“In the beginning was…”
The Gospel of John begins with this poetic flourish, talking about Jesus in broad and beautiful ways. He is the reason, the “word,” which was a part of the beginning of everything we know about life and the world. He was with God, and not just that but He himself was also God in the beginning. Everything exists because of Him, and now the source of the light, which the Hebrews understood to be the first tangible bit of creation, had come to walk on the earth He created.
While the language is more poetry than story here, John’s introduction about Jesus is no more or less confusing, awe-inspiring or head-scratching than Matthew’s or Luke’s. The other two Gospel writers began with a virgin conceiving, John began with a timeless God who became man – if you think you can pick out one of those two ideas and blithely say, “oh yeah, I got it,” then you aren’t paying attention.
What should catch our eye, however, when we look at these two accounts together, is of vast importance.
Matthew and Luke speak of the coming of Isaiah’s prophetic messiah. The Savior of the world who would come as a child. The grace involved in a story like that is a sea whose depths can never be fully explored. The rich image of God not just as a man, but as a little boy, is breathtaking and ought to shape our own faith in very practical ways. But in the end the story that these two are telling is one of salvation. The Savior has come. The Lord of glory is here. See Him there, lying in a manger and know that soon He will be healing, feeding, teaching and ultimately dying as He mends the world in every possible way with His love.
We like this story. And we should.
We like stories where the good guy shows up to make sure that the bad guys don’t win. We like stories where, just when the damsel’s last finger is about to slip off of the rope, the hero’s strong arm shoots into the picture and grabs her before she falls into the canyon. And clearly this is the story that Matthew and Luke are telling us.
But John tells us the same story, only he does it in a way that forces us to think differently. John’s story is also, profoundly, about what happens when light shoots into the darkness and brings creation and hope and life into places that were previously dark, formless and chaotic. John’s story is no less about the remarkable work of Jesus’ appearance, but John chooses to talk about His first appearance as the voice in the midst of the primordial seas of formlessness, instead of Jesus’ later appearance as the voice of the baby emerging from the chaotic seas of amniotic fluid. Both are sources of hope. Both are to be read with expectancy and anticipation. But John’s version forces us to read in a different way.
Frederick Buechner provides insight as he comments on Jesus’ inflammatory claim, “Before Abraham was, I am.” It is in John’s Gospel that Jesus turned this particular phrase during an argument with the Temple officials. Buechner briefly teases out the implications of Jesus’ statement, saying,
Jesus does not say that before Abraham was, he was, but before Abraham was, he is. No past, no future, but only the present, because only the present is real…If he is the Savior of the world as his followers believe, there never has been nor ever will be a world without salvation.”
Frederick Buechner, “The Faces of Jesus: a life story”
The power wrapped up within John’s story, and Buechner’s point, is that the Savior didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere in Bethlehem, but He had always been. That mean that through each and every defeat that Israel, and the world, endured Jesus was no less the Savior of those people and of this world. This confronts us by forcing us to gaze with faith at what often seem to be empty horizons. We are called to pray with fervency in silent and still rooms, hoping beyond hope that the troubles we are wading through are unable to truly separate us from the one who can save us.
The world around us feels chaotic. In America there is a sense of division on multiple fronts that transcends the church or politics and feels true in nearly every aspect of our culture. There are voices from both sides, each with a measure of validity and a measure of myopic self-absorption, shouting and trying to be heard. Disorder seems so close to us domestically that our fears of threats abroad, whether rational or manufactured, become exponentially intensified.
Yet in the midst of these trying times we must be reminded that our Savior is, not was and not will be, but is.
In uncertainty we do not cling to the hope of an outcome which proves us right or which leaves the world in the kind of shape we want it to be. No, we cling to the eternal Savior, the one who has been Savior since before He opened His mouth and spoke order out of the chaotic waters in the beginning. He didn’t become our hope when He died, or even when He was raised, He has been our hope eternally whether we knew it, knew Him, or not. This means that He hasn’t stopped being our Savior in the darkest times of our world, our nation or of our own personal journey. The world’s chaos, the nation’s unrest and your sinfulness haven’t weakened His saving power for a second.
Long before the cross or empty tomb the psalmist looked at the God who is and sang songs of reliance and confidence. And thousands of years later, even after the curse shattering work of Jesus Christ we must, in the most dire of circumstances, continue to sing, “Whom have we in heaven but you? There is none on earth we desire but You.”