Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 3, 2010

John 1:(1-9), 10-18 Commentary

Comments and Observations

Most people will have to go back to work the day following this Second Sunday after Christmas.  It will be Monday, January 4, 2010, and the holidays will be officially over for most of us.   The kids enjoyed their two-week break but on Monday, it’s time to roll out of bed on-time, grab their lunches, and head back out the door (and in my part of the world, that means also heading out into the dark and cold and snow of an early January morning as well!).   Truth be told, most of us may feel a little spent, a little tired, a little depleted by this time.   However much we may (or may not!) enjoy the holiday season, the whirlwind of parties, extra shopping, extra cooking, etc. can leave one feeling a bit tired.   Following the New Year’s weekend and the parties that may have kept us up well past our normal bedtime, a few of us may be tempted to prop our eyes open with toothpicks on that first Monday back to work.

We feel depleted.  And yet here is John 1:16 talking not of depletion but of fullness, of pleroma, of a hyper-abundance of something.   Some translations like the NIV translate verse 16 as “from the fullness of his grace,” but the original has only “fullness” there.  The “grace” gets inferred from what we receive from the overflow of that fullness, which is “grace upon grace” (though there again: the NIV oddly imported the “grace” to the fullness but then translated the phrase charin anti chariton as “one blessing after another”).

But the point is that there is a fulllness to God’s Word made flesh that is so rich as to spill over and then wash over all of us who follow him, who have been given the right to be called “children of God” as verse 12 told us.

John 1 gives us a kind of roller coaster ride of sorts.   And what a ride it is!   Because the high points are not just a little rise but an exceedingly high ridge.  The Word who was with God in the beginning made everything that existed.  He is the light of all people.  He shines in ways that cannot be overcome.  Heady stuff!  But we don’t stay on those heights all the time in John 1 but instead plunge back down to earth to encounter the very human figure of John (who has been sufficiently well thought of in his day that the evangelist John has to stop the music for a couple of verses to remind his readers that this eternal Logos of God is not the one who had been known as John the Baptist).

But then before too long we’re soaring back up into the heights again as people become children of God and as the Word, even having been made flesh somehow, radiates grace and truth in a way that is possible only for “God’s One and Only.”

What we get here is a telescoping of the eternal with the temporal, the divine with the mundane.  But at the center of it all is that holy mystery of the divine becoming meat, becoming small, becoming a baby and then some years later an ordinary man.   So when John the Baptist points him out one day, he makes it clear that ordinary though this Jesus may appear, “he has surpassed me because he came before me.”   And that little line is what sets up verse 16’s spectacular message about the “fullness” of this one.   Though in eminently ordinary human wrappings, there is a font of grace inside that One so rich and never ending that we can all swim in it forever and ever.

Here is a message we need some ten days after Christmas and as the holiday season winds down.  The One about whom all the fuss was in recent weeks is not gone, does not get packed away with everything else in the attic or storeroom.  As we face a whole new year, we can get proleptically weary if we think about all that the next 12 months could bring.  There may be big changes ahead for our families.   The economic times remain uncertain: those without jobs can’t be sure they will find work, those with jobs can’t be sure they will keep them.   Such things can increase stress, make us uptight.  For all the hoopla and toasts and cheers we manage on New Year’s Eve when the ball drops in Times Square, the truth is that on any given December 31, a lot of us leave behind a year that was brutal and we face a new year that is, at best, uncertain and unclear.

How good to know that God’s One and Only is still here and that the fountain of fullness within him can and will keep on dispensing one grace after the next for those of us who love him and now live in him.  When all else feels depleted, when we ourselves feel weary, the Word of God made flesh remains a paradoxical and surprising font of all that is good.  The essence of the gospel is grace.  We are saved by it.  We live by it.   We are immersed in it.  And on this Second Sunday after Christmas, John is here to remind us that amazing as grace may be, we don’t get it just once.  We get it again and again.  It piles up in our lives.

Thanks be to God!

Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address

My friend Neal Plantinga once noted that John tells us twice in his first 18 verses that the Word made flesh was “full of grace and truth.”  We are told that in verse 14 and again in verse 17 after John reminds us that whereas Moses gave us the Law, God’s Word, Jesus Christ, is the One who brought us grace and truth in all their fullness.  (Notice, too, that John held back on the name of the Word made flesh until that 17th verse.  His throwing it in near the end of this soaring gospel prologue retrospectively fits all the puzzle pieces together.)

But Plantinga also noted that although our familiarity with this phrase may cause us to slide and glide right over it, the combination of grace and truth is striking.   God’s Word made flesh radiated grace and truth, and apparently he was the only one to do it, too.  Most of us have a hard time getting both virtues up and running at the same time, and if we do manage glimmers of pulling this off, we find it mighty hard to sustain over the long haul of life.

That is, each of us probably knows various people whom we do not count among our “favorite people” in life.  As such, we can do a really good job telling the truth about those folks if anyone asks (now and then, we’ll fill you in on “the truth” of those folks as we see it whether you ask for the information or not!).  That much we can do with ease.   Much harder, though, is to tell the grace about those folks, to apply to them the healing balm of forgiveness, compassion, and mercy we know full well that we need but that we are not much inclined to apply to those folks.

Similarly we know people who are really good at telling the truth, and we wish they’d shut up about it.  They will give you their opinion on any topic you name and will be about as blunt as a spoon in telling you all about it.   They’ll tell you the truth about what they think of you, your outfit, your work, your own point of view.  They are truth-tellers but with nary a hint of grace to soften the edges and make room for others.

Then again, there are some who can’t seem to manage to tell the truth because although they’ve got a lot of grace going for them, it seems to block their ability to think critically.   Everything is fine by them.  They paper over the mistakes of others in ways that all-but ensure those mistakes will happen again.  They won’t give you a straight answer if you beg them lest they offend someone.  They’ve got grace all right, but if it’s truth you’re looking for, you need to bark up some other tree.

Grace and truth.   Jesus had both and he had them 100% simultaneously and all the time.  It’s curious that John 1:17 contrasts Jesus’ grace and truth with the Law that came through Moses.  The Law was, in its own way, itself a good thing.  Israel long regarded God’s giving of the Torah to be a gift, a grace in its own way.   But Law is mostly all about truth and not so much about grace once it gets applied to our daily lives.  The Law shows us how we should live and, therefore, nine times out of ten is the cop that points out all those places where we did not, as a matter of fact, live as we should have.  Rules are a good thing but rules are also what causes referees to blow their whistle again and again when the rules are broken.  Traffic laws are good things but are also the cause of red flashers getting toggled on in case we run a stop sign or daydream our way to going 40 MPH in a 25 MPH zone.

As the Word made flesh who had created the entire cosmos in the beginning, Jesus knew the rules.  He knew the Law.  He knew that truth and he also knew the dim truths of every person he met.  No one snuck an infraction of the rules past Jesus.  Few looked more peerless when it came to keeping the Law than the Pharisees, and we know full well that Jesus saw past their façade.  And he certainly was aware of the petty envies, jealousies, angers, and other problems that were so very often rife among his own little band of disciples.

Jesus knew the truth about all that.  So what prevented him from being the Ancient Near East’s biggest curmudgeon and grouch?   What prevented him from spending his days nitpicking people to death by pointing out their every faux pas and sinful thought?   What prevented it was the other half of the equation: he was full of also grace.  It was not a wishy-washy grace that minimized sin.  It was not a weak grace too cowardly to countenance reality.  But it was a grace that knew that if humanity was to have any future in God’s kingdom, then the truth about our sinfulness was going to have to be met—again and again and again—with a grace that was also tenacious and determined to make things better.

Grace and truth.    Truth and grace.  It’s a combination we all need to get through life as Christ’s representatives on the surface of this rough world.   “No one has ever seen God” John concludes in verse 18 as he brings this prologue in for a landing.   “But God’s One and Only has made him known.”   We get the same privilege in our own lives when the amazing grace that saved us radiates forth from us: people get to see God in us when we manage to do that divine balancing act of getting both truth and grace up and running at the same time.

Textual Points

In John 1:5 we are told the light shines in the darkness but that the darkness has not . . . and here the translations diverge. The Greek verb is katalambano which mostly means “to seize” or to nab, capture, overtake (often with hostile intentions according to the Greek dictionary. Some translations in the past, and more recently also the NRSV, have opted for “but the darkness has not overcome it” but the NIV has opted for “has not understood it.”  Calvin Theological Seminary Professor of New Testament Dean Deppe provides the following information: There are five possibilities:

1) to grasp or comprehend intellectually: KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV a) Cyril Alex; Latin tradition b) 3:19 not perceive the light brought by Jesus c) parallel to v. 10,11 -but if “understand” you’d probably expect the present tense and in John 1:5 it is aorist.

2) to welcome, receive, accept a) match paralambano in v. 11 b) Aramaic: qablâ (darkness) and qabble|h (receive it) so word play

3) to overtake, overcome (grasp in a hostile sense) RSV, NRSV, NJB a) Origin, majority of Greek fathers, Schlatter, Westcott, Brown b) in the only other use in Jn. 12:35 c) dualistic opposition between light and darkness demands this verb d) Wis. 7:29-30 compares wisdom to light that the darkness cannot supplant e) fits with Gnosticism and sectarian Judaism that the darkness is trying to completely extinguish the light (Acts Thomas 130) against: destroys parallelism with 10c and 11b (but different stanza)

4) to master, absorb: BAGD: Moffatt -try to capture both understand and overcome -playing with both meanings (Barrett, Carson)

5) Deliberate ambiguity (Silva, Biblical Words, 149-150)

I think we must first examine how an author employs the term in other passages. Because the other use in Jn. 12:35 demands overcome (“before darkness overtakes you”), I believe that must be the meaning here as well.

However one translates this, the “darkness” itself is not spelled out by John. What darkness? Whose darkness? It’s curious that John does not spell it out, but perhaps this reflects no more than the fact that John didn’t feel the need to articulate more fully what darkness he meant—there is so much darkness and fallenness and hurt in this broken world that it is too obvious to get very specific. We know what the darkness is. We’ve all felt it, lived in it, passed through particularly dark valleys. “The light shines in the darkness.” That’s good news in John 1:5 because it’s in the dark that we yearn for that light most of all.

Illustration Idea

Frederick Buechner once wrote about two kinds of preaching that just don’t work very well. One form is what he termed “tourist preaching.” You know how it is if you are in a foreign country as a tourist but cannot speak the native language: what do you end up doing when you have to ask for directions? You speak in English but each time you repeat yourself, you say it a little louder. We operate on the assumption that if only we speak English loudly, slowly, and distinctly enough, everyone in the world will be able to understand us. Doesn’t work. The only language people understand is their own. We need to be sure that when we talk to people about God, it is in speech they can comprehend.

The other kind of preaching that fails to connect, Buechner says, is “algebraic preaching.” x + y = z is a pretty typical algebra formula. If you know what number is represented by just the “y” of that problem, you know a little something but still won’t likely solve the whole equation. If you know what both the “y” and the “z” are, then you can get the “x” pretty quickly. The problem with some preachers is that they lace their sentences with words like “atonement” and “righteousness,” thinking that this will lead people to love Jesus. But for a lot of people, theological vocabulary is like an undefined “x” and “y” in an algebra problem: they are going to need something more to grasp the meaning of it all.

John 1 tells us that Jesus was full of grace and truth, and maybe that combination also had something to do with the fact that his sermons gripped people and were readily understandable.  Jesus was consistent with his own message, too, exuding to the people around him the same grace he proffered in parables and by taking a seat at a dinner table with those whom others deemed to be undesireables.   So also today, we cannot tell our neighbors that “God is love and grace” but then go around in life with a sour attitude even as we show so little grace when we ourselves have something to forgive. We cannot make clear to our neighbors why they should praise the Lord by only shouting obscure language a little louder or by assuming that everybody should be able to understand the words of our catechism, hymns, and creeds.

We need to tell the truth but we need to do it graciously and gracefully.  One without the other just won’t do.


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