John 8:12-30. The light.

Here’s my lesson for this Sunday.

In 8:12-30, Jesus uses a  metaphor from the Jewish feast of Tabernacles. “I am the light of the world,” he says. The feast of Tabernacles is held near the time of the autumn equinox, when it is evident that the light is fading. Naturally, light played a role in the festivities. Four large lampstands were lit in the Court of Women in the Temple and worshipers danced before them with torches in their hands. Observers claimed that all of Jerusalem was lit by the flames at Tabernacles. This recalled the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites in the desert when they fled Egypt. This was the context of Jesus’ sermon on being the light of the world. He was claiming to be like the pillar of fire guiding the chosen people through the dangers of the desert. He was also the light that illuminated the Temple during one of the most joyous celebrations of Judaism.

Testimony     In this passage the Pharisees challenge Jesus’ testimony about himself as the light of the world. John depicts them like the bloggers of the ancient world eagerly pouncing on an apparent contradiction in Jesus’ stump speech. They played the game of “gotcha” so well because that was the source of their authority. Rather than engaging in the hard work of improving the lives of the “people of the land” or challenging the oppression and injustice of the Empire, they liked to lie back and make snarky comments about those who were trying to effect change. When confronted by a charismatic prophet like Jesus, all they could do was undermine his authority. “You’re testifying on your own behalf,” they shouted in triumph. Jesus offers himself as the light of the world and they cannot see it because they are focused on the letter of the law.

In ch. 5 it was Jesus who raised the issue of testimonies. You may remember that he had said that he was not testifying on his own behalf: John the Baptist, the signs, the Scriptures, Moses, and especially the heavenly Father testified on his behalf. It is a bit surprising, then, that in this controversy in the Temple, he does not point to the same witnesses. He appears to contradict his earlier statement by agreeing with the Pharisees here. He admits that he is testifying on his own behalf and that the only other witness is the Father who sent him. In other words, we see Jesus challenging the Pharisees on their own terms. He points out to the lawyers that the law they follow claims that two witnesses are sufficient. He has two: the Logos and the Father. The Pharisees naturally ask him where this Father is who testifies on his behalf. They probably knew that Joseph had been buried in Nazareth long ago. They wanted humans to testify to the claim that Jesus was the light of the water and the source of living water.

There was no proof of Jesus’ messianic status that lawyers and religious authorities could accept as valid; there was only the evidence of faith. As long as they kept looking at Jesus on the surface level, all they would see was a Galilean preacher making trouble during the festival. They could not really hear his words; they could not even see the signs. They were like those who turn away from the light because it hurts their eyes and reveals things they would rather not see.

We may gain some insight into this confusing discussion with the Pharisees if we make an analogy to less exalted things. We use all kinds of diagnostic tools to help us understand ourselves or others. Some of you know what I mean when I say I am an INTP or an intuitive-creative type. But such things don’t really tell people who we are.  Just think if you had to find three witnesses to your character to report to your spouse about who you really are! We spend a life-time on a process of self-discovery, and, hopefully, we include those we love in the process, but the truth is that we only get to know a person after we have learned to trust that person’s self-testimony.

This was part of what Jesus was trying to tell his opponents who were looking for evidence that he was who he claimed to be. This was what the Beloved Disciple told his congregation nearly 2000 years ago and what the author of this gospel continues to tell us. The only way to know for sure who Jesus was, and who he is, is to trust in him and let him teach you.  John plays with language and imagery and even teases the Pharisees in an attempt to invite the reader into genuine contemplation and encounter with the living Jesus. The light is its own witness. Those who cannot see the light will not be convinced by any other testimonies that there is a light.

Going Away              There is a rather sudden shift from verse 20 to 21. Verse 20 gives the rather mundane information that Jesus was speaking near the treasury of the temple, but doesn’t tell us why that was important. It is interesting that this was the setting for his discussion of the widow’s mite in Luke’s gospel. It would appear that Jesus liked to preach in front of the storehouse of the Temple where the priests collected their tithes. This would have been very disturbing to the authorities. Have you noticed that even in America, where we have freedom of speech, we get  nervous when protesters show up at economic summits or occupy Wall St.?  The big news of the day is whatever that affects the Stock Market, not news about how our civil liberties are being diminished. Jesus became more of a threat when the authorities became afraid that his preaching would reduce the amount of money collected in the Temple.

            Once again, Jesus responds by telling his opponents that they have missed the point entirely because they view things entirely from an earthly, materialistic perspective. They will look at the cross as evidence of the defeat of Jesus rather than his victory. They will see his dead body and think that his words and works have died. They cannot recognize that it is the Father in heaven who has sent Jesus to be the light of the world. Because they cannot see the light; they cannot follow the light.

Sin                  At this point, the discourse turns to the sin of unbelief. Jesus states bluntly that his opponents will die in their sins because they do not believe in him. Verses 24-25 present a host of difficulties for translators, by the way, and you will find quite different interpretations given in the NIV and the NRSV. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but I will point out that many scholars are convinced that this is a place where something was lost in transmission from the original manuscript because the Greek here is not really a sentence. Modern translators tend to supply words that aren’t there, but this sometimes obscures the meaning.

The literal translation reads, “Unless you come to believe that I AM,” but translators like to add what they think Jesus is. This is one of those places in John, though, where the phrase “I am,” or ego eimi, was intended to identify Jesus with God. Jesus here claims to be the one who spoke out of the burning bush to Moses. When he says this is what I’ve been telling you since the beginning, it probably means from the beginning of Creation, not the beginning of the Gospel. This part of ch. 8 is repeating the themes of the prologue to the Gospel. Jesus is the Logos who brings light to the world, but his opponents preferred darkness to light.

When Jesus says that they will surely die in their sin, he is equating sin with walking in darkness. This is not a statement that people will be punished because they did not believe in Jesus as if profession of faith is a moral obligation. It was a statement that those who rejected Jesus had rejected the light that would illuminate their lives and sinfulness. The fact that they could not see that Jesus was bringing healing and life into the world was evidence that they had closed their eyes to the life of God. They had chosen the dark side; therefore they could no longer recognize goodness and truth. The Law of Moses and the Scripture were no longer life-giving to them because they used them to justify their oppression and self-righteousness.

Think a moment about this image of darkness as a metaphor for sinfulness. Few of us have experienced true darkness. In our world there are always stars, or street lamps, or candles, or night lights to give some light in the middle of the night, but even then we have trouble doing things in partial darkness. When I was a teen-ager, my Dad and I visit Mammoth Cave Kentucky. On one of the tours, our only light was our headlamps on our helmets. At one point, when we were in a safe room, we all turned out lights off. We were in absolute darkness. It was almost like a tangible thing pressing down on us. There was no way to orient oneself other than by the feeling of the ground. If we had continued on our journey through the cave, we could have fallen into oblivion and been lost forever. That is the darkness Jesus is talking about, and his statement about dying in sin was intended as a statement of fact, not punishment. Those who turn from the light of God have nothing to illuminate their path, no way of avoiding the pitfalls of life. They will die in their sins without even knowing that there was a better way.

The bitter irony of this dialog with the Pharisees is that they were the ones who studied Scripture and who rejoiced in the Word of God as “a light to their path and a lamp for their feet.” Much of the OT is devoted to the idea that Scripture was God’s gift of light and a source of wisdom, but John’s Gospel says that even those who knew the Law failed to recognize that Jesus was sent by God to bring healing to the world. Those who should have seen Jesus as the manifestation of the great I AM who spoke to Moses were the ones who handed him over to be crucified. Because they could not see who Jesus truly was, they killed him unjustly. Rather than experiencing eternal life that begins in this life; their earthly existing was a slow death in sin and separation from God.

Lifted Up        This idea of dying in sin leads naturally to a discussion of the crucifixion. In verse 28 Jesus says that they will raise up the Son of Man. In John, this phrase about raising up the Son of Man refers to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. There are three predictions of the crucifixion in John that parallel the three predictions of the passion in the Synoptic Gospels. John’s approach is more metaphorical than the synoptics, though. He speaks paradoxically of Jesus’ being exalted in the crucifixion rather than humiliated. Here, the Gospel also reports that at the moment of the crucifixion the religious authorities themselves will recognize that Jesus was doing the will of the Father. We have already seen the emphasis John’s Gospel places on the idea that Jesus was doing the will of the Father rather than pursuing his own agenda.

We should not pass too quickly over these verses. It is curious that Jesus is speaking in the future tense when he says “you will realize that I AM”. This could mean that when Jesus was on the cross those who crucified him would recognize their error or it could mean that the revelation of Jesus as the divine Logos would continue after the crucifixion. It could mean that the lifting up of Jesus on the cross begins the age of the Holy Spirit and even those who rejected him will come to believe in him. The statement that “you will realize that I AM” could be a prophetic promise of redemption even for the opponents of Jesus or it could be a word of judgment that those opponents would realize that they had killed God’s lamb. We cannot be sure what John intended here, but he does note that many believed in Jesus because of his teaching.

Conclusion                In many ways, this section of ch. 8 is a transition from the controversy during the feast of tabernacles and the healing of the blind man. It reiterates many of the themes we have already seen in the Gospel, but it places them in the context of increasing hostility to Jesus from those who claimed religious authority. Next week, we will see that this controversy will continue with a long debate about Abraham. It is easy to get so wrapped up in this narrative of the controversy between Christians and Jews after the destruction of the Temple that we miss the most important aspects of these verses. Jesus is the light of the world, and in that light we can see our shortcomings and our injustice. Jesus brings life and healing to a violent world, but too often we are the ones who turn away from his light and life and truth. Too often, it is we who profess belief in Jesus as the Son of God who are walking in the darkness of prejudice and self-righteousness. Rather than debating about the possible salvation of those who do not profess faith in Jesus, perhaps we should profess our faith in Jesus by walking in his light and being fountains of living water for those who are thirsty.

The Lamb of God

The Lamb of God  
John 1:29-42
Advent Moravian Church Jan. 19, 2014 
John the Baptist; John the Prophet
Our lesson from the Gospel of John is about one of those significant transition points in history and the changes caused by one person. In many ways, the first chapter of the Gospel of John is about the transition from the religious world of the Old Testament, which was a world of prophets, priests, and kings, to the world of the New Testament. Before Jesus began his ministry and long before the Gospel was preached by his followers, there was a prophet in Israel by the name of John.
 
John started his ministry before Jesus and was much more famous than Jesus in those days. Crowds of people viewed John as a holy man sent by God, a man whose words and life were a witness to God. John was a prophet like the prophet Elijah of old. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “John was a pious man, and he was bidding the Jews who practiced virtue and exercised righteousness toward each other and piety toward God, to come together for baptism. … Herod feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising.” Like many prophets who challenge political corruption and call for justice, John lost his head.
 
Prophets do have a tendency to anger those who have power and wealth. Prophets, like John, tend to die violently. We say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never kill me,” but if that is true, why do repressive regimes worry so much about the words of the prophets? Why do repressive regimes try to control the press and intimidate them into not speaking the truth? Why do tyrants want to listen in on private conversations in order to intimidate people from sharing their thoughts with friends and family?
 
It is because words are dangerous, and the truth is dangerous. Those whose eyes are accustomed to the darkness, who work in secret and spin webs of deceit, are frightened when the light appears. John the Baptist was beheaded because a tyrant feared his words. As the Gospel of John puts it, the darkness feared the light but could not overcome it. Although John was just a voice crying out in the wilderness, people in power feared his preaching and his call to righteousness and justice.
 
The Lamb of God           
According to the Gospel of John, one of the things that John the prophet proclaimed was that a young man from Galilee was the Lamb of God. Twice he said, “Behold the Lamb of God” when Jesus walked by. We aren’t told how the people responded to this strange statement. I imagine that many of them were a little confused and put it down as one of those strange things prophets say and do. Pointing at someone and saying “Look there goes a lamb” might have seemed as odd as wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts. We expect prophets to be a little odd and to say things we don’t understand. My hunch is that this statement about the Lamb of God still strikes people today as a little odd.
 
This is one of those passages in the Bible that reminds us that we should be cautious about reading the Bible too literally. Based on this passage, we could “prove” that Jesus was really a four-legged animal with white wool. I’ve known several children, including my own, who were confused when singing about Jesus as the Lamb of God in the church because he doesn’t look like a lamb.  That brings to mind the old joke about the new pastor giving the children’s sermon. She asked the children what is gray, furry, and gathers nuts for the winter. There was a long pause, and then one of the children said, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.” I know Jesus is the Lamb of God, but he looks more like a Messiah to me.
 
The Lamb in Jewish Symbolism
It is interesting that John did not point at Jesus and say, “Behold the Messiah” or even “Hey, look it is Jesus.” He used a very meaningful metaphor and we should pay attention to it. In John’s day, people were familiar with lambs, but we do not see them much in our world today. I’m curious, how many of you have ever held a lamb in your arms? Even though most of us are less familiar with lambs than with dogs or cats or pigeons, we still use the word “lamb” to indicate innocence and gentleness. March comes in like a lamb and leaves like a lion. The least warlike animal I can think of is the lamb. Even the noble sloth is more dangerous than the lamb.
 
In describing Jesus as the Lamb of God, John was drawing on Jewish symbolism, and we need to have some understanding of this symbolism to make sense of his Gospel. One of the other places in the Bible where Jesus is called a Lamb is in the Book of Revelation. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we have learned that many Jewish writings in the time of Jesus mention a Lamb who was to appear during the final days of this age of history in order to destroy evil. The Lamb is the one who conquers and brings peace to this troubled globe. The Lamb of God in Jewish writing was an intentionally paradoxical image: the peaceful and innocent Lamb destroys unrighteousness and the enemies of God.
 
By proclaiming that Jesus is the Lamb of God, John the Baptist was pointing out from the beginning the essential peacefulness and gentleness of Jesus. Though he would be the victim of violence, Jesus will not be the agent of violence. Though he will be killed, his death brings life to others. Though he is the Word of God who has divine knowledge; he is innocent. The sin he takes away is the intoxication of violence and hatred. Keep this in mind when you look at our Moravian seal with the picture of the Lamb who Conquers. We are the people of the Lamb who conquers without violence. We follow the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world rather than adding to the violence and hatred that consumes people. 
 
Passover
The Lamb of God is also related to the Jewish Passover. In the Exodus, you may remember, God rescued the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt with a series of devastating plagues. The final plague was the death of the first-born. The Angel of Death passed over those homes that had the blood of a lamb smeared on the doorframe while slaying those who benefitted by oppression. The blood of the innocent lambs was able to protect the Hebrews from Death. The connection between Jesus and the Passover Lamb is made explicit later in the Gospel of John when Jesus is executed on the same day that the lambs were slaughtered in the Temple for the Passover sacrifice. We use this imagery in our Moravian communion liturgy when after drinking from the cup we pray to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This draws a connection between our observance of Holy Communion and the Jewish Passover. Jesus is the Lamb whose blood saves the children of God from enslavement and eternal death.
 
A lot of theologians, pastors, and lay people I know do not like this image of Jesus as the Lamb of God. We do tend to focus on the violence of the image – that an innocent lamb is slaughtered, and we are right to be bothered by this notion of a sacrificial victim. But the early Christians focused on the idea of the victory of the Lamb to celebrate the reality of our forgiveness and the radical change that Jesus makes in the world. The early church joyfully remembered and repeated John’s statement “Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” And they looked with hope to the dawning age of peace.
 
Notice that John does not say, “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the repentant or the righteous.” He does not say, “Behold the Lamb who blesses the pious and prosperous; the judgmental and stern.” He says, “the Lamb takes away the sin of the world.” The last prophet of Israel proclaimed that Jesus was this true Pascal Lamb; the final sacrifice for the sins of all humankind; the victim who conquered and brought an end to the age of violence and sacrifice. A new age of the world was beginning by the waters of the Jordan River, and John sent some of his own disciples to learn and follow the new way of Jesus.
 
What are you looking for?                 
In our lesson for today, we see two disciples of John who decide to follow Jesus because of John’s witness. These are the first who try to follow the path of Jesus rather than the preaching of John. They left their master and teacher to follow a new path. We are told that one of them is Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, but the other is anonymous. He may be the Beloved Disciple whose teachings are the basis of the Gospel of John, but we do not know. I think these two disciples represent all of us who hear the good new of Jesus and must decide whether we will listen to his truth and follow his way.
 
Jesus sees them following him, literally, and he speaks for the first time in the gospel. The first words of Jesus are a question. “What are you looking for?” This is quite different from the other gospels where Jesus emerges from the wilderness and proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God. In John’s version, Jesus’ first words are a profound question. “What are you looking for?” Perhaps we should ask more questions in church rather than loudly proclaiming answers. Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves when we enter the doors of this sanctuary is the question Jesus asked 2000 years ago. What are you looking for?
 
Conclusion
What we find in this life often depends on what we are looking for. Are you looking for wealth, prestige, and worldly honors? Then you probably will not find Jesus. Are you looking for power, victory over your enemies, and security? Then you probably will not find Jesus.
 
Are you looking for forgiveness, love, and the peace that passes all understanding? Come and see, Jesus says. Are you looking for what is good, true, and beautiful? Come and see. Are you looking for a teacher who shows you the path of true life? Come and follow.
 
 

Bethesda

John 5

The lesson for this week is from John 5 and it concerns health care, begging, powerlessness, and radical healing. 

Bethesda        Before going into the interpretation of this fascinating story, there are some technical points that you might find interesting. This is another passage in John that suffered in copying. There are a number of variant readings in the ancient manuscripts, particularly over the name of the place. The traditional reading is Bethesda, which means “house of mercy,” which is appropriate for both hospitals and churches. But many scrolls say it was Bethsaida or Bezatha. Bethsaida was a town in Galilee mentioned in the other gospels, that a scribe probably confused with Bethesda. Bezatha was an area of Jerusalem near the temple so that may be the right name, but there is evidence that there was a pool named Bethesda near the temple. We’ll go with the traditional name.

John gives an unusually detailed description of the pool with its five porticoes. In the last century archaeologists excavated a pool in Jerusalem that fits this description well. It is trapezoidal in shape and the longest side is over 300 feet long. There was a partition that may have separated the men and the women, and stairs led down into the water. Once again, we have evidence that at least portions of John were written by someone who lived in Jerusalem before the city was destroyed by the Romans.

This passage was probably written before 70 AD and later incorporated into the gospel.

Sheep:            Another point of confusion among the ancient manuscripts the mention of a place named for sheep. It is not clear if this was the name of the pool as it was known in Greek. John likes to give the Hebrew and Greek names for things, but this might have been referring to the Sheep’s Gate near the Temple. Whether it was the gate or a pool, clearly John connects the pool of Bethesda with the area where sheep were taken into Jerusalem to be sacrificed at the Temple. The fact that modern archaeology has corroborated the geography of this story does not reduce the symbolism intended by the author. As John tells the story, a man lying near the Temple was healed by the Lamb of God who was to be sacrificed.

Early Christian theologians and preachers got too fanciful in interpreting the symbolism of this passage when they made it into a baptism story. The waters of Bethesda were compared to the waters as baptism as a means of healing. There is simply no evidence in the text to support that claim, especially since the man was never immersed in the pool. If this story refers to baptism, then it would appear to be anti-baptism rather than pro-baptism.  

Pentecost       There is a liturgical context to this healing story, but it is not provided by the sacraments of Christianity. Jesus was in Jerusalem because he was observing one of the three major festivals of the Jewish calendar. Jewish men were expected to make a pilgrimage, if possible, to the Temple each year for Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. We will talk more about Passover as we come closer to Easter. Modern Jews refer to the other two feasts generally by their Hebrew names: Shavuot and Succoth. These were both harvest festivals, but in a warmer climate you have more than one harvest. Shavuot is a spring festival and Succoth is in the autumn when wheat is harvested.

We do not know for sure which of the three festivals drew Jesus to Jerusalem in this story, but it was probably Pentecost since he had already celebrated Passover. As the name implies, Pentecost was fifty days after Passover. According to Leviticus (23:15f.) it was the day after the seventh Sabbath after Passover. In other words, it was seven weeks plus a day. In Christianity, this feast of Pentecost was transformed because it was during the feast of Pentecost that the Spirit came upon the disciples. Perhaps the church should also take this story of healing as the model for understanding the season of Pentecost.

The Story                  The story itself is fairly straight-forward. The pool of Bethesda was reputed to have healing powers. From time to time the waters were stirred, and that was taken as a sign that the healing power was available. Later copies of the gospel added a line that said that an angel descended to stir the waters, but that was not in the original text. No explanation is given for why the waters would bubble. Most likely, it was an underground spring or thermal activity. It is interesting that there is no discussion recorded in Scripture about this idea that a pool could have wonderful healing powers. It was not only Jesus who brought healing.

The point of the story is that this man has been infirm for 38 years and has been lying by the pool with the other blind, lame, and suffering souls. The King James Version states that this man was impotent, which is one reason that we need to keep retranslating the Bible. His condition would be misunderstood today if we said his was impotent, but the KJV translation highlights an important feature of this story. Impotent simply means powerless. We don’t know how long he was lying there by the waters hoping to benefit from their mysterious powers. All we are told is that he is alone, powerless, and nearly hopeless. No one will even help him into the water.

The words Disabled or infirm do not quite capture the full significance of his condition. It is not just that he was lame, sick, and unemployed. He was powerless in a world that rewarded power. He was alone in a world where family connections were vital. He did not have a doctor to call an ambulance. He did not have a wife to wait and pray for him. He did not have nurses to attend to him. He did not have medical insurance to help pay for his treatments. All he had was a fading hope that some day he would be able to crawl into a magical fountain walk again.

Today:            We miss the point of this story if we think of this simply as Jesus resolving a medical problem. This man was like too many Americans who lie on the streets or in homeless shelters each night. This man was like too many people in this world who are living in isolation and misery; who feel their powerlessness in ways that I can only imagine. This man was like too many of us who have given up on the hope of strength and love and happiness. This man lay there day after day watching the light reflect off of the water of the pool hoping that someone would have mercy on him and let him feel its renewing power. Day after day his hopes were disappointed and the dancing light on the water seemed to mock his misery.

The Healing:             But then a wandering Son of Man comes to him. Notice that the Gospel lesson does not tell us why Jesus picked this man out of all of the people lying by that pool. The ways of God remain mysterious. Jesus chose this man and asks if he wants to be cured, or more accurately, to be made whole. There is something moving in his question. The question itself may have been part of the healing. How many of us do not really want to be cured of our pet illnesses? Many of us have gotten used to our infirmities and weaknesses. People would demand more of us if we were strong and whole. Do you want to be cured? Do you really want to leave this undemanding life sitting by the pool and rejoin the hustle, bustle, and anxiety of living in the world?

The man doesn’t answer. Instead he explains to the stranger why he hasn’t been cured. He described his powerlessness to Jesus. Perhaps he expected that this kind young man to lift him into the water. Instead, Jesus gave him a surprising order. “Take up your mat, and walk.” How strange that must have sounded to this man. For 38 years he had been too sick to walk, and now this stranger with the piercing eyes is telling him to walk and carry the pallet that has been his security blanket for years. How tempting to turn away, roll over, and wallow in familiar misery and powerlessness. Perhaps that is what others did when Jesus tried to heal them. We don’t know. All we know is that somehow this man got enough courage from Jesus to stand up. He was cured, but he would not have been if had not made the effort.

There are clear parallels between this story and the story of the paralytic man in the Synoptic Gospels to whom Jesus also says “Take up your mat and walk,” but the differences are even more striking. In the story in the other gospels, Jesus was amazed at the devotion of friends who carried the sick man on his cot and then took tiles off of the roof to lower him to Jesus. In John’s account, it is Jesus who takes the initiative to heal this man, and first he asks if he wants to be healed. This is a parable of salvation. Jesus comes to offer of life and wholeness, but we have to want it enough to stand up.

Sabbath:        What comes next in the story may not have been part of the original story. If you skip the second part of verse 9 and go straight to verse 14, the story makes perfect sense. It appears that John or a later editor added a dispute over healing on the Sabbath. The Jewish authorities questioned the man because they saw him violating the 39th Sabbath prohibition. It is clear from the gospels that one of the most significant things that Jesus did during his earthly life was publicly violate the Sabbath laws of the Pharisees. This is the only such story in John, and its meaning of the story is a little different from Mark. The issue here is not the Sabbath itself, but the fact that the authorities were more concerned about the violation of a religious custom than the sudden healing of a man who had suffered for 38 years. They could not see that life and wholeness had come into Jerusalem. All they saw was a violation of the rules.

Not many years ago in Saudi Arabia there was a fire in a girls’ school. The students rushed to escape, but they were not wearing their head scarves. The religious authorities forced the police to keep the gates of the school locked so that these young women would not be seen uncovered in public. Dozens died while the authorities looked on. In America, we have religious authorities, Catholic and Protestant, who effectively oppose any attempt to educate Africans about simple and effective ways to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus. Millions of women and children are dying while Christian religious authorities watch to make sure a religious law is not violated. In the first century, people saw a powerless man suddenly gain the strength and health to walk on his own, and their main concern was who had violated the rules. It is far easier to cure the body than it is to cure a sick society where those who heal are persecuted and those who kill are glorified. 

Sin      Our passage for this week ends with Jesus finding the healed man in the temple. I suspect that Jesus was looking for the man because he had more to say to him. Like a doctor who has brought a patient through surgery, Jesus had post-healing instructions to give. He tells the man to remember that he has been made well. He is no longer defined by illness and weakness, but he should remember the change in his life. Then Jesus says something that has been a subject of controversy over the centuries. “Sin no more, for fear that something worse will happen to you.”

Many people have interpreted this to mean that Jesus thought this man’s illness was the result of something sinful he had done. In a similar account in the other gospels Jesus heals a person by forgiving his sins. But we should not immediately conclude that is the case here. Jesus did not say “sin no more so that you will not get sick again,” the way a doctor might say, “stop smoking or you’ll have another heart attack.” In the context of John’s Gospel where the focus is on enlightenment and eternal life, the “something worse” probably refers to spiritual deadness rather than physical illness. One of the most important teachings is that there are things that are worse than death and illness. Losing your soul is worse than losing your life. Moral cripples are more miserable than physical cripples. I think Jesus was taking a “teaching moment” to help this man see that wholeness or wellness or health involves more than the body. Walking away from Bethesda was only part of the story; now he has to stand on his own as a moral agent in society. Before he had little opportunity for sin; now he had to live in the world.

And the first thing he does is inform on Jesus; to tell the authorities who it was who violated the Sabbath. Did he do this out of fear of the authorities? Did he do it to shift blame off of himself? Did he do it because he was naïve and did not know what they were plotting? Did he do it in the hopes that the authorities would also seek out Jesus to heal the disease that was corrupting their souls? We don’t know why, but the irony is almost tangible. Jesus warns him not to sin and his first act as a free and healthy man is to rat on the man who helped him. 

The Grinch and John 4

            The Grinch endorses a different type of Christian theology. The villain in the Grinch is a petty figure who lives in isolation, warmed only by his resentment and his hatred. He is indeed Satan in the Christian tradition, a pathetic twisted figure who exiled himself from happiness. Like Satan, the Grinch works at night, secretly slinking into town to steal what he thinks is the source of happiness. He takes all of the trappings of Christmas, but he does not enjoy what he is has stolen because all he knows is resentment. But in his moment of apparent triumph, he discovers that Christmas does not depend on presents. Presents are merely symbols of the joy the Whos know every day. It is the persistent joy of those he hoped to harm that transformed the Grinch, and made it possible for him to make a moral choice. He chose freely to embrace joy and love and giving. He returned what he had stolen, and was welcomed by those he had hated. This is what redemption and reconciliation are all about. What we have here is the theology of the early Christian theologians, like Gregory of Nyssa and Origen. The redemptive work of Christ will not stop until all have been reclaimed by the love of God.

Overview:      This leads us into our lesson for this week, which is the story of the woman at the well. Lehoma Goode discussed this story earlier in the fall, but it is such a rich and complex story that I think we can safely revisit it in order to show how it fits in the context of John’s narrative. It is one of the longest stories in the four gospels, and it can be nicely divided into three separate scenes. First, Jesus meets a woman at the well. In the second scene, she has left and the disciples converse with Jesus. In final scene, she returns with the townspeople who believe in Jesus because of his witness. We do not have time to read the entire story over the air, so I hope you will read it on your own as I go through it with you.

            Before reading a portion of the passage, I want to note that I used the word “scenes” intentionally. This is one of the most literary stories in the Bible, which is one reason it is so popular in churches today. The conversations of Jesus work on more than one level of meaning, and there is dramatic tension throughout the story. Some of drama is lost to modern readers since we are not Samaritans, as we shall see. To say that this is very well-written drama is not to say that it is fictional. As usual with the Gospel of John, there are details here that are remarkably accurate, but I think Raymond Brown is correct that the evangelist has taken traditional material “and with his masterful sense of drama and the various techniques of stage setting, has formed it into a superb theological scenario. Misunderstanding, irony, the quick changing of an embarrassing subject, the front and back stage, the Greek chorus effect of the villagers – all these dramatic touches have been skillfully applied to make this one of the most vivid scenes in the Gospel and to give the magnificent doctrine of living water a perfect setting.” (Brown, 176) Rather than getting bogged down in discussions of whether the conversation with the Samaritan woman happened exactly as told by the evangelist, we will focus on the meaning of the narrative itself and the teaching Jesus gives here.

Read: 4:4-10

Samaritans:  Most of ancient manuscripts identify the town here as Sychar, but some researchers think this was probably a scribal error since the town that is described is clearly Shechem. That is where Jacob’s well is located. Shechem is also at the foot of Mt. Gerizim, the sacred mountain of the Samaritans. The woman says that her ancestors worshiped “on this mountain,” which indicates that she was standing near Mt. Gerizim. This story displays a good knowledge of Samaritan culture and religion. Even the reference to four months before the harvest later in the story indicates that the author was familiar with the Samaritan calendar, which reckoned months according the wheat and barley harvests.

            Even more important is the fact that the evangelists apparently understood that the Samaritans had a different understanding of the Messiah than the Jews did. For the Jews, the Lord’s anointed was a descendent of King David who would defeat his enemies and rule from Jerusalem. That is the messiah that we sing about in Advent, but the Samaritans were looking for someone called the Taheb, which means the one who returns. The Taheb was to be a prophet like Moses. This prophet would be a teacher of the true law of God who would restore right relationships.

            Since this story displays surprising familiarity with the geography and culture of Samaria, and the portrayal of the woman and the disciples is very true to life, it is safe to assume that it was based on actual events. But we should not read this text simply as history. For one thing, there are some unavoidable difficulties in this passage. For one thing, the other three gospels state that Jesus avoided Samaritans and instructed his disciples not to preach in Samaritan towns (Matt. 10:5). That may simply reflect the anti-Samaritan prejudice of Matthew rather than the practice of Jesus since Luke’s Gospel gives a more positive view of Samaritans.

            In Acts chapter 8 we have a story of the conversion of the Samaritans after the martyrdom of Stephen. There is no indication in that story that anyone in Samaria had believed in Jesus before the apostles preached to them. It is intriguing that John was one of the apostles sent by the church in Jerusalem to teach the new converts and lay hands on them, according to Acts. It seems quite likely that the apostle John maintained ties to the Christians in Samaria and that this story reflects that special relationship between John and the Samaritans. I have often wondered if the anti-Jewish sentiments in John’s Gospel were a reaction to the hostility of the Jews to the Samaritans.

            The Samaritans were descendents of the Israelites who had not been deported by the Assyrians when the kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 BC. For centuries the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had quarreled over land and over which temple was the true house of God. The Judeans believed that the Samaritans were no longer Israelites because they have intermarried with the various peoples who moved into the region during Babylonian rule. The conflict between the Jews and the Israelites in Samaria grew worse after the Babylonian captivity, especially after the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. Jewish leaders insisted that only the Jerusalem Temple was the house of God. In 128 BC Jewish soldiers destroyed the Samaritan’s Temple on Mt. Gerizim, and Jewish rabbis instructed the faithful that Jews should have no contact with Samaritans. Intermarriage was especially forbidden. Thus, it was shocking that a Jewish rabbi and prophet would have been talking to a Samaritan, but doubly shocking to be talking to a Samaritan woman.

The Woman:            If we keep in mind the Book of Genesis, the encounter at the well becomes even more intriguing. The women specifically mentions Jacob, I think, to remind the reader of the famous story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. The Samaritans had this story in their Scripture, too. Jacob removed the stone so that Rachel could draw water, and they fell in love. Here, Jesus meets a strange woman at Jacob’s well and offers her living water. It is probably not accidental that this reminder of the Jacob and Rachel story comes immediately after John’s declaration that Jesus is the Bridegroom. This story looks like it will lead to the marriage of Jesus and this woman, but then it takes a different turn. Jesus offers her something more lasting that earthly love and marriage. He offers her living water.

            Preachers through the centuries have been overly harsh to this woman at the well. The discussion of her five previous husbands has been used to brand her as immoral, but that is unfair for many reasons. On the practical level, women did not have the right of divorce, so her situation was probably not her choice. Most likely, she was divorced because she was barren rather than immoral. More importantly, Jesus never condemns her or even mentions sin. This is different from the story of the woman caught in adultery. Lastly, it is possible that the reference to five husbands was symbolic. The Hebrew word for husband was ba’al, which was also the word used for pagan deities. This may have been John’s way of saying that the Samaritans had worshiped pagan ba’als in the past and now worshiped the true God without really knowing who him. We can’t say for sure.  

            What we do know is that Jesus and this unnamed woman carry on a fairly sophisticated theological discussion, which is an indication of the high value that the early church placed on women. That changed rather quickly after the first century, but we can be grateful that the Scriptures recorded the memory of a time when the gospel was for men and women equally. We can even contrast this story with that of Nicodemus. The Jewish man did not profess his faith publicly, but this unnamed woman preaches openly about Jesus. In John’s gospel, she is the first evangelist to spread the news of Jesus. She is also the first non-Jew to believe in Jesus; therefore she is the first fruits of all the nations. It is so sad that we do not know her name, but I bet she was remembered as a saint by the church of the Beloved Disciple.

Living Water             We cannot address all of the rich themes of this lesson, but the focal point of this story is Jesus’ discussion of living water. Like the earlier conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses a phrase that his listener misunderstands by focusing on the earthly meaning. Normally, living water means running water from a spring as opposed to water in a cistern. Living water is preferred because it is fresh and less polluted. Living water could also mean water that gives life as opposed to water that has gone bad. The Dead Sea, for instance, does not have living water.

            The woman naturally thinks Jesus is speaking literally here, and she gently mocks him for offering her water when he does not even have a bucket to draw from Jacob’s well. Jesus presses home his point by telling her that the water he gives means that she will never be thirsty again, but she again takes him literally, if not exactly seriously, and she challenges him to provide this water so she will not have to come to the well again. Throughout John’s Gospel, we have these stories to teach us not to take the Word of God too literally, and yet people still do. Jesus challenges the woman at the well, and us, to look beyond the needs and concerns of the moment; to look beneath the surface and draw life from the source of life.

            Jesus teaches her that the water he gives will cause a fountain to open up inside her and give her eternal life. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a wealthy industrialist is searching for the Holy Grail because his workers found an ancient inscription that said that the cup of Christ gives living water that grants eternal life. He was looking for a way to perpetuate his own pitiful existence on this earth, and completely missed the point of eternal life. The life Christ offers this woman is a form of living that starts in this world and continues beyond the death of the body. It is not simply existence; it is a living engagement with the source of life, an interconnection with all that is. Jesus tells this woman that her physical thirsts and longings are less important than her spiritual longing. She is thirsty deep down, and Jesus can make it possible for a fountain to spring up in her soul. It is likely that the evangelist or Jesus himself had in mind Psalm 42 “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.” Some of you know this deep aching thirst for a meaningful and hopeful life, for a connection with the creator.

            Scholars have long debated the question of what Jesus was offering the woman. Some think he was offering himself, but the water he mentions seems to be a gift other than himself. It is likely, based on what we have read in John so far, that Jesus was offering the woman a new revelation of God. He was the one who would give the true teaching that would be available to Samaritans as well as Jews. It is also likely that the water was a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, which is often connected with water in John’s Gospel. The early church connected this passage to baptism, and we can see why. Not only does this story immediately follow a discussion about baptism; it makes specific mention to water as the source of life and salvation.

Worship in Truth:    This, in turn, leads to another vital theme of the Gospel of John. You will worship the Father neither on Mt. Gerizim nor on Mt. Zion. Instead, true worshipers of the Father will worship in spirit and truth because God is Spirit. There is some evidence in NT that there was a division among Christians over the importance of Temple worship. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem, under the leadership of James and Peter, continued the practice of Temple worship, but the so-called Hellenizers (or Greek Christians) associated with Stephen and Philip did not. It appears that the Beloved Disciple sided with the Hellenizers. We saw in the cleansing of the Temple that according to John, the appearance of Christ meant that the Temple was no longer necessary.

            This rejection of the centrality of the Temple by some apostles made it possible for the church to survive the destruction of the Temple in 70. It also made it easier for the church to spread throughout the world, which is a theme of this passage. According to John’s account, Jesus broke the bonds of Judaism and traveled beyond the borders of Judea to bring the good news of salvation to the Samaritans. Whatever else we or scholars may say about this passage, it is clear that it is a message of radical inclusion. The work of Christ, as Paul indicates in his letter, included the breaking down of the walls that divide people by race and nationality. Samaritans, Jews, and pagans could be brought into the new spiritual Temple of God.

            There is another aspect of this idea of worshiping in spirit and truth that is meaningful for us today. Through the centuries, spiritualist sects have used the Gospel of John to justify their rejection of traditional worship forms and houses of worship. I not sure that John’s Gospel is as anti-institutional and anti-ritual as they assert, but I do think we agree that the key to understanding this statement is to remember that John wants us to look beyond the literal and earthly to the spiritual. Even the sacraments themselves must point beyond themselves to genuine transformation and worship of the one who made all things. Rather than fighting over rituals or styles of worship, we need to move beyond style to substance. What is important in worship is not the where or the when or the how; it is the why. Do we worship God spirit and in truth or do we merely perpetuate our prejudices? Do we worship in spirit and truth or do we use worship and doctrine to erect barriers and deny thirsty people the water of life?  

Nicodemus and Jesus

Belief because of Signs:      The verses at the end of chapter 2 serve as a transition from that story to the story that is our lesson for today. John reports that many people in Jerusalem believed in Jesus because of the signs he was doing, but he says that “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all about people.” Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is a somewhat mysterious figure, separate from the crowds that gather around him. He is like an eastern sage who possesses knowledge but is wise enough to be cautious in speaking what he knows to the crowds.

The references to signs here is one of the many indications in John that Jesus did much more than is narrated in the gospels since the only sign John has told us about so far was done in Cana, not Jerusalem. It is possible that the cleansing of the Temple was itself a sign, but the implication is that Jesus performed miracles in Jerusalem and some people believed because of the signs. One of those people was Nicodemus, who visits Jesus as night to investigate his activities.

This little statement about Jesus not having faith in the people offers an introduction to the story of Nicodemus who comes to Jesus at night. Unlike the other three gospels, day and night are used for symbolic purpose in John’s Gospel. Jesus performs his signs and makes his public announcements during the day because he has nothing to hide, but his enemies work at night to plot against him and arrest him. The story of Nicodemus takes place at night, but it ends with Jesus’ saying that those who do evil choose the night because they are afraid of their deeds being made known.

Nicodemus     Since Nicodemus is mentioned only in the Gospel of John, some scholars have speculated that he is a literary invention of the evangelist. Preachers have been known to tell stories that illustrate the point of the sermon. Some of these stories and the people in them are simply made up. It is possible that John created this conversation with Nicodemus in order to teach new Christians the doctrine of his church. The dialog is even structured like a catechism with questions and answers.

            Before dismissing Nicodemus as an historical figure, though, we should note that there is a parallel story in the other gospels about a wealthy aristocrat who came to Jesus asking how to enter the kingdom of God. Though the conversation between the unnamed aristocrat in the synoptics is different from the conversation with Nicodemus in John, it is quite likely that these are two different versions of the same event. Frequently John records authentic historical details not included in the other Gospels even though he uses the tradition more creatively than the other writers.

            What we learn about Nicodemus is interesting. He was a member of the Jewish council or the Sanhedrin. This was the governing body of Judea under Roman occupation. There were 70 members of the council, including representatives of the Sadducees, Pharisees, and wealthy land-owners, much as our Congress includes lawyers, business leaders, and members of prominent families. It was the Sanhedrin that had Jesus arrested and that handed him over to the Roman governor. We will see that Nicodemus defended Jesus on the council and that he helped provide for Jesus’ burial. These details do not seem like the kind of thing that John would have invented for literary purpose. I think it is safe to say that Nicodemus was a real person whose story was remembered by the Beloved Disciple. This does not mean that the conversation we have in chapter 3 is a verbatim recording of the conversation Jesus and Nicodemus had one night. It is a summary of the teaching of the Beloved Disciple about faith in Jesus.

We can safely say that there is a reason this story appears where it does in John’s gospel, right between the cleansing of the Temple and a story about baptism. This discourse with Nicodemus is a sermon about the radical change in the covenant that Jesus brought about it. It is a sermon about a change of life, a rebirth symbolized by the waters of baptism. As early as the 2nd century, Christian scholars have recognized that this discourse seems to fit Holy Week better than the first week of Jesus’ public ministry (Brown, 135), but John is not at all interested in establishing an accurate chronology of Jesus’ life. Even in this conversation with Nicodemus, the time-frame shifts and it sounds as if Jesus has already been raised from the dead. As Raymond Brown points out, “To seek perfect chronological sequence in John is a vain endeavor, for the evangelist himself has warned us that such was not his interest (xx 30)” (Brown, 135). “In the Johanine references to Jesus there is a strange timelessness or indifference to normal time sequences that must be reckoned with” (Brown, 132).

A Teacher from God             Nicodemus begins by telling Jesus, “we know you are a teacher sent by God.” It is not clear who the “we” refers to. Most commentators assume that Nicodemus is speaking on behalf of members of the Sanhedrin. If that is the case, then this may be a parallel to the instances in the other gospels when the council sent people to trap Jesus into saying something that could get him arrested. In every case, the spies began with flattery, such as Nicodemus uses. It is possible that Nicodemus came to Jesus with bad intentions, which would explain the curious statement about Jesus not trusting the people in Jerusalem. It is equally possible that Nicodemus was speaking the truth, and that the Sanhedrin did know that Jesus was a teacher sent by God. In that case, John would be using this statement to indict the council for having knowingly condemned a righteous man.

A third possibility is that Nicodemus is speaking for himself and others who were mentioned in the preceding verses. They believed that Jesus was a teacher who was empowered by God with the ability to do miracles. Taken at face value, Nicodemus is saying that he believed that Jesus was like Moses or Elijah. To be sent by God, for him, did not mean that Jesus had come from heaven. It meant that God had chosen him to give a prophetic word. Jesus does not reject what Nicodemus says, but he will challenge Nicodemus with a new perspective.

Born From Above:    One of the intriguing features of John’s Gospel is that Jesus rarely answers the question that is asked of him. Almost every sermon Jesus gives in John’s Gospel is precipitated by a question that Jesus doesn’t answer. They taught us in preaching class that sermons should be relevant and answer the real questions that people in the pews are asking. John did not go to the Moravian Seminary. He answers questions that people did not know that they should have been asking. In fact, here in chapter 3, Jesus gives an answer even when there was no question.

This has led some scholars to speculate that the evangelist or a later editor altered an original story in which a rich young ruler asks Jesus about entering the kingdom of God or receiving eternal life. That question is certainly implied in Jesus’ response to Nicodemus in which he talks about seeing the kingdom of God. It may be that John inadvertently omitted the original question or it could be that he wanted to emphasize that Nicodemus, like others in Jerusalem, had seen the signs that Jesus had performed without coming to a true understanding of their significance. Even though he had seen what Jesus did, Nicodemus did not understand that the Kingdom of God had arrived. He believed partially, but could not believe fully.

Born Again/ Born from Above:       The focus of the discourse is on Jesus’ statement that no one can see the kingdom without being born from above. We know this is a key statement since it is introduced in a very solemn manner. In Greek, Jesus says Amen, amen lego, which is almost a liturgical statement. Modern translators disagree over how to render this formal language into English. The NIV says, “I tell you the truth.” The NRSV says, “Very truly, I tell you.” The KJV said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you,” which is the most literal rendering. Three times in this conversation, Jesus uses this very stylized formula to introduce his pronouncements. It is reasonable to assume that these were statements that had become part of the formal liturgy of the church founded by the Beloved Disciple and were remembered much like epic poetry. John then combined them into this engaging discourse over the nature of salvation.

Jesus said that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. This is a verse that interpreted have spilled a lot of ink and a little blood over. If you grew up in the South, as I did, you have probably had someone ask you if you have been born again. The rest of the country became aware of this idea of being a “born again Christian” when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. Ever since then, “born again Christian” has become a demographic category for political pollsters. The idea of being a “born again Christian” is closely connected to the theology and practice of evangelicalism, which claims that each individual must have a conversion experience. This experience is such a radical change of life that you can call it a second birth. People often have this conversion as part of a revival service.

We can’t go into detail on this idea of being born again in the short time we have this morning. I will point out that William James identified this as one of many types of religious experience. He identified it as the experience of the “sin sick soul.” The only reason I am bringing up the idea of being born again is that it is based, in part, on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. He tells Nicodemus that only those who have been born again will see the Kingdom of God. Or does he? The curious thing is that the Greek word John uses here (anothen) has a double meaning. Translators have to decide whether to render this phrase as “born again” or “born from above.” This double meaning does not occur in Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, or English, so we do not know for sure what Jesus might have said originally or precisely how to translate this idea into our language. Most scholars believe that John intentionally used a word with a double meaning because he meant both things: born from above and born anew.

Nicodemus, like the evangelicals I mentioned earlier, thought Jesus said “born again.” Nicodemus must have been a literalist since he misunderstands Jesus as claiming that a grown man could enter into his mother’s womb again. Jesus has to straighten Nicodemus out by pointing him toward a spiritual meaning to his words. I think he also clarifies that he meant that humans must be born from above, which is a radical change of life. I don’t think that we should make this concept of being “born again” a dividing point among Christians when this passage is about so much more than an altar call.

Born of Water and Spirit:   Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ misunderstanding by going deeper into the idea of spiritual birth. He says that the kingdom of God is for those who have been born of water and the Spirit. Just as physical birth involves flesh producing flesh in a woman’s body; spiritual birth involves the Spirit giving birth to a new spirit. The word John uses for birth can be translated as begotten, by the way. Scholars debate whether John is using a maternal or paternal image for God’s spirit here. In the first letter of John it refers to Christians being begotten by the seed of God, which is a fairly graphic metaphor that was popular among the Gnostics, whom the church declared heretical. They believed that there was a spark of God or a seed of God in all persons who were truly spiritual beings rather than just physical beings. This may be what John is referring to here; that Christians are the children of God because God’s spirit has begotten them. The simplest reading, though, is that this is maternal image of God who gives birth to sons and daughters of God who are born from above. John’s Gospel speaks of God the Father quite a bit, but this image of being born again depends on a maternal aspect of God.

Although there is no mention of a virginal conception of Jesus or a virgin birth in John’s Gospel, this conversation with Nicodemus contributed to the Catholic Church’s teaching about the Virgin Mary. The virginity of Mary was seen as way to keep Jesus free from the corruption of the flesh and lust. That is probably reading too much into this text since Jesus is clearly offering the possibility of spiritual birth to Nicodemus and those who follow.

This idea of being born of God was not new to the Gospel of John, and Jesus seems to think that Nicodemus should have understood this based on his study of the Scriptures. It is not a major theme of the OT, but there are passages that speak of the king being born of God and that call Israel the son of God. When Nicodemus expresses his skepticism over this spiritual rebirth, Jesus presses the point further by comparing the Spirit of God with the wind. The comparison was easy to make in Greek and Hebrew since in both languages wind and spirit are the same word. In Greek the word is Pneuma, which is the root of the words pneumatic and pneumonia. You may remember this from last year when we talked about the creation of Adam. God breathed his spirit or his breath or his wind into Adam to make him alive. In the ancient world, life was defined in terms of breath. The physical breath was equated with the inner spirit that animated a human being. There are many verses in the Wisdom literature that equate God’s spirit with the breath of life in humans.

This pneuma (ruah in Hebrew) brought the word of God to the prophets and gave them their power. There are many passages in the later prophets and in Jewish apocalyptic literature that indicated that in the last days, God’s spirit (breath or wind) would blow on the people of God (Brown, 140). This would give them new vitality as individuals and as a nation. The coming of the Messiah would include this outpouring of the Spirit of God, which would include signs and wonders. The apostle Peter makes this claim in the Book of Acts, but John’s Gospel connects it directly to the preaching of Jesus. The eschatological pouring out of God’s spirit means that those who enter the kingdom of God are born again as the children of the heavenly Father.

But, this rebirth is a mysterious process. One of the nice things about John’s Gospel is that it repeatedly points to the mystery of God. Though it is the most theologically advanced gospel; it does not attempt to explain the unexplainable. The spirit of God is like the wind. It cannot be seen with mortal eyes and it cannot be controlled by the human will. You know it only by its effects, by the dead leaves being blow away. You cannot see the spirit of God, but you can see the effects. You can see the change in people’s lives when they are reborn. You can see what happens when they turn away from the pleasures of the night and live according to the light. You don’t need to hear someone’s testimony or their conversation story to know that they have been born from above. It will shine from their eyes and be evident in their actions.

Jesus in the other three Gospels tells many parables about the Kingdom of God. The Gospel of John acknowledges the mysterious nature of that kingdom. Not everyone can see it. Not everyone can enter it, but those who have been born from above will. We should not leave this idea before recognizing that those who have recently been born of the Spirit will be infants in the faith. They will be like the child that Jesus placed in the midst of the disciples. There is much we can learn from and rejoice over with those who have experienced a spiritual rebirth, but I think churches would be wise to recognize that the recently twice-born are still immature in their faith.

Wine for the Wedding at Cana

Book of Signs:

This week our lesson is from the second chapter of the Gospel of John. Our lesson for today begins the section of John’s Gospel that scholars often call The Book of Signs because it recounts seven significant miracles of Jesus. The second half of the Gospel of John gives the passion narrative, and there are no miracles in that section until the resurrection. Because there are so many stylistic differences between the two parts of the Gospel some scholars believe that the Book of Signs was originally a separate document that was edited several times over the years. The original version of the Book of Signs may be as old or older than the Gospel of Mark, but there is no scholarly consensus on this. It is final form, the Book of Signs is preparation for the Book of Glory, and it foreshadows the events later in the Gospel.

            There are seven wonderful deeds of Jesus in the Book of Signs, far fewer than in Mark’s gospel where Jesus does numerous healings, exorcisms, and similar miracles. In John, Jesus turns water into wine, heals the son of an official, heals a lame man, feeds the 5000, walks on water, heals a blind man, and raises Lazarus from the dead. Most of these miracles have parallels in the other gospels but they are told in much more detail in John. The only miracle that is basically the same in all four gospels is the feeding of the 5000. The one miracle that appears only in John is the one we will discuss this morning, turning water into wine, both of which recall Holy Communion.

Signs:

I keep calling these wonderful deeds “miracles” but John always calls them “signs,” and that gives us a clue to interpreting these stories. John’s Gospel itself claims that Jesus did many wonderful things, but these stories have been told been told so that the reader will believe in him as the Son of God. In other words, the author of the Gospel informs us that these were symbolic actions that point beyond the physical details of the event to deeper insights into the nature of God and Christ. In a sense, these signs function like the sacraments. They were physical manifestations of the grace of God. The narrative invites us to become part of the story and experience the nature of Christ. Each sign is intended to lead us into deeper contemplation of the Word of God made flesh. It is probably not an accident that there are seven signs in the Book of Signs. Seven is the number of perfection and creation. The Gospel begins with references to the Book of Genesis and here there are seven signs to remind us that Jesus is the New Creation.

Historical Details:

After calling his first disciples and teaching them, Jesus travels to his home in Galilee and attends a wedding. This is one of those details in John’s gospel that I really like, and it reminds us that Jesus participated in the normal aspects of his society. In the 15th century, the Moravian Church’s rules were rather Puritanical. Members were forbidden to have big celebrations, including weddings. The elders of the church moderated these rules a little when the younger generation opened the Gospel of John and pointed out that Jesus himself went to the wedding at Cana. Not only did he not condemn the proceedings, he provided the wine.

            This story has always bothered those who want to turn Christianity into a dour and ascetical religion of constant self-denial. One of the first things Jesus does with the former disciples of John is to take them to a banquet. This puts into narrative Jesus’ statement in the synoptics that the disciples of John fasted but the disciples of Jesus did not. Why should the guests fast when the Bridegroom is with them? Though this story does not gives us license for drunkenness and wanton extravagance, we do need to recognize that the first public act of Jesus, according to John, was to go to a wedding! John tells us that Jesus’ ministry is in the world – at wells and in the market place. That is where the Christian message is needed and where Christians should be.

Good Wine Last:

John includes another little detail that rings true to our experience. The master of the feast says that people always serve the good wine first and then you serve the bad wine. The early guests were the most honored and wealthiest, so they got the good wine. Those who arrived late were those who could not afford time off from their labors or who were less honored by the family. Today, we still want to start with a good impression so that people will not notice when you start serving them vinegar instead of wine. You always put the bruised apples in the bottom of the bushel, don’t you? This is one of those realistic touches in John’s Gospel that is delightful, but we should not use this verse in the Bible to justify our actions. This little conversation with Jesus communicates an important lesson. Jesus gives the best wine last when all the guests have arrived. Jesus overturns the normal order of things by showering all of the people with good things. Again, we have some of the most profound teachings of Jesus given in a narrative form in John. The last shall be first.

Whose Wedding is this?

Scholars have long wondered whose wedding this was and why Jesus’ mother was there. Some have speculated that it was one of the close relatives of Mary. Others think it was probably a relative of one of the new disciples, perhaps Nathanael or Philip. That would explain why Jesus left immediately for Galilee after hooking up with these guys. Dan Brown, like some of the old Cathars, argues that this was Jesus’ wedding to Mary Magdalene. Frankly, I think that is rather silly since even the Jewish opponents of the Christians never challenged the tradition that Jesus was single. The Catholic Church had enough trouble trying to repress the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters; it is unlikely they could have hidden a wife. The fact of the matter is that we do not who was getting married at Cana. All we know is that Jesus was an invited guest, not the groom at Cana.

 Out of Wine:

I go to a lot of weddings, and weddings are a big deal these days. I’m sure you know that weddings are social events as well as family events. This was even more true in Jesus’ day when ordinary people had few occasions for feasts. Based on Jewish sources, we think that weddings typically lasted seven days, beginning on a Wednesday. Preparations took months, and a family’s social status was determined in part by how well they handled the wedding. Running out of food or wine was a very bad thing because it indicated a lack of generosity, poor planning, or simply lack of money. It could also indicate that your guests were not very generous, since wine was one of the expected wedding gifts. At least one scholar has suggested that the reason Mary tells Jesus that they’ve run out of wine was to rebuke him and his friends for coming to a wedding without bringing a gift! I doubt that was intended in the story, but it does make an interesting picture. Having been in charge of pot-luck dinners in seminary, I have noticed that single men tend to bring far less food to a dinner than they consume there.

      The main point, of course, is that the wine had run out, which meant that the wedding feast would not last the full seven days. Mary’s terse statement that they had run out of wine would have sent chills down the spines of the original readers of this Gospel.  The joyous occasion could have turned to embarrassment and recriminations, the way weddings sometimes do. Symbolically, the New Creation represented by a wedding would fall short of perfection. Notice that Mary does not appear to be asking Jesus for anything. It is a simple statement of fact that was laden with meaning.

 

Much to the chagrin of many conservative Protestants, wine in the OT is a symbol of divine abundance and blessing. I don’t see how anyone can claim to be a biblical literalist and a prohibitionist at the same time, but people do. Unfortunately, in dogmatically opposing the idea of wine, they miss the symbolism of the Kingdom of God being a realm of abundance and joy. The promised land was to be covered with vineyards, and clusters of grapes would yield much juice. One of the dominant images in Jewish apocalyptic literature at the time of Jesus was that of the wedding banquet for God’s people when once the Messiah rules. In Jewish thought, Israel was the bride and God was the groom, and the messianic age was the celebration of the wedding, and wine was the symbol of spiritual abundance.

 

This miracle, then, is more than transforming water into wine; it is a revelation of Jesus as the true Messiah, the one who brings in the joyous kingdom of God. This helps explain Jesus’ curious response to his mother. “Woman, what is this to you or me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus was not being rude to his mother, by the way, even though this was not a typical way for a son to address his mother. The NIV tries to soften this by saying “dear woman,” even though that is not what the text says. 

Mary:

Raymond Brown proposes that the use of word woman without any kind of article was intentional. It connects Mary to two key figures in Jewish literature. The first is the woman in Genesis 3 who was tempted by the serpent. The second is the woman clothed in the Sun in apocalyptic literature. We see here how early in the history of Christianity that Mary becomes a symbolic figure who connects the story of the fall with the story of redemption and the consummation of the work of Christ. Catholic scholars tend to elevate the role of Mary in this story, but her role is similar to that of John the Baptist in John’s Gospel. She connects the old covenant and the new one. She points to Jesus and tells others to do as Jesus commands. Oddly enough, she is never called by name in this Gospel. We’ll return to that fact in a latter lesson.    

Hour has Not Yet Come:

Why, then, would John show Jesus trying to put his mother off by saying that this was none of their concern? Part of the answer may be simply that this is historically accurate. Someone remembered that Jesus was reluctant to do anything at a wedding that would draw attention to himself. It is not surprising that the Synoptics ignored this miracle story since it is different from the all the others. Jesus is not healing anyone or feeding the hungry here. He is not battling unclean spirits or making the seas obey him. He is simply providing wine for a wedding feast. So perhaps, he was reluctant to use his powers this way.

There is another possibility, though. He says that his hour has not yet come. In John’s Gospel, this phrase refers to the hour of his crucifixion. For John, the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion was the hour of his glory, as we shall see. That was the moment when the Messiah was lifted up and the New Creation began. This reference to the Hour at the beginning of the Gospel is a foreshadowing of the events to come, and it connects this wedding feast with the crucifixion. The reason Jesus was reluctant to produce wine was because the work of redemption was just beginning. The true wine of the marriage supper of the Lamb would come after the crucifixion and resurrection.

We will see that throughout John’s gospel he uses the language and imagery of Holy Communion in unexpected places. There is no account of Jesus sharing bread and wine with the disciples at the Last Supper in John. Instead, we have allusions to communion through the book, and I suspect that is the case with chapter 2. The miracle at Cana parallels the more famous miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Here wine, there bread. In both cases, there is an amazing abundance for all. Those with Jesus receive “grace upon grace.” In John’s Gospel, the ministry of Jesus begins with wine and feasting, and communion is connected with the joy of a wedding. Communion is the celebration of the nuptials of the church and her Bridegroom, a foretaste of the eschatological banquet and a sharing in the extravagant love of God.

Jars of Water:

This theme that Jesus is establishing a new messianic age is also seen in detail about the six stone water jars, which were used for ceremonial washings. These were large stone cisterns that held 20 or 30 gallons of water. That’s a lot of water for washing. Some have referred to the wine Jesus made as bathtub wine as if it were bathtub gin from the 1920s, but the context of this miracle was different from the 1920s. It is an important detail, though, that this water was intended for purification rituals. These jars were reserved for religious purposes connected to Judaism. The transformation of the water into wine was symbolic of the transformation of the old covenant or purity and law into the new covenant of grace and abundance. The contrast between the old ways and the New Creation is evident in John’s Gospel. They have no more wine. The old law; the old priesthood; the old temple; the old covenant has run dry according to John, but Jesus transforms the situation. The old covenant was not rejected by Jesus; it was transformed into something more.

 

It is also possible that John wanted the reader to make a connection between Jesus’ action and the miracle that Moses performed before Pharaoh when he turned water into blood in the stone jars that sat in Pharaoh’s court. That was a miracle foretelling of death and judgment, but Jesus’ miracle was at a wedding, a symbol of life and new creation. The connection between the blood in Egypt and the wine at Cana was probably intentional as well since it is consistent with John’s use of Passover imagery to discuss the Eucharist.  

Lamb of God

In the Sojourners class at Central Moravian we discussed the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Here are some of what we discussed. 

The Lamb of God:     Twice John the Baptist proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God. Many people have pointed out that this is one of the things that should make us cautious about reading the Bible too literally. We could use this verse to prove that Jesus was really a four-legged animal. I imagine that more than a few children in Sunday School have been confused by this practice of calling Jesus the Lamb of God, which brings to mind the old joke about the new pastor giving the children’s sermon. She asked the children what is gray, furry, and gathers nuts for the winter. There was a long pause and then one of the children said, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”

 

In describing Jesus as the Lamb of God, John the evangelist was drawing on Jewish symbolism, but scholars disagree over what the symbolism was. One of the things that connect the Gospel of John and the Apocalypse of John is this image of the Lamb of God. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we have learned that the Lamb of God was an apocalyptic figure was to appear during the last days to destroy evil. This is an intentionally paradoxical image of the peaceful and innocent Lamb obliterating the enemies of God. If it is true that the Lamb of God represented God’s victory over evil in the Last Days, then its use in the Gospel of John is somewhat ironic. Jesus the Lamb of God did not kill evil doers; instead he gathered disciples. The Day of Judgment in John’s Gospel is the day that each person must decide whether to believe in Jesus and follow him. It is the day that Andrew and Simon choose to follow Jesus.

 

Paschal Lamb:           Another theory about the Lamb of God is that it is related to the Jewish Passover. In Exodus, you may remember, God rescued the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt with a series of devastating plagues. The final plague was the death of the first-born. The Angel of Death passed over those homes that had the blood of a lamb smeared on the door frame. The lambs that were slaughtered by the Hebrews protected them from the Angel of Death. The Lamb of God, then, represented the blood that saved the people. The connection between Jesus and the Passover Lamb is made explicit later in the Gospel when Jesus was executed on the same day that the lambs were slaughtered in the Temple for the annual Passover sacrifice. This connection between the crucifixion of Jesus and Passover is made repeatedly in the NT, especially when dealing with the Lord’s Supper. The connection between the Lord’s Supper and the Lamb of God is made clear in the Moravian communion liturgy when the pastor says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

 

There is a third possible meaning of the phrase “the Lamb of God,” which relates directly to the sacrificial system of old Judaism. We talked about animal sacrifices quite a bit in our study of Genesis, so I will just remind you that in the ancient world the idea developed that the death of an innocent animal could substitute for punishment owed by a guilty person. John may have been pointing to Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for sin, which Paul also taught. This idea does connect the death of Jesus with the forgiveness of sins. We tend to focus on the violence of the image – an innocent lamb is slaughtered, but the early Christians focused on the idea of the forgiveness of sins and the victory of the Lamb. Whether as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world or as the Passover lamb or even as the apocalyptic Lamb, the work of Jesus is one of forgiveness and overcoming evil. This is announced at the very beginning of John’s Gospel so that the reader will not be confused by the story that follows. The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world. Notice that John does not say, “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the repentant or the righteous.” The Lamb takes away the sin of the world.

 

We should also not overlook the lamb when discussing the Lamb of God. In our culture, we still use the word “lamb” to indicate innocence and gentleness. March comes in like a lamb and leaves like a lion. The least warlike animal I can think of is the lamb. By proclaiming that Jesus is the Lamb of God, John the Baptist was pointing the essential peacefulness and gentleness of Jesus. Though he will be the victim of violence, he will not be the agent of violence. Though he will be killed, his death brings life to others. Though he is the word of God who has all knowledge; he is innocent. The sin he takes away is the intoxication of violence. Keep all of this in mind when you look at our Moravian seal. We are the people of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.  

 

What are you looking for?              Two disciples of John decide to follow Jesus because of John’s witness that he is the Lamb of God. This is what good preaching is all about. The goal of preaching is not to win people to a certain church or to follow a certain preacher, no matter how telegenic or eloquent he is. The goal of preaching is to help people become followers of Christ, to become disciples. John the Baptist will gradually disappear from the Gospel of John as Jesus becomes the main story. We aren’t even told the names of these two disciples. We learn that one is Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, but the Beloved Disciple remains anonymous. The two disciples represent all of us who hear the good new of Jesus must decide whether to follow him.

 

For the first time in the gospel, Jesus speaks. Actually, he asks a question. “What are you looking for?” This is quite different from the other gospels where Jesus emerges from the wilderness and proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God. In John’s version, Jesus’ first words are a question. “What are you looking for?” We will see throughout this gospel that Jesus asks questions when we are expecting answers. It seems genuine to me that the Gospel begins with a personal question addressed to two anonymous seekers. Jesus asks these young men to examine themselves. What we find in this life often depends on what we are looking for. Are you looking for wealth, prestige, and worldly honors? Then you probably will not find Jesus. Are you looking for power, victory over your enemies, and security? Then you probably will not find Jesus. Are you looking for forgiveness, love, and the peace that passes all understanding? Come and see, Jesus says. Are you looking for what is good, true, and beautiful? Come and see. Are you looking for a teacher who provides the path of true life? Come and follow.

 

Rabbi              The disciples of John call Jesus “Rabbi” and ask where he is staying so that they may become his students. Rabbi literally means “great lord,” and it became the title of the official teachers of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple (Brown, 74). The Gospel of John translates the word Rabbi with the Greek word for teacher, didaskalos, and it is primarily in John’s Gospel that Jesus is called Rabbi. This is one of the indications that this Gospel was written by a Jew for a Jewish Christian community. The time of 4 p.m. is probably significant because it indicates that the disciples spent the Sabbath with Jesus, most likely studying the Scriptures with him.

 

This is one of those passages in John’s Gospel that it is probably more historically accurate than the Synoptics. It makes sense that Jesus’ followers called him Rabbi, which is a Jewish title, rather than by the Greek title Kyrios, which means Lord. It appears that the other evangelists translated Rabbi as Lord rather than teacher. In the second half of John’s Gospel, the disciples call Jesus Kyrios rather than Rabbi. This may indicate that the first half of the gospel is older and was written by a different person than the second half, but there may be another meaning in that. We will see that Jesus moves from being Rabbi to Kyrios, and these disciples move from being students to friends.

 

The Messiah:                        The text is a little ambiguous about what comes next, but it was most likely the next day that Andrew went to his brother Simon and told him that they had found the Messiah. The implication is that by studying Scripture with Jesus, Andrew and the Beloved Disciple came to understand that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the anointed one. John’s Gospel gives the Hebrew word Messiah and translates it with the Greek word Christos. By the time of Paul, the followers of Jesus were so accustomed to calling him the Messiah that the word Christ became his last name instead of a title.

 

We will discuss the idea of the Messiah throughout the year, but the important point for today is that Andrew was proclaiming something very important and controversial to his brother. Many people in Israel were looking for a descendent of King David to rescue them from Roman oppression and the corruption of the priesthood. John the Baptist was one of those people, and it is not surprising that one of John’s disciples was the first to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

 

In the other gospels, it took months for the disciples to come to the conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah, but John collapses that history into a single night. John was writing for people who already believed that Jesus was the Messiah and writing against people who denied this, so he puts this claim at the very beginning of the work. Like the Synoptics, John connects the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah to the naming of Simon Peter, but in John’s Gospel it comes after Jesus looks at him. This was not a passing glance. This was the kind of look that explores your inner soul, and the change of name indicates a change in life for Peter. We don’t have the story of Peter leaving his fishing nets behind in John’s Gospel, but we do have the renaming to indicate a change of life and identity for Peter. It is interesting that John gives the name in Aramaic and translates it into Greek, which is another mark of authenticity. Simon’s new name is Kephas, which became Petros in Greek. If we translated this into modern English, it would be Rocky.

 

Calling Nathanael:              The next day, Jesus set out for Galilee and called Philip to follow him. The other gospels mention Philip as one of the Twelve, but it is only in John and Acts that we learn much about him. Philip converted the first Ethiopian to Christianity, which is why St. Philip’s Church is named for him, by the way. Here in John’s Gospel, Philip tells Nathanael that the promised one has come and that his name is Jesus, son of Joseph. This did not get a positive response from Nathanael who asked sarcastically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Some think that this represents rivalry between Bethsaida and Nazareth, but it is probably just a reminder that Jesus came from an unimportant village in an outpost of Judea. He was literally an outsider to the power structure of Judea. No one looked to Nazareth for a Messiah, which is why Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

 

What is more important for us today is that Philip did not argue with Nathanael about what the Scripture teaches about the Messiah. He simply urged his friend to “Come and see for yourself.” You decide if he is worth following. This is what evangelism is all about. It is sharing the good news about Jesus and inviting others to come and see for themselves whether the news is true. It is not about fighting over biblical interpretation and apocalyptic calculations.

 

Israelite with Guile:                        Nathanael is an interesting figure in John’s Gospel. He is not mentioned in the other gospels at all, and it is not clear if John included him among the Twelve, but he gives him the honor of being the first human to proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus says that Nathanael is an “Israelite without guile.” There is a contrast in John between the true Israelites who recognize Jesus and the Jews who ruled in Jerusalem. The reference to Nathanael being “without guile” was probably intended to draw a contrast between Nathanael and his ancestor Jacob, who was a cunning and deceitful man. Those who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem and were proud of their ancestry were Israelites who shared in the guile and deception of Jacob. Nathanael was an Israelite who shared in his ancestor’s faith.

 

The Fig Tree             One of the oddest aspects this story is that Nathanael believed in Jesus because Jesus said that he saw him under the fig tree. This may simply be a miracle story that showed Nathanael that Jesus had already seen him in secret and knew what Nathanael was doing. This would mean that Jesus was like God who sees in secret, and it makes sense that this would be connected with Nathanael’s proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God and King of Israel.

 

There is another possibility, though. There was a tradition that in ancient times rabbis taught or studied under fig trees. Early Christian scholars knew this and concluded that Nathanael himself was a scribe or even a rabbi, which makes sense in context since Philip tells mentions the Torah. By saying that he had seen him under the fig tree, Jesus could have been telling Nathanael that he was an honest interpreter of the Scriptures who would recognize the Messiah. If this is true, then we can see parallels with the story of Nicodemus. It is even possible that Jesus was relating a vision he had of Nathanael. The fig tree was a symbol for peace and prosperity in Micah (4:4) and Zechariah (3:10), and the phrase “sitting under the fig tree” became a term for the reign of the Messiah. By saying that he had seen Nathanael sitting under the fig tree, Jesus may have been announcing the coming of the Messianic kingdom.

 

The beautiful thing about John’s Gospel is that all of these possibilities may have been intended in this cryptic story about the calling of an obscure follower of Jesus. Nathanael is not on the list of the martyrs and heroes of the faith. There have never been churches named for Nathanael, but John uses him to teach valuable lessons about faith in Jesus. Like Peter, Nathanael is known by Jesus before he confesses faith in Jesus. He is invited to come and see the teacher, and he in turn names Jesus as the Son of God. The confession of Nathanael at the opening of John’s gospel was the confession of the Christian church after the resurrection of Jesus.

 

Angels:           This connection between Nathanael and Jacob probably helps explain the rather odd statement in verse 51 that he will see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. This seems to be a reference to Jacob’s famous dream of a stairway or ladder to heaven. In Genesis, this dream told Jacob that he was sleeping on holy ground and he should build an altar. This statement in John indicates that it is Jesus who is the holy ground and the true Temple. He is the bridge between heaven and earth. We have no record of Nathanael ever having such a vision, but it is the kind of vision early Christians did have. 

Prologue of John’s Gospel

Frank Crouch and I are teaching the Gospel of John in the Sojourners Class of Central Moravian Church this year. Come join us at 10 a.m. Sunday mornings in the CE building at Central in Bethlehem, PA. I thought I would repost the lessons I put up on the blog several years ago when I taught John at Home Church.

The Prologue as Poetry:        That was just a reminder that in poetry and prose, it is important that the style match the subject matter. It is good that the style of the prologue to John’s Gospel matches the dignity of its message. Let me read the opening lines in Greek so that you can get a sense of its poetic qualities. There is little doubt that the opening verses of the Gospel of John were originally a poem or even a hymn that was sung in the church founded by the Beloved Disciple. We do not know for sure when the hymn was written. We don’t even know if the hymn is older or more recent than the rest of the Gospel. It is possible that the evangelist chose or composed this hymn to express in summary form the themes of his book, but it is just as likely that a later editor, perhaps a student, added this beautiful hymn to his master’s gospel story.             

One thing is clear to most readers of the opening hymn. Someone inserted statements in it that were not there originally. These parenthetical statements read like prose rather than poetry. They are explanatory insertions that deal with two main topics. One is the relationship of Jesus to John the Baptist and the other the relationship of Jesus to the Jews. We will see that these are important themes throughout the Gospel, but the parentheses do detract from the beauty and meaning of the original hymn. I am going to read the prologue today without the insertions using the translation of Raymond Brown, who was the leading Johanine scholar in America in the 20th century. 

Beginning:      The Gospel of Mark opens with the phrase: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” In contrast, John’s Gospel begins with an echo of the grand opening of the book of Genesis, the first of the five books of the Law, which we call the Pentateuch. “In the beginning God created…” You may recall from a year ago that the opening lines of the Hebrew Bible may be translated several ways. It could even be translated “When God began to create the heavens and the earth,” but the Greek of John’s Gospel is not ambiguous. It is referring to the beginning of time and creation itself. The Word was with God before the visible world was crafted by God.            

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, and Luke includes a genealogy that goes back to Adam, but John’s vision is much larger than simply the history of Jesus’ family or even the human race. His account of the life of Jesus begins with creation itself. Christ has cosmic significance for John, and his work of redemption involves the whole order of the universe. That is a bold claim and this verse would become a lynchpin of orthodox Christian doctrine. Without this prologue Christian teaching on Jesus might have developed in quite different ways.

Logos:             One of the most difficult words to translate in the New Testament is the simple word “Word” here in the Prologue. The Greek word islogos. Nowhere else in Scripture is Jesus called the Logos or Word of God, except in the Book of Revelation. Even in the Gospel of John, this phrase is not used except for the Prologue. Even so, the logos would become one of the most important ways in which the early church understood Jesus.  

           It is a very important word, but there is no consensus on how to translate the logos. Normally it is simply translated as “word,” which is how Jewish scribes in Alexandria translated the Old Testament idea of the ‘word of God’ into Greek. In Greek, the Old Testament prophets spoke the logos of God. Certainly, the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with the Greek version of the Old Testament, and he may have used logos in the sense of the “Word of the Lord” as spoken by the biblical prophets. That appears to be the way Christ is seen in as the Word in Revelation. If this in the case, the prologue of John becomes a little more manageable. Jesus is simply a divine profit doing God’s will on earth.   

         But there are reasons to suspect that the author of the Gospel meant more than this by using the word logos. The logos here is seen as an important part of the work of God in creation. It is likely the author had in mind the idea of the logos as rational speech and thought from Greek philosophy. It is the “word” by which we understand the universe in which we live. The English word “logic” is based on the Greek word logos.Logos also supplies the root of all those “ologies” that you see in college catalogs: Psychology, Sociology, Geology, Pathology. We use “ology” to mean “the study of” something, but that means that we use words to make sense of something. For the Greeks, science and philosophy rely on the logos.   

         According to some schools of Greek philosophy, the cosmos was formed through the logos. In this sense, logos means the natural order of the universe. The reason that the ancient scientists could calculate the circumference of the Earth and predict future eclipses was because they believed that the universe makes sense. It works by cosmic laws of order. The universe is logical, they said, because it was formed by the Logos. We do not know if the author of John meant to say that the rational order of the universe was in the beginning with God, but the early readers of this Gospel certainly read it that way. In the beginning was the rationality of God. This became an important part of Christian theology.

Sophia:            There is a way to bring together the Greek understanding of the logos and the Hebrew idea of the creative and prophetic word of God, and that is the idea of divine Wisdom. In Proverbs 8:22-36 we have a poem to divine wisdom, which in Greek was called Sophia. “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.” The poem goes on to say that Sophia was with God as he crafted each part of the earth and skies. The parallels between Proverbs 8 and John 1 have been noted since the 3rd century, and there have been those who have read John 1 as saying, “In the beginning was Wisdom.” Since Sophia is a feminine word in Greek, in recent years feminist theologians have read the Prologue as saying, “In the beginning was Sophia.” But that is probably straying too far from the actual text. The author could have said that quite easily in Greek, but he chose to say logos. So we are left with the rich and stimulating ambiguity of the phrase “In the beginning was the Word.” The key point is that this was God’s creative word: the word that spoke the worlds into being in Genesis.

The Word was God:               For more than seventeen hundred years scholars have discussed and debated the meaning of logos, but that is only the beginning of the issues related to the Prologue. This hymn to Christ goes on to say that the Word was “with God” and “was God.” It seems so simple, but each of those phrases has all sorts of translation difficulties, most of which are too complicated for a Sunday morning. Part of the problem is the preposition, which originally meant to approach something or to face something. By John’s time, it often meant to accompany someone in the sense of going with someone. The early commentators on John’s gospel were not sure how to interpret this little phrase. Did it mean that the Word accompanied God in the act of creation? Or did it mean that the Word contemplated and worshiped God as he created? Does it refer to an eternal relationship between God and the Word? One thing we can determine is that the relationship of the Word and God was there before humans were created. The Word is in a special relationship to God.

Was God:      That alone is a mind-expanding concept for the opening verse of the story of Jesus, but the Prologue goes further. “And the Word was God.” This has even more difficulties in translation because the Greek word for God here, theos, does not have a definite article. Some people have translated this as “The Word was a god,” which raises all kinds of difficulties, and is unlikely to say the least. Some have rendered this verse as “The Word was divine” (Raymond Brown, Gospel of John, vol. 1,, 5), but the author of John could have said that directly. The intention of the phrase does seem to be that the Word was what God is. Curiously, the phrase actually places the word God first. 

Creation:        In saying that the Word was God, this does not mean that the Word is no longer God or that the Word no longer exists. It is saying that the divine nature of the Word was from the very beginning. Part of the artistry of this hymn is that it builds like a staircase, perhaps a spiral staircase, so that the repetition of key ideas adds to the overall effect rather than distracting from it. The role of the Word in creation is clarified in verse 3. “All things came into being through him.” If the Word was God from the beginning, then it makes sense that the Word was part of God’s creative activity in the beginning.  

           There are parallels to the prologue of John in other hymns to Christ in the New Testament. The most famous are found in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1. These hymns all address a common theme. Christ is the true image of God who existed from the beginning and who came to earth in human form. Like John’s prologue, Colossians speaks of all things being made through Christ. In this light, it is particularly interesting that one of the earliest references to Christianity from a non-Christian source is a letter from Pliny to the emperor Trajan in 117 AD. He refers to people who sing hymns to Christ “as to a god.” There is also a collection of 2nd century Christian hymns called the Odes of Solomon that express similar themes. In recent years it has become popular to say that the church proclaimed Jesus as divine in the 4th century, but the truth is that by the end of the 1st century the followers of Jesus viewed him as the Word of God in human flesh. 

Trinity:            From 200 AD to 500 AD the church had many battles over how to express the divinity of Christ. We don’t need to go into all of those fights this morning, but it is important to recognize that the fights concerned how Christ was divine, not whether he was divine. Over time, the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and approved by church councils. The doctrine attempts to clarify the relationship and work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. According to orthodox teaching, all three are God yet each is distinct. For the most part theologians and worshipers alike have viewed the Father as the Creator and the Son as the Redeemer, but the Gospel of John was written before the great councils. It was an important resource for the theologians of the Church, but John’s gospel does not separate the work of the Father and Son. For those accustomed to the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, it is a bit of a shock to read the Prologue of John where the Word is the Creator.     

        We’ll keep coming back to the question of the relationship of the Father and the Son in John’s Gospel, but the important point for today is that the all things were created through the Word of God. It might interest Moravians to learn that for about 100 years, Moravian liturgies, catechisms, and hymns consistently held to the perspective of John’s Gospel that Christ was the Creator as well as the Redeemer. 

Jesus:             It is important for us to recognize, however, that the Gospel of John does not proclaim that Jesuswas the Creator. It was the Word that was with God and was God, not the human being Jesus of Nazareth. When we refer to the “pre-existent” Christ, we are speaking of twin aspects of the Son of God. One is that the Word or the Son or the Christ, whatever term you prefer, existed prior to the person Jesus who was born on a specific day during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The Word or Son became incarnate in Jesus, but the incarnation marked a new phase of history. Thus, we should not look for Jesus in the Old Testament, but Christians may see traces of the Son of God in the ancient Scriptures.

Life:    This is a lot of theology in just three verses of an ancient hymn, and we should not push things too far. This is the language of praise and worship, not philosophy or science, and the following verses give insight into why we should praise the Word. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” This will be one of the central themes of the entire Gospel; in fact, this is the good news itself. The Word of God is a life-giving word. The parallel with the first chapter of Genesis become important here. Creation is life and light. The work of Jesus described in the rest of the Gospel will be the work of restoring creation and bringing light and truth to the world. Forms of Christianity that promote death and destruction are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. Forms of Christianity that promote ignorance and small-mindedness are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. The mission of the church is to bring light to the world, not darkness, despair, or destruction.

Darkness:       There is opposition to this mission, though. The Gospel of John will address the historical reality that Jesus of Nazareth was murdered by the Roman Empire with the complicity of the high priests in Jerusalem. This is alluded to in a beautiful piece of poetry in the Prologue. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” There is a sense of cosmic struggle here between the forces of light, life, and creation and the force of darkness and non-existence. The nature of that struggle varies according to translation. This verse could mean that the darkness did not comprehend or grasp the meaning of the light. It could mean that the darkness did not receive or accept the light. Or that the darkness could not overcome or overpower the light.   

            I think it is likely that all of these are meant. Ignorance, fear, and evil are often combined and are most clearly recognized in their unthinking opposition to goodness. The hopeful aspect of the Gospel is that the light continues to shine even in a world where nations drop bombs on weddings and men kill children to silence their own demons.

Word in the World:    The opening stanza of the hymn spoke of the Logos of God that was with God and was God. The Logos was light and life for humankind. The second stanza speaks of the Logos coming into the world. Notice that the Logos has not been named yet. Certainly the worshiping community founded by the witness of the Beloved Disciple knew the name of the Logos, but the hymn builds interest by saving the name for the end. The Logos was with God in the beginning, but he did not have a name until the birth of Jesus. We can also say that Jesus himself was not recognized as the Word of God until he had called the church into being.

The World:     This process of revelation is expressed poetically by saying that the Word was in the World yet the World did not recognize him. The Greek word for “world” here is Cosmos, and it appears more often in the Gospel of John than any other book of the NT. Throughout the Gospel we’ll see Jesus struggling with the Cosmos as well as redeeming the Cosmos. It will probably not surprise you to learn that the word Cosmos has several meanings in Greek, especially in John’s gospel, but the basic meaning is the order of the visible universe in which we live. Cosmos refers to the stars in their regular journey through the night sky and to the earth that produces our food in due season. Sometimes it refers specifically to the world of human society.

We do this in English as well when we refer to something as “worldly,” or that we are troubled by the cares of the world. Rarely are we troubled with the cares of the earth, just those of society. On television “World News Tonight” is about people, not the news of the whole cosmos, except when scientists decide to renumber the planets in the solar system. Even then, that is about us not the planets. Pluto hasn’t changed; our definitions changed.

In many places in the NT, the word Cosmos is used in a negative sense, as something that is opposed to the work of God. The Kingdom of God is contrasted to the kingdom of the world. In the extreme, the “world” or the Cosmos is seen as being under the rule of Satan. Throughout John’s Gospel there are all of these different uses of Cosmos, and it can be difficult for interpreters to know what the Gospel was trying to communicate. The different attitudes toward the “world” in different passages of John’s Gospel contributed to the suspicion of some scholars that more than one purpose wrote the gospel. Thus, we will read that “God so loved the world,” but that Jesus “has overcome the world.”

The question is what does the world mean here in the Prologue? It seems to me that it is referring to the heavens and the earth or the universe. The universe was created through the Word, but creation did not recognize the creator. The Logos was in the world but the world did not know the Logos. This could be referring to the incarnation in Jesus, but it might be a more general reference to the ignorance of creation as a creation. The creature does not know its maker – or its dependence on the Creator. It is possible that the prologue here is saying that God has always been present in the world that he has made, but the world has never fully recognized the presence of the creator within the creation. Creation should be a means to encounter God.

In Greek Orthodox theology, creation can be understood as a sacrament, as a physical communication of the divine presence, but Protestants have been uncomfortable with that concept. We prefer to have just two Sacraments, but personally, I think it is worth considering in light of this first chapter of John. The Word of God was in the Cosmos from the beginning of the Time, but creation remains a divine mystery. Humans through the ages have caught glimpses of God in the natural order, but it took the Logos to reveal the truth about the creator and creation. In our modern age, it has been harder to recognize the presence of the Word in the World than in the past. Despite our advances in understanding the laws of nature and our ability to manipulate nature according to our will, most of us do not fully recognize the Logos in creation. If we did, we would treat the world with more reverence than we do.

He Came to His Own:            Verse 11 builds on the concept that the World failed to recognize the Logos in creation; he was not recognized even when he came to his own people. This is probably a veiled reference to the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders who handed him over to the Romans for execution, but it could have a broader meaning. The Greek is just a bit ambiguous. Literally, it says that the Word came “to his own things.” This could mean simply that he came into the world that he had made or that he came to a particular place and people.

Either way, this is clearly referring to the Word appearing in visible form in the world that we know. The technical term for this is a theophany: God revealed. We discussed several appearances of God in the book of Genesis. It could be that the Prologue to John has those stories of God’s appearance in mind, or the author may have only been thinking of the coming of Christ. Either way, the paradox is evident. The one who created the heavens and the earth somehow made an appearance within the universe. Rather than being recognized and treated like a king, the World did not receive its creator.

Most commentators assert that the reference to “his own people” refers specifically to the Jews, but that identification is not made in the Prologue itself. It is a reasonable assumption since the first half of the Gospel of John focuses on Jesus’ ministry among the Jews and their rejection of him. There does seem to be a jump in the Prologue from the Cosmos to the Ethnic. Why go from the Logos as the creator to a discussion of the people who rejected him? One possibility is that the Prologue shares the understanding of the book of Hebrews that the Creator spoke through the prophets but in the later days spoke through a Son. The prophetic word given to Moses, Elijah, and the other OT prophets was the same Word that had created the heavens and the earth.

Raymond Brown sees verses 11 and 12 as providing the outline for the whole Gospel. Jesus goes first to the Jews who reject him, and then he creates a new community. His “own people” reject him so he calls a new people into being. The church becomes “his own people.” This interpretation is consistent with other parts of the NT, such as the first Letter of Peter and Paul’s Letter to the Romans, but we should keep in mind that it continues to speak to us. We are Christ’s own people, but do we recognize him? Do we not reject him today when his teachings and examples contradict our desire for violence and vengeance?

Children of God:        The prologue next sets up a contrast between those who received the Word of God and those who rejected the Word. This is one of the major themes of the Gospel and the other NT books associated with John. The world is divided between those who receive the Logos and those who reject him. This dualism or division between the children of the light and the children of darkness was developed from the ancient Jewish notion of the Chosen People. In the OT, Abraham and his descendents were chosen by God and set apart. They were given the Law of Moses to guide them and to form them into a separate community. They were to be a holy people and a light to the other nations.

By the time of Jesus, there were some Jews, called the Essenes, who felt that the nation of Israel had faltered in their holiness and service to God. They separated themselves from the larger community and formed very strict sectarian communities like the Qumran community that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes reinterpreted the language of chosen-ness to apply to those who are called out from society to live according to the law of God. They looked for God to send a new Moses, a heavenly Messiah who would be the teacher of righteousness and a true priest. Some of the Essenes referred to themselves as children of the light, while the rest of the world, including the corrupt priests in Jerusalem, were the children of darkness. The Essenes were looking forward to the day when the Messiah would reward his faithful followers and destroy the children of darkness. Their hopes were ultimately disappointed. It appears that the Essenes were wiped out by the Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem.

Though we cannot be certain, it seems likely that some of the early Christians had been Essenes or at least influenced by their theology. It is possible that John the Baptist himself was an Essene, but we’ll say more about John next week. For now, the point I want to make is that this dualism in John’s Gospel developed out of Judaism, particularly sectarian Judaism. It was not a Christian invention, but many times through the centuries, this dualism has caused problems for Christians and their neighbors. Once you divide the world neatly into children of light and children of darkness, it is tempting to treat all of your opponents as evil-doers who deserve punishment. Moral dualism fueled the Crusades and the conquest of the Americas. It fuels modern Jihads and affects American foreign policy in our day. We like to separate the world into an axis of evil and a coalition of the good.

Rebirth:          We do not have to go down that road to be faithful to John’s Gospel. Notice that the focus of this portion of the prologue is not on identifying those who did not receive the Word; it is on those who received him. The Prologue does not say, as Paul does in his letters, that those who have faith in Jesus are adopted as God’s children. It says that they are empowered to become God’s children – to be born of God. The Prologue is here foreshadowing one of the major themes of John’s Gospel, and we will return to this theme of being born of God in a few weeks when we discuss the story of Nicodemus. Those who place their faith in Jesus are born from above. They experience a spiritual birth that is unlike physical birth. The prologue emphasizes that this second birth is not the result of sexual desire or the union of a man and woman; it comes from God.

It is often overlooked in evangelical churches that the idea of being “born again” is a maternal image. God gives spiritual birth to the followers of Jesus. In many passages, John uses imagery from childbirth, especially blood and water, to illustrate this understanding of salvation. It is small wonder that theologians and mystics who base their spirituality on John’s Gospel are generally more open to the idea that God can be described in feminine terms. Zinzendorf was quite explicit in identifying rebirth with the Holy Spirit acting as mother.

We should also pay close attention to this idea that Christians are children of God. This language is not used to declare that Christians should be immature or irresponsible, as it is sometimes used in churches. Rather, the Prologue uses this language to stress the intimate connections between the soul and the Creator. The Logos makes it possible for people to experience the blessing of being a child of God, loved by God intimately. Salvation, for John, is not a simple legal transaction that removes the guilt of sin; it is a restoration of the intimacy of the soul and the creator who makes rebirth possible. 

Word Became Flesh:             This brings us to verse 14, which is one of the most profound and controversial statements in Scripture. “And the Logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” It appears that the author of this hymn chose the word “tent” or “tabernacle” intentionally to connect the appearance of the Logos in the world with the tabernacle of the OT. In the days of Moses, the Israelites believed that God dwelled with them in the tabernacle or the tent of meeting. He was with them in their wanderings, and Moses was able to enter into his presence in the Tabernacle. The prologue describes the ministry of Jesus in a similar way. The Logos lived in the midst of the disciples in much the same way that God used to dwell in the tabernacle. This concept raises a host of theological questions that are best left for another day, but the main point of this passage is clear. The Logos dwell in the world of humans, just as God had once dwelled with the children of Israel.

The Prologue claims that the Logos, the rational aspect of God himself, built himself a body out of human flesh. This is a mind-boggling idea, and it was rejected by many people in the early years of Christianity. Many Jews believed it was blasphemy to say a mere man, even a spirit-filled prophet, was God in human flesh. Some Greeks saw this as mere superstition, a Jewish form of Greek myth where a god appears as human. Educated Greeks were offended that anyone would teach that what was spiritual and perfect could enter into corrupt flesh. The flesh was filled with lust and hunger.

The Gospel of John makes the bold, perhaps even foolish, claim that the Logos of God took on the limitations and needs of human flesh and blood; that God had walked this earth during the age of the Caesars. This assertion also connects the Prologue to the opening chapters of Genesis. You may remember in that story, God made a human body out of the mud and breathed his spirit into the human being. We are made in God’s image, but here in John, God fashions a human body for himself. The Logos makes himself in our image and dwells with his creatures so that we can be restored as the children of God.

The Gospel of John stresses that Jesus was unique among human beings in that he alone was the incarnation of the Logos. He alone was the fullness of God in human form. The whole point of the Gospel will be to convince of this idea: that Jesus is the revelation of God to humankind. The God whose echo we hear in creation; the God who was veiled in the OT; the God who spoke cryptic words through the prophets was revealed in Jesus. It is not until verse 17 that Jesus is named in this Gospel. John’s Gospel is not as concerned with the historical Jesus of Nazareth who was the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter. This Gospel is about the Word of God who was revealed in Jesus Christ. There is a theological point here that is very important to Moravians and other churches. The true Word of God is not the Bible – it is the Logos revealed in Jesus. God is revealed in many ways, including in Scripture, but the most complete revelation of God was Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Deceptions and Blessings

This week in the Sojourners Bible Class we’re looking at Jacob’s deception of his father in Genesis 27. Over a century ago Biblical scholars determined that this story was written by an anonymous Hebrew storyteller we simply call “J”. Some of the most powerful stories in Genesis were written by J.   According to J, the reason Jacob left his family was because he had stolen his brother’s blessing. This is why he became “a wandering Aramean” who wrestled with God. Jacob was an exile from home, a deceiver forced to go an odyssey of self-discovery. Jacob steals a blessing but reaps bitterness and struggle. J does not present Jacob as a paragon of virtue, such as we depict our Founding Fathers, neither is he a hero and conqueror. He is the heel-grabber who labors and suffers for 20 years before being reconciled to his brother and family.

 Blessing:        The first thing to note about this story is the importance of the blessing by the father. It is a little hard for us to appreciate the passion of this story because we live in a world where words are cheap and rituals are empty of meaning. We hear a thousand messages each day, but have lost the ability to speak with one another about the things that really matter. We curse thoughtlessly and bless almost as carelessly, but language was still powerful and almost magical in biblical days. Walter Bruggemann (Genesis, p. 227-228) notes that the act of blessing forms the dramatic tension of the story: “Blessing is understood as a world-transforming act which cannot be denied by modern rationality. For the son as for the father, indeed for the entire family, the matter of the blessing is as dangerous as it is compelling.”

            Our popular culture mocks parents rather than looking to them for blessing and wisdom. This story of Jacob longing for his father’s blessing seems almost pathetic in a world that values the Simpsons. We are too cool, too worldly, too independent to need the blessing of a parent. We can dismiss with Jacob’s story and proclaim our liberation from such archaic rituals. So we pretend. But deep in our hearts, in that vulnerable center of our soul, is the son or daughter aching to hear a word of blessing from a parent.

            You probably remember what it was like to look for a smile or some sign that your parents were pleased with you, not for what you had done, but for who you are. You may recall what it was like to be on the cusp of full adult responsibility. You may remember what it was like to long for someone you admired place his or her hands on you and tell you that your life would turn out alright; that you were ready to make your place in the world. 

Jacob and Rebekah:                         The story of Isaac’s blessing has four major scenes with four main characters. First Isaac tells his favorite son, Esau that he wanted to bless him. Isaac knows that he will soon die, and, like a good father, he is putting his affairs in order. Esau runs off to do as his father commanded him. But off stage, or if you prefer, outside the tent Rebekah heard what Isaac told his son. Scene 2 has Rebekah and her favorite son, Jacob. Many interpreters are harsh on Isaac for having a favorite son, but they forgive Rebekah for doting on Jacob. Many people argue that Rebekah was trying to fulfill the will of God by helping her beloved son receive the blessing. That may be, but the most reasonable explanation for her actions is that she loved Jacob more than Esau.

            Rebekah knew that Jacob would take care of her after Isaac died. She may have even thought that Jacob would simply be a better clan leader than his impulsive brother. It could be that she, like all of us, acted for many reasons that she could not fully explain herself. But act she did. Whether you view her as a Lady Macbeth or a saint, she was the principal actor in this drama. She is the one who took charge of the situation and convinced her son to deceive her husband.

The Deception          The third scene involves Jacob deceiving Isaac by pretending to be his brother. There is a bit of obvious comedy in the deception itself, which I think was intended. The 1960s British comedian Alan Bennet grasped some of the inherent humor of the phrase “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man.” There is a pun in Hebrew here that still works in English, by the way. Jacob is a smooth customer. We could call him Slick Jake, but Esau is hairy man. So hairy, in fact, that Jacob wears goat skins on his hands and neck. I am sure that in ancient times they laughed about that just as much as we would today.

            Lest you are tempted to exonerate Jacob for his deception, notice how far he goes. When his father questions him, Jacob lies. When he returns too quickly with the food that Rebekah has already prepared for him, he mixes his lies with impiety. “The LORD your God granted me success,” he says. The LORD will not become Jacob’s God until much later at Peniel. Now Jacob, like many people in our own country, uses the name of God in vain to add credence to his deceptions. Genesis does not try to excuse Jacob’s actions. That is left up to preachers and rabbis through the centuries who are embarrassed that the father of Israel was a scoundrel in his youth. 

            But this is just a bit of comic relief in a scene filled with pathos. Isaac is blind and dying, and he wants to put his affairs in order. He wants to pass on his legacy and his blessing to the next generation. He has chosen Esau as his successor, but he literally cannot see the future. Isaac was in the situation that some of us may be in today. We want to establish our legacy, to make sure we have an impact on the future, but we cannot see what our successors will do, what our children will do. We have to act as best we can with our limited powers and vision, leaving the final result to God, whose purposes are sometimes different than our own. There is also pathos in the fact that Jacob feels that he must deceive his father rather than coming to him and speaking in his own voice. Jacob has to steal his brother’s identity to receive the love of his own father. Isaac remains suspicious of this smooth talker, but the smell of Esau’s clothing convinces him. Jacob leaves with his father’s benediction.

Esau and Isaac           The fourth scene is an agonizing scene between Esau and Isaac. What is most surprising in this scene is that the author appears to be so sympathetic to Esau, who was the ancestor of one of the enemies of Israel. Genesis displays remarkable insight into the complexity of human society and human motives. It is not a simple morality tale, but Genesis does teach us that some things cannot be undone, even if they were done in error. We have become accustomed to fixing mistakes, expunging police records, and making fresh starts. We are guided by the myth that “tomorrow is another day,” and that we don’t have to live with the consequence of what we did today. That’s not how the world is. Isaac gave his blessing and would not go back on his word. Esau had to live with the results of that decision.

            Lest we be too sympathetic with Esau, though, we have to acknowledge that his fate was no worse than Jacob’s would have been had things gone as Isaac planned. Jacob lied and tricked his way to a blessing intended for Esau, but Esau was not cursed. This is important to note because later Jewish and Christian tradition was very harsh on Esau. In fact, John Calvin defended his doctrine of predestination on the grounds that God had predestined Jacob for blessing and damned Esau, just as he saves some of us and damns others. Calvin argued that God’s ways are inscrutable and cannot be changed by the actions of humans, but he read too much into this story. Esau was not cursed. His life, like that of Ishmael, would be one of struggle, but he had four wives and became very wealthy in his own right.

Exile:              In the final scene, we see Rebekah and Jacob again. They now have to live with the consequences of their actions. If Rebekah had hoped that Isaac’s blessing would mean that her beloved son would be able to stay with her and take care of her, she was wrong. If Jacob had hoped that his father’s blessing would mean that he would become the head of the family and be respected by his brother, he was wrong. If either of them thought that their deception would go undetected or unpunished, they were wrong. Actions have consequences. Esau hated his brother.

            This recalls the earlier story of Cain and Abel. Abel was the younger brother whose offering was acceptable to God. Cain hated his brother and killed him. When we discussed that story many of us were bothered by the fact that no explanation was given for why Abel was blessed and Cain rejected. But in our story for today, we know why Esau hated Jacob. Rebekah did not need to go to Sunday School to figure out that Esau would kill Jacob as soon as Isaac had been buried. So she acted again to save her beloved son. She sent him away to Haran, to the home of her brother Laban, who was powerful enough to protect him from the wrath of Esau. 

            Rebekah says something very interesting as she sends Jacob away: “Why should I lose both of you in one day?” It is ambiguous whether she is discussing the loss of Jacob and Esau or Jacob and Isaac. The latter makes sense in terms of both them dying on the same day, but the former seems more likely in the context. Rebekah knows that she has lost the love of her son Esau by robbing him of his blessing, and she cannot bear the thought of losing the life of other son. She is a tragic figure here, so different from the bright young woman who received a nose ring years before. Now she is trapped in her own actions. In order to save the life of the son she loved most, she must lose him. We shall see that Isaac’s blessing does eventually come true for Jacob, but not in the way Rebekah intended. Jacob will prosper, but only after years of toil and hardship. He leaves for Haran, and mother and son will not be reunited for 20 years. 

The Jacob Saga

We’ve been discussing the book of Genesis on Sunday mornings in the Sojourners Class at Central Moravian. Today we are beginning the stories about Jacob, and I thought you might be interested. Some of this material was posted earlier on the blog.

Overview of Jacob Saga:      Last week we discussed the prelude to the Jacob and Esau saga. We will be spending several weeks examining the story of Jacob in some detail, and it might be helpful to have an overview of that saga since it is one of the longest sections of Genesis (ch. 25-36). One reason Jacob is so compelling is that he is so much like us. His struggles with God mirror our own struggles with God. And in the final analysis, the major religious point of the Jacob saga appears to be profoundly simple. God chose Jacob despite his flaws rather than because of his strengths. And that may be the message for us as well. We are chosen for reasons we cannot fathom and despite our unworthiness. Though we struggle, God remains faithful to us. 

First of all, we should note that in many ways, it is Jacob, not Abraham who is the central figure in Genesis. Though Abraham was the great ancestor of faith who first answered the call of God, the tribes of Israel would be named for Jacob. Jacob experiences the most significant change of name in the Bible, going from Jacob (heel-grabber) to Israel, the one who strives with God. Jacob’s story is a story of striving and conflict. Unlike Isaac who moved repeatedly in order to avoid violence, Jacob struggles with everyone he encounters in the world. He struggles with Esau, his mother, his father, Laban, his wives, and even God himself. God will change his name to Israel, and it is a fitting name for Jacob the scrapper. Israel will be the name of the tribes who descended from Jacob. They will strive with God all well.

            The Jacob saga is made up of many different stories that probably came from a variety of sources that scholars refer to as J, E, and P, but the final version as we have it is a masterpiece of literature. It has been carefully assembled so that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts alone. There is a careful symmetry in the story. It begins with the conflict with Esau and Jacob’s flight from his family, and it ends with the reconciliation with Esau and Jacob’s return to Canaan with his own family. So we have an odyssey here. The main character leaves his home, but cannot return until he has completed his quest.

            When he returns he is both different and the same. During his odyssey, Jacob has two significant religious experiences. The first is his famous vision at Bethel when he sees the stairway to heaven. The second is his encounter with God at Peniel when he receives a new name as well as a limp. Each religious experience marks a significant transition in Jacob’s life while affirming that Jacob has been chosen by the LORD. In the middle of Jacob’s odyssey is his time in exile in Haran when he labored for Laban. The climax of his story is the birth of his 12 sons as the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham.

              It appears that the Jacob stories originated in the North, with the 10 northern tribes of Israel. The Abraham and Isaac stories are more closely associated with the southern kingdom of Judah. We can tell this in part from the place names. Beersheba is the key shrine for the Abraham stories, while Bethel is the main shrine in the north. We don’t have time to go into the whole history of Israel here, but it is helpful to remember that there were twelve tribes of Israel. The most important tribe was Judah, and that tribe established a separate kingdom after the death of Solomon. It is from Judah that we get the words Judaism, Jew, and Judea. Judah lasted longer as a kingdom than Israel did, and it was in Judah that the Old Testament as we know it was written. Most of the time when we think of Israel, we are thinking of Judah.

            The ten northern tribes disappeared after the destruction of the kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721, but they were very important. The kingdom of Israel was different from Judah. In many ways, it was wealthier and more powerful, but it was also less stable. The prophets played a key role in the politics of the north, occasionally even anointing warriors to overthrow the king. The north was never as unified as Judah was, and its holy places were destroyed. The Samaritans were the descendents of Israel and maintained some of the old religion of the Israelites. As we can see in the New Testament, there was conflict between Jews and Samaritans for centuries. Some of that conflict is reflected in the Jacob saga. The complexity of the Jacob saga and the moral ambiguity of its main character reflect the complexity and ambiguity of human society itself.

 

 

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