Preaching: John 1:(1-9), 10-18
So how do you preach the prologue to John? The text is tricky indeed. Perhaps the Johannine prologue's form can help us.
The prologue to John is a little bit like an overture to an opera or musical. It highlights several themes that will prove important to John's Gospel: incarnation, rejection by the world, becoming children of God, etc. The temptation will be to choose one of these themes to come up with a catchy sermon. After all, who among us can't wax eloquent on "the word became flesh" or "We're all God's children." Like a musical overture, however, John's prologue holds many such "themes" together in a theological structure. The major keys of incarnation and becoming God's children are interspersed with minor keys of worldly rejection. Unless we want our sermon to sound like a Pollyanna Christmas carol, we must attend to both the pleasant and unpleasant elements of John's prologue. Perhaps as with the hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," we must first make our way through the minor keyed "ransom captive Israel" and then sing in major keyed joy, "Rejoice, Rejoice!" at the refrain.
A sermon structure that honors the varied texture of John's prologue might go like this:
God enters our world in Jesus Christ! But surprise!: Christ shows up in flesh like ours. Well, no wonder the world rejects him. Still we know the Word made flesh bears grace for us together. And that's what makes us God's family in the world.
A sermon structure like this highlights much of what John foreshadows in the prologue. At the same time, it does so without extracting any one "theme" from the full overture that John's prologue offers. Since this section of John's prologue connects Christology, cosmology and ecclesiology, we might find it helpful to do the same.
The first move, "God enters our world in Jesus Christ," should be one of obvious celebration. What we are trying to do is to play on common cultural associations of divine immanence. Since we are still in the season of Christmas, we should be able to find ample examples. We might set it up by drawing some quick pictures and set them within a refrain: We walk around shopping malls and hear in the background muzak, "Joy to the world;" we rush to our front door and fling it open to hear carolers sing, "Joy to the world;" and at church on Christmas day we gladly rise from our pews to join in the chorus, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come." The idea is simple. On a base level, the idea of a kind of chummy, divine immanence is, at least on the surface, a shared hope in the church and in the culture it finds itself in.
The second move, "But surprise!: Christ shows up in flesh like ours," begins to wrestle with the dark side of the particularity of the incarnational claim. Whether one deals with the notion of "flesh" in John or the idea of the Word "tenting" among us (v. 14 NRSV hides the provisional sense of the Greek), there is an odd shape to God's coming to us in Christ. The move can make this clear by contrasting images of our flesh-bearing, tenting redeemer with the demigod saviors our culture usually contrives. We usually think of heroes as strong, a cut above our lowly humanity. Our saviors are bigger-than-life, screen-sized heroes who, when they are not making movies, live in mansions and drive around in limousines. Not so with Christ, the Word made flesh. He comes in flesh like ours. He comes to pitch his tent with us.
In the third move, "Well, no wonder the world rejects him," we intensify the problem of incarnational particularity. Our problems are off the scale: precarious employment (or underemployment) in an age when the next bad quarterly report can send you packing; families who don't know each other any more the few times when they do gather `round the dinner table; the simmering resentments between peoples across racial and ethnic lines. These problems require someone who has power enough to solve them. A weak, fleshly redeemer will just not do. Big problems require big redeemers, not someone nailed to a cross. We need heroic deeds; not Word.
Move four, "Yet we know the Word made flesh bears grace for us together," then opens up the possibility of discerning the redemptive possibilities of our crucified, fleshly, tent-dwelling redeemer. Can we not identify places where Christ in fleshly weakness redeems us in our common life still? Pastorally, we may be able to envision situations where people have experienced such moments: sometimes around hospital beds where hand clasps hand in prayer—and the wounded Christ was there; sometimes amidst folding chairs where people who have shared pain about abuse embrace in mutual support and the scorned Christ was there; sometimes in city streets where marchers cry out for justice—and the lamenting Christ-on-the-cross was there. If nothing else, preachers may also wish to underline on this Sunday Christ's redemptive eucharistic presence in the simple signs of bread, wine, body and blood. In this move the key is to help hearers envision the community-creating, grace-bearing capacity of the Word-made-flesh we call Jesus Christ.
With move five, "And that makes us God's family in the world," we shift to our final ecclesiological theme. We are together God's children because of God's continuing, graceful acts of creating and redeeming the world. The church is not just another voluntary organization. It's certainly not the Republican party at prayer! The church is, however, one place where God continues to do God's fleshy work of corporate redemption in the world God loves so much. In this move it would be helpful to show how ecclesiological identity and vocation merge. When we as the church act out our calling in the world, we do not do so because we are better than anyone, smarter than anyone, or especially more powerful (or deserving of power) than anyone. Rather, we do so because we have been gathered together by grace which has met us in the flesh and commissioned "in our flesh" to be a locus of God's continuing creative and redemptive activity in the world.
David Schnasa Jacobsen Waterloo Lutheran Seminary Waterloo, Ontario