January 3, 2019
Jesus – our “window” into God – J. Barry Vaughn – Dec. 30, 2018
One of the things that sets Christianity apart from other religions is the centrality of Jesus. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism share an emphasis on a central figure: For Christians, it is Jesus; for Jews, Moses; for Muslims, Mohammed; and for Buddhists, Buddha. But Moses, Mohammed, and even Buddha are all, in some sense, law-givers. But Jesus is unique. And today’s gospel reading, the first 18 verses of John’s gospel is the New Testament’s most comprehensive statement of Jesus’ uniqueness.
Another thing that sets Christianity apart is that we have not one but four “biographies” of Jesus. I use the word “biography” very cautiously because the four gospels are certainly not biographies in the modern sense. They are not interested in what Jesus had for lunch. They don’t tell us the name of his first grade teacher or who his heroes and heroines were.
The gospels are attempts at coming to terms with Jesus’ uniqueness.
Mark, the first gospel, portrays Jesus as mysterious and enigmatic. Jesus continually tells those who witness his miracles not to tell anyone about what they have witnessed. In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus heals a leper, and then says, “See that you say nothing to anyone.”
Even Mark’s account of the resurrection is mysterious. The women who come to Jesus’ tomb and find it empty flee in terror. The last four words of the original ending of Mark’s gospel are: “For they were afraid.”
The gospel writer we know as Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses, a new law-giver. Like Moses, Jesus goes up on a mountain and delivers a new Torah, the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Luke portrays Jesus as one who has a profound concern for the poor and disenfranchised. Only Luke contains the story of the Good Samaritan, the traveler who finds a man who has been beaten and left for dead on the road to Jericho, who provides first aid, takes him to an inn, and pays for the man’s care.
Luke also portrays Jesus as one who has a special connection with God’s Spirit. Every time something important happens in Jesus’ life, Luke tells us that he was “filled with the Spirit.” The beginning of the 4th chapter of Luke says, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit … was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” A little later in the same chapter it says, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…”
Then around the end of the 1rst c. or at the beginning of the 2nd c., the author we know as John wrote the last of the four canonical accounts of Jesus’ life.
Today’s gospel reading, the first 18 verses of John, is usually called the “prologue.” In many ways it is a summary or abstract of John’s gospel.
In these verses, John uses 3 metaphors to explain Jesus’ uniqueness: Jesus is the Word of God; the Light of God; and the Glory of God.
The concept of “word” was central in the Jewish faith.
It was through the “word” that God created the universe: “God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God spoke all things into being.
The prophets expressed their relationship with God by invoking the concept of the divine word.
When Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, he said, “The word of the Lord came to me…” (Jer. 1.4) The prophet Micah begins, “The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth…”
But John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God expressed in a human life. In Jesus the Word has taken on flesh and blood and “dwelt among us.” In Jesus, God’s great monologue has become a dialogue. Jesus doesn’t just tell us ABOUT God; Jesus lives out the truth of God.
The second metaphor John uses is light: Jesus is the “true light that enlightens everyone.” John expands on this concept of light later in the gospel. Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
John also employs the metaphor of light in more subtle ways. The Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night” as a way of showing that he is in spiritual darkness. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb of Jesus “while it is still dark” as a way of showing that the light of the resurrection is just about to dawn.
Finally, John tells us that Jesus is the glory of God: “…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.”
This is the most enigmatic of the metaphors. Jesus is the glory of God expressed in a life of service, not self-aggrandizement. For John the glorification of Jesus takes place upon the cross, the cruelest and most shameful death that the Romans could inflict on a convicted person. Crucifixion was the punishment that Romans imposed for the worst of crimes. And yet it is the moment when the glory of God shines most brightly in the life of Jesus.
What metaphor would you choose for expressing the uniqueness of Jesus?
When the canon of the New Testament closed, we did not stop seeking metaphors and images that help us explain the uniqueness of Jesus.
English bishop and theologian John A.T. Robinson in his book Honest to God, referred to Jesus as the “window” through which we see Jesus.
As I thought about the metaphors the gospel writers use to explain Jesus, I thought of a new one.
A musical instrument cannot effectively communicate unless it is in tune. Similarly, none of us can effectively communicate the truth of God in our lives unless we are tuned to the key of the gospel, the good news. All of us are to greater or lesser degrees out of tune.
Jesus was the only one who ever lived who was perfectly tuned to the key of God. In his life we hear God’s music as it was meant to be heard.
In this new year I want to challenge all of us to listen carefully to the music of God and try to tune our lives more and more carefully so that we can be in harmony with God’s purpose in our lives.
While seated, let us pray:
You come to us as one unknown without a name, as of old by the lakeside you came to those who knew you not. You speak to us the same word, “Follow me,” and you set us to the tasks which you would have us fulfill in our time. You command. And to those who obey you, whether we are wise or simple, you will reveal yourself in the toils, the conflicts, the suffering, which we will pass through in your fellowship. And as an unspeakable mystery we shall learn in our own experience who you are. Amen. (adapted from Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus.)
Judging by the amount of time and energy we devote to it, Christmas is the most important celebration of the Christian faith. The Christmas season begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when shoppers descend on the malls and buy up all the electronics, cologne, … It makes the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the magi brought to baby Jesus look kind of puny.
Actually, these days the Christmas season can begin as early as Halloween. That’s when the malls start to play Christmas music.
But the early church did not celebrate Christmas at all. They only celebrated Easter. That’s one reason that Mark’s gospel, the earliest gospel, does not include a Christmas story. Mark begins with the appearance of John the Baptizer.
The next two gospels – Matthew and Luke – corrected Mark’s omission. Matthew and Luke included Christmas stories, but they told the story of Jesus’ birth in completely different ways.
Finally, along came John. John also omitted the Christmas story. Instead, John pushed the story of Jesus back to the beginning of time itself: “In the beginning was the Word…”