To see the face of God

Week of January Sunday 5 – Christmas 2
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. 

To look upon the face of God is to die. God is beyond knowing; the splendour and magnificence of God would destroy us if we were exposed to it; it would 'blow us away.' There is great truth in this ancient wisdom. If we seek to describe God we very soon realise that the Mystery or Force which underpins and permeates our reality, and brings order out of chaos, (Gen 1:2) is beyond knowing.

The Creation is something of which we are a bit part; consequent, dependent, fragile, vulnerable. To understand "God" always strikes me as a project akin to a philosopher zebra fish born in an aquarium deep in the bowels of a library. It cannot even read the books around it, let alone reach the outside world. Like us, it cannot see, let alone comprehend, enough of the whole to pretend to know what drives it.

The Jewish reluctance to utter the name of God is far more worshipful than our too common and too casual pronouncements and pretend definitions. And to seek to expound A Theory of Everything may be a supreme act of trust in and worship of God, but often seems a gross idolatry. We cannot master that which has created us.

John is forever correct: No one has ever seen God. (1:18)

Let us be clear about our language. In the sense that we claim to explain the structure of DNA, for example, it is simply impossible to see God. We say that because of our research we understand DNA; that is, literally, we stand under it and are informed by it. What we proudly mean, in reality, is that we over-stand it; we have mastered it, explained it; we can do gene therapy; we can use our DNA as we please. Perhaps, but we cannot master that which has created us.

John says, "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." (John 1:18)

John comes from a pre-scientific age, so much of our popular culture is inclined to dismiss him as irrelevant. Yet the best of our science knows it mostly does not understand, but merely describes parts of the creation; description of process does not of itself define meaning and purpose. The best of the scientists stand in awe alongside the best of the philosophers and the best of the theologians and the poets. They know we cannot utter the name of God, that Being and Purpose which underpins Creation, in any knowingful sense, but only as an indicator of Mystery far beyond us. No one has ever seen God.

Yet despite this, John says that in Jesus there is a 'making known' of God. He is "the true light which enlightens everyone." (1:11) The world is "his own." (1:11) He is not some discontinuity, something apart from us. He is us; fully human. We say God is pan-en-theistic; in all things, even us. Despite our non acceptance (1:11) we are 'godly,' god-infused. We belong to God and the Creation, not only as subjects, but in the sense that this is our place, for "he came to his own."

Yet there is something radically discontinuous from us. He is Word, intimately connected with the action of God who speaks and it is done. (Genesis 1) He is God; God become flesh and living among us. (1:14) The word "glory" means he has shown us God; verse 18  restates verse 14. God is gift and truth— gift upon gift. (1:14) In him we do see God!

How do we read this text and understand— by which I mean stand under and be informed by— the contradiction that in Jesus we see the unseeable God?

We could dismiss the whole idea of God and become some kind of newold atheist, confident that we can chart our own destiny. We could codify John and the other powers and stories of Scripture into doctrines and propositions which fence us in or out of the Faith. This, too, is to attempt charting our own destiny; the key waypoints and guideposts of the Faith are not only used to control people, but, ultimately, to pretend to define God.

Or we could seek to be like that scientist poet who makes up the best of Christian discipleship. The poet in us will hear the pull of the words. The poet will stand under the experience of awe instead of rejecting awe and standing over the world as 'one who knows.'

And the scientist will test the claims of John by running an experiment.

To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. (1:12)

"Believing in his name" is to trust him, to live as he lived and calls us to live. What results will that experiment yield?

Do I find I am a child of God?


Slowly I am at home in the world; it is my place. Slowly, and more clearly, I see purpose, order, and meaning. I know Love. I begin to see God.

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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