through the book of Hebrews, you’ll remember the strong emphasis we found there that Jesus has replaced the temple and the old sacrificial system. John is saying much the same here, but he’s taking it a step further: the Word who was God became flesh and tabernacled among us. He offered the final, once-for-all sacrifice for our sin, he replaced the temple as the place where God is present and may be worshiped—but he didn’t replace it with another temple, someplace high above us; instead, he pitched his tent among us, right down in our midst.

This might seem like a minor distinction—the tabernacle moved, the temple stayed in one place—but it really isn’t. The tabernacle went with the people of God as the physical location of his presence with them on the journey—wherever they were, it was, and there was God. The temple, by contrast, meant that God’s presence was located permanently at one particular location, and his people had to go to him. As a consequence, the people of Israel came to regard that particular location as holy in and of itself, and to consider that the farther away places were from the temple, the less holy they were. That’s why Nathanael heard about Jesus and immediately asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”—because Nazareth was about as far from Jerusalem as it was possible to be and still be in Israel. Clearly Messiah would come from someplace much closer to the temple than that.

With the coming of Jesus, however, the idea that one could only worship God at one particular place, through one particular set of rituals, was no more. Now, the presence of God was once more out among his people, walking and talking with them, right in the middle of their daily life. We see this most clearly in John 4, in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well; when the woman brought up the old disagreement between Samaritans and Jews—where was the proper place to worship God, Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim?—Jesus dismissed the question: soon, it would be irrelevant. “The time is coming—in fact, it has arrived—when that won’t matter anymore; the only thing that will distinguish true worship from false worship is whether people are worshiping God in spirit and truth, because that’s all God really cares about.”

The key here for us this morning is that the Word didn’t become flesh and then hole up in one place, where he could avoid all but the most worthy; he went out into the world, seeking out all those who would admit their need of him. The religious leaders of his day had erected all sorts of barriers; he could have used them to avoid people like that Samaritan woman, who had been through almost as many husbands as Elizabeth Taylor. Instead, he went out on the road and sought them out. He would accept anyone who would pay the price to follow him, because he loved everyone, not for what they could do for him, but for what he could do for them; and despite the rejection he suffered, he kept at it. To quote a Christmas card I received some years ago, “The miracle is that God dwelt among us and would not leave”; the leaders of his people did everything they possibly could to make him go, but even when they killed him, he came back. And why? Because he loved them. Because he loves us. Because of his grace and mercy, who will not stop loving us no matter what we do. This is the good news of Christmas.

From the Rising of the Sun . . .

(Isaiah 9:1-7, Malachi 4:1-3; John 1:9-13)

Israel was a nation waiting for the light. Isaiah had promised it; looking forward to the time when idolatry and disobedience would plunge Israel into darkness, he said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a land of shadows, light has dawned.” That light, he saw, would come in the birth of a child, a child who would re-establish David’s kingdom, breaking the power of Israel’s oppressors and reigning in peace with perfect justice and righteousness. In the darkness of exile and foreign rule, Israel waited for the light.

Malachi had promised the light, too. In the darkness of a nation dominated by evildoers grown arrogant in their evil, the light would come. For those who rejected the Lord, it would come as a flash fire through fields of stubble, reducing them to ash; but his faithful worshipers would see the sun of righteousness rise with healing in its wings. They would go out restored and re-invigorated, leaping and dancing like cattle released from their stalls, free to move and exulting in their freedom. The righteous would dance for joy, exulting in the light, while their former oppressors would be nothing but ash beneath their feet. In the darkness of Roman oppression, Israel waited for the light.

And in God’s perfect time, the light came. Israel had been waiting so long, they’d fallen for a lot of false lights over the years; but now, at last, came the true light, the one whom God had promised so long before. This wasn’t another fraud, or delusion, or false hope, this was the one for whom Israel had been waiting. Indeed, he was the one for whom the entire world had been waiting, though many didn’t know it. This was the giver of all life, the light of all people, the hope of the world.

And when he came, they didn’t recognize him. He came into the world—the world he made—and the world didn’t have a clue who he was. Not just the world at large, either—which is understandable, since they hadn’t really been looking for him—his own people didn’t know him. “He came home,” John writes, “he came to his own people, and they rejected him.” He was the long-awaited king come at last, and the door should have been thrown wide open for him; instead, it was slammed in his face. This was the purpose for which God called Israel, but when the time came, they refused it. The writer and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner has a wonderful little sermon from the point of view of the innkeeper in which he has the innkeeper say, “All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come—we all of us do—our destiny, our joy, our heart’s desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.” That’s Israel’s story: when he came, they missed him.

Of course, not everyone did; there were those who recognized him, however imperfectly, and believed in him. To them, John tells us, Jesus gave the right to become children of God—which is an interesting statement. First, note that word “gave.” John doesn’t say, “Those who received him earned the right,” he says that Jesus gave us the right. This isn’t something which can be earned by works—even by the “work” of faith in Christ; it’s something which can only be received as a free gift of God’s grace. Indeed, even our faith is not our own work, but God’s gift to us as he enables us to respond to what he has done for us. Second, the word here translated as “the right” is a word which we most often translate “authority” or “power”; here the idea is one of status, that those who believe in Jesus are given a new status as children of God.

Third, that change of status is a process; it doesn’t say “to be children of God,” but “to become children of God.” This is an important point, because there’s a tendency to think of salvation as just something that happens at a particular point in time: I give my life to Christ, I’m saved, OK. There’s truth to that, to be sure, but that point in time isn’t an end, it’s a beginning. When Christ gives us the right to become children of God, from that point on, the rest of life is about that becoming. In theological language, the terms are justification and sanctification. Justification is the point where our sins are wiped away and we are given that new status as children of God; it’s the point where we are spiritually reborn. Just as physical birth is the beginning of the process of growing up, justification is the beginning of the process of sanctification, of being remade holy in God’s image, as our new heart, the new life within us, transforms us from the inside out.

The truth we tend to lose sight of here is that this story isn’t just about what has already happened. Jesus came, and he has saved us, but that’s not the end of the story, or the end of his work; that will only come when he returns. We have been saved, we are being transformed, we are being made ready; what we are is not the point, but what we will be. What has happened points us forward to what is yet to come. That’s why, as I said last week, this season of Advent isn’t just about preparing our hearts to celebrate Christmas, to welcome the child in the manger—it’s also about preparing our hearts to welcome the conquering king on a white horse, the one who will overthrow the nations and all earthly powers, and reign over all creation forever and ever.

Which is why we need to keep ourselves ready for his return, to live in anticipation. We are waiting for the light to break fully upon our sin-darkened world, for the sun of righteousness to rise with healing in its wings; and the dawn for which we wait will be the last, as the promises and warnings given through Isaiah and Malachi will finally be completely fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven will be established on earth at last. We are waiting for the light, just as Israel was waiting; and just like Israel, we must keep faithful watch if we want to be ready when Jesus comes. As he said in Matthew 25, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. . . . Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

Keep awake, Jesus tells us; keep alert. Remember that the Light of the World has come, and is coming again, and that when he comes, all that has been done in secret will be revealed for all to see. Remember, and do not lose heart, for to you who received him and believed in his name he has given the right to become children of God, who have been born anew by his Holy Spirit. This is not something that you have earned, and therefore it is not something you can lose; by his own grace and love he has given you the right to become children of God, and he has put his own Spirit in your hearts who has the power to make you children of God. The gift is yours, the work is his; and he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it, to make you ready for the day when he will come again to bring you home to be with him forever. This is the promise of the gospel for you this day, and every day.

Can I Get a Witness?

(Isaiah 40:1-11, Malachi 3:1-7; John 1:6-9)

Did any of you wonder, listening to our gospel passage this morning, what it’s doing here? You’ve probably heard it many times before, but maybe this time you suddenly wondered why the apostle John stops talking about Jesus for a while and starts talking about John the Baptizer instead. Or maybe you’ve wondered about that all the way along, and never really gotten an answer. Why does the gospel suddenly take our eyes off the Son of God, the Word, the source of all life and light, and start talking about his PR guy? One paragraph in, and we’ve already changed the subject.

The thing is, though, there are good reasons for this. For instance, there were folks floating around who thought that John the Baptizer was the Messiah, so the apostle John is taking a minute to draw the distinction. At a deeper level, though, is this truth: it matters, profoundly, that Jesus had someone going ahead of him to announce his coming. That’s a very, very important fact, in two ways. One, this is part of the evidence that he was in fact the promised Messiah, because God had promised that the Messiah would not show up unannounced; and two, God had made that promise for good reason. If people were unprepared for Jesus’ coming, or if they’re unprepared when he comes again—and there are plenty of warnings in Scripture about that—it isn’t because God likes to catch us by surprise. Whenever God is going to do anything big, he gives us plenty of advance warning; if we’re not ready, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Consider this. Yes, Jesus’ arrival was missed by most of the powerful people of this world, because he didn’t come on their terms—he wasn’t born in a palace, or to a rich and influential family; he didn’t do it the way they would have done it. But they could have seen him, if they’d been watching, because God gave them the chance to pay attention. The angels announced Jesus’ birth, even if it was only to mere shepherds. The star alerted the powerful court astrologers of the great Persian Empire; they recognized the sign that someone important had been born, and sent a delegation to see who it was. Along the way, they tipped off the Jewish leaders (who didn’t react well, on the whole). And as the time drew near for Jesus to begin his public ministry, up popped John to let Israel know that the Messiah was close at hand. Jesus’ appearance was no sneak attack, designed to catch the people of God off guard; it was no pop quiz. His people had advance warning, time to prepare themselves, just as God had promised. John was important because he was the fulfillment of that promise.

If you look at the two Old Testament passages primarily associated with him and his ministry, you begin to see why that mattered so much. Both look forward to the day when the Lord would come to his people, but they see that day very differently. In Isaiah, when the voice calls out, “Prepare the way for the Lord,” it’s a joyous moment: the Lord is coming to reveal his glory to the whole world by delivering his people from exile, and all will be well again. Malachi, by contrast, asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” When God comes, he will cleanse and refine his people—and especially the priests—washing and burning away all their impurities. Those who have been faithful to him will come out of it shining like gold and silver; but those who haven’t, those who have done evil, will be harshly judged.

In both these passages, we see the firm conviction that the Lord has not changed and does not change. God’s people will be preserved and can trust him to do what he says he will do, because he’s faithful even if his people aren’t. He will purify his people so that their offerings are acceptable to him, and in the end, all things will be as they should be. This truly is reason for Isaiah’s rejoicing, but also for the somber tone we hear in Malachi, because it means that the coming of the Lord will be a time of judgment as well as of deliverance; thus the messenger going before him would bring words of warning as well as words of promise. We need to wrap our minds around this before we can truly understand what it meant for John to bear witness to the light; the coming of the light frees people from darkness, but it also exposes everything that has been done in the darkness, and for some, this is far from pleasant. For some, the coming of the light isn’t good news at all—it’s bad news.

That’s why John preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as Luke 3:3 tells us, because he understood what too many of his hearers didn’t: the coming of the Messiah wasn’t going to be an automatic blessing for the Jewish people. They, too, had to prepare their hearts to set aside their sins and obey him; they wouldn’t get a free pass. Thus John called his hearers to radical repentance, including giving away whatever they could to those in need, because the Lord was coming as he had promised, and his coming would bring judgment. Those who repented of their sins and sought to follow him would be blessed, while those who refused would be destroyed.

This might sound harsh to our ears, but it is the message the Baptizer was given; this is what it meant for him to bear witness to the light. At Christmas, we tend to see images of a nice, feel-good Jesus who wants everybody to be nice and happy, but that’s really not what Jesus was on about, and so that’s not what John was on about. Far from it. He disrupted the lives of everyone around him; he did whatever he could to unsettle people, to hook their attention and shake them up. This even—especially—included the religious leaders of his day; they were the chief moral authorities of his society, but he called them a nest of snakes. He shouted to the world at the top of his lungs that business as usual was no longer acceptable; he bluntly told people they needed to change their way of living, or else. He did everything in his power to capture his hearers’ imaginations so that when Jesus came, they would pay attention to him. He preached like there was no tomorrow because he knew that Jesus was coming to fulfill both Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3, and that it was literally a matter of life or death whether people were ready.

Jesus was the Messiah, but not the Messiah Israel expected—rather than challenging their enemies, he challenged the Jews themselves. He upset people’s expectations of who he was supposed to be, and sometimes he upset their furniture. He didn’t play to the crowds; when they wanted to make him king over Israel, he took off, and sometimes his teaching seemed calculated to drive away followers rather than to attract more. But after all, he had come to deliver us, not from political misrule, but from a far greater evil than that; he had come to win final victory over the devil, and the greater the deliverance, the greater the disruption. (Just ask the ancient Israelites; they were scarcely out of Egypt before they started complaining about the terrible things this move to the desert had done to their menu planning.) It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus was such a disruptive figure; like his herald, he would do anything to show people their need for repentance—for forgiveness—for himself.

Put another way, Jesus came to bless us, but not to give us an easy blessing; as Malachi says, he came to refine us, to bless us with fire. We are full of impurities, and our beauty is marred, and so he comes to us to purify us with the flame of his Holy Spirit. It’s a telling thing that Malachi says, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,” because refining silver takes great care and attention; the art of the silversmith is exacting, requiring considerable patience for the metal’s true beauty to be revealed.

There’s a story told about a group of women doing a Bible study on Malachi who discovered this in a wonderful way; they were puzzled that the prophet specifies a refiner of silver when gold is more valuable, and so one of them decided to do some research on the matter. She called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him work. As she watched, he held a piece of silver over the fire to heat up, and he explained that in refining silver, it’s necessary to hold it in the middle of the fire, where it is hottest, in order to burn away the impurities.

The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot, and remembered that Malachi says that the Lord will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith if he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. He said yes; in fact, not only did he have to sit there holding the silver in place, he had to keep his eyes on it the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver were left in the flames even a moment too long, it would be ruined.

The woman was silent for a moment, then asked, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” The silversmith smiled at her and said, “That’s easy. I know it’s done when I see my face reflected in it.”

That, you see, is what the Lord is doing with each of us: he’s refining us, burning away our impurities, until we reflect his face. That’s the message of Advent, that Christ came to earth to call us to himself and to begin that process in us, and that he’s coming again to complete that process and take us home with him. This is why in Advent we don’t just look backward to Christ’s first coming, but also forward to his second coming; this is why the call of Advent is to prepare our hearts for his coming by taking a good, hard look at ourselves, admitting our sin, and turning away from it, and toward him.


(Isaiah 40:18-26; John 1:3-5)

Beginnings come in darkness. In Genesis 1, when God created the heavens and the earth, what’s the first thing he says? “Let there be light.” And by his word, there is light in the darkness. When we’re born, we are born from the darkness of the womb into the light of the delivery room. I can promise you that every one of my sermons begins in the darkness of obscurity and uncertainty and unformed thoughts; by God’s grace I trust they end up in the light of clarity and truth, but they certainly don’t start there.

And as John tells us, it was into the darkness of our world, the darkness of fear and hatred and pain, that Jesus came. He didn’t have to; he was the Word by whom God created everything that is, and he is the Light who lit up the primordial night. His life is the only reason anything lives. All things began when he set the light of his life shining into the darkness, and that light has never stopped shining. He is the one who lit the stars and set them spinning; he is the source of all true light and everything that is, and there is nothing at all that exists that he did not create. He didn’t have to step down from light into darkness, and it shouldn’t have been necessary; the only response to his goodness and his glory should have been worship and awe.

But we human beings resist that; we keep turning away from the one who made everything that is to chase after things that are not, things of our own imagination, little gods of our own preference. We turn our backs on the giver of all light to pursue things that are blind because we cannot make them see, and so we consign ourselves to darkness—to the darkness of our selfishness, our uncertainty, our ignorance, our fear, our anger, left with only our own desires and our need for control to guide our path. So the Bible means when it tells us that all have sinnedall, mind you, even the best of us—and fallen short of the glory of God.

And so Jesus who is the light and the source of all life, who gave life to all that is and light for the day and night, who watched those whom he had made, whom he loved, reject the light of his presence for the darkness of our own self-will, was not willing to let that stand; and so he came down into the darkness of human society—into the darkness of the human heart—and became one of us; the God of all creation, shaper of the planets and kindler of the stars, was born as one ordinary human baby, among the ordinary people of the land, so that he could speak to those he loved face to face. His light which had been shining from the beginning of creation now shone out undiminished from one indisputably human face, where it could not be ignored or explained away, though many tried; and though the powers that be finally tried to snuff it out by killing him, yet his light still shines, for he rose again, shattering the darkness and showing the end of its power. And though he has left this earth in his body, he left behind his teachings and his church, and in us, however imperfectly, his light shines even now.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not—mastered it. The translation you heard says “the darkness has not understood it,” others say “the darkness has not overcome it,” but we shouldn’t be choosing, because both are meant here. The light is fundamentally separate from the darkness, which cannot understand it, cannot comprehend it, cannot control it, cannot do anything to it, and above all cannot put it out. There is no darkness so deep that light will not shine through; there is no night so dark that you cannot see Jesus. The darkness tried to put him out, and it’s tried many times to quench his light in his people—all too often with our help; but through it all, despite it all, Jesus is still faithful, and still at work, and he still rules, not the darkness. Through it all, the light shines.

Before There Was Time

(Genesis 1:1-3; John 1:1-2)

There’s a scene in Goethe’s Faust in which Dr. Faust sets out to translate the New Testament into German. Reading John 1:1, he decides that “Word” is an inadequate translation for the Greek word logos and goes looking for an alternative. He tries “In the beginning was the Thought,” and “In the beginning was the Power,” but neither is good enough; in the end, he triumphantly renders it, “In the beginning was the Act.”

Now, we’ll come back to the accuracy of that translation in a minute; but you can see why he would read “In the beginning was the Word” and think, “That’s odd; there has to be a better way to put that.” It is odd. If John wants to talk about Jesus, why doesn’t he just talk about Jesus like everyone else? What’s all this “Word” stuff?

The answer is that he wants to say more about Jesus than he could just by talking about Jesus the Jewish carpenter. To do that, he grabbed hold of a word that carried particular meaning for everyone in his audience. To the Greeks, for instance, logos was almost a religious concept. It meant “word,” but it was more than that; it also meant “reason” or “understanding.” That’s where we get words like “biology”—bios meant “life,” and so we have the logos, the understanding, of life: the science of living organisms.

Philosophers like Heraclitus carried this further. The great idea for Heraclitus is that everything is always changing; for instance, he said that it’s impossible to step into the same river twice, because when you when you step back in, it’s a different river—the water has flowed on and everything has changed. The problem is, if all is change, why isn’t life complete chaos? His answer was the Logos, the eternal principle of reason and order which underlies the universe and holds it all together. Other Greek thinkers took this and carried it forward, and so there was this concept of the Logos as the mind of God—an impersonal God, to be sure—which guides, controls, and directs all things.

If this was an important concept to the Greeks, though, it meant even more to the Jews. The Hebrew word for “word” is dabar, which has a much more active sense to it than logos; in fact, dabar doesn’t just mean “word,” but can also mean “deed” or “act.” This is particularly true when it’s used of God; again and again in Scripture, right from the start, we see “the word of the LORD” as the agent of his powerful creative or redeeming work. He speaks, and the world comes to be; the word of the LORD comes to the prophets, and they speak, and the world changes. In Isaiah 55:11, God declares, “My word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but shall achieve my purpose, and shall accomplish that for which I sent it”; in the Psalms, we have descriptions of God sending out his word to heal his people and to melt the winter snows. God’s word is his act, it is his power in motion to carry out his will. Faust’s translation may be reductionist, especially given Goethe’s Germany, but it isn’t really wrong.

You can see then that the word logos already holds great meaning for both Jews and Greeks; John can say what he wants to say about Jesus by calling him “the Word,” because his audience will already have an idea what that means. It’s hard to describe Jesus in a way that really captures his greatness and his uniqueness, because we try to understand him in terms of our normal frame of reference—to find someone we can compare him to, so that we can say, “Jesus is like that,” when in truth Jesus is like no one else who ever lived, either before him or after. To keep us from imagining Jesus as merely human is very difficult; but that’s what John is trying to do.

He starts, then, on a cosmic scale: “In the beginning was the Word.” He’s echoing the first words of Genesis, but at the same time, he’s going beyond them. Genesis begins “when God created the heavens and the earth,” but John looks further back: to the beginning of all things, the root of the universe, the point of origin, before anything existed, when there was only God. That’s why William Barclay rendered this, “When the world had its beginning, the Word was already there,” because it’s a beginning before the world’s beginning. From before there was time, the Word, Jesus, was there.

But not only was the Word there, “the Word was with God.” Or rather, the Greek word here isn’t the word “with,” but a word we usually translate “to” or “toward”; but to say “The Word was toward God” sounds rather strange. The point here, I think, is that the Word didn’t just exist alongside God with no connection, as if they were only neighbors, but in close relationship with him. We might say, “the Word was face-to-face with God,” on intimate terms with him. In making this statement, John is stressing two things: one, that the Word is a distinct person from God as the Jews conceived of God, the person whom the New Testament calls the Father; and two, that there is deep fellowship between God and the Word, a deep personal relationship.

Having established that distinction, John comes back with the statement, “the Word was God.” This must have floored his Jewish readers; in defiance of the pagan world around them, they understood that there was only one God, who alone created the world and was separate from it, not to be confused with any part of his creation. They could affirm the Word as a created being, highest of the angels, but God? Hard stuff, yet John the Jew affirms it unflinchingly: the Word was God. Not identical with God as the Jews understood God, for John has already made it clear that the Word is a separate person, but fully God; we might say that the Word was as truly God as God the Father was. Anything that might be said of God might be said of the Word, and vice versa; anything that is true of one is true of the other.

Lest this lead to any false conclusions, John follows this up with the statement, “The Word was in the beginning with God.” He reaffirms that the Word is distinct from God and eternal together with God; the Word was not created by God, nor is “the Word” simply another name for God. At the same time, though, the Word isn’t a second God, either, because the Word and God are one. How this can be so is beyond our ability to understand, yet John affirms it as true; and from this point, and others, the early church would come to affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in one being, God. This, too, is beyond our ability to fully understand; and yet the Scriptures lead us there, the Spirit leads us there, and so we affirm it as true, even as we acknowledge it as a mystery.

Now, these are deep waters, and you may well be wondering why John starts here—why he doesn’t start off with stories of angels and pregnancy and birth and sheep like Matthew and Luke do; but again, it’s because he’s trying to do something different. Their concern was to establish Jesus’ bonafides, if you will—to show where he came from and make the case that he was indeed the long-promised Messiah of the Jews. John, writing later, doesn’t need to repeat what they’ve already done, so he wants to make a different case: his concern is to show why it matters. He’s answering the “so what?” question and telling us why we should care.

Familiarity has dulled our ears to the answer he gives, but it’s still an answer to stagger our souls to the core if we’ll really hear it: an unmarried girl got pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy who was God. Not thought he was God, not was very godly, not was a minor god, not was close to God—but was, completely and totally in every atom of his being, the one and only God who created everything that is and keeps it all going with a thought. He was fully human—he was born human, he ate, he laughed, he wept like any other human, and he died like any other human, only much, much worse—and yet he was also fully God. At the same time, God was up in heaven, but God was also down here walking the earth as one of us, and they loved each other perfectly, and wanted us to share in their perfect love—and that’s why God was born among the animals and the outcasts and the poor, so that the broken relationship between us and him could be healed.

And because of this, we can know God. There are people out there who argue—you may know some of them—that we really can’t limit God by saying anything about him, and we certainly have no right to tell anyone else that their ideas about God might be wrong, because God is simply too big for our puny efforts to describe him. (In particular, we have no right to tell them that anything they’re doing is wrong, because that doesn’t fit their idea of God.) Those folks are right about how big God is, no question, but they’re wrong in their assumption that Christianity is merely human efforts to describe him—because in Jesus, God described himself. In Jesus, God came down and he took everything he’d ever told us to that point and said, “Look—see me? This is what all this looks like. This is who I am.” Jesus was born, and we stopped having to hear about God second-hand for a while—he spoke to us directly and told us the truth about himself, and us, and the world. Because of Jesus, we can know God; we can trust God; we can believe in God. Because of Jesus, we need not be afraid, for God is with us.