“Raised to a Power of 10”
January 3, 2020
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And 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.
15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
As we come to the first Sunday of 2021 many people are pleased to have flipped the calendar and left 2020 behind. If last New Year’s Eve we happily toasted the arrival of a new year, this past Thursday we probably did a toast as much to ring out a troubling, tragic year as to welcome a new one. When the pandemic began in earnest worldwide 10 months ago, who would have guessed the guideposts and anchors to our ways of life would have been significantly challenged or lost all together. If we thought this novel virus would last only weeks or magically disappear, we were sorely wrong. As 2021 begins the statistics are increasingly grim, even as we look hopefully to vaccines and herd immunity.
Many people have sorely missed gathering with their faith communities for weekly worship. Churches and clergy have progressed in providing digital worship as one answer. Yet, in the past year, people have still struggled to know and sense God.
The passage from John 1may be just the word for these times as we continue looking for signs of the divine amidst the layers of loss, disappointment, and isolation in 2020. Discerning the presence of Christ in our lives and in our world has been challenging. In the midst of so much death, sorrow, anger, and division, where is Jesus to be found? Why during times like this is it so challenging to see him as large and plain and unmistakable to our eyes of faith?
The Gospel of John starts out reminding us that this challenge many encountered in 2020 has always been so, while Jesus is ever present. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Right away we realize that John’ Gospel is different from the other three. There is nothing about when or where or how Jesus was born. There is nothing about how the Baptist baptized him. Going on John says nothing about Jesus telling people to eat bread and drink wine in his memory, or how he sweated blood in the garden the night of his arrest. There is nothing in John about the terrible moment when he cried out that God had forsaken him at the very time he needed him most. Jesus does not tell even a single parable in John. So, what then, according to John, does Jesus do?
He speaks words. And most often the words Jesus speaks are about who he is and what he is there to get done and less about human need. When he feeds a big, hungry crowd on one grocery bag of food, he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35). When he raises his friend Lazarus from the dead, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25–26).
In the first words of his Gospel, John says that Jesus, the long-awaited One was there, and yet people missed him. Like in 2020.
By verse 10 John tells us “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” confronting us with the question, “Well, perhaps we saw Jesus but did we recognize him? Did we receive him? Did we take his incarnation into our time and space seriously enough to realize that this changes everything? Everything!”
Probably not. Like in 2020.
The truth is, we like the Jesus in the manger because he does not say anything. We can project onto him anything we want. Maybe as warm and encouraging as the annual remembrance of the birthday of Jesus is, the real truth of Jesus comes when he opens his mouth to teach and preach, when we sit down at the table of the tax collectors and prostitutes, when he tells us to love everyone and to forgive even our most ardent enemies.
That is the real Jesus who comes to us. Do we see him? Is it possible to see him today with our own self-informed expectations of how we should be seeing him in the midst of the messes of today’s world? Or does what John tell us in verse 10 remain a blushing indictment upon us: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him”
It is a vital point because when you move on a half-dozen verses in John 1, you discover what this Jesus really brings and it turns out to be the #1 thing we all need: Grace. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” 1:16
He is full of Grace.
Many years ago, I did a word study on grace and discovered the word charis or “grace” does not crop up much in the four gospels. Despite the hugeness of “salvation by grace alone” for all of us who stand in some stream or another of the Reformation river, the word “grace” is restricted in the New Testament to mostly the writings of Paul. You can read “grace” once in a blue moon in the gospels (and then in non-salvific contexts sometimes, as in Luke 2 when the young boy Jesus is described as having grown up with wisdom and grace). But mostly if it is grace you are looking for, in the case of the gospels you will have to locate it in the actions and demeanor of Jesus, not in the text on the page.
But not in John 1. Here grace is as bubbly and as effervescent as a freshly poured glass of champagne. It sparkles. It pops. It delights. Grace clings to the Word of God, to the Word made flesh. It characterizes him. It is his essence.
Grace defines Jesus’ presence on the earth. He is the only One with the ability to know exactly what is right and what is wrong with the way life typically goes on planet Earth and he is — blessedly enough — simultaneously the only One with the grace sufficient to deal with it all.
All of this is Good News. John’s introduction of Jesus is Gospel at its purest and finest. Here in chapter 1 it reaches a crescendo in verse 16 when we are told that from the fullness of all the grace this Word made flesh has, we in turn have received “grace upon grace.” We get grace-squared, grace-cubed, grace raised to a power of 10. It builds up in our lives, and how we need that assurance. We are never finished with our need for grace.
The Good News is that neither is God in Christ ever finished with doling it out. Grace is where we live. Grace is the atmosphere we breathe.
The first Sunday of the New Year is for some a time to shake off regrets for goals not achieved in the year gone by and a time to set goals for the year to come. Probably, though, with all the disruptions, defeats, and cancellations of 2020, that is not the way we feel on this first Sunday of a new year. For now, most of us share the same goal for 2021: getting back to some semblance of normal, trying to piece back together lives riddled with disappointments, infused with isolation, shattered by job losses, devastated by deaths and so much sadness.
We looked for Jesus in 2020 and often could not see him. But he has been here all along, offering grace in our midst. And he is here to remind us that for this coming year, grace is still the most important thing in the Word and our finest source, therefore, of hope.