A World of Hope and Disappointment (John 1:1-18)
By Greg Carey
Optimism tends to accompany a new year. But we leave 2014 somewhat broken and disappointed. The online magazine Slate has christened 2014 "The Year of Outrage." I bet the name sticks. Slate's snappy multi-media calendar links the most outrageous news story for every day of the past year. What was so outrageous, and who found themselves offended?
January 29: "XOJane publishes an essay about a white person seeing a black person in yoga and feeling uncomfortable about it." (Race provided a major source of outrage in 2014.)
According to Slate: "Who was outraged: black women, nonracist yoga practitioners."
November 6: "A mom finds mold in a Capri Sun juice pack."
"Who was outraged: people who don't think mold should be in juice."
Slate pumped up the project with eleven essays on outrage. Topics ranged from "The Life Cycle of Outrage" to the twin "The Year in Liberal Outrage" and "The Year in Conservative Outrage." I don't know about you, but I think Slate basically named our collective mood as we enter 2015.
Outrage may emerge from petty things: "An Irish cafe bans loud Americans" (July 22). It seems to me, though, that we live in a society intensely marked by outrage. What is one to say in the face of ISIS and its blood lust? Outrage divides us. Do we find ourselves more inclined to outrage that in Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed black youth died from at least six gun shots - or do we find it more offensive that crowds would protest the death of a young man who may have attacked a police officer?
I know one thing: my social media feeds provide no help. They stream with the outrage of people I love, people I know, and newsmakers I follow.
Here's the deal: our outrage grows from our most vulnerable places, our basic fear that things are not as they should be. Something is wrong with our world, and in a fundamental way we don't know how to fix it. Faced with moral and social disorder, the deep evolutionary structure of our brains prepares us to fight: outrage! We may think we're angry because we're right - and someone else is so, so wrong. We're really angry because we're disappointed.
The opening verses of John's Gospel confront us with a combination of things that ordinarily don't belong together. Readers universally appreciate how this prologue applies to Jesus some of the Bible's most high-flying, most spiritual language (1:1-18). But hints of discord also haunt this most exalted passage.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (1:1, NRSV)
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (1:3-4)
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (1:14)
Jesus, the Word, has come down from heaven to bring life and light to all people. Such elevated language. Most every professor of New Testament borrows the classic line from Clement of Alexandria, who labeled John "a more spiritual gospel." Around the year 200, Clement named what other early Christians observed: John's Gospel looks and sounds different than do Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John employs overtly metaphorical and symbolic language to describe Jesus to a degree the other gospels do not. Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, and the True Vine.
Nowhere than in this prologue do we encounter John's distinctiveness in comparison to the other gospels. Mark launches with John the Baptist waiting for Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew links Jesus to the great story of Israel with a genealogy that winds through Abraham, David, and the Babylonian captivity. After a few words of introduction Luke lays out the story of Jesus' infancy. Unlike Matthew and Luke, John includes no story of Jesus' birth. Instead, John echoes the creation story: In the beginning was the Word. For John, the true story of Jesus begins beyond time and history. There's no higher language for Jesus than this.
Yet for all its loftiness, John's prologue also features hints of trouble. Yes, "the light shines in the darkness," but why do we need to say that "the darkness did not overcome it" (1:5)? Yes, John the Baptist testified to Jesus, but need we insist that "He himself was not the light" (1:8)? Jesus has entered the world, but isn't it sad that "the world did not know him" (1:10) and "his own people did not accept him" (1:12)? This gospel reaches beyond the stars, but pain and disappointment very much tie it to this earth.
Underneath John's story lies a profound question. If it's true that the very word of God "became flesh and lived among us," how can it be that people don't believe? Throughout John's narrative, we encounter this deep disappointment. "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" (3:10). "If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?" (8:46). "If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you" (15:18). Disappointment time and again.
I'm suggesting that outrage rises from our disappointment. Certain values earn our allegiance, and we cannot understand - we truly don't understand - how someone else could possibly disagree. If 53% of Americans believe race relations have deteriorated during the Obama presidency, is that due to failings on the part of the president or because of the racism embedded in our society? Only 15% of us are happy with Congress - but that doesn't mean we agree on what Congress should be doing. We get the Congress we elect. Just over half of us believe global warming is happening: what on earth is going on with those who don't? No wonder we're angry: we care about all these things, but we don't agree.
Disappointment is inevitable when things don't go as we think they should. But outrage? We can do something about outrage. John's prologue invites us to another way. These verses do not deny disappointment. They respond to disappointment with testimony: the world may not get it, but God has come to us. Many disbelieve, but we have seen God's glory. No one has seen God, but Jesus shows us what God is about. In an age of real worry and anxiety, we celebrate. Instead of outrage, we testify. God has come to us in Jesus Christ and brought us life and healing.
A look at some recent polls to see what's on the mind of the American people as 2014 comes to an end.
Bible Study Questions
1. Can you name an occasion in which someone you loved simply didn't share your values? How did you respond to that disappointment?
2. In your opinion, should people of faith respond to disagreement differently than other people do? Why or why not?
3. John 1:14 sings, "The Word became flesh and lived among us." In what ways does Jesus bear God's presence to us?
For Further Reading
Gundry, Robert H. Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Especially Its Elites, in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon, 2012.
Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs, Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, and Jonathan A. Draper, eds. The Bible in the Public Square: Reading the Signs of the Times. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.
Koester, Craig R. The Word of Life: A Theology of John's Gospel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
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