May 31, 2015 Trinity Sunday
The New Beginning
St. John 1:1-18
Whenever we consider creation, as we do today, we must not neglect to look briefly at two competing theories of God’s creation of woman and man. One theory is woman’s, the other is man’s.
In the first, God created man, looked him up and down and said, “I can do better than this.” And He made woman. In the second, God created the beasts and man and then He rested. And then He made woman. And neither beast nor man nor God has rested since.
They’re only theories.
In the Bible, beginnings matter . . . and not only for the sake of themselves. A beginning is of utmost importance, and so something or Someone who came before it is beyond important. He is divine.
As we begin to explore John’s gospel we begin where he begins, most deliberately: in the beginning. We can have no doubt that the evangelist is self-consciously harking back to the opening sentence of Genesis.
But where the reader expects, “In the beginning, God . . .” what he finds is, “In the beginning was the Word . . .” God’s word is a powerful thing. God speaks things into existence; God’s word creates.
And so now we learn, “In the beginning was the Word . . .” The word, personified, is Christ, and He was. The little verb “to be” will reveal deep secrets if we listen to it attentively. In the Bible, it dwells in the special province of the Father and the Son.
The Father commanded Moses to return to Egypt and tell the Jews God had sent him. Moses said:
"Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, `What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (Exodus 3:13).
God replied: "I AM WHO I AM." And He said, "Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you'" (3:14).
To describe God is to limit Him in some way, and this we must not do.
The leaders of Israel scoffed at Jesus’ claim that He had seen their father Abraham. The Son replied:
"Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:58).
Being belongs to God in a special sense because He was and is and will always be. All that He has created was not. It became. And so we see that being is one thing and becoming quite another.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The evangelist has taken us to a time before time that we might have a divine perspective on what is to follow, what becomes. All that becomes – the created order – was not in the beginning of which he speaks.
The second verse restates the first, emphasizing that the Word, Christ, was with the Father when all the created things came into being.
If the Word was present then, He cannot be part of the created order. He must be divine.
The third verse introduces a verb to compete with “was.” This new verb is usually translated “became,” but not here. In John 1:3 it is rendered “was made.” What God made has become. Having used “was” three times, the evangelist now sets up a duel, using “was made” three times:
“All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Three “becomes” stand in contrast to the threefold “was” of eternity past. Not only was the Word present with the Father at creation but He was the Father’s agent in making all that is.
The Word is not only eternal, He is the Creator-God. Verse 4:
“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” We have crossed a threshold. Now, the verb “was” speaks of both what was and is. In Genesis, God said, “Let there be light, and there was light” (1:3).
He spoke light into existence. Light became at God’s word. Light was the first thing God spoke into existence . . . in the beginning. Now, in the Word is life, which is the light of men. The evangelist is presenting a new beginning, a new creation.
Here is the vital point of John’s prologue, the idea we must not let escape us. God is starting anew. The Scriptures tell a tale wrapped up in a cycle, a cycle of creation, de-creation and re-creation.
God created, Adam and Eve de-created by their sin and God re-created, revealing that the Seed of the woman would in time crush the head of the seed of the serpent, the serpent who led them in introducing sin into God’s good world.
When man’s sin was again rampant upon the earth, God sent a great flood to obliterate sin and then re-created, beginning again with Noah and his family. Sin again spread like fungus and God scattered the nations at the Tower of Babel and began again, calling Abraham forth from Ur of the Chaldees to form a nation for His holy name.
The cycle repeats until the Seed of the woman arrives to make an end of things. This Seed is the Word, in which is life which is the light of men. Salvation history, then, does not begin on the cross or even in the garden. God’s plan of salvation was in place in the beginning, present in the eternal Word who would put on flesh.
In Genesis, God’s light overcame the chaos that was the primitive darkness. This light was a prerequisite for life. In this new beginning, the life of Christ – Christ through whom, way back then, all things became – is the light of men.
This light will bring order where there has been only the darkness of sin. Sin has generated the chaos of old in the creation and the darkness is of the same nature as that of old. There is light in creation and in re-creation.
In the confession of sins in the prayer book’s order for family evening prayer, we make this plea to God regarding our sins, “Make us deeply sensible of the great evil of them . . .”
We will not try to gussy up our sins or pretend them away. They are the cause of the darkness that has descended upon the world, bringing back the old chaos. A theologian named Bob Hope once sized up the situation:
“It’s a wonderful world. It may destroy itself, but you’ll be able to watch it on TV.”
In fact, despite our best efforts we will not destroy this world. Our God is too merciful to allow it. He will preserve His creation and He will preserve His faithful remnant. He gave His only Son up to a ghastly death to ensure its ongoing existence.
But before Christ came John the Baptist. The sixth verse gives us an abrupt shift, from the creation of the world to the approach of the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”
Bear with me one last time as we examine the underlying language because translation issues can obscure important matters. The word rendered “was” here is the one I mentioned earlier is usually translated “became.”
What “was” has priority. What “became” serves what “was.”
This man was the forerunner of the Word but unlike the Word he was not divine. The evangelist John goes on to spell out that the Baptist John was merely a witness to the Light and not the Light itself.
The Baptist accumulated a sizable cult and the evangelist may be at pains to discourage worship of him. In the process he surfaces the topic of witness, which will be an important theme as we go forward.
Elsewhere in the gospels, we are introduced to Jesus through His lineage and His birth narrative and stories of His early years. The author of the Fourth Gospel takes us back to the creation because he would have us know this is the beginning of salvation history.
Before the world, before sin, before Abraham, the great I AM who would save the world was. Beginnings matter. What was before the beginning matters.
He picks up with John the Baptist, who fulfills the prophecy of Malachi 3 of the messenger who “will prepare the way” (v. 1).
The 10th and 11th verses bring startling news: “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.”
When the eternal Word that is life entered the world – can you imagine? – what became treated its Creator as an intruder. It knew Him not.
Whither Thou comest? By whose warrant art Thou here? State Thy business forthwith or remove Thyself.
Did He not create them . . . all of them? Yet they received Him not.
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Just as God had preserved His faithful remnant in Israel He has set apart these who were born of God. These verses anticipate Jesus’ famous encounter with Nicodemus in chapter 3. The God who has granted us natural birth can cause spiritual birth. Yes, Nicodemus, we can be born again.
The Word took on flesh and dwelt – literally “tabernacled” – among us. He is our temple, the One in whom and by whom and through whom we meet God the Father. The Word is the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth; the One of whom John bore witness because before John became, Jesus was.
Because of Him we have exchanged lesser grace, that of the law, for greater grace, that of the new covenant. Moses delivered God’s law; Jesus Christ delivers God’s grace and truth. No one has seen God the Father . . . We need not, for the Word has declared Him.
In chapters 10 and 14 we will hear the Son identifying Himself so closely with His Father that, “I and My Father are one” (10:30).
Beloved in Christ, this is the new beginning, the new creation, the new birth. The God who breathed life into a lump of clay to form man has breathed life into us who were dead in our trespasses and sins to reform man.
We who have become owe our life and our life to Him who was.
And so here we begin where John begins, in the beginning, because it matters a great deal where we begin.
A Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher and a rabbi all served as chaplains to the students of the University of Maine. They met frequently for coffee and talked shop. One day, someone suggested that preaching to people wasn’t all that difficult. Preaching to a bear would be a real challenge.
Well, one thing led to another and they decided to perform an experiment. Each of them would go into the woods, find a bear, preach to it and try to convert it to their religion. Seven days later, they all came together to talk over what happened.
Father Flannery had his arm in a sling, was using crutches and had bandages on various parts of his anatomy. He went first.
“Well,” he said, “I went into the woods to find a bear and when I found him I began to read to him from the catechism.
“Well, that bear wanted nothing to do with me and he began to slap me around. So I grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him and he became as gentle as a lamb. The bishop is coming out next week to give him first communion and confirmation.”
Pastor Billy Bob the Baptist spoke next. He was in a wheelchair, had one arm and both legs in casts and had an IV drip. “Well, brothers, you know that we Baptists don’t sprinkle. I went out and found me a bear and then I begin to read to him from God’s holy word but that bear is havin’ none of it so I take hold of him and we begin to wrestle.
“We wrestle down one hill, up another and down another until we come to a creek. So I dunk him and baptiz his hairy soul and just like you said he becomes as gentle as a lamb. We spent the rest of the day praisin’ Jesus. Hallelujah!”
The priest and the pastor both looked down at the rabbi, who was lying in a hospital bed. He was in a body cast and traction and had IVs and monitors plugged into various places.
The rabbi looked up and said, “Looking back on it, circumcision may not have been the best way to begin.”
Beginnings matter. Amen.