What is this Word? John is saying two things simultaneously
1. The incarnation of the eternal Word is the event for which the whole creation has been on tiptoe all along;
2. The whole creation, and even the carefully prepared people of God themselves, are quite unready for this event.
That is the puzzle of Christmas.
Never again is Jesus referred to as the Word; but we are meant to look at each scene, from the call of the first disciples and the changing of water into wine right through to the confrontation with Pilate and the crucifixion and resurrection, and think to ourselves, this is what it looks like when the Word becomes flesh.
‘This is a hard word,’ say his followers when he tells them that he is the bread come down from heaven (6.60). ‘What is this word?’, asks the puzzled crowd in Jerusalem (7.36). ‘My word finds no place in you,’ says Jesus, ‘because you can’t hear it’ (8.37, 43). ‘The word I spoke will be their judge on the last day’, he insists (12.48) as the crowds reject him and he knows his hour has come. When Pilate hears the word, says John, he is the more afraid, since the word in question is Jesus’ reported claim to be the Son of God (19.8).
Unless we recognise this strange, dark strand running through the gospel we will domesticate Christmas, and think it’s only about comfort and joy, not also about incomprehension and rejection and darkness and denial and stopping the ears and judgment.
Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything’s all right. John’s gospel isn’t about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying ‘Of course!
Incarnation is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations, and the darkness not comprehending it. It’s about God, God-as-a-little-child, speaking the word of truth, and nobody knowing what he’s talking about.
1. NT Wright “Remove the [incarnation] from the centre of your theology, and gradually the whole thing will unravel until all you’re left with is the theological equivalent of the grin on the Cheshire Cat. A relativism whose only moral principle is that there are no moral principles; no words of judgment because nothing is really wrong except saying that things are wrong, no words of mercy because, if you’re all right as you are, you don’t need mercy, merely ‘affirmation’.”
John begins with Jesus coming as light into darkness, as a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, as the fresh word of judgment and mercy.
Incarnational missiology is about discovering what God is saying No to today, and finding out how to say it with him. Christian ethics is not about stating, or for that matter bending, a few somewhat arbitrary rules. It is about the redemption of God’s good world, his wonderful creation, so that it can be the glorious thing it was made to be.
2. John is echoing the first chapter of Genesis: In the beginning God made heaven and earth; in the beginning was the Word. When the Word becomes flesh, heaven and earth are joined together at last, as God always intended.
The creation story which begins with heaven and earth reaches its climax in male and female; and when heaven and earth are joined together in Jesus Christ, the glorious intention for the whole creation is unveiled, reaffirming the creation of male and female in God’s image. Not for nothing does Jesus’ first ‘sign’ transform a wedding from disaster to triumph. Not for nothing do we find a man and a woman at the foot of the cross.
3. The Word speaks to us of the food which he offers us: himself, his own body and blood. It is a hard saying, and those of us who know it well may need to remind ourselves just how hard it is, lest we be dulled by familiarity into supposing that it’s easy and undemanding. It isn’t. It is the word which judges the world and saves the world.