The prologue, the opening to the Gospel of John, contains some of the most poetic, beautiful, and memorable verses in the New Testament. Make no doubt about it; the fourteen verses we read this morning are verses in a literal sense. They are poetry, some of the finest ancient Greek verse ever written, on par with Homer and the great Stoic philosophers. Yet like Homer, John’s verse does double duty. It’s not poetry for the sake of poetry. These aren’t Shakespeare’s love sonnets. John also retells history, recalling the past with carefully chosen words and images. He is a storyteller who thinks in verse, words, and pictures instead of a linear narrative. When we read John’s opening verses, we should remember that we are encountering a work of art. We step into a museum, sit on a bench, and before us are Monet’s haystacks or Van Gogh’s sunflowers. And for as long as we want, we are drawn in by the beauty of what we see. We encounter something new every time we look, read, and listen. We see shading differently. The contrast between light and dark strikes in a manner we’ve never felt before. John 1 is always yielding fresh insights.
Therein, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub. The irony of John 1 is that the newness it radiates also reveals the reality that we are reading history. John 1 is written in the past tense. Shakespeare’s Sonnets about love are always in the present; for love has always been and will ever be. As Homer did of the Trojan War, John writes about events that had already occurred. This changes how we approach the first chapter of John’s gospel today. “The word was with, and the word was God.” “He was in the world, and the world came into being through 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 him, he gave power, to become children of God.” Did you hear all of those past tense verbs? If John was writing to specific people in a particular time and place about events that have already occurred, where do we fit in? John wrote about people two thousand years ago, some of whom rejected and others who accepted Jesus as God made flesh. As John said, those who accepted this claim received the right to become children of God.
What then is to become of us, who, in the present tense, seeking to accept and be accepted by God now? John never imagined, in his wildest dreams, that people of mostly Anglo-Saxon heritage from Northern Europe, a land he did not know existed, two millennia after these words were written, would gather, ponder, and ask: “what does it mean to accept this statement as true – the word became flesh.”
Is this story over? Can we still participate in cosmic John’s dialogue or have time? The past tense and history left us sitting on the sidelines. By genetics, history, and tradition, we are not, as John describes, his (or Jesus’) “own” people. His people were persecuted 1st century Palestinian Jews desperately searching for a Messiah. We are middle-class Americans, primarily well-off, living off credit and statin drugs, and our idea of a savior looks more like Kevin Costner in a cowboy hat than Jesus Christ in sandals. In our past tense, literal reading of John, we neither accepted nor rejected Jesus. Other than observers, who are we?
Now we’re getting somewhere. Are we able to find ourselves within the text? Is there a place for us in John’s story? Beneath the Platonic philosophy, Greek poetry, and Trinitarian theology running through the heart of this passage, one verse stands out for its transcendent humanity: “He came to what was his own, and his people did not accept him.” Here’s where I plug in. I know that verse. I feel those words in the pit of my stomach each time I read them. Why? I know what it feels like not to be accepted. We’ve all had that experience. Whether it’s been being picked last for the kickball team, being turned down to go out on a date, or having a flat tire and calling AAA only to be told your membership expired yesterday, all of us know what it means to be rejected. That’s what John is saying in verse 11. The people you thought would have accepted Jesus left him instead. Some of their rejections were indifferent. People ignored him and went about their way. Others stayed with him and then abandoned him at the last minute. While he so threatened one group, it wasn’t enough to ignore him or walk away; they rejected him by trying to erase his presence from human history.
Verse 11 gives meaning to the cosmic grandeur of verse 14; it provides the context we desperately need. To become flesh, authentic, and substantial is to be alive, and when we are truly alive, we will know exhilaration, joy, love, and rejection. This is how we know that Jesus wasn’t wearing the façade of humanity, a God-man in human clothes, but fully human, so that he knew what it meant to be a person, like you and I, on our best days and our worst days. If God’s humanity, the humanity we celebrate today in the incarnation of the Christ child, isn’t real, then neither is our salvation. This is all one big joke. We’re wasting our time and money for nothing. We’re singing some great traditional carols and hymns, but that’s about it. Religiously speaking, we’ve done nothing unless the word becomes flesh, not superficially, not in theory, but as a real live honest to God human being like you and me.
The word became flesh. This child is God. God is this child. If this child doesn’t spit up, poop his diapers, cry, and do all the things that children do and you have trouble accepting that, well, maybe, you are one of those people John is writing to. Do you accept him, not just as an ideal, but as a real person?
If you like cheesy manger scenes and plastic Jesus you can stick to your dashboard, you probably don’t like John 1. Plastic Jesus doesn’t ask much of you. You can put him up for the year and drag him back out next November.
Real Jesus is right here, in flesh and blood, a baby, waiting to be accepted. This is where we come in. We enter the text here, at this altar. Are you ready?