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He came - John 1

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 13th December 2015.

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In his early life Charles Darwin’s visited the Brazilian rain forest which, he said, had suffused him with, “feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion.” That, of course, was before he started to question his belief in God.  Later, as he began to be drawn more and more towards what is called philosophical naturalism-that is the idea that there is no God or spiritual dimension- he admitted that he lost the faculty to appreciate anything other than hard data. He said, “Now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become colour blind.” The same happened with poetry, drama, art and music, all of which used to delight him. He confessed in his autobiography, “But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry; I have tried recently to read Shakespeare and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music…My mind has become a kind of machine for grinding laws out of a large collection of facts.”  Sadly, what you see in the case of Darwin is a withering of the soul to the extent that he slowly began to become more like a machine and less like a man.

 

And this withering of the human soul continued unabated in the West throughout most of the 20th century and well into our own. You see, there are two basic intuitive drives which mark out human beings from all other creatures which mere materialism can’t answer: the drive for love and the drive for meaning. And so we ask: how are we to understand these two things and is there anywhere we can look to which holds them together and provides the answer? Well, there is actually- the opening passage of John’s Gospel. And it is all centred upon the identity of someone mysteriously called ‘The Word.’ So let’s take a look at how this ‘Word’ helps us understand and answer those two drives we all have.

 

 

First, the drive for love. We live in a  society which sings about love, talks about love, makes films about love but seems unable to say just what love is- actually!

 

It  wouldn't be too much of an overstatement to say that  the word ‘love’ has almost been completely reduced to the word ‘sex.’ Just think about it: It’s almost an unspoken ‘given’ that any 'relationship' must end  up in bed, -the dilemma of  the film, ‘When Harry met Sally’. Now why is that?

 

Well, with the loss of  any transcedent values, as was happening with Darwin, everything has to be reduced to the materialistic- a matter of feelings, hormones, primal urges and the like. With Freud and D H Lawrence, sex has been demystified,  such that love and sex become one, indeed to be fully human one must express oneself without restraint, otherwise it is bourgiose and repressive.The scandal of premarital sex has disappeared only to be replaced by the scandal of virginity.

 

But have you ever wondered where love as an entity comes from in the first place; why, no matter how hard some social scientists might try, it can’t be demystified altogether? Well we are given a hint as to the answer  in vv 1-2  of  John Gospel. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.’

 

Now what that means is this: The  Word, that is God's self-expression, is eternal. There never  was a time when this Word  did not exist. This Word is also personal. Here the original  construction is so important. When it says the 'Word was with God', John doesn't use the normal preposition for 'with', instead he uses a word which means 'faces towards' or even 'moves towards'. It’s a love- relationship word. I am sure that you have seen those romantic movies where the lovers are running towards one another with open arms along the beach, usually filmed in slow motion? That is the picture here-this Word is moving out towards someone. What is more, this Word is divine- identified as "God". And immediately we are presented with something unique to the Christian faith, namely that God is triune:one God eternally existing as three persons, a divine community, if you will, of the Father (referred to here as God), the Son (Word) and the Holy Spirit. Within the being of God there has never been a lack of ‘an object’ of love or a ‘subject’ who loves. You see, a solitary God cannot be love, for in order to love you have to have someone or something to love. Well, whom did God  love before the world was made?The answer is given here: from all eternity God has been able to love within the dynamic community of his own being-the Father loving the Son/Word, the Son loving the Father- having his face lovingly set towards him-through the interpersonal work of the Spirit. It explains why the Christian  can say God is love and has always  been love in a way the Muslim cannot. It explains why we love too in a way which transcends that of other animals, for in this way we  are God-like, bearing his image, we are made to love-in- relationship, as does God. And we will only experience lasting value when we are rightly related to him, when we know his love in our lives.So the drive for love is traced back to the God who is love

 

Secondly, the drive for meaning. According to the psychiatrist Victor Frankle, himself a victim of the Nazi concentration camp,The will to find  meaning is the primary motivational force in man,” The literary critic George Steiner says simply, ‘More than Homo sapiens, we are Homo quaerens, the animal that asks and asks.” We can’t help it. Sometimes we try and avoid it, but the question keeps returning to haunt us-maybe in the small hours of the morning, perhaps after a relationship has ended, and certainly when faced with death and bereavement, we ask ‘What is it all about?’  This was something the author of ‘War and Peace’, Leo Tolstoy asked, according to his little book simply entitled,‘Confessions’ : ‘My question, the one that brought me to the point of suicide when I was fifty years old, was a most simple one that lies in the soul of every person, from a silly child to a wise old man. It is the question without which life is impossible, as I had learnt from experience. It is this: what will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life? Expressed another way the question can be put like this: why do I live? Why do I wish for anything, or do anything? Or expressed another way: is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?’

 

Of course those of us living in the West have a ready made outlook which tries to answer this question about meaning- it is called materialism- ‘We are what we have’. Shopping has become more than a pastime, it has been elevated to the status of a new religion. The French  philosopher Descartes,  trying to establish a rationalist  basis for existence, came out with the celebrated phrase: 'Cogito ergo sum',"I think therefore I am.' We have changed that to 'Tesco ergo sum', ‘I shop therefore I am.' As a nation we have never had so much and yet never have we had so many  who are so  empty. The reason for this is simple:  it is not a material vacuum we have which needs filling, it is a spiritual one. So how do we  explain this drive we have  towards the material on the one hand and yet the unsatisfied spiritual hunger on the other? We are given the reason in vv 3-4 ‘Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.’

 

The infinite-personal God through his personal Word has created all things,the things we can see and the things we can’t but which are nonetheless real.That is why Christians can affirm both the material world and the spiritual world. The material is not evil and substandard, it is an expression of God’s  own creativity, his signiture of the Word is written on the very world he has crafted. Let me tell you something: if you were to go to St Paul's Cathedral you will find the tomb of its architect, Christopher Wren. And on that tomb, written in  Latin, you will read  these words: 'Reader: if you seek his monument,look around you."You see Wren expressed himself, his genius, in those mighty walls and the dome of St Paul's. He didn’t need any other epitaph. In the same way, John is saying that God’s genius is expressed through  the universe he has made through the Word -God's personal agency. So when those studying science find the most tanatalising patterns and order in natural phenomena, they shouldn’t be surprised, for an orderly God has made an orderly world, a  cosmos not  a chaos, a uni-verse not a multiverse. So whether it is the seen material world,or the unseen spiritual world, there is only one artistic hand at work, and that is the hand of ‘the Word’.

 

But there is even more to it than that. For while material things have their place in life-food, clothing, sex, art, science and so on-the material is not all there is or even the most important of what there is, for we are told in v 4, "In him was life and that life was the light of mankind."There is something this Word and men and women have in common-it’s called 'life". Now the word John uses isn’t the word to describe biological life -bios, it is the word which  refers to the life principle-zoe-spiritual life-that which distinguishes humans from the beasts.Whatever we may have in common with lower animals in terms of instincts and biological components, there is something here which marks us off from them -there is, if you like something within us which is akin to a divine spark. So we are moral beings sensing right from wrong.We are rational beings, avle to think about things.We are religious beings, with an innate sense that there is a greater Being for whom we were made and to whom we are led to be grateful  in worship.

 

And that sense of gratitude we feel when we have passed an exam, or when a baby is born is not a proof that God exists but a pointer to the ‘life of all men’- the Word. As Dante Gabriel Rosseti said: ‘The worst moment for an atheist is when he is genuinely thankful but has nobody to thank.’ Or as GK Chesterton playfully remarked, ‘If my children wake up on Christmas morning and have someone to thank for putting candy in their stocking, have I no one to thank for putting two feet in mine?’ We have all felt like that at sometime in our lives haven’t we?  We even see the same thought expressed in the film, ‘American Beauty’ with Lester’s voice-over at the film’s beginning: “It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world … I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”’ And it is no accident that we feel like that- that is how we were designed, but what are we meant to do with such feelings? The Bible would encourage us to pick up the signal and follow it to its source, namely, ‘the Word’ who is the ‘life of all men’.

 

Now up to this point in the narrative a fair degree of agreement might have been found amongst the ancient Greeks and the ancient Jews. The Greeks because they believed that there was a uniting principle which held everything together which they called ‘the Logos’- the same word John uses here translated ‘the Word’. For the Jews because in verse 1 of his Gospel, John is echoing the first verse of the Bible –Genesis 1, ‘In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.’  But we may still feel this God still seems rather remote. There is a world of difference between being aware of an architect like Christopher Wren because of his works and knowing Christopher Wren personally as a man. And so while through what has been made we are aware of God, knowing him is a problem, not only because by definition God is infinite and we are finite, but also because God is holy and we are sinful and so we can no more come into contact with God, than ice can come into contact with fire and remain ice.

 

But of course that is to look at things simply from our standpoint, but when we think of the Creator who is Triune, who within his own being is the communicating God, then everything is completely transformed and the impasse is overcome as we see in v 14, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ And then  again in v 18- ‘No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.’  Literally-‘narrated him’ to us.

 

Where do we encounter God, where do we discover this divine Word who made us and for whom we were made? The answer: in a datable, historical person-Jesus of Nazareth. All that John has said up to this point has been leading up to this momentous climax. From all eternity there has been this wonderful person called 'The Word', intuitively we are aware of him, creation testifies to him, the whole history of the Jewish people has been a preparation for him. But then he actually came, some two millenia ago now. A little boy was drawing a picture one day with tremendous concentration."What are you doing ?' asked his Mum. He said, 'I'm drawing a picture of God.' His Mum not quite knowing how to respond said, 'But no one knows what God looks like" He simply replied, 'They will when I’ve finished this'. But now we can know what God is like, not from a child’s fanciful drawing, but through his own divine coming- the ‘Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us’. He became a human being, born into our  our world. Let me remind you of these wonderful words of Bishop Athanasius in the 4th century who five times was exiled by the church because he stood up for the truth of the incarnation againgst the Arian heretics, ‘The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well … At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as Man he was living a human life, and as Word he was sustaining the life of the Universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.’ Can you get your mind around that? I can’t, but I know it is breathtakingly true because of this passage in John amongst other things.

 

And we, says John, were witnesses to this fact- ‘we saw his glory’, a term used in the OT to describe God's very presence. The glory of God is equivalent to the ‘Godness of God’. We saw his miracles, we heard his words, says John, and you know what? They were full of grace and truth- v17. No man ever spoke like this man. He was able to speak words which would knock you right down onto the canvass, knocking the stuffing right out of you and then able to pick you up again and set you on your way. He always was able to go to the heart of the matter and cut through any religious humbug. And his words were not only full of truth, but grace-life restoring, heart warming, divine love. That’s Jesus-the Word.

 

And what happened when he came? Did the world throw a party and say ‘Hooray- at last’? Hardly. He was rejected, says John, alluding to his  crucifixion-11.He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. ‘He simply didn’t fit. He was the prototype we as human beings have fallen from, hence our loneliness and lostness. But he was never lost, he was always one with his heavenly Father. He showed us what it was to be truly human, as well as what was truly divine- destroying all our false views of God. And when our Maker comes to his world,what do we do?  We simply murdered him. And why? Because we want to rule our lives without him.

 

But it didn’t end there,because, you see, this light couldn’t be extinguished by the darkness of evil-‘the darkness has not overcome it’.Being raised from the dead he is now at the Father's side- v 18, a sign that all the sin and moral failings which cut us off from our Maker and each other have been put away.  So  a new and wonderful possibility is now open to all who dare trust in him-v 12 . ‘Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’  And the word ‘become’ means ‘begotten’. It is not the language of adoption that John is using, but the language of generation-it is a spiritual birth he is talking about

 

And someone who discovered this truth for herself was Bessie Ship who was spending Christmas in an American prison as she was dying of AIDS. She went along to a Christmas service in the jail. Afterwards she said to the man leading the service that she wanted to know Jesus too. So there and then she gave her life to Christ in prayer. Going home as a fresh Christian was a new experience for her. She was immediately drawn into a church and nurtured in the faith as she went to a Bible study group. Just three weeks after she had been released she contracted pneumonia. In hospital a Christian minister visited her. Struggling, she whispered to him, ‘These have been the happiest days of my life to know Jesus loves me, and that you do too.’ Two days later she died. She went to meet the Saviour she had accepted on Christmas day in a cold prison cell.[1]

 

When the the ‘Word became flesh’,  it wasn’t in a warm palace, but a dirty backroom which doubled as a stable reeking of animal dung and urine. And by his Spirit he still comes to us, wherever we are, whoever we are. Not just to inhabit dark and cold buildings, but dark and lost souls- ‘Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Charles Colson, A Dangerous Grace ( Nelson Word Ltd, 1994), p 478.

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