by Michael Usey; John 1.1-18
This is John’s birth narrative, which explains why there are no Christmas pageants based on it. The stories Matthew and Luke tell are full of things you can put costumes on: shepherds, angels, magi, sheep. They are full of iconic things you can put on the stage: a stable, a manger, a guiding star overhead. We love them because they stay put, coming out of storage once a year so we can stop a while and enter the glow of a long-ago holy night, when all was calm, all was bright. They let us admire the baby and enjoy the children before we head back out into a world that is going who-knows-where, with a bunch of swollen egos changing the script every 24-hour news cycle.
But there is no Bethlehem in John’s gospel, no holy family bending over a makeshift cradle that lights their faces from below. There’s not even a baby in this story, because John’s nativity begins long before that. It begins “in the beginning,” the same way Genesis does. It begins with the Big Bang of God’s Word, bringing the world into being one word at a time.
God said, “‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” After that God said, Let there be day, night, earth, seas, plants and planets. Let there be living creatures of every kind. All God had to do was say them and there they were: fish, birds, sea monsters, earthlings. They all came forth on the breath of God, taking shape through the power of God’s Word.
There is no need for a gender reveal in John’s birth story, since John already knows whom he is talking about, but he still takes his time getting to the verse that passes for a manger in his story: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” he says at last, “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Then these remarkable words, in verses 16-18 from The Message:
We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift.
We got the basics from Moses, and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
This endless knowing and understanding— all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.
No one has ever seen God, not so much as a glimpse.
This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father,
has made God plain as day.
This is the key part of understanding Jesus and the incarnation. As many Christian confessions over the centuries have said, in Jesus we see God most clearly. Note that this claim is not exclusive; there are many other places we can see and experience the divine. But for Jesus followers, it is his life, teaching, death, and resurrection that we see what God is truly like. Jesus has made God as plain as day.
Last week as I was listening to Lin’s wonderful sermon, I was struck again by the way Jesus in his first sermon changed the words from Isaiah 61, leaving off the phrase about “the day of vengeance of our God,” and splicing back in an earlier Isaianic phrase about “giving sight to the blind.”
This week I’ve been taken with the verb to curate; we English majors sometimes get mildly obsessed with words. The verb curate means “to choose,” So an arts museum has a curator, which means the person who chooses–who gets to select which pieces are showcased in a given exhibit, and how the pieces are arranged for maximum impact. I love the idea of Jesus as curator, meaning the one who selected out of his tradition and scriptures which ones to put to the front and highlight.
Have you heard the phrase “curating the feed”? In our weekly dynamic and helter-skelter zoom staff meetings, I mentioned how taken I was with the notion that Jesus curated his sources. At which Kari said, “Oh, like curating an Instagram feed!” [The feed meaning the wave of data or images that scrolls down in facebook or Instagram.] Kari continued, “The way a parent will show a perfectly clear living room, leaving out the pile of dirty laundry conveniently just outside the image.” Curating the feed is showing what is best. Jesus curates his feed from the Hebrew scriptures. [Repeat.] But unlike someone not showing the dirty laundry, Jesus isn’t being deceitful or misleading; instead, he is clearing up the mistaken notions from incomplete images of God.
The apostle Paul in his letter to friends in Colossi wrote, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1.15), or as the Message puts it, “We look at this One and see the God who cannot be seen.” Jesus came to show us what the true character of God is.
Where did Jesus get his inspiration? From the Torah and the Prophets, which was his scriptures growing up, of course. Not all of what Jesus said was original with him. His genius was in the way he curated his source material, the way he selected what to highlight and what to leave on the shelf.
And Jesus left a lot on the shelf. He ignored the negative qualities attributed to Yahweh: the wrath, the retribution, the jealousy. He ignored the accounts where God is portrayed as siding with one Iron Age tribe over others on the battlefield. Jesus knew, intuitively, that stories of Yahweh behaving badly were projections of the humans who wrote them. He understood that “Yahweh the Warrior” was a literary character, created by the scribes for their narratives about Israel’s glorious past.
At the same time, Jesus resonated with the nobler qualities attributed to Yahweh. He took seriously the account in Exodus 34 where Yahweh described himself as compassionate, merciful, and loving.
Jesus searched his scrolls for more passages showing God in the best light:
- Lamentations 3.22 (“The love of the Lord never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end.”);
- Isaiah 49.15 (“Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child who came from her womb? Even these may forget, yet I won’t forget you.”);
- Proverbs 25.21 (“If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink.”);
- Deuteronomy 15.7-8 (“If there is among you anyone in need, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted. Open your hand willingly to meet the need, whatever it may be.”);
- Leviticus 19.18 (“Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge against anyone. Love your neighbor as yourself.”).
Passages like these became Jesus’s favorites. How do we know? Because the ideas expressed in them formed the basis of his teachings. They helped him develop his philosophy of conciliation, affirmation, and self-giving love. Jesus was confident that the God who really exists (as opposed to the tribal god of the scribes) is conciliatory, affirming, and peaceable. Any texts not in harmony with love simply carried no weight with Jesus.
This perspective isn’t new or unique. Several early American Christians were of the view that God never sanctioned violence, even in OT times. Hannah Barnard, a Quaker preacher from Hudson, New York, went on a speaking trip to Ireland and England in 1798. She found herself the focus of controversy for her ideas. In his book Pioneers of the Peaceable Kingdom (1968), Peter Brock says this about Hannah:
“Her espousal of the peace testimony had led her to have strong doubts whether a beneficent deity could ever have sanctioned war under the old dispensation. If he had, she reasoned, did not this constitute ‘an impeachment of the divine attributes’ of love and goodwill toward the creation? Surely OT wars, like modern ones, stemmed wholly from men’s passions and lust.”
In 1846, a Quaker named John Jackson published a booklet entitled Reflections on Peace and War, in which he wrote: “Once we take the ground that men have been divinely commissioned to fight, there is no war for which this authority will not be claimed.” The biblical writers, he insisted, had been mistaken in believing that their wars were divinely inspired. His reasons for doubting their claims Jackson drew from his understanding of God’s love as revealed by Christ in the NT. How, he asked, could the barbarous policy of extermination pursued by the ancient Jews against the Canaanites and other tribes be reconciled with the spirit of Christian forgiveness?
In our own tradition, Anabaptist leader Hans Denck refused to believe that God could ever be vindictive or wrathful, no matter what the texts say. The essence of the Divine is love, said Denck. God’s words and actions can never contradict this essence. Christ, himself a manifestation of divine love, had taught us to love our enemies. If God did otherwise, then would not God contradict the revelation in Christ?
Chuck & Caroline Joyce’s Sunday School class has just completed a wonderful fall study on the book Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, by Andy Stanley. (Yes that Andy Stanley, and no, hell hath not frozen over.) It’s an excellent book and one I recommend highly, despite any preconceptions you might have about the author. He is arguing that Christians have tried to baptize the Hebrew Scriptures, putting them alongside (and often over) the teachings and life of Jesus. Here’s a gem of a paragraph:
[Putting the Hebrew scriptures next to the Christian ones in our Bible] made it easy for the church to justify appropriating the Jewish scriptures for their own purposes. Little did the brave church fathers know that, by lifting the Jewish scripture out of their Jewish context and retrofitting them as Christian scriptures, they were laying the foundation for the reintroduction of old covenant style violence and bloodshed. It wouldn’t be long before the violent God of the OT became the violence -affirming God of the church. Combining the convenants paved fhte way for the church’s support of slavery, anti-semitism, inquistions, forced conversions, and a host of other unJesus-like enterprises. (156)
In contrast, Jesus curated his feed from the Hebrew scriptures to correct and clarify what God is really like. He selected his sources to fix the distortions in the Hebrew scriptures. So here’s my question for all of you today, and it’s one worth considering: Is Yahweh non-violent? Is the God that Jesus reveals a pacifist, waging peace and not war? Or if you prefer, is the one true God peaceful? We had a great discussion on this notion in our Tuesday staff. Is Yahweh a pacifist? I’ll pause the sermon here while you discuss this among the people you’re with, either in person or virtually. [Pause here.]
So, what do we see when we look at Jesus? John 1.18 again: “No one has ever seen God, not so much as a glimpse. This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made God plain as day. When we look at Jesus, we see God. But we also see a human whose life is made of movements of solidarity, of risk, of sacrifice, of teaching and living truth, and a relentless, insatiable desire to be with the ones he loves despite whatever obstacles.
So, when we look at Jesus, what do we see? Do we just see ethics? Can this whole mystical calculus of John chapter one be boiled down to just treating people a certain way, or to solidarity, or sacrifice? I think not. When we see Jesus, we see God. But this seeing is more than just a snapshot. There are deep mysteries attached. As Irenaeus said, God allows Godself “to be seen, comprehended and grasped by [people], that God may give life to those who see and receive.” What this might mean is that, when we look at Jesus’ life, we can see God-life. To see Jesus as the image of the invisible God means following Jesus, and striving together as a community of the Body of Christ to live as he lived, love as he loved, and maybe even die as he died.
God releases Jesus into the world like an only child, although not to remain one. Paradoxically, the two-fold mission of this only child is to make God known and to make more children. All who receive Jesus, John says—all who breathe in what God has breathed out—will receive the power to become God’s children too.
I know we put all kinds of conditions around that—yes, sure, we’re all God’s children too, but not like Jesus. He alone is the only. He alone is our clear window into the heart of God. If so, then he is also pretty clear about his expectations of his siblings. According to John, when it is time for the Jesus to go back where he came from, he will turn to his God-siblings and say, “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
Paul Kiem, a Mennonite scholar, wrote, “Our common confession, that Jesus’ life and teachings are the clearest expression of divine character and purpose for the world that we know, should be taken as an interpretive lens in which the stories of God’s mighty acts and the manifestation of God’s character in history, in law, in wisdom, in praise, can be better understood.”
So this Christmas 2020 when it’s been a terrible, horrible, deadly year, with so many of our fellow Americans dead, sick, homeless, jobless, and deeply hopeless–now it’s our turn to curate our feed, to channel Jesus into our spaces, the Jesus who preached love, joy, peace, and hope. You’re the next step. Jesus showed us God, and now it’s our turn. How about it? Willing to be a window to that divine love? Can you curate Jesus’ feed?