1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And 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. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Back in the day, Creation was God’s delight. God was seen in the words that God spoke into Being in light and darkness, water and dry land, plants and flowers and creatures of all kinds. Eden, in it’s perfection, was to be the way in and through which humans came to know the nature of God, to be in relationship with God, to dwell with God. God walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve… until the forbidden fruit thing happened.
Then lots of time passed in which God attempted to find new ways of relating, of capturing the hearts of these strange and wonderful human beings. Trial and error on God’s part – God admitted to Noah that the flood was a mistake. Along the way, God’s Word encouraged and chided, God’s Word was revealed in the 10 commandments given to Moses, God’s Word was given to prophets to speak. But there remained an unbridgeable distance between God and human responsiveness. Something new was called for. A re-configuration, a re-orientation was needed. So God spoke again.
One definition of the word “word” is “that by which the inward thought is expressed.” Jesus is that inward thought of God, expressed in human form, the Word that became flesh.
In this gospel, more than in the others, Jesus’ birth – Jesus coming – as light into the darkness is a new creation: it is God’s reboot of the earthly enterprise. We are starting again, not with creation of new stuff as in the very beginning, but within the very DNA of what already is.
If Jesus signifies this new creation – if Jesus is the new Word that God spoke into being – through which God’s way and will and nature are revealed – then John signifies the new Adam, the new Noah, the new Moses. John is the new template of human interaction and response, he becomes our quintessential guide.
In this Gospel, John is not portrayed as a fiery prophet out in the desert wearing camel hair, eating grasshoppers and honey, preaching a message of repentance, and baptizing awestruck crowds into the kingdom of God. That’s not this John. He is here because he is us, because he is our model for what we are to do. This is John the Witness. The Orthodox Church calls him John the Forerunner. A man sent from God, to go before Jesus and to go in front of us as a guide.
19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,’Make straight the way of the Lord,'” …I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing for this reason, that he might be revealed.”“I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. “I did not know, but I have seen, and have come to believe, and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The rest of the gospel will play with this dynamic of sight, word, truth, light, darkness and speech.
We are introduced to the disciples who say to each other, “Come and See.” We’ll soon meet Nicodemus who comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness, and – in reversal – the Samaritan woman who sees Jesus ‘at the village well’ at mid-day. She runs to tell her people, many of whom come to believe through her testimony. If, at the end of the gospel, you repeat this phrase, “I did not know, but I have seen, and have come to believe,” then the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word of God that dwells among us, will have accomplished its goal. At least one of them.
Because – as evidenced by John the baptizing Witness – enlightenment isn’t simply for our own sake or our own benefit. The gospels do not teach the privatization of faith.
They teach testimony. I know that is not a comfortable concept for most of us, but still, it’s true. It’s also why we appreciate Saint Francis as one who championed living the word of testimony, speaking it only when necessary. We like that better. And that’s fine.
Because it’s not only what we say when we come to see who Christ is in our lives that matters to the author of this gospel – it’s alsowhat the Word compels us to do. It is an enlightening word that can’t be contained, or damped down, or kept to one’s self.
In this gospel, we don’t hear much of what John said or preached. We don’t learn what he looked like or wore or ate. That’s all in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). In iconography, John is often pointing with his forefinger. That was his calling. He pointed Jesus out to others. He showed them the one to follow.
Words without relationship are kind of pointless in our day. There are too many words and too many of them are questionable. But, if our actions can speak for us, if our life patterns and purposes are pointers, sign posts, indicators that we have something life-giving and beautiful to share, some source of living water, some light to shine, then we, too, are using our “voice” to speak of God’s Word among us.
The first disciples run after Jesus and chatter in excited ways about him (once John points him out). He is the Son of God, the Lamb of God, he is Rabbi (which means teacher). He the Messiah (which means the anointed or chosen one), he is the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, he is the son of Joseph from Nazareth (can anything good come out of Nazareth?), he is the friend, the bridegroom, the light, the vine, the good shepherd, he is the King of Israel, he is the Son of Man.
Why so many descriptors?
Each disciple sees something different and bears witness in his or her own way. Each disciple comes with his or her own expectations and needs – one needed a teacher, another the messiah, another the fulfillment of scripture – and in their relationship each need was met. Who is Jesus? The disciples’ descriptors are only the beginning – Jesus promises that they will see greater things than these. And so shall we.
In this diversity of names we are prompted to expand our own perspectives of Jesus beyond preconceived categories and expectations; to stay open to surprises, and to other people’s – even other traditions’ – views as they help become revelatory of God’s identity, mission, and presence.
However, the image of God, the truth of Jesus is not totally subjective, either. It’s not simply up for grabs. It requires a community to configure it. It requires the joint effort to experience, to share and relate the revelation, the truth we individually have come to know. In telling and sharing and living, in the need that Christ fulfills and transcends for us, we – as a community – begin to know and to believe the fullness of grace.
We come to see the God we need, and a God who meets us in our neighbor; a life and light and truth that the world is very much in need of.
It is so appropriate that the reading comes to us on the last day of the year. A new year is coming.
In the midst of darkest and the shortest days of the year, we celebrate light. In faith, we bear witness to that light even when darkness would prevail. In the Word made flesh, there is the promise that in spite of all of the darkness of human enterprise, Christ’s light will shine, and the darkness will not overcome it.