Sunday, January 3, 2016

"So It Begins..." (John 1:1-18)

All the gospels tell the story of Jesus.
And they all start… at the beginning.
But “the beginning” is different for each of the gospel writers.
The first gospel written was Mark. Mark’s “beginning” includes an introductory quote by the prophet Isaiah, and moves right in to the work of John the Baptist.
It makes sense. That’s a good place to begin, with the prophet, and the forerunner.
Matthew and Luke were written about a decade after Mark. They go back further to an earlier beginning. Matthew starts off immediately by mentioning Abraham, the father of – well – everyone, and then moves into the story of Jesus’s birth.
The first name to appear in Luke’s story is King Herod, but after describing the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus, Luke then includes a geneaology that traces Jesus’s family tree back to Adam, the son of God. It’s almost like Luke is trying to “one-up” Matthew; Matthew went back to Abraham, so Luke goes back even further, to Adam.
But the prize for the beginning that comes before all other beginnings goes to John. John’s gospel begins with words and phrases that deliberately draw the reader’s attention to Genesis, chapter one.
The first words of Genesis, the first words of the entire Bible, are: “In the beginning.”
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”
Each day of creation in Genesis begins with the phrase, “And God said.” It is by God’s word that the heavens and earth were created.
 So when John writes, “In the beginning,” the reader immediately goes, “A-ha! He’s referring to Genesis.”
“In the beginning was the Word…”
The Word? Yes! The word by which the heavens and earth were created. God spoke the Word… God said “Let there be…” and there was!
We sometimes forget how important words are. Words are incredibly powerful. And yet…
We’re careless with our words. We throw them around like cheap confetti. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “On the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Maybe we should pay a little more attention to words.
Words used carelessly can cause terrible damage. Just consider all the people who say they are Christian, and then act in un-christianlike ways. They are judgmental, they are racist, they are unkind, they lack compassion… yet proudly boast that they are Christians. When a person does that, the world associates the words “I’m a Christian” with thoughtless, uncompassionate, unkind behavior. Those words they speak are damaging to the body of Christ. They bear false witness against the God of all people, the God who loves all people. They destroy the church, and they destroy people’s lives.
Words are powerful. And they can be used either for good or for bad.
The heavens and earth were created by God’s Word. God’s Word is so full of truth, that the minute the word is spoken, whatever was said becomes real. It’s almost like casting a magic spell, where the power of the spell is in the word… God said “light,” and instantly, there was light.
God said “oceans,” and oceans appeared. God said “creatures,” and creatures appeared. There is no discrepancy between God’s Word and God’s actions. Word and action are one in the same.
People today say, “Don’t talk the talk unless you can walk the walk.” Too many people talk without walking. They speak, but their actions contradict what they say.
Not so with God. Word and action are one. Whatever is said is real and true.
Imagine if, every time we spoke, we understood the incredible power of words. Imagine if, every time we posted a comment on social media, we understood the power of words. If you read comments online, you’ll find a lot of unkind, rude, inflammatory words; bullying and name-calling and personal insults.
All words have power; the power to create or destroy. And lives have been destroyed by the careless, thoughtless, and downright mean words that people sometimes use when communicating with each other.
A few weeks before Christmas, 12 year-old Daniel Gutierrez of Clovis, New Mexico, was found by his father hanging in a closet at home. His father said Daniel tried to commit suicide after being bullied at school. 911 was called, and Daniel’s father began CPR. Daniel is now recovering, although it’s likely there is some brain damage.
That’s the power of words that are unkind and hurtful.
If ever we’re tempted to be careless with our words, John reminds us: it all began with a word. The Word. Certainly, the Word is important enough that it gets a definite article. And a capital ‘W’ in our English translations.
Because the Word is truth. The Word is wisdom. The Word is God’s creative power at work.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Think about that: the Word was God. God’s Word and God’s actions are so united that the Word is God.
Then John says: “He was in the beginning with God.”
So, rather quickly, the Word went from being a “thing” to being a “person.”
This is not where we usually find the Word. The Word usually appears on the pages of a book. A book like the Bible. We often say that the Bible is the Word of God.
But John says no; the Bible is not the Word of God; the Word of God is a person. Scripture testifies to the Word, but it is not, itself, the Word of God.
The Word was in the world. This Word became a person, became flesh, and lived among us.
Now, if you were a person reading John’s gospel in the time it was written, you would certainly be familiar with the gods of ancient Greece. John’s gospel – like the rest of the New Testament – was written in ancient Greek.
And the ancient Greek gods lived on Mt. Olympus. Did they ever come down from Mt. Olympus and live among the people, as mortal humans, their feet on the ground, getting dusty and calloused, eating and drinking like otherhumans and enduring all the limitations that humans endure?
No! In the world of ancient religions, this idea that the Word-that-is-God would become flesh and live among us was quite radical.
John’s gospel doesn’t talk about Jesus’s birth. He doesn’t need to. He makes the same point as Matthew and Luke with their birth stories, although in a different way. In the baby Jesus, we see the love of God expressed. We see the Word of God in action.
It would be one thing if God just talked about love. But to truly show love, God became human. God’s Word became a child born into a troubled world, a fragmented world.
And in that troubled, fragmented world, God’s Word spoke of wholeness. He restored people to wholeness. He challenged those who prevented people from finding wholeness in their lives.
Today, the church is the body of Christ. This means that God’s Word finds its expression through us. The Bible guides us. The Spirit guides us. But we are the body of Christ. We are God’s Word in the world today.
Which brings us back to the importance of words.
Think about the people who are making headlines these days, all because of the words they speak. Often, they are inflammatory words. Racist words. Words that divide people. Words that put people down rather than lift them up.
In short, they are words that contribute to the brokenness of this world, words that keep people from finding wholeness.
But we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.
That word, wholeness: in Greek, it’s sozo. It appears a lot in the New Testament, often on the lips of Jesus.
In the Bible it is translated in different ways: wholeness, healing, being made well, salvation.
When Jesus talked about saving people, what he meant was restoring them to wholeness. Making them well.
“You are healed; your faith has saved you. Your faith has made you well. Your faith has made you whole again.”
The message we have to proclaim is the same one Jesus proclaimed. To all those whose lives are broken, who lack wholeness, we speak this Word of truth: no matter what people say, God makes you whole. God welcomes you into his presence. And God invites you to join in the work of bringing wholeness to others.
It doesn’t matter if you are white or black, gay or straight. It doesn’t matter what your gender identity is. It doesn’t matter if you are autistic, have mental illness; it doesn’t matter if you got poor grades in school or have a poor credit record. It doesn’t matter if you are old or young, male or female.
God’s Word is for you. God’s Word dwells within you. It is powerful. It is truth.
For you are a part of the body of Christ.
Through Christ, the Word is in you. Use it wisely.
Through Christ, the Word is in us.
All of this is reflected in our denomination’s identity statement. The Word that brings healing and wholeness is in us.
We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table, as God has welcomed us.

It’s a beautiful statement of who we are, and what we are called to do. May God’s Word be alive in us, in 2016, and for many, many years to come.

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