Approaching Good Friday, By Way of Christmas
|Apr 10|| 2|
There are two days of the year that anchor not only my calendar but also my life. They are Christmas and Good Friday. I am unable to imagine the very concept of being apart from these two days, and I can hardly talk about one without talking about the other. My Christmas sermons tend to focus on the cross. My Good Friday meditations tend to gravitate toward the incarnation, so today I find my attention drawn to the opening verses of the gospel of John.
While the first fourteen verses of John’s gospel are well known, I would like to offer a reading that will challenge what you’ve heard before. In short, I don’t think the incarnation actually comes into view until v. 14, where we read, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Up to that point, I believe the gospel writer is giving us a history of God’s patient but persistent revelation of himself. It is the story of God’s relentless mercy; and, sadly, it is also the story of the human tendency to be blind to that mercy or even to resist it. That history does culminate in the incarnation of the Son of God, but I don’t think we get there until v. 14.
Initially, John’s gospel tells us, God revealed himself in creation, and specifically in the creation of life. (vv. 1-3) The daily encounter with the heavens and the earth should be all anyone needs in order to know that God is, and that he is to be worshiped. If that doesn’t do it, certainly the gift of life ought to open our eyes and bring us into the light. “The life is the light of men and that light shines in the darkness.” (vv. 4-5) It has always shone, and it continues to shine today. It is the light of the miracle of life—inexplicable apart from God as its source.
Sadly, however, we fail to recognize life as the revelation of God that it is. We fail to understand the truth that it declares. As v. 5 notes, we in our “darkness have not comprehended it.” There is some ambiguity in the text at this point, and many people translate this line as “the darkness has not overcome” the light, but I think the issue in view here is not whether the power of darkness has overcome the light but rather whether we in our darkness comprehend what the light reveals.
Because the text goes straight to John the Baptizer in the next verse, it is easy to think that the gospel is introducing Jesus at this point as well, but I don’t think it is. John the Baptizer, we are told, came as a witness to the light. He came as a witness to the Word of God, who had been at work throughout history. Since we know that the Word of God would become the incarnation of that light, we tend to read Jesus into the narrative at this point, but John the Baptizer came as a witness to the light that enlightens everyone who has ever been born into this world. (v. 9)
Again, we have a translation issue. Many people hold that the phrase “coming into the world” refers to Jesus. The phrase, however, could just as easily refer to everyone who is ever born, and I think this is the better reading. John the Baptizer came to bear witness to the light that enlightens each and every one of us who is born into this world. John came to tell us that the light has shown in every heart and that we are without excuse before God. John was not that light, but he did come to testify to that light which had been at work in the world since the day of creation. Yet, the world did not recognize God as the source of that light. (v. 10)
In v. 11 the gospel writer returns to his summary of the history of God’s revelation of himself and of his mercy. Since the revelation of himself as the Creator and source of all life did not lead people to worship as it should have done, the text tells us, God came into history in a very specific manner. He adopted a people for himself, set them aside as the ones to whom he would give a special measure of grace and through whom he would bless the entire world. “He came unto his own.” But this does not yet refer to the incarnation.
The first phrase of v. 11 refers to all the ways that God came to his own people over the course of centuries. He appeared to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants in various ways. He worked miracles among his people. He gave them prophets and priests. He blessed them with the sacrificial system, with feasts, and with the rituals of the Tabernacle and of the Temple. He revealed himself in the most amazing signs and wonders and blessed them over and over again. Long before Jesus, God revealed himself to his people, and poured out his mercy on them.
Sadly, however, “his own did not receive him.” (v. 11) Despite God’s giving of himself over and over again, the human tendency to misunderstand God and to refuse his love continued. His chosen nation largely refused the self-giving God. “Yet,” the text continues, “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (vv. 12-13)
Finally, the account comes to its climax in v. 14 where we learn that God is indeed relentless in his determination to reveal himself and pour out his mercy. Though the human tendency has been to reject him, he just keeps coming. Having revealed himself in all of creation, having revealed himself in the miracle of life itself, and having come into human history through his covenantal relationship with his chosen people, he then took the most extraordinary step of all. He came into our world as one of us. The unseen God incarnated himself in human flesh!
Has our familiarity with this idea made us forget how staggeringly unthinkable it is?
English translations of v. 14 typically drop the word “and,” but it is there, and it matters. “And” indicates that what follows builds on the thirteen verses that come before. “And” equals “Additionally, on top of all this,” the Word that is God, the Word by whom all things were created, the Word that is the source of life and light, the Word that cared for his chosen people in the most extraordinary ways, that Word took the additional step of taking on flesh. He lived among us as one of us.
He came into the world as a baby, born of a woman—a poor woman who gave birth to him in a stable and placed her divine son in the straw of a feed trough for a bed. Consider what was happening here. The Creator of the sun and stars and of life itself became a created being. The eternal and uncreated, only begotten of the Father became the “firstborn of creation.” The one on whom all creation depends made himself dependent on that very creation. The eternal Word of God rendered himself speechless until he could learn to talk.
And if God in a stable is a stretch, what can we say about God on a cross? From the rough-hewn wood of a stable in Bethlehem to the splintered timbers of a cross outside Jerusalem. From the joyous birth of a baby in the company of worshipers to the agonized death of a young man in the company of mockers. Falsely accused, a victim of blatant injustice, subject to one of the most excruciating forms of execution ever employed, sadly abandoned. And still he remained what he had been all along: the Creator of all things, the source of life who is the light of man, the Word of God who was and is and always shall be.
Whether my reading of John chapter one is correct or not, the history I’ve summarized provides the context in which this day, this Friday of death, becomes Good Friday. This is the history that leads the Son of God to the cross and I trust it leads us to that cross as well—he to die and we to live. Throughout human history, the Almighty God has been both patient and persistent in revealing himself and pouring out his mercy. Even in the face of our resistance, he did not pull back. He just kept coming till finally it culminated not only in the stable but in the cross—the fullest expression of his unspeakable mercy.
Dr. Richard Horner
¹ You will need to have the text of John 1.1-14 in front of you to make sense of what follows. As my comments note, translations vary. The King James Version translates the key passages as I do. The New American Standard Bible gives alternate readings in the main text and marginal notes. I recommend it for serious Bible study.
² See John 3.19, which helps resolve this translation question.
³ Colossians 1.15. Sadly, while most translations are willing to identify Jesus as “first-born from the dead” in v. 18, they fudge on v. 15 and call Jesus the “first-born over creation.” They seem willing to accept the thought that God can die but resistant to the idea that He can become a created being. The incarnation makes both possible.
Study Center Resources
The Director’s Class continued online this week. You can watch or listen here.
Associate director Michael Sacasas contributed an essay on “Pandemics, Digital Media, and Anxiety” to Tabletalk Magazine.
This coming week, on Wednesday the 15th at 5:15 p.m., the final session of the Wendell Berry reading group will meet virtually. The reading will be Berry’s essay “Writer and Region.” You can read more about the group here. You can join the group on Wednesday using this link.
The Wendell Berry reading group will bring our spring program to a close, but we are excited to announce that we will be hosting a virtual reading group over the summer beginning the first week of May on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Stay tuned for more details.
— Matthew Loftus, an American physician serving in Kenya, asks “Will the grief wrought by a global pandemic unite us with Christ?”:
“Our ability to manage and live with grief depends on how much we are willing to identify with Christ. If we do not make ourselves vulnerable to the pains and sorrows of this world like he did, nor risk what we have for the sake of people who are hurting, then our griefs will be trivial indeed. The degree to which we are united with Christ – in spirit, in prayer, in suffering – is the degree to which he shares the burden of those sufferings with us.”
— “We Are All Monks Now” by Gerald W. Schlabach:
“At such a moment, adopting even one or two monastic practices may be helpful. They were never meant for exceptionally holy Christians, after all, but for ‘beginners’ (RB 73). True, monasticism became clericalized over the centuries, and the vows that monks take draw distinct lines between them and other Christians. But monasticism was originally a lay movement. The practices that are distinctly monastic do not require priests and clerics to preside. Even Saint Benedict was not himself a priest and his Rule takes care to guard against priestly dominance.”
— Chad Wellmon on “The scholar’s vocation” in Aeon:
“The most urgent questions concerned the forms for conducting a life and the character, habits and virtues that might sustain them. Intellectual work was spiritual work. Anyone seeking to craft a meaningful life engages in it. It is a task for all those who live in a disenchanted world in which meaning is not something that inheres in the world itself or that a job can simply provide, but rather is something to be asserted and made (and contested) by and among humans themselves.”
— Pastor Charlie Drew ministering in New York City is a dear friend of Dr. Horner’s. You can listen to him ponder how to answer corona fatigue with adoration.