Sermon Ideas For John 1:(1-9), 10-18 Part 1
If John were speaking metaphorically or poetically in his prologue, this would be a very bad piece of literature. It would contain a confusion of images throughout: the eternal logos was the Son, the light was flesh. What strikes one is the disjunction between these tropes. We can discern some continuity between the eternal word of God, the agent of creation, and the light. The sequence here makes sense: God works through his speech, which can also be compared to a light that enlightens by revealing God's glory and grace. The images are somewhat mysterious and even elusive; but they all represent modes of communication. It is not so easy to bring these representations in line with the second set of images: the enfleshed one who is an offspring, the Son, a human being who had geographical location, who could be personally rejected or accepted as any other person, who can be compared with another human being, John the Baptist, in terms of prominence.
The language of the prologue to John, however, is not metaphorical or chiefly symbolic in nature. It makes sense as narrative rather than as poetry. The eternal logos did become flesh (John 1:14); that is a historical claim that evokes temporal sequence, a becoming, unlike the language of metaphor. The expression of God, the Son of God also had a precise location: close to the Father's heart and yet existent in the world of John the Baptist, unbelieving Israel, and the nascent church.
We can hardly put our minds around it, but that is John's very message: one must be born of the Spirit to grasp the extraordinary historical event witnessed by the evangelist (John 3:5). The heart of the mystery here is the doctrine of the Incarnation and its corollary, the Trinity. To be sure, theologians have labored fruitfully to find symbolic modes of representation for the Trinity. So Augustine wrote of the lover (God the Father), the beloved (God the Son), and love (the Holy Spirit). Barth essayed in a linguistic turn the paradigm of the speaker (God the Father), the speech (God the Son), and the meaning (God the Holy Spirit). These are analogical means of representing interdependence, equality, and mutuality. Such is appropriate for an articulation of the relationships between members of the Trinity. John, however, did not provide in his prologue an ontology of the godhead. He addressed himself to the historical act of revelation: the incarnation of the logos in temporal and local context.
This sets the Christian understanding of God's revelation in Christ apart from post-modern ways of thinking about theological language. Recent cultural critics as diverse as Clifford Geertz and Richard Rorty have argued that all language is an artificial human construct designed to reflect symbolically the mores and hegemonies of a particular social group. Since the rules of grammar and the meaning of language is determined by local communities of discourse, then there is no access to an absolute and universal truth. Reason fails; and what we in the West regard as rational is but a social construct. If we regard John's language here as symbolic, then, from a post-modern perspective, it conveys only the assumptions of a particular community of faith.
But John points to an historical narrative that has universal and absolute referents. It is the revelation, which means that it is particular, concrete, identifiable; and it is the revelation of the God who created all that is, which means that it is universal, absolute, and final. John admits the failure of human reason. Yet he exalts the power of divine revelation in its place. So the church's frequent formulations of christology in terms of the union of the divine Word and the human Jesus (The Creed of Nicea and the Definition of Chalcedon) are attempts to capture the specificity and historicity of divine revelation.
Critics of Christian orthodoxy claim that such propositions are imperialistic, hegemonic, and self-aggrandizing. We should be sensitive enough to this critique that we do not claim universality or absoluteness for our historically particular traditions. Yet it would be unduly pessimistic to deny that the One of whom John writes was indeed the universal made particular, the absolute made temporal, the divine made human. John's message to us is that this One, and such claims about him, do not mislead us, deceive us, or enervate the lives of any people. The Word made flesh claimed to be "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
It is indeed a risk to embrace that claim. That is why it requires faith. It does not require, however, a blind faith. It demands rather a trust in the God who speaks, who reveals, and who breaks out of the timeless and abstract systems of metaphor to become incarnate in history. God discloses the divine nature fully in Jesus Christ. That is the point of John's prologue.
Union Theological Seminary