I heard a story about a family who visited the caves over the holiday, and when they reached the deepest part of the cave, the guide turned out the light so those visiting could experience how utterly dark it was in the cave where no light was able to penetrate. A small boy started to cry, but his sister said: “It’s alright, there’s someone who knows how to turn the lights back on, it will be ok.”
The opening verses of John’s Gospel are a beautiful, resonating hymn of praise to God, which slides into poetry. We read and speak these verses at key times of the year; including in Advent and over Christmas.
Like many of our precious scriptures, the words have sounds that sing into our spirits finding an echo in our hearts as they resonate with other stories from the Bible.
John wrote these words deliberately recalling the opening verses of Genesis as he sought to highlight the absolutely incomprehensible breadth and depth of God and the extraordinary gift of creation. The first words of God in Genesis (1:3-4) are:
“Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”
John opens his Gospel with an extraordinary affirmation of life and light, celebrating both the beginning of life and the future, with certain hope it will not be spoiled as has happened after God sang the world into being at its initial creation.
We often think beginnings are hard, but God refashions and recreates order out of chaos, always, everywhere, at all times and in all places.
“In the beginning” is more than a simple repetition of a phrase from Genesis 1:1-5 by John to open his Gospel. The re-use of this phrase enables him to retell the Genesis story differently and provides the opening context for understanding the rest of his Gospel.
John celebrates God whose ‘Word’ is God the Son, who has ultimate creative power. John is giving us the opportunity to think on the cosmic power at work and its significance and then places it firmly, deeply, completely in our God whose works are already known to us. This is the God to whom John the Baptiser bears witness, as the Gospel writes:
“He [John] came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (1:7).
However, we often choose to dwell in darkness, imagining the world is turning into chaos and we lose hope and forget God. We do not hear John’s words clearly. We are often like the small boy, crying in the darkness and not like the sister who remembers what has happened and trusts the lights will come on (John 1:5).
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
John’s Gospel grabs our attention and our imaginations and takes us back before time and place, before the universe was brought into being, and before anything existed other than God.
John uses the Wisdom literature in the scriptures when there was nothing but darkness or chaos and John starts to tell the story of order, or ‘logos’, emerging out of darkness and promises to us all: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1:4).
These verses of John set out our Christian theology in all its majesty, glory and power. He speaks about the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the birthing of creation and ongoing continuous creation, the separation and distinction between darkness and light, salvation by grace, incarnation and the revelation of God by “God the only Son’. He manages this in only 18 verses as he sets out the start of the Gospel and commences the Jesus story including references to John the Baptiser.
The middle verses, (1:10-11) tell us of the great tragedy and God’s continued love working in this context. “The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world,” (1:9) and the world told him to ‘get lost’! The world hung up on him, slammed doors on him, turned their backs to him. Pious, righteous people plotted against him, Judas betrayed him, three disciples fell asleep on him, and witnesses lied about him, Peter denied him. Then Pilate flogged him, solders mocked him, and when the soldiers got tired of beating him, they led him out to crucify him and made him carry his own cross. This is what happened to the true light coming into the world.
In a few verses of immeasurable heartbreak and breathtaking understatement, John says “the world did not know him” (v10b) and “his own people did not accept him” (v11b). Humanity is alienated from the very creation of which it is a part.
Despite his teachings, his signs, his prophetic edge and his manifest love, the world did not know him. God is with us and yet we did not and still do not recognise God.
The rejection of the Word by humanity in v.10 is like the rejection of Wisdom, elsewhere in the Bible (in En xlii 2): ‘Wisdom came to make her dwelling place among the children of men and found no dwelling place.” The disconnection between God and humanity is breathtaking and full of grief.
We address Jesus as the Light of the world, and yet we also wonder why the world so often chooses to ignore the light and dwell in darkness.
Yet, God gave God the Son to the world, for God so loved the world there is nothing God will not do to recreate and enable humanity to flourish. In this way, God invites and loves us so everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
God does not send the ‘light’ into the world to condemn the world to continue to stumble about in darkness.
God sends the life-giving and transforming light into the world, to illumine a world so easily seduced by darkness. The darkness resents the light, the darkness seeks to kill the light.
But we are reassured. Jesus did not come briefly or for a quick tourist trip to the world. Jesus came into the world and became flesh. He became truly human. John insists the eternal Word entered the bounds of the material world, God’s creation. (v.14a)
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (1:14).
God promises us, as believers, accepters and knowers of Jesus, God has given us the power to become children of God. And although no-one has seen God, it is God the only Son, who is close to the God’s heart, who has made God known. Our wails of despair, sorrow and grief, our fears and our deepest darkness in which we find ourselves, are not the final Word.
Just as God penetrates the deepest darkness with an indestructible light, so God is able to penetrate the darkness of despair and unbelief with the power of love.
In the incarnation, God has not come to condemn the world (3:17); God comes and continues to be present to redeem and recreate everything and everyone broken and vulnerable in the world. This is a God who does not despise the brokenness of our human condition.
This is the good news to which each of us can bear witness and testify. Jesus Christ is fully human to give shape and reality to our Advent longings and a redemptive way forward for all our desires.
With tomorrow being the Epiphany of Our Lord, we can start to see the incarnation of God in Jesus, God made flesh through the work of the Holy Spirit. As the small girl reminded her brother, there is someone who knows how to turn the lights on again, if we can only trust and have faith, hope and love.
The Lord be with you