It is very interesting to compare how the four gospels begin the story of Jesus’ time on earth. Of course, the two most famous versions of Jesus’ coming to dwell among us come from Matthew and Luke. These are the two gospel writers among the four who start at the very beginning with Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Yet, as we know from our focus on these two gospels during the recent Christmas season, even they are not exactly alike. Matthew tells the story more from Joseph’s perspective and includes lots of dreams, the coming of the Wise Men and the escape of Mary, Joseph and young Jesus to Egypt when threatened by King Herod. Luke, by contrast, tells of Jesus’ earliest days more from Mary’s perspective while folding in the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, shepherds and the census in Bethlehem.
Then there is Mark and John. Mark skips right over Jesus’ birth story all together. He begins with the work of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River at roughly the age of 30 and the calling of the first disciples. This all happens in Mark Chapter one as Mark ignores everything that happened in Jesus’ life prior to this point.
This leaves us with John, who takes yet another approach. Rather than the birth story of Matthew and Luke or Mark’s beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as the starting point, John begins by trying to help us get our arms around who Jesus was as he came to earth. Rather than begin by telling the story, John starts by interpreting the story. This interpretation of the story which lasts for 18 verses of John chapter 1 is often called John’s Prologue. Eventually in verse 19, John also settles into a storytelling approach very similar to the other gospel writers.
But, this 18 verse prologue of John, which is our text for today, is a masterpiece. In fact, we could spend an entire month right here unpacking all that John shares with us in his interpretation of the story of Jesus’ coming to earth. Jesus is the one born of human beings but who at the same time has existed since the beginning. Jesus is the word of God made flesh. Jesus is the light of God that has come into the darkness of the world.
In the midst of all of this, there is a marvelous section of the prologue in verses 10-13 that in essence says two things. In verses 10-11 John makes the point that Jesus came as a human being but he was unlike anything people had ever experienced and thus they struggled to understand and accept him. In verse 12-13, the focus shifts from Jesus to us as we are told that as his followers we who were once born of the flesh have now been born of the Spirit. Like Jesus, we are to be like by unlike the rest of humanity.
Jesus was similar and yet different. He was a human being and yet God in the flesh. As his followers, we are to be similar, yet different too. We are men and women, boys and girls born into this world like everyone else and yet we are also born now from above, born of the water of our baptism, filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are called to be like every one else yet different from everyone else. Again, we, like our Lord are to be similar and yet different.
When I went to college, one of the guys on my hall in our freshman dorm named Jim really stood out. By and large, everyone on our hall was roughly 18 years of age, had just graduated from High School and were experiencing life on our own for the very first time. Jim, however, was about 8 to 10 years older than the rest of us and had just finished serving our country in the military. He had come to college on the GI Bill. Beyond his age, Jim stood out right away because he had a room to himself when everyone else had a roommate and due to the fact that he made his bed every day and kept his little corner of the hall neat and tidy. But, there was more to it than that. Jim just had a different focus, priorities and a much more mature response to lots of situations. On the one hand, he was just like us. He was a freshman, figuring out college for the first time, involved in campus activities and finding his place at our school. But, he was different and that difference was obvious.
I think we understand this about Jesus. I think we understand that our Lord took on a human body and became one of us. Yet, the way he lived, his care for others, the priorities that he spoke of, the desire to bring the Kingdom of God on earth and the willingness to live with a laser focus on the ways of God even in the midst of sacrifice and servanthood caused him to stand out. As John says, this difference, as positive and inspiring as it was, made it hard for others to get their arms around him. And yet, for everyone who had a hard time embracing him, there were countless others who found in him the light that the darkness of their lives so needed.
While we understand this about the incarnation of Jesus, do we really understand our need to live in the same way? We must be like others, a part of their lives, in relationships, a part of community, engaged in the nitty gritty affairs of every day life so that we can know others and be known by others. Yet, we must, just like our Lord, live in a different way, with different priorities, holding ourselves to God’s standard and always with two feet in the world but with two eyes on the Kingdom of God. This is hard. It is a balancing act and it is different life. Yet, if we read the gospels, it is the Jesus way of changing the world.
I enjoyed a story recently about a fellow who shared about going to lacrosse matches while he was working on his Master’s Degree. He said that he really didn’t go because of lacrosse, in fact, he didn’t understand the sport at all despite the fact the he had been an athlete himself while growing up. Instead, he went faithfully to the lacrosse matches because they were free, gave him something to do and also because they gave him the chance to be with the girl he was dating at the time who would ultimately become his wife.
Then something strange happened. One day, this same fellow got sick and ended up spending a few days in the school infirmary. It was one big room with numerous beds for the patients. At the time of his stay, the only other patients were all lacrosse players recovering from injuries. Interestingly enough, they had all brought their lacrosse sticks and while resting in bed they tossed the ball to each other. Over that brief stay, he was forced to get to know them and to really learn about the skill of the sport and those who play it in an up close and personal way. Further, as you can guess, how he felt about the game and those who play it changed.
John says that the word became flesh and dwelled among us. Jesus came as one of us yet to live differently among us. It was the best way for the world to know God and to be change by God.
Today, our calling is to put flesh on the gospel. As this new year begins, we must recommit ourselves to living in community and relationship with others while living with different principles, different priorities and while holding ourselves to a different standard. This remains the best way for us to know others and to hopefully help others to know God. Amen.