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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 5, 2014

 In the Beginning

Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18

             A few summers ago Connie and I spent a day in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the Hermitage, one of the largest and most magnificent art museums in the world.  We saw many paintings I have wanted all my life to see, and then we were graced by a few surprises.  Among the many paintings we saw that day was Rembrandt’s, The Holy Family, a work he completed in 1645, when he was thirty-nine years of age.  He portrays the nativity as if it took place in his own seventeenth century.  The attire of Mary and Joseph, as well as the furnishings and the room make it look like a typical Dutch setting from Rembrandt’s own day.  Mary is sitting in a chair holding in her lap an open Bible, obviously well worn by the wear and tear you see upon this book.  With her right hand Mary has pulled aside a cover to reveal a fast asleep baby Jesus in a rocking cradle.  Mary’s gaze is turned from the book to focus upon the infant, and light floods the foreground of Rembrandt’s painting: Mary, the open Bible and Jesus are all flooded with light.  Joseph stands behind Mary and Jesus in the shadows, working hard on a piece of wood he holds in his hands.  Above them in the upper left corner of the painting you see cherubic young angels hovering above the holy family.

             Whether or not Rembrandt intended it, his painting is a magnificent statement of the different ways in which we encounter and understand the Word of God.  On the one hand, there is the Bible, the open book Mary has been reading as Jesus sleeps and Joseph works behind her.  The Word of God is found by reading the Scriptures.  We read these words over and over again, as Mary is reading her well-worn Bible, and through them we encounter and are addressed by the Word of God.  Rembrandt pictures Mary as a seventeenth century Dutch woman who knows well the Word of God and who “ponders it in her heart.”

             But she does not simply ponder the words upon the pages of her Bible.  She also ponders the infant beside her, who John tells us in his Prologue is “the Word made flesh,” a living, breathing Word, dwelling right in the midst of human history.  When Mary returns to her reading of the Word she finds in the Bible, she will read it with greater understanding and depth of meaning because she has also encountered “the Word made flesh.”  When John said in his masterful Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word…,” he was not referring to the Bible, but rather to Jesus, “the Word made flesh,” the Incarnation of God.  And yet by his deft choice of words, “In the beginning…,” he is taking us right back to the majestic cadences with which Genesis begins.  In Genesis, creation starts when God speaks a word, “Let there be light,” and out of the primordial chaos the world comes into being.  This is the same Word of God John clearly had in mind when he called Jesus “the Word made flesh.”

             For John, the Word was both the dynamic, creative Words spoken by God at creation’s dawn and the “Word made flesh,” that we encounter in Jesus, the Babe who was born in Bethlehem.  And both were conceived by God, “In the beginning…,” or “before the foundations of the world,” to borrow language from our Ephesians text this morning.  And our job at the beginning of a New Year is to follow Mary, “the first disciple,” in reading both the words found on the pages of the Scriptures, and to never lose sight of “the Word made flesh,” as we read those words.  In fact, we read the one, the Bible, in order to encounter the other, “the Word made flesh,” Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God.  And we read the words of the Bible best when we read the whole of Scripture in the light of Jesus Christ whom Karl Barth called, “the one sufficient revelation of God.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the question the Church must always ask is this: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”

             The Word of God is eternal.  It is timeless.  You go back to “In the beginning…” to find its origins in the Eternal God.  But it is also timely, and Jesus, “the Word made flesh,” is our eternal contemporary.  That is another part of the sheer brilliance of Rembrandt’s painting of the Holy Family in a seventeenth century Dutch setting.  Rembrandt knew that they were not seventeenth century white Europeans.  He knew that Mary and Joseph were first century Jews living in Palestine.  But he also knew that Jesus, “the Word made flesh,” could dwell in any home, in any culture, in any place, in any time.

             Eugene Peterson understood this as well.  Peterson is now a retired Presbyterian minister living in his home state of Montana.  Many of you know him from his brilliant, best-selling paraphrase of the Bible called, The Message.  In The Message, this is how he puts John 1:14: “The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.  We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind-glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”

             I love that!  “The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  Jesus is eternal, but Jesus is also our eternal contemporary.  In Jesus, God moved into the human neighborhood, the very place where you and I live.  That is why Rembrandt dressed Mary and Joseph in seventeenth century Dutch garb.  He understood what Peterson was trying to tell us: Jesus moves into every neighborhood.  He always has and He always will!  From barrio to Belle Meade, from ghetto to gated community, from poverty of the third world to the affluence of the over-privileged, Jesus moves into the neighborhood, into our neighborhood.  It does not matter where; Jesus, “the Word made flesh,” dwells among us, right in the neighborhoods where we dwell, “full of grace and truth,” “generous inside and out,” “true from start to finish.”  And guess who is coming to dinner today, here and now, in this very place?!

             And here is the best news of all: Lamar Williamson, a missionary-turned-Professor-of-New-Testament, says this is the theme of the whole Gospel of John: “But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.”  Have you received Him?  Have you welcomed Jesus into your neighborhood?  Have you believed in His name?  Have you dared to trust that the Good News is Good News for you, that Jesus is God’s Great Gift to you?  For when you have, when you receive Jesus, when you believe in His name, you are given power to become children of God.  You suddenly realize that you too are part of the Holy Family, which is your family.  The family table is set.  There is a seat here with your name upon it.  And guess who’s coming to dinner?


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