Friday, November 29, 2019

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD... Advent Reflections from Seal Church

Our series of Advent reflections begins on Sunday. This Advent we will be pondering our way slowly through the opening verses of John's Gospel, the famous passage which starts "In the beginning was the Word". There will be a short thought each day, some questions to think or talk about, and an All Age suggestion - something practical to do, individually or as a family.
Join us for the journey! Check back here each day from Sunday Dec 1.


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

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.
John 1.1-14

These opening words of John’s Gospel are some of the most familiar in the New Testament. They feature as the climax of every Carol service, and are the opening words of the Christmas Midnight Mass, read in a darkened church by the light of a single candle as the service begins. They don’t contain any of the traditional figures in the Christmas story – no shepherds, wise men, angels or stars, no Mary or Joseph, no manger, no mention of evil King Herod – but this reading says “Christmas” to many people just as powerfully as any nativity play might.  In fact, it’s the only Gospel reading which the Church of England insists must be read some time on Christmas night or morning. We could, bizarrely, leave out the stories about the birth of Jesus, but we must read this one in our worship.

But what has it got to do with Christmas at all? The answer is that this passage, usually known rather prosaically as the Prologue does the same job in John’s Gospel as the familiar nativity stories do in Matthew and Luke. (It actually continues to vs. 18, but the passage we read at Christmas stops at vs 14, so I will too). They all function like the trailer for a film or the overture to a ballet or opera, giving hints about what is to come, what the story is going to be about and how it all might end.

Matthew and Luke tell stories to do this. Luke tells us about a child born to poor parents, lying in a manger because there is “no room at the inn” and about shepherds – ordinary, humble people – being first to hear about him.  Luke’s Gospel will be full of stories about Jesus meeting poor people, outcasts, women , those at the bottom of the heap. He will be Good News for them. Matthew’s nativity stories are about strange foreign Magi, travelling a great distance to worship a new king, not really understanding what they are getting themselves into, and about the Jewish king, Herod, who sees this child only as a rival. This story will be good news for all nations, but there will be opposition and danger from those who feel threatened by this.
The “trailer” in the Gospel of John, though, gives us a series of poetic images; images of light and darkness, of birth, of new life, of new creation. These are the themes of the stories he’ll tell about Jesus.

Through this series of Advent reflections, we will explore these themes, phrase by phrase and think about the way they point forward to the rest of the story, and how they might be Good News for us.  Each day there will be some Reflection Points, and an All Age Idea for something to do in response to the reflection.

A note about “John”
The fourth Gospel is commonly called the “Gospel according to John”, but like the other three Gospels, we don’t know the actual name of the author. It was ascribed to the Apostle John, the Galilean fisherman called from his nets to follow Jesus (Matthew 4.20), but it’s too late in date, around the end of the first century, to be written by him. It might have come from a Christian community founded by John, and preserve some of the stories he told, though. The New Testament also contains three letters ascribed to “John”, and the Book of Revelation. The letters might be by the same author, whoever he was, or from the same community, but the Book of Revelation is rather different in style and content, so scholars think it’s less likely to be from the same source. For convenience, I shall refer to the author as John in these reflections, whoever actually wrote the Gospel.

For more on John’s Gospel see this lecture on John's Gospel from Yale University.

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