Barbara Brown Taylor: Divine Evolution

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. --John 1:1-5 NRSV

This is John’s birth narrative, which explains why there are no Christmas pageants based on it. The stories Matthew and Luke tell are full of things you can put costumes on: shepherds, angels, wise men, sheep. They are full of things you can put on the stage: a stable, a manger, a guiding star overhead. We love them because they stay put, coming out of storage once a year so we can stop a while and enter the glow of a long-ago holy night, when all was calm, all was bright. They let us admire the baby and enjoy the children before we head back out into a world that is going who-knows-where, with a bunch of swollen egos changing the script every 24-hour news cycle.

But there is no Bethlehem in John’s gospel, no holy family bending over a makeshift cradle that lights their faces from below. There’s not even a baby in this story, because John’s nativity begins long before that. It begins “in the beginning,” the same way Genesis does. It begins with the Big Bang of God’s Word, bringing the world into being one word at a time.

God said, “‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” After that God said, Let there be day, night, earth, seas, plants and planets. Let there be living creatures of every kind. All God had to do was say them and there they were: fish, birds, sea monsters, earthlings. They all came forth on the breath of God, taking shape through the power of God’s Word.

But if “the Word” makes you think of phonics and sound waves, you might try thinking of “the Logos” instead, since that’s the word John really used. In his world, the Logos was God’s agency; it was the dynamic intelligence that formed the universe and gave it meaning. No one could see God, but the Logos put God in human reach. The Logos was God’s mode of self-revelation, God’s way of making the divine mind known on earth.

John didn’t invent the word. Greek and Jewish philosophers used it long before he did, but John was the first to identify Jesus as the Logos made flesh. Only how was he going to write that story? A manger was too small to contain the Logos. The eternal Logos didn’t have parents, fingerprints, a blood type, or nationality. So John did not tell that kind of story. He told a cosmic story instead, about the preexistent Logos who was with God in the very beginning, before there ever was a Bethlehem, a Mary, or a single star in the sky.

In John’s birth story, the Logos is with God and the Logos is God. That’s a little confusing. The Logos either is or is with God—but wait! The Logos both is and isn’t God because it’s not separate from God yet. God will put breath behind this Word soon, just as God will put breath behind everything else in creation, but for now there’s just this primordial intimacy between God and God’s Logos—God’s dynamic energy, wanting to become something—to become someone—even it that means leaving the divine womb and entering a too-bright cosmos of loud noise, hard surfaces, the smell of blood.

But not yet. Before that happens, John wants to make sure we understand some elemental things about the World that is about to be made flesh. The first is the Logos’ relationship to darkness (“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it”). The second is the Logos’ relationship to John the Baptizer (“He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light”). The third is the nature of the Logos’ birth (“not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God”).

There is no need for a gender reveal in John’s birth story, since John already knows whom he is talking about, but he still takes his time getting to the verse that passes for a manger in his story: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” he says at last, “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

That’s when God finally exhales, releasing the Logos into the world like an only child, although not to remain one. Paradoxically, the two-fold mission of this only child is to make God known and to make more children. All who receive the Logos, John says—all who breathe in what God has breathed out—will receive the power to become God’s children too.

I know we put all kinds of conditions around that—yes, sure, we’re all God’s children too, but not like Jesus. He alone is the only. He alone is our clear window into the heart of God. If so, then he is also pretty clear about his expectations of his brothers and sisters. According to John, when it is time for the Logos to go back where he came from, he will turn to his Logos-siblings and say, “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 NIV).

Because I am going, it’s your turn now. Because I am going, God will send another Comforter to be with you. That’s the other thing Jesus promised his siblings during his time on earth: a Holy Spirit of truth who would come forth from God as Jesus did, to help them live into the future. It would come in a different form—really without fingerprints this time—but it too was with God in the beginning, moving over the waters of creation, waiting for its turn to be breathed into the world.

If evolution isn’t a bad word for you, it’s one way to think of this divine exhalation over time—the way the Logos keeps coming into the world in different forms, bringing more and more of God’s dynamism into human reach.

Take Lady Wisdom, for instance, who shows up in the Book of Proverbs as well as the alternate first reading for today. The Book of Sirach doesn’t get nearly as much press as Proverbs, but it’s always on the docket for this second Sunday of Christmas. Why is that? Listen to it; then you tell me.

A reading from Sirach, chapter 24, beginning at the first verse:

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway. Among all these I sought a resting place; in whose territory should I abide? “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’ Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion. Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place, and in Jerusalem was my domain. I took root in an honored people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage. (Sirach 24:1-12 NRSV)

Did any of that sound familiar to you? It sounded familiar to me. Wisdom came forth from the mouth of the Most High. She dwelt in the highest heavens, her throne in a pillar of cloud. She could have stayed there, but she wanted a resting place on earth. How Logos-like of her. She didn’t want to cover the earth like mist anymore; she wanted a zip code, a place to pitch her tent---the same Greek word John used when he said the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. Ages before that, when Wisdom wanted to dwell with us, God was happy to oblige. Looking down at the map, God said, “There.”

“Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.” So Lady Wisdom took root in an honored people, hoping for as many new children as her tent could hold.

It’s a recognizable pattern in the sacred story, made clear this Sunday by putting these two readings together. Together they remind us of God’s eternal energy for sending the Logos to take up residence in the world, bringing the creation close enough to the creator to be kissed—by Torah, by Wisdom, by Jesus Christ, by Holy Spirit—all of them offering us direct access to the fierce love and creative intelligence that is always looking for a new place to call home.

Too often, I think, religious people want to restrict that divine access: the Logos comes only by this name, not that name, to this people, not that. I think it’s why we need to keep John’s Christmas story in the mix. Matthew and Luke capture our hearts with their stories of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem a long, long time ago. We know just where to look for the baby; we can smell the hay. The script is familiar, and the costumes have a lot of wear on them. That’s part of why we love it all--because we know so well how the story goes.

John alone reminds us that the Logos is eternally being born. His story isn’t set in the time of King Herod in a town six miles south of Jerusalem. It’s set in the cosmos, where the Logos has no beginning and no end. This is much more difficult to imagine: that the Word has been coming into the world forever, spoken by the God whom no one has ever seen, to make the divine energy and purpose known on earth in ways that surpass all understanding. What kind of costume do you put on that? Is one outfit enough?

During the Christmas season we recognize the capital-W-Word of God that is definitive for us--the Logos made Jesus, the Logos made flesh—even as we affirm his coming again in a form we may not recognize next time, and the coming of the Holy Spirit between now and then. The creativity of God is never spent.

Much is made of the verse later in John’s gospel in which Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But almost no one knows the verse that comes a couple of chapters earlier, in which Jesus says, “He who believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me” (John 12:44). John couldn’t see the Sender. No one can. But he couldn’t take his eyes off the One the Sender sent, the cosmic Christ whose story John was given to tell.

If you think about it, that made John the Logos for the Logos. It was his turn to speak God’s living Word into the world, to put his own breath behind it as it landed in his own time and place. You there, God said to him, as God says to all who believe. You’re the next step in the divine evolution.

There’s no sense flinching at that; it’s what God’s children do. Like John and all the other evangelists, we are breathers of the Logos. We are words about the Word before we ever say a word. However well or poorly things seem to be working out with that, there is something else at work here that has been pouring itself out for us forever, which the darkness does not overcome. Light from light. Fullness from which we have all received, grace upon grace. Christmas every day.

Now it’s your turn, divine child. You’re the next step. So what word will you be today? What divine energy will you bring to life? All creation waits eagerly to find out.

© Barbara Brown Taylor