Sermon for 4th February 2018, Jem Bloomfield
First Reading: Proverbs 8.1,22-31
In a poetic passage, God’s ‘wisdom’ speaks as his helper in creation.
A reading from the book of Proverbs.
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
PSALM 104 Response: Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Second Reading: Colossians 1.15-20
In this passage, Jesus is seen as stepping into the shoes of ‘wisdom’ as depicted in a passage like that in Proverbs 8.
A reading from the letter of Paul to the Colossians.
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Gospel: John 1.1-14
John uses the image of speech (‘word’), which, like wisdom, stands for God’s deliberate purpose in all that he has done.
Hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.
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.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
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. This is the gospel of the Lord. Alleluia.
May I speak in the name of the Living God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Let’s start at the very beginning,
A very good place to start,
When you read, you begin with A-B-C,
When you sing, you begin with Do-Re-Mi,
The first three notes just happen to be,
Do, Re, Mi.
The Gospel According to Julie Andrews, there. And she encapsulates an important point. Beginnings are a significant part of today’s readings. We heard the passage from Proverbs, in which the voice of Wisdom says “I was there at the beginning”, we listened to the letter to the Colossians in which Jesus is called “the firstborn of creation… he is the beginning”, and then he heard the opening words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
It’s not an accident that these passages all mention “the beginning”. That phrase is a potent one in the Bible. It’s one of the most famous phrases in scripture. Behind all these passages we heard today stands that most famous of “in the beginnings”, the one which begins the whole Bible:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
Each passage we heard today echoes that “in the beginning”. And they do so deliberately. The scribes who fitted together the Book of Proverbs from the wisdom literature of the Hebrews recognised what it meant when Wisdom says “at the beginning” she was there. It meant that Wisdom was being placed into that creation story in Genesis. When the earth was without form, and darkness was on the face of the deep, the Wisdom of God was there in the darkness.
When the writer of John’s Gospel came to begin his account of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, he didn’t begin as Mark’s Gospel does, with the preaching of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus. He didn’t begin as Matthew’s Gospel does, with the genealogy of Jesus, and the family tree of Abraham. He didn’t begin as Luke’s Gospel does, with a story about the priest Zechariah and his wife Elisabeth, who would give birth to John the Baptist. He began with those ringing words: “In the beginning”
Words to make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck for anyone who knew the Jewish Scriptures. In the beginning – the first words of the first line of the first scroll of the Books of Moses. The first syllables of the holy Torah. These words invoked the whole of the Jewish Law and the history of God’s relationship with humanity. And John’s Gospel says that “in the beginning” was the Word – the Logos, in Greek – and that Word was God, and that Word dwelt among us, and – as the book goes on to make clear – was known by the name Jesus.
John audaciously quotes the most famous story in all the Scriptures, in order to write his own version. He goes back and tells the story again, and he tells it in the light of what was revealed in Jesus. We’re probably used to seeing this in books and films. A few years ago an author called Kerry Ferguson wrote a detective novel called Murder on the Ballarat Train.
It is a fine book, and contains the adventures of one of my favourite detectives, Miss Phryne Fisher, who baffles the evildoers of Australia and wears absolutely fabulous clothes, often whilst dancing the Charleston. I commend it to your attention.
But my point is that she called the book Murder on the Ballarat Train, and surely every mystery fan who picked up that novel knew that she was quoting the title of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. This is the same kind of story, she was saying – see how my version of it goes. Amongst detective fiction fans you do not accidentally call something Murder On Quite A Famous Train. She was invoking one of the holy books of the detective tradition, daring to link her words with those of Dame Agatha.
John’s Gospel makes an even more profound move, reworking the words of Genesis to put the Word of God, Jesus Christ, into the story. It’s worth pausing there to ask why he did so. In one way, he was connecting the new religion of Christianity with the Hebrew Scriptures. citing those words “in the beginning” to produce a continuity. Lots of groups have stories that they tell. These stories help us maintain our sense of identity, and explain to us why we do what we do.
They’re also useful in helping new members of the community to understand the history and meaning of the group. For example, Sheenagh and I have only been here for a few years, but I know that if I ask certain questions about the way our church looks, and how it is built, I will be told a story. That story starts something like
In the beginning was the hall, and the hall was near the church, and hall was of the church. It was the church hall in the beginning.
These stories are useful for instructing newcomers like me. They are helping me, as the Bible says, to grow up in the knowledge and love of Beeston. I’m fairly certain it says something like that. And that is partly what John is doing – connecting the story of Jesus to the other stories which the Jewish tradition had told down the centuries. The God whom Christians worship is the same God who was known in Israel, and who appears in the Scriptures. Jesus is part of that story.
There’s something else that this rewriting of “in the beginning” does, as well. It reminds us that Christians believe Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity. In fact the doctrine of the Trinity took some hundreds of years to be developed fully. What we think of as the doctrine of the Trinity – the belief in how God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is an attempt to get to grips with the astonishing revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Probably all real theology is that. And orthodox Christian theology understands Christ to be the second person of the Trinity. Eternal, uncreated, there in the beginning. As the creed says, and as we’ll recite together soon, through him all things were made.
This means a lot for our faith. There are hundreds of books written every year trying to grapple with this mystery, and we will never fully understand it. But it has one meaning that I’d like to focus on now. Christ was there at the beginning – and the early Christian theologians found the language to understand this idea in the passage of Proverbs we heard earlier. When John calls Christ the “Logos”, that term is the Greek for “Word”, but it also means “order, understanding, wisdom”. The Wisdom of Proverbs and the Word of God are the same, according to the Church.
That wisdom, that Word, is what undergirds creation, according to Christian theology. The whole mind-mangling complexity of the universe was brought into being through Christ the divine Word. As an ancient prayer has it,
O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
Ordering all things mightily and sweetly. That might sound a little restrictive, as if Christ is the ultimate filing cabinet or rolodex. But there is something more profound about it. If Christ was there, as John says, “at the beginning”, and through Him all things were made, then the beautiful and intricate order of the world came into being through Christ.
Christ the Logos. When we say something is “logical”, we are using that Greek word. It is “logical”, it is “according to the Logos”. We rely on order every day of our lives. The order of the world revealed by physics, which allows our cars to run and our buildings to stay up. The order of mathematics, which allows sums to add up, and makes commerce possible. The order implicit in buying a load of new stationery, which delights the heart with its promise of meaning and order. Many mathematicians have said that at the heart of the most complex equations there is a calm and eerie beauty, and I believe them.
The simple fact that the world makes sense – and the variety of ways in which it can make sense – is because Christ was there at the beginning, according to Christians. The way a chord at the end of a song seems right, the way a snail’s shell spirals, the way someone nods in understanding when we try to explain our feelings. When we seek a way past strife and disharmony, by “dialogue”. By dia-logos, by two people joining in the logos, the word. This deep mystery runs through our language as it runs through our world. The beautiful order of Christ, who was there “in the beginning”. Through him everything made sense, and without him nothing made sense, which has made sense. O Wisdom. O Logos. O Lord Jesus Christ.