Sermon Ideas For John 1:(1-9), 10-18 Part 3
The prologue to the fourth gospel can become an even more striking piece of prose when we view it in relation to images of cinematic art. One reason for this is the strong emphasis of this text upon incarnation—a concept which calls for images as well as words to attain a full appreciation.
John 1:10-18 speak of the incarnation as true to both divine and human nature. The incarnation is a full expression of divine glory, grace and truth, and also a fulfillment of human law and the human quest for God.
At least three significant questions raised by today's lectionary selection can be approached via film. (1) Why does the fourth gospel open in this way? (2) What does it mean to speak of the divine and eternal Christ, creator of all things, being incarnate in a human and temporal creature? And (3) how can we make sense of the harsh opposition that characterized one kind of reaction to the revelation through Christ Jesus?
First, why does the Gospel of John open as it does? One approach is via Matewan (John Sayles, 1987). This film concerns the 1920 massacre of striking West Virginia coal miners. Forces for peaceful settlement include the union organizer, the sheriff, and a young preacher. The dinner table sequence brings together the young preacher and the management's hired gun. When the young preacher brings religious insight to bear upon the issues, the management gun responds that he never got beyond "In the beginning was the Word."
What did the management representative miss by failing to continue? It would be presumptuous to claim the final word on what meaning this opening of John might have for others. However, that does not rule out a little bit of speculation. John opens in eternity and moves steadily and surely to the here and now of the writer and original audience. Today, we contact the passage in our here and now, in which film plays a significant role. Further, John opens by speaking of the word, but quickly goes on to speak of a witness to the true light—an image with a significant point of contact with film, which writes its stories with light.
Second, what does it mean to speak of the divine and eternal Christ, creator of all things, being incarnate in a human and temporal creature? One film that can help us to appreciate such a statement as an example of "faith language" is the musical It Happened in Brooklyn (Richard Whorf, 1947). This film follows the careers of several people, all hailing from Brooklyn and all wanting to succeed in show business. Such a goal always takes a lot of faith, but this film portrays an extremely unlikely group. Danny Miller (Frank Sinatra), an army private, is too shy to sing in public. Anne Fielding (Kathryn Grayson), a music teacher, suffered humiliation in her attempt to launch a career in opera. Nick Lombardi (Jimmy Durante), a custodian, is handicapped by never having known love. Jamie Shellgreve (Peter Lawford), the grandson of an English duke, is overly stuffy and rigid. Not a likely crew. Nonetheless, the "That's what I believe" routine which runs through the film is a musical tribute to their belief in each other, in themselves, and in their empowering by the spirit of Brooklyn and to the capacity of faith to overcome the harsh realities of life. Faith in the incarnation is an interpretation of the meaning of history. The idea of incarnation operates more in the realm of intangible values (such as purpose, goal, significance and meaning) than of observable data (such as objects and facts).
Another helpful film, and one which puts more emphasis on the difficulties involved in believing in incarnation, is Oh, God! (Carl Reiner, 1977). A somewhat self-effacing supermarket manager (John Denver) is chosen by God (George Burns) to be a spokesperson. His natural reluctance to pursue this vocation is intensified by the fact that God appears to him in the unlikely garb of raincoat, golf shoes and tennis hat. Nonetheless, he finally feels compelled to pursue this role to which he is called. As a result, we all gain insight from the confusions and complexities that he is forced to grapple with. One of the most insightful moments comes when the supermarket manager calls upon God for help, only to be told that God does not do miracles to help us out of difficulties.
Finally, you might turn for help to films such as Zora is My Name (Neema Barnette, 1989) or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969). In both, the leading character is a black woman who incarnates the history of her sisters and brothers in the struggle for civil rights.
Third, if Jesus Christ was incarnate as the fullness of light, why is there so much darkness in our world? One film, which gives a forthright treatment of the difficulties and a graphic portrayal of the ineffectiveness of both armed and passive resistance to injustice is The Mission (Ronald Joffe, 1986). Note the quotation, toward the end of the film, of John 1:5, and the context which keeps us from mouthing our conviction that darkness has not overcome life.
Another film that brings an interesting premise to bear upon the issue of the struggle between light and darkness is Equinox (Alan Rudolph, 1993). The title refers to the time when light and dark are equal. Matthew Modine plays two characters, Freddy and Henry, who represent darkness and light, although they are twins. The violent clash that occurs when another character brings the twins back into contact is an opportunity to reflect not only upon the struggle of darkness and light within our world, but also within ourselves. The incarnation, let it be noted, is not merely the occasion for the conflict between darkness and light, but also the remedy for the destructive consequences of this conflict in individuals, in humankind, and in the natural order.