John 1: The Eagle Has Landed

Lectern in Hereford cathedral. Photo: Phill Lister

Lectern in Hereford cathedral.
Photo: Phill Lister

Who has been to Europe and seen the beautiful old churches?
Inside there are often pictures with four animals.
A man, a lion, an ox and an eagle.
What do these four animals mean?

They stand for the four gospels in the Bible.[1]
Four books about Jesus.
The Gospels tell the same story, but in different ways.
For example, let’s look at how they start.

Mark begins with a man called John the Baptist.
He tells everyone that Jesus is coming:

Here is what John was preaching.  “After me, one will come who is more powerful than I am.”
Mark 1:7

Luke starts with the Christmas story, when Jesus and John were born.

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary.
Luke 1:26

Matthew starts much earlier, back in Jewish history:

This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham
Matthew 1:1

All three start here on earth, at a particular time in history.
Their animals are the man and lion and ox.
Animals that walk on the ground.


The Word of Creation

This year we are reading the fourth Gospel, John.
(It’s written by a different John from John the Baptist.)
Let’s see how John begins.

In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.
John 1:1-5

What do you think?
Kind of strange and mysterious?[2]
Like poetry or philosophy.

Very different from Matthew and Mark and Luke, animals walking on the ground.
John is always the Eagle,
flying high above the earth, near the sun.

John is sometimes called the spiritual Gospel.[3]
He doesn’t start in human history, but in the beginning.
Before the universe existed or time began.

Agnus Day appears with the permission of www.agnusday.org

Agnus Day appears with the permission of http://www.agnusday.org

John 1 introduces the whole book.
Today we will see favourite big ideas of John
that appear over and over in John’s Gospel.[4]

There are whole books about John chapter 1.
In fact, there are whole books about John one verse one
Mostly about one word in verse one!
What is it?

The magic mystery word is: “Word”!

In the original Greek language, this is Logos.
It has many different meanings.
It can mean word or speech, or even sermon.

It gives us the English word prologue – “fore-word”.
And logic: if something is logical, it has order, it makes sense.
At University you can study bio-logy or geo-logy or psycho-logy.

Logos is something like the laws of physics, which were there from the beginning.
The underlying structure or equations of the universe.

These verses also have meanings from the Bible.
Where have you heard “in the beginning” before?
At the start of the Bible, the very first verse.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.
Genesis 1:1

Later we read,

By the Word of the Lord, the heavens were made.
Psalms 33:6 [5]

The Word is the power and wisdom of God that makes the world.  (Proverbs 8: 23ff) [6]

It seems very deep and mysterious.
Here is the feeling I get from these verses in John.

Who has been to Rotorua or Tongariro National Park?
In places like that, I remember seeing movies about Maori stories of creation or about volcanoes.

At the start, everything is dark.
There is deep slow spooky music.
Then comes a deep slow voice:
“Millions of years ago…” or
“Before the dawn of time…” or
“In the beginning…”

It’s dark and mysterious
Then the volcano erupts.
The sun rises.
The screen is full of brightness and colour.
Light shines into the darkness.

John 1 remembers the start of the Bible in Genesis 1:

Darkness covered the deep waters … Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good.  Then he separated the light from the darkness.
Genesis 1:2-4

Here is our first Big John Idea.
John makes his message clear with contrasts of good and bad.
Here is light and darkness.
In John, you also find life and death, true and false.

Jesus is always on the good side.
He says:

“I am the way, the truth and the life.”  (14:6)
“I am the light of the world”                 (8:12)

Sometimes life can seem very dark. [7]
We feel like we’re stuck in a deep pit.
We can’t see any way out.
We can’t see any light.
At times like that, I love verse five:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

Extinguish means to blow out like a candle.
The darkness can never put out the light.


Testimony Rejected and Received

We still don’t really know what this Word is.
God made the world through it.
It gives us life and light.
But what is it?
Let’s read on.

God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony.  John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light.  The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
John 1:6-9

Suddenly we are on earth, with John the Baptist.
John was a witness.
In a court of law there are witnesses.
They say: this is what I saw, this is what happened.
“Andrew is the one who stole the kimchi!”

John the Baptist told everyone that someone great and powerful was coming.
He said the light is coming.
Later in chapter 1,

John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look!  … He is the one I was talking about.”
John 1:29-30 [8]

“Jesus is the one!”
Who is the Word?
It’s a name for Jesus!

John was excited about Jesus coming.
At last, he was here!

But when Jesus came, what happened?

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him.  He came to his own people, and even they rejected him.
John 1:10-11

Imagine an old man.
His children live overseas.
He hasn’t seen them for years.
He misses them.
He saves his money until he can buy a ticket.

It’s a long trip.
He is tired, but he’s excited.
He is going to see his kids.
He comes to the city where they live.
A strange city.
He gets lost.
Dogs bark at him.
No one smiles.

But it’s okay – soon he will see his children.
At last, he finds the street.
He counts down the numbers on the letter boxes.
Here is the address.
He holds his breath.
He knocks on the door.
It seems like hours.
At last, it opens.
His son is there – the son he loves.

He cries out “my son.”
He tries to give him a hug.
His son says, “Who are you?  I don’t know you.  Get out, old man!”
He pushes him out and slams the door.

He came into the world he created, but the world did not recognise him.
He came to his own people, and even they rejected him.

Aren’t those the saddest verses?
Can you feel God’s tears?
Happily, John also gives us good news.

But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.  They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
John 1:12-13

Here is Big John Idea two.
In a way, the whole book of John is like a court case.[9]
Jesus is on trial – he is the defendant.
Throughout John, many people meet Jesus.
Many witnesses come.

Some say, Jesus is a bad man, even from the devil.
They reject him.

Others say: no, Jesus is good, he comes from God.
They believe in him.

The judge in court has to decide:
which witness is lying or wrong, and who is telling the truth.
Is the defendant innocent or guilty?

We too have to make that choice.
Are Jesus’ words true or false?
Is Jesus from God, or is he lying?
Will we receive him or reject him?

Those who believe in Jesus discover Big John Idea 3.
They are born again as God’s children.
They have new life, God’s eternal life that lasts for ever.[10]
When I was little, the first verse I learnt in John says:

God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16


The Incarnation of the Word

Now John comes back to the Word in verse 14.[11]

So the Word became human and made his home among us.

In many bibles, “human” is “flesh”.
Physical skin and blood like my body.

“Made his home” comes from the word for tent.[12]
When I go tramping, I leave my comfortable bed in my house.
I sleep in a tent.
Sometimes the ground is hard, and it’s uncomfortable.

It’s a bit like that here.
Jesus was with God in heaven.
He had everything, angels for servants.
But he left it all behind.
He came to live on earth where life is hard.
In a body just like ours.

Here is Big John Idea 4
Jesus is fully human, just like us.
Jesus gets thirsty and tired
He feels angry and he cries.
The big word for this is “incarnation”.

Let’s read to the end.

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.  And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.

John testified about him when he shouted to the crowds, “This is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘Someone is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me.’”

From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another.  For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
John 1:14-18

Last week we learnt that God is three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus is God the Father’s only Son, with God’s glory.[13]
“Glory” means power and brightness and beauty.[14]

Do you want to know what God is like?
No one can see God, says John.

But Jesus reveals God to us.
Here is Big John Idea 5
When we look at Jesus, we see God.
Later in John, Jesus said:

The Father and I are one.
John 10:30

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
John 14:9

Back in 1995, there was a song, [15]

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home.
If God had a face
What would it look like?

I don’t know if the singer had read John 1:14,
because John says that God was one of us!
He “moved into the neighbourhood” (The Message)
What does the face of God look like?
Jesus.

It’s as if you come home to your student flat.
There in the kitchen, sleeves rolled up.
Washing the dirty dishes you left in the sink last night
Is Queen Elizabeth!
She’s left Buckingham Palace and come to live with you.
How would that feel?

The God of the universe has entered our world.
The high King has come down from heaven to live at your place.

An even greater arrival
than when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969,
and radioed back, “The Eagle has landed.”


Implications of Incarnation

Until October, we are looking at John’s gospel.
Why don’t you read it all yourself?
It has 21 chapters: read one a day and you’ll do it in under a month.
Look out for these big ideas we’ve seen in John 1.

For me, the biggest idea is verse 14
God became human.
The Word became flesh.
Incarnation.

It’s amazing.
Imagine you’re on the bus going home.
That old man falling asleep: he is the laws of physics that hold everything together.
That girl playing with her iPhone: she is the sun and all its brightness.
Physics with a face.  The sun in a shirt.
How could it be?

And yet, John says that tired man who wants a drink,
that dying man nailed on a cross: he is the eternal Word that made the universe.
Impassioned equations.  Logic that bleeds.

It blows your mind.
If we really understood it,
We would never be the same again.
Maybe we’d talk about nothing else.
Maybe we’d be speechless, and never talk again.

Here are some things that incarnation means for me.

It means that God is mysterious and surprising.
God does not stay up in heaven, or at church, or in godly places.
He doesn’t stay in a box with a tidy label that says “God”.
He can show up anywhere in our lives.

The Word became physical flesh,
So Christianity is not about escaping the physical world for a spiritual experience.
We can’t separate physical from spiritual – God cares about both.[16]

If you are a student or a business person or at home with your children,
Your job can be just as important to God as a pastor or a missionary.[17]

Here’s a question:
Jesus went back to heaven 2000 years ago.
So is the Incarnation over, finished?

No.
Last week, we saw Jesus breathing God’s Spirit into his followers.  (John 20:22)
We aren’t perfect like Jesus.
But in a smaller way, the Incarnation of God’s power in humanity continues with us.

The Bible says Christians are the body of Christ.[18]
We are God’s hands and feet in the world.

Like the Queen leaving her palace,
Jesus left heaven to share our life and our pain.[19]

Jesus wants us to do the same for others.
To carry on taking God’s light and life into dark places.

Think of Mother Teresa.
She left Europe to live in a slum in India and help leprosy sufferers.

One of my favourite Christian writers is Henri Nouwen.
He was a theology lecturer at Yale University – very intelligent, very successful.
Then he left Yale to live with intellectually disabled people.

Other Christians have left a comfortable life
to spend years learning difficult languages and translate the Bible. [20]
So the Word from heaven becomes human words that people can understand.

These are examples of Incarnation.
We may not be called to anything that big.
But the Word wants to become flesh in our lives.
Words about God must become actions in the real world.

Through us, God wants to reach out and love people.
to live and laugh and cry with them.
In what ways could God shine in the world through your life?

Here’s an incarnational video of “What if God was one of us?”


Conclusion: Knocking at our Door

We’ve learnt a lot about Jesus from John chapter 1.
He is the Word who is God.
He existed from the beginning and created the universe.
He is the Light who shines in the darkness.
He has all the glory of God.

And yet he became flesh and made his home among us.
The Eagle has landed.

And now we have a choice.

There is a famous Christian painting called “The Light of the World”.[21]
It’s based on a verse where Jesus says:

Look!  I stand at the door and knock.  If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in.
Revelation 3:20

When you hear about Jesus.
When he knocks at your door – like that father in my story.

Will we reject him or accept him?
Will we hide in the darkness or come to his light?
Will we shut the door, or open our hearts and welcome him in?

Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
John 10:10

To all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.
John 1:12


Questions

How is John’s gospel like an eagle?

What is your favourite verse from John 1:1-18?
What is hardest to understand?

What does Jesus give to those who accept him?

“The Word became flesh and made his home among us.”

What does this tell us about Jesus?
What does it mean for our lives?


 Big Ideas in John’s Gospel

1. John likes c__________: l______ and d_________,

l____ and d_____, t_____ and f______.

2. John is like a c_________ _____ with many w__________.

Some say Jesus is _____ and they ________ him.

Some say Jesus is from _____ and they ________ him.

3. People who b________ in Jesus are b_____ ________

as God’s c_________ with e________ l____.

4. In Jesus, God becomes fully h______ like us.

(The i_____________)

5. When we look at Jesus, we see ______.


[1] Originally from visions of the living creatures in Ezekiel 1:10, 10:14 and Revelation 4:7.
[2] See a star wars reading at the start of this video.
[3] See A Sonnet for the Feast of St. John by Malcolm Guite:
This is the gospel of the primal light,
The first beginning, and the fruitful end,
The soaring glory of an eagle’s flight,
The quiet touch of a beloved friend.
This is the gospel of our transformation,
Water to wine and grain to living bread,
Blindness to sight and sorrow to elation,
And Lazarus himself back from the dead!
This is the gospel of all inner meaning,
The heart of heaven opened to the earth,
A gentle friend on Jesus’ bosom leaning,
And Nicodemus offered a new birth.
No need to search the heavens high above,
Come close with John, and feel the pulse of Love.

[4] For more on John 1, see the Christmas day sermons by New Testament theologian N T Wright: What Is This Word?, Full of Grace and Truth, Power to Become Children, Incarnation and Establishment.
[5] See also Isaiah 55:11 – God’s word goes forth and does not return without accomplishing results.  It also means the law of God that tells us how to live with wisdom, which tells us right from wrong.
[6] In China, John verse one has been translated, “In the beginning was the Tao.”  The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu describes the Tao in mystical language a bit like John 1.  See The logos and the Tao or Jesus and the Tao.
John has started with an idea that most people and cultures can relate to.  In India, it could be Brahman, or the eternal Word of AUM.  In Buddhism, it could be karma or Dharma – the eternal law.
[7] “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” – traditionally Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the First World War.
[8] And John the Baptist says about Jesus: “I saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove from heaven and resting upon him… I saw this happen to Jesus, so I testify that he is the Chosen One of God.”  John 1:32, 34
[9] There’s a book on the theme: Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel.
[10] John says he wrote his gospel “so that you may (continue to) believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name.”  John 20:31
[11] Maybe the greatest thinker in the history of Christianity is St Augustine.  He was African and lived around 400 A.D.  He wrote a book about his life and journey to faith, Confessions.  He was very intelligent and before he became a Christian, he explored many different ideas and philosophies.  He wrote about John 1 in Confessions Book 7 chapter 9 titled “He Compares the Doctrine of the Platonists Concerning the Λόγος With the Much More Excellent Doctrine of Christianity”.  (You can read it online at here.)  Augustine says that in the writings of the Platonist philosophers he read much the same things as in John 1:1-5, about the abstract divine logos that created and gives light to the world, and John 1:9-10, that most people do not recognise the light.  Then Augustine says about his philosophical reading: “As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God”.  This I did not read there…  But that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”, I read not there.
[12] In the desert, God’s glory filled the tent-Exodus 14:34.  Here in John, we see the fulfilment of God’s promise to Tabernacle or dwell with his people, for example in Ezekiel 37:27, Joel 3:17, Zechariah 2:14
[13] In Exodus 33:18ff, Moses said, “Show me your glory.”  But he just glimpsed Gods back because no one can see God’s face.  Now, in Jesus, we do.
[14] John mentions “tent” and “glory” and then Moses – the Jewish leader, around 1500 BC.  Back then the Jewish people could see God’s glory in a special tent called the Tabernacle: “Then the cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.”  (Exodus 40:34)
[15] By Eric Bazilian, sung by Joan Osbourne.
[16] The incarnation “opened heaven and re-consecrated earth”.  Biblical Christianity is the most physical religion, the most material religion.
[17] St. Teresa of Avila and Brother Lawrence talked about finding God “among the pots and pans.”  Henry Scott Holland said “The more you believe in the incarnation, the more you care about drains”, 1913.  See article “Jesus and the Drains“ by Alan Wilkinson:
A Victorian slum priest, campaigning for better sanitation, was told to stop interfering in secular matters. He replied, ‘I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation’.  Between 1885 and 1895, another slum priest, Father Dolling, transformed the poorest area of Portsmouth. He created a gym to promote physical fitness and dancing, but his ‘Communicants Dancing Guild’ disgusted a local evangelical vicar. ‘Who can separate the secular from the religious?’ asked Dolling. ‘Certainly the Master did not try to do so.’ He forced brothels to close, attacked army authorities for mismanagement and encouraged trade unions.
[18] Our individual bodies are the temple of God’s Holy Spirit; we have God’s glory in clay jars (2 Corinthians 4)
[19] It’s the pattern of Philippians 2.  Servant leadership, incarnational ministry.  Incarnation means we don’t just give out charity from afar, but we live and laugh, suffer and weep, with those we serve.  And when our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit, in a way the Incarnation continues!
[20] Christianity is unusual.  Many religions have a holy language that you have to learn and pray and if you really want to be close to God: like Hebrew or Arabic or Sanskrit.  By contrast, Christianity aims to translate its Scriptures into every language of the world.  Studying languages and linguistics the last year, again and again I have found Christian missionaries mentioned by secular academics as those who are documenting and saving endangered languages.
[21] Or “The Light of the Word” – from John chapter 1 – by Holman Hunt.

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