The Word became flesh, and made his home among us.
— John 1:14 (CEB)
Of the different strategies that the gospel writers use to begin their stories of Jesus, John’s is the most cosmic. No murderous kings or magi, no shepherds or sheep. John pushes the origin of the story back in time, before Herod, before David, before Abraham — before creation itself. The eternal Word, through whom all things were created, enters the world of bodily human existence; the light comes to darkness.
That’s pretty compelling stuff. Easy to understand? Not at all. But compelling nevertheless.
At the very least, it should make us question whether our typical way of reading gospel stories has things the right way around. Whether we realize it or not, we often approach the Scripture with a self-centered mindset that says, “What’s in it for me?”
Admittedly, that’s a pretty handy habit of thought for surviving in a complex world. But it lulls us into making God a character in our personal stories, rather than the other way around: reading Scripture in a way that finds our hopes, dreams, and even anxieties reinterpreted and remade by being caught up in God’s story.
For decades in American evangelicalism, for example, we’ve grown accustomed to the language of “seekers” and the implicit story that goes with it: there are lots of people looking for God, and we need to help them find what they’re looking for so there can be a happy ending.
Think back, though, over the variety of stories we’ve already reviewed from John’s gospel. There’s an element of messiness in them that doesn’t always fit the tidy storyline of seeking and finding.
Do people meet Jesus and see the light? Sometimes. Over and over, however, Jesus speaks to people in such a way that they haven’t a clue what he’s saying. Shouldn’t he adjust his evangelistic strategy? And John often leaves the conversations hanging: he doesn’t tell us what people did next. Nicodemus, for example, becomes a disciple despite the fact that Jesus seems to leave him completely befuddled — and John doesn’t seem to think it necessary to give us the good news about Nick until near the end of the gospel, almost as an afterthought.
Or take the lame man and his lame response. He’s not seeking Jesus. It’s questionable whether he even has the will to seek healing anymore. But Jesus heals him anyway, only to have the man show his gratitude by fingering him to the authorities. And the authorities, who have their own story to tell about who God is and what he will do for his people, simply do not have the eyes to see what their God is doing right in front of them.
John already warned us these things would happen. Yes, miraculously, graciously, the Word became flesh. But not everyone will believe, and not everyone who believes understands. Jesus heals, not because he’s the divine solution to everyone’s problems, but because he brings the kingdom. And with it, he brings the signs that declare that death and disease will not have the final word — whether people respond in faith or not.
At Christmas, we celebrate what God has done for us, and rightly so. But that’s not the end of the story, of his story. It continues on, in us.
We now are creatures of flesh who bear the Spirit, the one whom Paul calls the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9; Phil 1:19). We too are called to bring signs of the kingdom. And we can expect people to respond to us as they did to Jesus: with curiosity and puzzlement, with faith or persecution.
Because that’s how it is in God’s story, until the day Jesus returns.