Saturday, November 10, 2012

John's Alternative Christmas Story

The Odd Gospel

Though there are four Gospels in our Bibles (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), only two (Matthew and Luke) cover the birth of Jesus. If you go to a Christmas church service this year and hear some Bible readings, they would almost certainly be from Matthew and Luke.

So, what of the other two Gospels? Mark starts his narrative in Jesus’ adult life, and John is so totally left-field, he seems to be starting from an entirely different planet. In fact, John doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus; he starts with the Creation of the universe (the least you could say about John is that he doesn’t lack ambition).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. John 1:1-3.
Deliberately invoking the language and imagery of Genesis 1, in which God says and it is done, John puts the Universe and its Creator in order. He emphasizes the role of the “Word” in this creation, and then identifies this mysterious, eternal “Word” as Jesus, saying “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us” (John 1:14). 

It all started with a baby (or did it?)

How does this relate to the Christmas story? The way John sees it, God first creates the universe and He then enters it “in the flesh” in the body of Jesus Christ. The circumstances of His arrival are chronicled in Matthew and Luke; the Creator arrives as a small, vulnerable baby, just like any human being, into a tribe that has had a special, but rather stormy relationship with God. That’s why John can write “He came to that which was his own…" (John 1:11).

Why did God enter into His creation “in the flesh”? John’s answer is so that we can see Him in the flesh. John puts it this way “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18).

The puzzling thing here is that John would have known several Old Testament accounts of people seeing God (Isaiah 6:1-6 etc.). However, in none of these accounts do we get the sense of seeing someone in the same way that you see someone you are living with. This, I think, is what John’s Gospel is trying to say. Previously, we could see the image of God in His Creation, or we could imagine what God is like in the same way that you'd imagine what a person was like from the shadow he would cast on the ground in front of you. But, it wasn’t until God lived for a while among us in the flesh that we truly got to know Him. No longer did we have to imagine God from special writings, or infer Him from his actions in history, we could get so intimate with Him, we could even smell His body odor. That’s quite a confronting thought for those who only see God as a kind of superlative, distant, royal celebrity, but that’s how John wants us to see it.

Look at me

As you might have gathered by now, I’m quite a fan of John’s Gospel, and I spend quite a lot of time thinking about it. Going over it again in recent times, however, I noticed yet another puzzling aspect of John’s prologue; the apparent intrusion of John the Baptist.

There’s a scene from The Simpsons in which Maggie, the youngest, arrives and Homer, Marge and Lisa are entranced by the new addition to their family. Frustrated by his family’s single-minded devotion to a rival sibling, Bart jumps up and down shouting “Look at me! Look at me!”. That’s what I thought of John the Baptist’s intrusion into the scene in John's Gospel. He seemed to be there to divert attention from the main event.

You could even write the Baptist out of the script, and it would still make sense. The following is an abridged version, and if I read it out in Church, I wonder how many people would spot the fact that something is missing.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

What is missing are the two references to John the Baptist in John 1:6-9 and John 1:15. My abridged version above makes sense in terms of the Creator and His entering into the world, but what it lacks is a specific witness who truly "gets" it. This, I believe, is John’s crucial role and that is why he is essential to the story. In other words, what is the point of being “seen” if there is no-one to “see”.

Setting the pattern

The Baptist’s role as a witness is well worth exploring. As the first witness in John’s Gospel, he is representative of all subsequent witnesses, including us.
  • John was “sent” from God (John 1:6). The Greek word for “sent” is “apostelo”, from which we get our term “apostle”. So, John the Baptist is the first “Apostle” on record, but he gets his head cut off long before the band of twelve start to organize themselves into a recognizable Church. The term, then, doesn’t refer to a rank in an organization, but to a calling. Everyone who witnesses Christ is an “apostle” in the sense that their witness is “sent” from God. Three centuries later, the authors of the Creeds would use this idea to describe the whole church as “apostolic” to capture this sense of a shared calling among all believers
  • John’s prerogative as a witness was to testify (John 1:7). His role wasn’t merely to passively “see” but to communicate what he had seen. As is the pattern for all Christian witness, John’s testimony involved both words and actions.
  • The point of the testimony is to bring “all men” to faith (John 1:7). There’s no discrimination here between those who are in God’s “special” tribe, and those outside.
  • John, himself, was not the light, but he was there to bear witness to the light (John 1:8).
If only we would allow these last words to sink in. When we bring “all men” to faith, we are not bringing them to faith in ourselves. Rather, we should seek to bring them to faith in the “true light that gives light to every man”, Jesus Christ. 

So much of what we think is Christian witness is actually concerned with convincing people that we are the good guys. I’m all in favor of Christians establishing a credible witness, and choosing the right, but ultimately, we’re not here to vindicate ourselves. If we follow the Baptist’s lead in pointing people to the true light, then we have freedom to acknowledge and engage our sins and shortcomings, as he did. In other words, we can do our best, but it will not be enough to save. Only God, in Christ, can do that, and a faithful witness, such as the Baptist’s will not allow us to forget it.

Not the true light

It is profoundly dangerous to allow ourselves to be seduced by the notion that we are the light. This mentality is manifest in the fundamentalist religious movements that preach domination by a strongly hierarchical and theocratic organization. They emphasize obedience to themselves, regardless of their actual competence or knowledge. It’s usually done by a bait-and-switch – the bait being some exclusive claim to God, and the switch being a shift in the believer’s allegiance to the (alleged) physical representation of God on earth, which, lo and behold, is none other than the incumbent leadership. The leaders imagine themselves to be the true light by some special revelation, and the truth becomes pliable in their hands. One tell-tale sign is a habit of continually revising history to vindicate the movement's current leaders.

John’s Gospel openly rebukes such a mentality in John 1:15
John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”
Because we are modernists, we like to think that the latest is the greatest. However, the convention in John’s time was exactly the reverse; if someone preceded you, they were greater than you - the oldest was the greatest. This is reasoning that the Baptist uses; Christ was there first, so he must be greater than me. If Christ is greater than all of us, including the First Apostle, then we are all answerable to Him as the ultimate authority, including the highest Bishops, Prophets, Popes, Rabbis, Mullahs and Gurus in our respective religions. Applied simply, it means that anything that does not recognize Christ as the ultimate authority to whom we are all answerable, is not a Christian witness. 

Of course, there are plenty of religious movements that claim allegiance to Christ, but their Christ is more fantasy than flesh. John’s Gospel is insistent about what kind of Christ is the real thing, and the real thing is visible in the fleshy baby in the manger, to human view displayed, as one of my favorite carols puts it.

What the two Johns tell us

So, John the Baptist plays a vital role in the prologue to John’s Gospel. He, like us, is there to witness God in the flesh and to testify about what he has seen. Its a role that's intrinsic to the created order of things. Matthew and Luke record witnesses of Christ’s advent in the stars, in angels, shepherds and Magi, but in John’s Gospel, the Baptist is the first to really “get” it, and he sets the pattern for how we should “get” it, too.

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