The Stuart Highway, near Kulgera NT 2016

The Art of John

Week of Sunday January 3 2009
Gospel: John 1: 1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 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. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

With today’s reading we have something special. It is an overture to the Gospel of John. It is not a text to examine; it’s a work of art.  It’s full of meaning. It is deep theology that you  could write a book on. It can’t be great art without that, but art is something more. Art is something you give yourself to.

Let me explain by talking about something we all know as art; a fine painting. My daughter, the artist, can stand me in front of a masterpiece, and show me all the techniques that make it a great painting.

She points out the invisible lines in the painting that draw the eye to one point. These are lines that I, as a lay person, would never see.

She teaches me how the colours meld into each other, or contrast, and contrasts that with a kitsch greeting card someone has sent us, where the colors clash, or are too muddy, or are cheaply sentimental.

She shows me the ways the artist has proportioned the picture, how the empty space, and the placement of the subject matter all has its own message and elegance. Other drawings will be cluttered, or overbalanced to one side.

Then she will list the allusions the painting makes to other works of art. Here is an echo of this artist, there a contrast and disagreement, with another. This painting is from the time of the Medici and you can see a blunt, but plausibly deniable, dig at the pope, perhaps, if you know the history of the day.

And so I am educated. At some level, I understand. But at another level I am untouched. I am not an artist. I don’t paint. I am not an aficionado of art; I have not given myself to art. Until I give myself to the world of the paint, I will never fully see the message of this painting. I will never have the ongoing little joys of discovering more within it.

This is not just about painting. Debbie, my daughter,  is appalled that during the hot days of this week, brewing heat wave weather, I have ridden my bike into work as usual. She is speechless at the fact that I have not simply ridden the whole 28 kilometres home each night , but have ridden 35 instead, the long way, because that is the better ride!

I can describe the quiet pleasures of the linear park, and its isolation in the middle of the city and suburbs. On the hottest day, there is still a sense of green and cool in the quiet shade.

I can talk about the deep satisfaction of carefully and successfully managing the long hill climb out of the city on a stinking hot day; how you balance speed, and temperature ,and water and pulse.

I explain how the climb up the smooth surface of Macintyre Road is so much better than the flat grind along the rough, pseudo bike path, beside Main North Road. This will make no more sense to her, than the aesthetic of then cruising along the ridge of Golden Grove, or the ridiculous pleasure gained from the few short and dangerous minutes careering down Target Hill Road at the end. She cannot know, because she doesn’t do it.

She’s like Andrew the painter. She’s taken a lesson or two, and rides her bike around Norwood a bit, but she doesn’t ride. She hasn’t given herself to the bike.

In these two very different fields, as we give ourselves, we are given the grace of a glimpse of the divine.

There is a certain discipline in art, whether it be painting, or riding…. or spinning a cricket ball. I remember Shane Warne spinning a prodigiously wide ball around Mike Gatting’s legs to bowl him. It was so wide that when everyone yelled with delight and amazement, Gatting thought they were having a lend of him. He looked back incredulously  at the umpire, who could barely stop from laughing, and sent him off.

Warne had prodigious talent. He applied enormous discipline to his practice, but what he did most of all was give himself to the game. It’s the giving that gives back. Christianity is a religion of Grace. God gives. We may be gifted. We may have even obsessive discipline. But it is the giving of ourselves that reaps the reward.  [As Warnie shows us, grace is forgiving of many things!]

So this morning  I am going to ‘explain the painting to you.’  I’m going to explain just a few of the lines and colours of The Overture to the Gospel of John [Loader], which is chapter one verses 1 to 18. John’s gospel is the product of nearly a century of thought about Jesus. It is rich and deep and subtle,  but is  also what Bill Loader calls “gospel of radical simplifications.” It doesn’t take a lot to understand the message. We only  have to give ourselves to it; that is, to the person it brings us.

1. In the beginning…. and the allusions of John begin right here.  The Hebrew Scriptures begin in this way.  The message is that this is the final word, the restatement, the summing up of the Torah.

In the beginning when God created  the heavens and the earth… Genesis
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…. all things came into being through him… John

2. Then we have this term The Word. In Jesus time there were interpretative re-writes of the Hebrew texts called Targums, partly because most people no longer spoke the old Hebrew, but Aramaic instead.   Out of reverence for the God of Israel, the Targums often spoke of God indirectly. So instead of saying God created, a Targum would say The Word of the Lord created….

Thus in Genesis 1:16-17, instead of saying God created… and God set…,  Targum Neofiti reads, "The Word of the Lord created the two large luminaries ... and the Glory of the Lord set them in the firmament," and in Genesis 2:2-3 it reads, "On the seventh day the Word of the Lord completed the work which he had created ... and the Glory of the Lord blessed the seventh day… [Metzger http://www.bible-researcher.com/aramaic4.html]

So for Jewish listeners to John, he was drawing rich lines back into their tradition.

For Greek listeners that phrase the word, which we so easily apply to Jesus, was equally rich in allusion. The Greek word logos or word has a strong history meaning meaning both the source and fundamental order of the cosmos (Heraclitus: Wikipedia)  So the Gentiles, probably  unfamilar with Jewish thought, had an equally profound line of thought drawn to focus their attention on Jesus.

4. Then there is a rich layer of colour which John has applied. The Jews had a strong tradition of Wisdom. Protestant Christians of our tradition are most familiar with this from Proverbs Chapter 8:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
26when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
27When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29when 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,
30   then I was beside him, like a master worker;*
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

This is only the beginning of the songs of Wisdom. They’re in the Deutero-cannonical books of Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon and Baruch, and outside the Canon in 1 Enoch and others. [Loader]

When we see the colouring of John’s Overture by the Jewish songs about Wisdom, we’re a bit like an American listening to someone singing “I still call Australia home.”  We kind of get what it is about, but we really have no idea, no hope of feeling the rich array of images and homesickness that song arouses in Australians. That’s how Jewish people would here John 1. Bill Loader says “The gospel writer has composed the overture to the gospel using the theme songs of wisdom.” This power of this colouring will only fully dawn on us after we spend a long time with the painting.

5. The wisdom songs had a tradition that Wisdom came but no one listened. A bit like how our Great Prayers of Thanksgiving in Communion tell of God’s love which we ignored, and how God sent the Prophets and still we ignored them, and them God sent Jesus…

In John, Wisdom comes again, and this time, some people have heard!

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

6. Jesus was a real person, flesh and blood, not some Gnostic secret. This was a big issue in John’s time, and you can read new books on it today. Jesus was real… so much flows from this.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…

7. Jesus is the one who makes God known.

As I said, you could write a book on this reading.  But in the end, all we are asked to do is listen… to give ourselves to it… and to the person it points to. Then it becomes more than words… it becomes art that speaks to us… and it becomes revelation.

So we’ll read it again.  Then go home and read it aloud and let it speak to you during the week.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,|and the Word was God.
2He was in the beginning with God.

3All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being 4in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.

5The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
9The true light, which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.*

10 He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
11He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
12But to all who received him, who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
13who were born, not of blood
or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man,
but of God.

14 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.

15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’)

16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
17The law indeed was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

18No one has ever seen God.
It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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