Around the Christ figure on the cross above our altar are the four creatures mentioned in the Book of Revelation. These are the creatures that surround the throne of God. They are a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle. The Lindesfarne Gospels of the 7th century depicted these four creatures as symbols for the four Gospels but the concept first appears in the writings of St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century. Matthew is the man because that book begins with Jesus’ genealogy. Mark is the lion because it has a distinct Jewish tone and Jesus is the Lion of Judah. Luke is the Ox because of his details of the passion of our Lord, the ox being an animal of sacrifice. And John is given the eagle because he begins his Gospel not with a genealogy nor with a birth narrative but with the soaringly beautiful theology of Christ before the Incarnation. It is a stunning piece of work.
Martin Luther was famous for telling a student who asked what God was doing before He created the heavens and the earth, that God was making switches to beat people who ask stupid questions. But here John actually tells us what the Son of God was doing before He became Jesus of Nazareth and it is astonishing.
John intentionally begins his book as Moses did with Genesis. “In the beginning….” This is a clue that just as God is before all things, that is eternal, so the Word is before all things, also eternal. As St. Athanasius put it, “There was NOT when He was not.” Then John tells us that the Eternal Word was WITH God, therefore a distinct Person, and yet the Eternal Word WAS God, therefore divine. Declaring that the Eternal Word was both WITH God and WAS God shows us why the early Church was forced to formulate a precise definition of the Trinity. It wasn’t that they were looking for ways to confuse the rest of us, rather they had to find a way to accept and declare this profound mystery. The Word was with God and the Word was God.
Then John tells us that everything came into being through the Word. We already saw that in Genesis. How did God create the heavens and the earth? He spoke them into existence. John says without the Word, “not one thing came into being.”
Our Sun is massive. In cubic meters it is 1.4 x 10 to the power of 27. To give you an idea of how large that is about 1.3 million of our planet Earth could fit into the Sun. That’s enormous. It’s a good thing that we orbit around it because it would get terrible gas mileage. But they have discovered another sun named Alpha Scorpii A that is 690 million times larger than our Sun. And another named VY Canis Majoris that is 2.9 billion times larger than our Sun.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is so large that it would take a particle 100,000 years, traveling at the speed of light, to cross through the entire galaxy. They have discovered another galaxy named IC 1011 that would take that same particle 6 million years to cross also at the speed of light. Hubble has taken a picture of only a small part of the sky and it has shown thousands of such galaxies, each with billions of suns all with their own planets. The Eternal Word made and sustains it all. We cannot even begin to comprehend the majesty and power of the Eternal Word and yet it is this Eternal Word that will be wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger.
“Without Him not one thing has come into being.” Let me go in another direction. I am a beekeeper and have learned that every bee in the hive has a specific job. Well not the men bees. They just mate, eat and die. But the women bees all have specific jobs. Some are little undertaker bees. Their job is to drag the dead bees out of hive and push them away. I have seen it many times. Some search for food. They even have a dance that tells the distance and quantity of food so that the Queen knows how many workers to send out. Some are nursing bees that care for the brood. Others are engineers that build the hives. Others are scouts that look for new places to take the hive. Although they are insects they work together to form a working community. Tens of thousands of creatures operating like one organism. It’s a fascinating little world. And John tells us that the same One who made galaxies that take 6 million light years to cross also made the honey bees in my back yard. With one hand He touches the end of the universe and with the other hand He touches the smallest of His creatures and one day He will stretch out both hands on the hard wood of the cross. For this He was born.
John goes on to tell us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That, of course, is the truth that we celebrate today. You have likely heard that the Greek word that John chose for “dwelt” is “tabernacle.” Doesn’t that word produce some important images? It was God Himself who gave Moses the plans for the tabernacle. It was essentially a tent that was set up in the midst of the people. It was a holy place where God chose to dwell even though the Universe could not contain Him. The symbolism is powerful. He is not a distant god on Olympus playing games with the lives of the mortals below. Nor is He a god of a tree or a stone that man can fashion and use as he wills. He is the Holy One who out of love has chosen to be with His people providing them the bread of angels in the wilderness. He guides them with a cloud by day and a fire by night. He meets with His servant Moses in order to instruct and care for His people. He is the Shepherd of His people Israel and in Jesus God will live and walk among us.
As wonderful as it would have been to have actually met the Word when He tabernacle among us in the flesh, we must not think that He does not tabernacle with us still. He continues to dwell with us in very real ways although differently than when He walked among us.
For example the Word continues to dwell with us through His Word. I have heard of the Bible being called “a love letter from God” and while that is a nice thought, there is so much more to it than that. The Scripture says of itself that it is “living and active and sharper than a two edged sword” and so more than a dead letter, it is His living voice to us. Through it He instructs and guides and corrects us. It’s not a voice from the past it is a phone call in the present.
He continues to tabernacle among us through His Church. He promised the Apostles that He would be with them to the end of the ages and He promised that whenever two or three would be gathered together in His Name that He would be in their midst. You may not be able to see Him with your physical eyes but if you look carefully you will see Him with the eyes of your heart. He is all around us. You can see Him in a child praying the Lord’s prayer. You can see Him enthroned among His people when we come here to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. You can see Him caring for the hurting as the Church reaches out to others in His Name, when we “go out in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Of course it is our belief as Anglicans is that the most profound way that the Word continues to tabernacle among us is through the Sacraments. We believe that not only are they means of grace but they are sure and certain means of conveying that grace.
During the Jesus movement days it was typical to have people declare rather or not they felt the presence of God. Sometimes meetings were actually stopped because someone in the room no longer felt the presence of God. That kind of subjectivity was unhealthy because it made the rest of us hostage to someone else’s spiritual Geiger counter.
But when it comes to Holy Communion we don’t need someone to feel rather or not God is present. He said that He would be and so He is. We rely on His promises not on our feelers. And because this Sacrament is the work of the Holy Spirit we are not only promised that He will be present but that through His Spirit He will dwell in us and we in him. Again, He will dwell in us and we in Him. I’m not sure that you can get any more “tabernacally” than that!
John ends this soaring introduction to his Gospel by telling us that “we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” What a beautiful picture this paints of Jesus. He is full of grace and truth. Why is that important?
It is important because grace without truth quickly ceases to be grace. For example it is believed today by many to be more loving to declare that all roads lead to God. I saw this thinking referred to as “The Church of Oprah.” But just before John declared that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he said, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God, who were born not of blood, or of the will of the flesh or the will of man but of God.” To become a child of God we must receive Christ by believing in His Name. So all roads don’t lead to God. How is it more loving to tell someone something that is so wrong? The call to repent and believe was the message that Jesus gave to the Apostles and He sent them out to the ends of the earth to proclaim it. Their deaths as martyrs would have been made utterly pointless if it did not matter which road you take. So grace without truth ceases to be grace.
It is equally true that truth without grace ceases being truth. Truth is what the Scribes and Pharisees thought that they were preaching but since it lacked grace they only increased the burdens of the people rather than setting them free as truth does. And Jesus did not have kind words for them. He said “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” So to avoid a similar rebuke we must marry grace with truth.
And Jesus surely is the incarnation of both. He said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” and He also said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” He is full of grace and truth. He showed us a good and beautiful God that loves us even when we were His enemies. He showed us a heavenly Father that waits at the edge of His property to celebrate the return of His prodigal son. He showed us a King who would leave majestic glory to take the form of a servant in order to bring us “out of error into the truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”
John as the eagle invites us to soar with him. He invites us to believe in a God, as I heard a country preacher once say, who “is greater and gooder than we can ever imagine.” To believe that the Eternal Word, who spoke galaxies into existence, can set our lives in their proper orbit. John invites us to believe and receive the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.