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A Season of Hope: Advent Themes through the Four Gospels Part 4

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John’s Gospel does not begin with a birth story but rather, a creation story. In the Gospel of John, Jesus does not arrive as a baby in a manger or as a star-crossed infant refugee. Rather, Jesus is the Word who coexists with the Creator of the universe before time began (John 1:1). In the Gospel of John, Jesus transcends time and space; he was always part of God.

When we hear the words “In the beginning…” we are reminded of another creation story: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). John deliberately uses the same wording – “In the beginning” – to tell readers that Jesus was present when God created the heavens and the earth. Not only was Jesus present, he helped create everything that is (John 1:3).

John touches on a foundational question about who Jesus is. He is both divine (“the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” 1:1) and human (“the Word became flesh and lived among us,” 1:4). The bottom line is hard to grasp – that Jesus is at the same time fully divine (equal to God) and fully human (a flesh-and-blood person, just like other human beings).

John does not try to explain how a pure spirit like God could enter into the human world; nor does he attempt to tell us how the preexistent Word became flesh. The point for the Gospel writers was not how but why God became flesh; God came into the world to be with us and to offer us new life that transforms our existence so that as humans we can experience the fullness of God’s light. “For Go so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16).

John affirms the importance that Jesus was fully human because it shows that Jesus really does understand human pain and suffering, as well as human joy, fear, grief and hope. Also, that God raised a human Jesus from the dead means that humans also have hope of resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15). Jesus was not just a divine spirit that escaped from a mortal body on the cross; he was a human who died and was raised from the dead.

Though John takes pains to show Jesus as fully human, he also portrays Jesus as equal to God. It was, and is, important for Christians to know that Jesus is fully divine, because it means that God dwells among us to this day. It is not difficult to find Jesus’ divinity in the Gospel of John, as John alludes to Jesus’ divinity throughout the Gospel.

The disciples ask Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus replies, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (14:9). The Gospel asks us the same question: do we believe that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in him? In the garden, at the scene of Jesus’ empty tomb, the resurrected Jesus says to Mary, “Whom are you looking for?” (20:15) Again the question is meant for the readers: Who are we looking for? Do we recognize Jesus?

Jesus tells his disciples that the world will no longer see him (literally, he will be gone) but they will see him (because he will be with them in spirit; 14:9). After Jesus’ death and resurrection, when Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead without visual proof, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe (20:29). This statement addresses readers today; we are the ones who must believe without seeing.

Among the four, John’s Gospel is peculiar in that there is no real beginning point for Jesus (he exists before time) and there is no real end either. The other Gospels have warnings about the end times coming and the need to be prepared for Jesus’ return. This is because for the Gospel of John, Jesus is the presence of God, then and now and always. There is no time when Jesus did not exist. There is no time when Jesus will bring existence to an end. We are living in a “realized eschaton,” that is, we have everything we need right in front of us, if we could just see it.

Instead of a birth narrative, the Gospel of John has a creation story, with Jesus featured as co-creator with God. Through Jesus, people experience God as light and life, living water, and bread of life. John offers us a vision of Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. Humans can live a full life now, touched by the Divine. We don’t have to wait for some future point in history. Jesus is the light of the world now.

Posted by Ramona Reynolds with

A Season of Hope: Advent Themes Through the Four Gospels Part 3

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The image of a newborn baby lying in a manger is a graphic portrayal of a harsh reality. Jesus was born into a desperately poor world.

In Jesus’ time, there were the very wealthy few and the masses of extremely poor. There was no “middle class,” as we know it. Most people were subsistence-level farmers, many of whom did not own their own land but paid their debts by farming the land of others. Some were hired workers (perhaps like the shepherds who came to visit Jesus). Others were skilled laborers (like Joseph, the carpenter), who barely scraped together a living. A bad agricultural year could mean starvation or destitution for everyone. In contrast, a small percentage of wealthy people owned land, large houses, and slaves. Some of the well-to-do were government officials like tax collectors, who controlled wealth and its distribution. Their positions allowed them to skim some of the money off the top of what they collected for their own personal use.

The Gospel of Luke is about a great reversal of these social and economic roles. Jesus’ birth introduces a savior born in a barn who champions the poor and lowly. Jesus says that those who are poor, who hunger, and who weep will be fed, but the rich and the well fed will go away hungry (Luke 6:20-25). When Mary finds out she is going to bear the Savior, she anticipates who this Savior, her son, will be and what he will do when she sings praise to God: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53)

And yet, the Gospel of Luke does not necessarily portray the rich as innately evil and heartless. The rich people in Luke who meet Jesus become models for how the wealthy should use their money fairly to help others in need (like Zacchaeus in Luke 19:2-8) and to support Jesus’ ministry (like the female patrons in Luke 8:1-3). Jesus instructs the rich not to invite other wealthy people to dinner, but instead to welcome the crippled, lame, and blind to eat at their table (Luke 14:12-14). In contrast however, those who do not use their wealth to help others are judged harshly (Luke 12:16-21, 16:19-31).

Mary represents the lowly status of those whom this Gospel reaches. While it is difficult to think of her as a “nobody,” with all the notoriety she receives today, “nobody” is exactly what she is at the beginning of Luke’s story. She is betrothed to Joseph who is a bit of a “somebody,” in the sense that he is a descendent from the line of David. But it is Mary, not Joseph, who is visited by an angel – the archangel Gabriel! (Luke 1:26-28)

When Jesus was born, there were some shepherds keeping their flocks in the fields who were scared nearly out of their wits by the appearance of a band of angels singing praises to God and announcing the birth of the Messiah (2:8-20).

Shepherds in Jesus’ time were not necessarily the poorest of the poor, but no doubt many were impoverished. They could certainly be described as a marginal population. By the very nature of their work, shepherds live on the margins of society. Moving a flock of sheep from pasture to pasture while protecting them from predators. This meant that shepherds live in the fields, alongside their flocks for weeks or months at a time. This nomadic life means they live apart from other people most of the time.

In the Bible shepherding is looked upon as an important task. The work of the shepherd is rich with symbolism for roles of service and leadership. The Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds (Genesis 30:37-43). Moses was tending to sheep when he saw the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-2). King David began as a shepherd boy (1Samuel 16:11; 17:34). The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel talk about God as a shepherd of Israel who will feed his flock. John speaks of Jesus as the “good shepherd”.

The job of shepherding however, was a lower socioeconomic position and often fell to the youngest son. David is a good example: he is the seventh son and is to be found in the fields with his father’s sheep. This lowly shepherd boy David would be chosen as the anointed king of Israel; just as Jesus becomes the king and shepherd of his people. The one who is the true Shepherd was visited by shepherds from the field at his birth.

We can see Luke’s purpose throughout his story of Jesus’ origin. Luke shows how Jesus fulfills the concept of God’s grace – God’s favor toward humanity, including the lowliest and the outcast. Through God’s choice of a humble young woman like Mary, to the revelation to the servant shepherds who foreshadow Jesus’ role, Luke paints a picture of hope and renewal and offers a message of reversal: the lowly will be raised up, an the great brought low. Those who have much should anticipate the kingdom of God’s favor will be to the poor and to those who have plenty who welcome those in need to the shared table of the God.

Posted by Ramona Reynolds with

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