“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
This is the season to talk about beginnings. The new year. The end of the last one, and the beginning of the new. So we make our resolutions, on how this year will be different than the last.
I never make New Year’s resolutions, but for some reason I made two this year. I think they’re pretty decent. I decided that I would write a thank you note once a week, to all the people who have been good to me growing up, to all the people who have helped me out, the people I’m indebted to, like my soccer coach, who taught me about life while teaching me how to play soccer. He’s going to get the first letter. My second resolution is a bit embarrassing. I sometimes text while I drive, and that’s dangerous. So I’m not going to do that anymore. At any point this year, feel free to ask me how I’m doing with my resolutions.
Part of what’s going on with New Year’s celebrations and resolutions has to do with our desire to start over, to start anew, to begin again, to change what we’ve become, to fix what we’ve done with ourselves.
We long for new beginnings, to detach ourselves from parts of our lives, of our stories—all the stuff that reminds us of our mistakes or of what has happened to us, all the pain we’ve caused or the pain we’ve undergone. We want to close the books on all of that, and start afresh.
This impulse, this desire for new beginnings, isn’t just about our personal lives—we can see it in how we think about the history of the church, especially as Anabaptists, as Mennonites. We tend to think that the most important stories are the ones at the beginning. We think that we need to get back to the way things were in the early church, back to the first Christians, back to the roots, before all the mistakes in the middle ages. The beginning is important, not the middle. We need to start over. Beginnings are pure, middles are corrupted.
But, no matter how hard we try, we’re always in the middle—in the middle of this life, the one we have right now, a life that is always somewhat out of our control, because we are born to people who we didn’t choose, and we find ourselves with bodies, with skin, with genes, that we didn’t pick out for ourselves. Life is not like a mall, where we get to shop around and pick the one we want, and return the parts we don’t want anymore.
We don’t get to choose our beginnings. We receive them, and learn how to live with them. We learn how to make them our own, to be who we are through them—through our body and culture and race, to live as them, not trying to pretend we can get ride of them, as if we could return our genes to the store and start over with new ones.
I think we usually associate middles with stuckness—with being stuck. Not the excitement of a beginning, and not the relief of an end, but stuck in between. In the middle of school. In the middle of a job that you thought was going to be awesome, but turned lame. We talk about people having a mid-life crisis—feeling stuck in the messy and boring and ordinary middle of life, so you buy a motorcycle.
We love beginnings, but middles are tough. Middles are tough, I think, because we feel like so much is out of our control, that life is just happening to us, without our permission, without us having a say.
We’re always in the middle of life, in the middle of the story, in the middle of history, never at the beginning. God is at the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” This is how John starts his story about Jesus. This is how John starts talking about the good news. The birth of Jesus is the advent, the arrival, the showing up, of the one who has been with creation from the beginning.
Jesus—the voice of God, the creative presence of God, the one who was at the beginning of all things, the beginning of creation—has jumped into the middle, the middle of the story, the middle of creation, the middle of history, the middle of our lives.
With Jesus, God enters the middle. God makes the middle part of God’s life, through the flesh of Jesus. God is not only the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega—but God has now entered the middle, become part of the middle, God with us, and all the messiness of our lives. God chooses to join us in our stuckness.
And when God joins us, John says, God brings life. “In him was life,” John says.
In Jesus, in his story, we find life, we find a way of life that is God’s life on earth—in the way Jesus touches the sick and heals them, the way he eats and drinks with sinners, the way he forgives his enemies as they torture him, the way he would rather be killed than to kill.
In him was life, John says. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news. In him was life. In him is life. In him there will be life—a way of life that is good news, full of healing and love and mercy and forgiveness.
I love the way our passage from Sirach describes this divine power of life—the power of God in the form of a woman, woman wisdom, who is involved in the earth. She is like the mist, it says, covering the earth with God’s presence. She lives in the clouds, pillars in the sky. She dwells in the depths of the abyss and rides the wives of the sea. She has a tent in Jerusalem, where she lives with God’s people.
In John’s Gospel, the Wisdom of God becomes the Word of God. Jesus the Word is Wisdom the woman. Different parts of the church have developed a Sophia-Christology, as it’s called. The word “Sophia” is greek for wisdom, and the word “Christology” has to do with the identity of Jesus—so, to talk about a Sophia-Christology is to talk about Jesus’ identity as Sophia, as woman wisdom. The Eastern Church has developed this Sophia-Christology, partly from John’s Gospel, because John borrows so much imagery and language from Sirach, from descriptions of woman wisdom.
In Turkey, in Istanbul, there’s the Hagia Sophia, a wondrous church, first built in the 500s, in honor of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, who they call Hagia Sophia, Holy Sophia, the wisdom of God—that’s also the language we hear in our passage from Ephesians: the wisdom of God, embodied in the church, revealed through our lives together.
In our lives together, here in the middle, we are brought into communion—loving communion, sustaining communion—with the one who has been there from the beginning: Sophia, Christ, Wisdom, Word.
Our scriptures stretch our language, our imagination, as we try to talk about the one who was there from the beginning, who has been with creation before we existed, who has been with us from before we have known him, with us before we have know her.
The good news is that there is someone who has been here from the beginning, who has been with creation through all its groaning, all its suffering, all the births and deaths—someone who has seen it all, and not just seen it, but lived it, experienced it, because that someone has become flesh, living out the best of our joys and the worst of our suffering.
And that same someone comes to us now, where we are, stuck in the middle, living a life that feels out of our control, but nonetheless a life that belongs to God, the one who created us and everything else, the one who cares for our lives as if our lives were God’s life. God cares for us as if we were her own body, his own life.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist… Before the ages, in the beginning, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.”
In her was life. In him was life. Our lives are in God’s life—our beginning, our middle, and our end. God’s presence with us is like the mist, it says, the gentle silence of mist.[i]
[i] This sermon draws mainly on two theological sources: the first chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (Fortress, 1997), and a chapter on the Gospel of John in Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (WJK, 2010). Here’s Bonhoeffer: “Humankind no longer lives in the beginning; instead it has lost the beginning. Now it finds itself in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that it is in the middle. It knows therefore that it comes from the beginning and must move on toward the end. It sees its life as determined by these two factors, concerning which it knows only that it does not know them” (28). Here’s Rambo: “Here, between death and life, we encounter a different expression of spirit, both human and divine. It is the persisting and remaining presence of divine love figured in and through their movements of witness. It is not a viewable object but instead an enacted presence” (99).