Light in the Darkness: Christmas in John’s Gospel
Part Four: God in High Definition
LWC November 27, 2022
“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1.18)
Well Christmas is just around the corner and if you’ve not watched your favourite holiday movie yet, this is your final warning. One of the classics you may know is A Christmas Story, based on Jean Shepherd’s novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. The story is about growing up in Northern Indiana in the 1950s, and the familiar challenges a suburban family faces at Christmastime. One of the themes explored is the complicated relationship between a father and son. In a key scene the family is returning home after visiting the local mall when they blow a tire in the snow (Shepherd describes his father’s difficult and almost religious connection with the family car: “Some men are Catholics, others Baptists. My father was an Oldsmobile man…”)Remembering himself at about age ten, Shepherd is told by his father to bundle up and help change the tire, a kind of rite of passage. Mid-task the boy accidentally drops the lug nuts in the snow and lets out a four-letter expletive. His father gives him the look; his mother exclaims, “where did you learn that word?!“; and the boy is too afraid to make matters worse by admitting he learned “that word” first-hand from dear old dad. Some of us might relate. Unsavoury as it is, the character of the father is revealed in the son.
Well, you can see where we’re heading. Christmas is about revealings. The glow of a tree is revealedwhen the final ornament is hung and the lights are switched on. As the wrapping paper is torn to shreds, a meaningful gift is finally revealed after a long wait. Back when I first arrived at Living Waters the then much smaller congregation would hold an annual Christmas dinner with great enthusiasm. The night’s big moment came when the turkey was dramatically revealed. Everyone seated, a hush would come over the room, and the bagpipes would start up in the lobby. Every year they would “pipe in the turkey”, parading it through the room, revealing the great bird in all its glory (which was also when I learned that the bagpipes are most definitely an outdoor instrument). With all our funny little rituals and traditions, Christmas is about revealings.
Christmas and John’s Gospel
Probably one of the main reasons that revealings or revelation is so central to Christmas tradition is because of John’s gospel. With special clarity and intensity John comes back over again to the revelation of Jesus, a mysterious figure whose true nature makes the hairs on our neck stand up, because Jesus is revealed as Israel’s one true God in the flesh; “I and the father are one.” (John 10.30); “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14.6-7); “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” (John 14.10); “truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8.58). John’s gospel is chalk full of examples. The mysteries of the incarnation are deep and wide in John, but he’s adamant – whatever else you think about Jesus, however else you want to describe him, John sees Jesus as the revelation of Israel’s one true God sitting just across the fire from us. And it all begins in the prologue which we’ve been reading these past weeks. As we’ve already seen there are a few crescendos in this incredible passage, and one of them is our text today, which again emphasizes who we are looking at when we look at Jesus: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1.18) Closing our time in John’s prologue today, let’s consider what this means if we call ourselves Christian or if we’re exploring Jesus and Christianity, especially this time of year.
“No one has ever seen God”
Next week children all over will stay up late on Christmas Eve trying to catch a glimpse of Santa in vain, because Santa’s pretty sneaky. And yet we all hold a few things to be true of the big man. He’s generous, like’s cookies, and is happy to fulfil his side of the bargain if we’re good little boys and girls. Not quite the gospel, but also not a bad tradition where children hear there’s some goodness out there yet. Of course God is in a very different category than our favourite mythical creatures, so John’s statement raises a good question about seeing and knowing. “No one has ever seen God”, so what can we be sure of if no one’s caught a glimpse? What do we know, what do we not know, and what are we simply assuming to be true about God which may not be true at all? I’m no psychologist, but you only need a few moments of self-reflection to realize that much of what we assume about God is inherited through our experience of care givers or authority structures. Some are good, some are horrific, but none of them are entirely accurate depictions of God (even jolly old Saint Nick), because in the end they are not God. And that’s part of John’s point. With Israel’s history in mind, from the revelation at the Exodus, to the giving of the Law, and into the prophets – no one had ever seen God. The closest they got were events like what’s described Deuteronomy, “You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.” (Deuteronomy 4.12) Or we could think about the Greek mind to which John was also appealing. Plato said, “Never man and God can meet”. Another ancient philosopher said that the best we can hope for is to “catch a glimpse of God as a lightening flash lights up a dark night – one split second of illumination and then dark.”[i] That’s a mysterious and romantic idea, but it’s also pretty terrible and frustrating news if you’re trying to find your way in the dark, hoping for God’s help. So John was right. If no one had ever seen God, where could they begin? How could they know what God was like?
We’re fortunate to have a historian and biblical scholar around here like Rikk Watts. Most of us will never read Rikk’s academic legacy, which is fine because like any scholar worth their salt Rikk is good at summing up deep things simply. One of the most helpful things you’ll hear from Rikk repeatedly is, “if you want to know what God’s like, don’t guess!” But we do guess, don’t we, all the time. Another bill – God mustn’t like me today; or, a good parking spot at the grocery store – I must be in his good books! Seemingly harmless things like that. But also really troubling things in the back of our minds too. What did I do to deserve this? This must be a punishment; or, I can’t even look at myself in the mirror, how could God look at me with love?; Jesus might love me, but I don’t think God likes me. We’ve got an endless inner dialogue informed by all kinds of things, leading us to all kinds of conclusions. To all these inner thoughts John writes, “no one has ever seen God”. One of the returning themes in scripture is the warning about making God in our own image, and that we shouldn’t try to imagine what God is like outside of how God has chosen to reveal himself. There’s caution about only using the created order or our personal experience to draw accurate conclusions about God’s nature and character. So our friend Rikk has taken a cue from John here, “no one has ever seen God – so don’t make guesses!”.
What I’m trying to say is that we do a lot of guessing and may have come to some unhelpful, even damaging conclusions, sometimes without even realizing it. Some of us have heard “God loves you” all our lives, but it doesn’t sink in because we’re tied up in so much shame and pain and confusion about God. We’re convinced God is someone he isn’t, and have little hope of then of knowing who we really are. One of the reasons so many today are spinning in circles around questions of identity and purpose is just this. We’re trying to sort out who we are, by ignoring the first question of who God is and what God’s like. What hope do we have of understanding our humanity if we’re unclear on the being who made us?
This is why we’re reading John’s gospel at Christmas. John says, the time for guesswork about God is over. And dare I say, it’s needs to be over. Could this be the Christmas we let go of our assumptions and guesswork, and open our heart to the real God? I’m not saying that’s easy. Some of us have been to hell and back, so it’s not a leap to draw conclusions based on our experiences. But we also have to say that none of us will heal or grow as human beings any further until we put away damaging guesses about God, and hear the truth of the gospel. That truth begins with hearing the good news that we haven’t been left to our own devices to sort God and life out, no matter how placid or horrific life might have been. We have been given a renewing revelation, which is where John goes next.
“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known”
Growing up I admit that for me God and Jesus were two very different people, so different that sometimes I didn’t imagine Jesus bore much family resemblance to God at all. But summed up here by John, in just a few words, is the great, big, good news of Christmas! “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” God has been seen and can be known, in and through Jesus.
Let’s come back to that in a moment, and allow for a brief rabbit trail. One of the things we can get hung up on is “how things work” with God, which sometimes comes at the expense of missing the point of what the biblical writers are actually getting at. It’s a bit like approaching God and scripture as we might an old coocoo clock. So anxious to sort out the inner workings, we miss hearing and seeing the time it’s telling. So lost in the mechanics we miss the message and meaning it brings us. All to say, brighter people than you and I have tried to sum up or explain the personhood of God apparent in scripture: Father, Son, Spirit, and how exactly that all works. Sometimes those bright minds have gone too far, coming to conclusions scripture doesn’t come to. What I’m trying to say is that it can be unhelpful when we try and tidy God up, or over explain God out of all reasonable existence. It’s better to hear what scripture is trying to say, and worry less about stuffing God into some kind of cosmic equation.
So one question we can ask when reading scripture is, what’s the point the writer is trying to make? The main point John is making here is not a sorting out of the inner workings (as if we could ever understand God’s nature fully anyway). The point John is making is that no one other than Jesus knows what God’s like, because Jesus is in special relationship God, and is himself God. Never mind how that might “work”, we can’t miss the point. If you want to know what God’s like, don’t guess, look at Jesus. The original language here – about Jesus being in closest relationship to the Father, or being in bosom of the Father – is language used elsewhere in scripture for the “deepest possible intimacy of human life”[ii]. The language is used for the bond between mother and infant, or the union of husband and wife. It points to a very special intimacy and knowledge. You may remember how we began in John 1. 1 “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God, and the Word was God…” Withness and oneness and consistency of character. Again, hard to get our minds around that, but what’s John getting at?
As we’ve said all month in our study, for John Jesus is not some cheap knock-off of God. He’s not a nicer, more modernized version. Jesus is the central and final revelation of the one he calls Father. I like to say that when reading about Jesus in the gospels we’re seeing God in high definition. Back to some of Jesus’ own words in John, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14.6-7). If you want to know what God’s like, take a good long look at Jesus – you may be surprised at who you’ll meet.
The Gospel at Christmas
It’s one week till Christmas. A week filled with year-end concerns, family complexities, time crunches, travel plans, joy, grief, gratitude. Sometimes I feel like we don’t even the have time or attention span to see God (which is another sermon altogether). So the simple invitation today is to hear the gospel this Christmas.
Gospel means good news. The angelic message in Luke’s biography of Jesus said that Jesus’ arrival was, “good news, of great joy, for all people” – and we are those people still today! The good news is that God is closer than you think, and kinder than you imagined. And Christmas says that God has taken a real interest in you and me and every living creature under the sun. Christmas means that God can be seen, known and trusted through Jesus. So, whatever revealings we experience this week, in presents, trees, turkeys, let me encourage you to receive the clear and wonderful revelation of the real God through Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, this very week.
Could we put aside some our guesswork and assumptions about God? Difficult and painful as that may be, could we toss them out like mouldy-old, half-eaten fruitcake, and ask: what if God really was like Jesus?What if the manger and the cross tell us more about God than the thunder and the lightening, than our parents or grandparents, teachers or bosses or friends? Christmas is about taking a pause and having a closer look, for the very first time, or for the hundredth time, and asking (as the carol goes):
What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This very special week before Christmas dare to ask, what child is this? And let the possibility of Jesus’ life and light break through to renew and restore you.
[i] William Barklay, The Gospel of John, referencing Apuleius
[ii] William Barklay, The Gospel of John