Pastor Todd Buegler
January 2 & 3, 2016
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God who is the Word made flesh! Amen.
There was once a great theologian. He was a well-respected professor at a prestigious seminary on the east coast. He was well-loved by his students. But he was a man who simply could not express the truth of God in simple English. He did not mean to come across as stuffy and obscure, but he couldn’t help it. He had spent his entire career immersed in his books, and teaching in the classroom.
This deeply intellectual theology professor had a student…from Africa. This African student came to the United States to get a Masters degree at an American seminary. While here, he came to develop a great respect and friendship with the professor.
Later, when the young man returned home to Africa as a pastor, he found himself in a bind. The professor wanted to come visit him. This pastor knew what would happen when the theology professor came. His congregation would want to hear this great theologian preach. Even worse, the theology professor would want to preach. It would be a nightmare in this young pastor’s mind.
However, there was no way for the young man to avoid graciously hosting the professor. The professor came to Africa and while there he preached at the young man’s church. The Sunday he preached, the professor took to the pulpit and his former student stood nearby to translate the sermon into his native Swahili. The professor began like this: “There are two great epistemological theories in the world today,” he began ponderously. The young African pastor paused just a beat, smiled just a little and translated with these words, “Let me tell you about my friend, Jesus.” And so the sermon went. The professor expounded his views on epistemology in deep and ponderous language and the African pastor told the congregation about his friend Jesus.
The task of taking a difficult, heady, theologically meaty concept, and translating it to its basic, simple truths, is what our Gospel today from the Book of John is all about. John was primarily an evangelist…his goal was to convert non-believers. And so he wrote his Gospel with the intent of answering questions that non-believers had about Jesus. The fundamental question John was answering in our Gospel was one that is still asked 2000 years later: “Who is Jesus?”
The first chapter of John is as beautifully written a chapter of scripture as you might find. And in it, John is taking the common Jewish understanding of God…distant and remote…and turning it on its head.
John begins by drawing the parallels: Remember that the first words of the Bible, found in Genesis 1:1 are “In the beginning…” John begins his gospel in the same way: “In the beginning.”
In Genesis 1, God literally speaks the world into existence. God says: “Let there be light” and there was light. “Let there be land, and water…let there be animals…let there be people…” It is through a simple Word of God that all of creation comes into being. God merely speaks, and things begin to happen.
John is telling us of the power of God’s Word. Everything that exists came about because God merely spoke the Word.
We need to think about words for a moment: In our everyday world, we know that words are powerful. Wilfred Peterson once put it this way: “Soft words sung in a lullaby will put a baby to sleep. Excited words will stir a mob to violence. Eloquent words will send armies marching into the face of death. Encouraging words will fan to flame the genius of a Rembrandt or a Lincoln. Powerful words will mold the public mind as a sculptor molds his clay. Words, spoken or written, are a dynamic force…”
I remember when Nathan, our oldest, was born. He was an hour or two old when I called my Mom on her cell phone. She was standing in the checkout line at a Bed, Bath and Beyond. I spoke these words: “Mom, it’s a boy, and his name is Nathan.” My mother burst into tears…right there in line. Nathan was the first grandchild. The other shoppers standing around my sobbing Mother?…well…let’s just say that it was awkward.
Think of the power of words and phrases you might have experienced and the emotional reaction they triggered. Words and phrases like:
- “Graduated with honors”
- Like: “I’m sorry”…”
- Or: “We regret to inform you…”
- “the results are negative”
- “I love you.”
When we hear those phrases, it creates within us an emotional reaction that often moves us to some kind of action. There is power in words.
John knows this. And John is less interested in what words were spoken at creation, and more interested in who said them. John is telling us that in the beginning, Jesus was the Word of God. We most often use the phrase “the word of God” to talk about the scriptures. And that’s correct. But as Lutherans, we believe that the Word of God comes to us most importantly in the person of Jesus Christ. It is to Jesus that the scriptures point.
John is pointing clearly to the Jesus who is fully the Word of God, and who is fully human. How can this be? How can Jesus be these both God and man? John is taking what for us is an “either/or”, and is turning it into a “both/and.” Human, over time, have tried to get our mind wrapped around this, by doing one of two things:
- We either have said “I don’t understand, how it’s possible, so it must not be true.” We deny Jesus as the living Word.
- Or we chosen to understand Jesus as sort of being a human with special, spiritual powers. We think of him as a kind of a spiritual super-hero who can walk on water…heal…raise the dead and do other miracles.
To look at Jesus this way is like looking at the iceberg and assuming that the part sticking out of the water is the whole thing. John is reminding us that there is much more beyond what we can see. When John describes Jesus as “The Word made flesh”, it is a reminder that the part of Jesus we see is still only a fraction of the Word.
Before there was any creation…before there was matter…before there was light and life, there was Word. The word “Word” comes from the greek word “Logos.” From Logos we get the word “logic” as in “thought”, or “brilliance.” The translation then could be “In the beginning was the brilliance of God, and this brilliance was with God, and was God.” John is saying that before something was created, there had to be a mastermind behind it; and from this logic, this thought, this brilliance, all light and life was created.
So, we return to the original question John was trying to answer: who is Jesus? Jesus is a man. He is fully human. He is capable of tears; of pain; of blood and of death. And at the same time, Jesus is fully God’s Word. He is the brilliance of God. He is all-powerful and eternal. Jesus has been present since the beginning. Jesus is the idea, and the plan. Jesus is the process by which the world is redeemed.
Why does any of this matter? Why is so important that John would dedicate the opening to his Gospel to it? Ultimately, John reminds us today that this master intelligence responsible for the creation of the universe, this Word of God, did not stay up in the safety of heaven. God did not remain living, far away from the evil and suffering of earth; God came down to earth to experience…to teach…to show…to suffer…for you and me. This matters because the brilliance of God became the infant Jesus. And Jesus came, John says, to bring light to the dark places in our lives; to bring grace…forgiveness…healing and love. Just as God spoke Words of creation, through Jesus, God speaks salvation to all of His people. Jesus says in John 3…”whoever believes in me shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.” And later, in John 11, Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life…he who believes in me will live…” Jesus speaks these things, to each of us. There is power in Jesus’ words.
In 1991, Mark Wellan, a paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down, climbed Half Dome Mountain in Yosemite National Park. It took two weeks of grueling, dangerous tedious work for Wellan to inch his way up that mountain and into the history books. How in the world did a paraplegic man accomplish such a stunning physical feat? He had a friend. He had met and befriended Mark Corbett, Yosemite’s most experienced rock climber. The two of them cooked up a scheme to make the climb together. Corbett went before Wellan, placing their pitons and finding the best crevices for climbing. He would climb up and scout the best path for Wellan to take, then climb back down the mountain. Wellan said that his friend would whisper words of instruction and encouragement into his ear. “I made the climb”, said Wellan, “because of my friend, Mark. At the times when it was darkest, and the task felt the most impossible and I felt the most depressed and ready to give up, Mark would help me. When I was ready to quit, my friend Mark carried me…sometimes literally.”
It is the same, with your friend, Jesus. The same Jesus Christ who was with God at the beginning of creation; who is the Word, the brilliance, the thought, the idea of God in human form; who went onto a cross on your behalf, came to make God accessible to you. Christ, the Word, is the one who goes ahead of you into death and resurrection…who shows you the way to live…who journeys alongside you and who whispers encouragement in your ear. When times are darkest and life is the most difficult, Jesus is there, like a light; and his light defeats the darkness. Jesus translated God’s love into human flesh. When you have seen Christ, the Word of God, you have seen God. And every day we can look back and say “I am making the climb…I living my life…because of my friend, because of God’s brilliance; because of Jesus.”