I love John’s gospel; it is easily my favorite book of the Bible. It often gets overlooked in the telling of the Christmas story, because John doesn’t tell his version in a very ‘earthy’ way like Matthew and Luke… you have to give him one thing at least — he’s got a humdinger of a way of putting things. I’m quite glad to have seen it come up in the lectionary readings in the early part of Advent this year. Lots of imagery about light… and on that subject, I’ve noted that Hanukkah falls on December 25th this year.
I’m going to quote John 1:1-11 (not quite in the ESV):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not grasped it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.
I confess, this is the worst place to end. The first 18 verses of John’s gospel are the prologue, considered by many to have been taken from an early christian hymn. Worse, it’s written in a kind of poetic or literary form known as chiasmus. In a chiastic structure, the most important bit of information is situated in the middle of the text, surrounded by related concepts that form a kind of series of nested conceptual inclusios. If I might as well have just switched to Greek, forget it, just go read verse 12 and you’ll know what the most important part of the first 18 verses is. Verse 12 is a chiasm itself; think of the word order you learned when you memorized it on the old KJV as a tot, not the NIV you’re reading now… it’s exceptionally simple in view of how packed with deep concepts these 18 verses really are. In the more literal rendering, the concept of belief stands as a pair of bookends to the central, most important thing. Take that to the bank…. but then realize that all 18 verses surround the concept, beginning and ending with God in eternity. Way cool… but I digress.
I changed the text, too… I removed the word “people” where the translators inserted it in verse 11, and I changed the word “overcome” in verse 5 to “grasped.” The word there is variously translated mastered, overcome, understood, comprehend, and so forth. The Greek word is actually ambiguous and can mean to subdue or to understand…. hence, “grasp.” This is perhaps a case of English translations trying to be precise where the original is not, which can be a mistake. I say all this and am then wish to cautiously point out that I’m really not a Greek scholar by any stretch of the imagination, so Scot McKnight or somebody of that level of linguistic prowess will have to drop by and validate what I’m saying. Or not.
Anyway, the thing I wanted to pick up on is this whole darkness and light thing. This becomes a recurring theme in John (a lot of the concepts in the prologue become recurring themes, in fact), and in view of the Advent season, it’s particularly on point. The light is coming into the world, the light that enlivens every man, the light that is life.
The sad thing? Men love the darkness. If we were to imagine that in John, Jesus is portrayed as having a literary fatal flaw, this statement would be a lead-in into that idea… he came to his own, and his own did not receive him. That’s it, in a nutshell. This is further explained in the third chapter,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
These words would be in red in many Bibles. Jesus is the light, but men love the darkness. We don’t want to see. (If I were to draw this post out significantly longer, I’d exegete John 9 to figuratively illustrate the point further.) We want to sit alone, and sing to the darkness, “Hello darkness, my old friend, Iâ€™ve come to talk with you again.”
Unfortunately for those who seek to be people of the light (or people of the spark), we have a love-hate relationship with darkness. Darkness, as we’ve just seen, seeks to grasp the light — but it cannot. It cannot overcome or subdue it, neither can it comprehend or understand the light. I’ll spare you any pedantic observations about how darkness and light are not qualitative opposites and just point out that darkness only exists where light does not… not the reverse. Try grasping that one. In college I took a lot of photos for the yearbook, and spent a fair bit of time in the darkroom processing and printing the film I and others had taken. There was a sign on the darkroom door that said, “Please keep the door closed… you’ll let the dark out.” Just to make the point… the darkness cannot grasp the light. Sorry, I said I wouldn’t get too pedantic. Let’s sum up this way, in 1 John 1:5, John says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” The literal Greek for “at all” would be, “not even one.” We might say, “not even a hint of darkness.” And then he talks about darkness and light again, bascially about sticking to the light rather than practicing darkness.
It was in the context of this turbulence [of the assassination of JFK], that Paul wrote his contribution to the sixties – a song called ‘The Sound of Silence”. The song uses [imagery] of light and darkness to show how ignorance and apathy destroy people’s ability to communicate on even a simple level. The light which should symbolize truth and enlightenment is destructive, painful force with metaphors of stabbing, flashing – even worshipping the false Neon god. In such a violent context, the song was perfectly fitting. Paul had the theme and melody in November but it took three frustrating months of writing and re-writing before it was finished.
Art Garfunkel introduced the song at a concert in the Netherlands in 1966 by saying,
This is a song about the inability of people to communicate with each other, and not particularly internationally, but especially emotionally. So what you see around you is people unable to love each other. This is called The Sounds Of Silence.
Largely owing to the profundity of the lyrics in my estimation, I’m going to gratuitously quote the whole thing.
Hello darkness, my old friend,
Iâ€™ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left itâ€™s seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone,
â€™neath the halo of a street lamp,
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence.
Fools said i, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you.
But my words like silent raindrops fell,
In the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made.
And the sign flashed out itâ€™s warning,
In the words that it was forming.
And the sign said, the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls.
And whisperâ€™d in the sounds of silence.
It occurs to me that this is in some way a missional song… it’s about communicating. It’s about being relational. It’s anti-darkness. To us humans, we cracked eikons (to use Scot McKnight’s phrase), none of this comes naturally. We like it dark. Dark and quiet.
So. Those in the dark, who are alone by choice, suffer the sounds of silence. In the silent dark, one can neither hear nor read the words of the prophets written on the walls. And just what are the words of these prophets? According to Jeremiah, perhaps having been blinded by the flash of a neon light, they prophesy ear-candy, catering to the wishes of those who love the darkness. In calling to Jerusalem to turn and be faithful, God says,
A horrible and shocking thing
has happened in the land:
The prophets prophesy lies,
the priests rule by their own authority,
and my people love it this way.
But what will you do in the end?
Priests ruling by their own authority… or as the NKJV says, their own power. The priests are power-trippin’. Bad. And the people like it this way. Way bad. And it’s sounding all too deja-vu to me.
This loving the darkness, this avoidance of the light drives people to desire
some kind of overlord authoritative leaders, perhaps purpose-driven ones, who lead on their own authority rather than in the mode of meekness and servanthood, after the pattern of Jesus. Non-Christlike leaders make us much more comfortable than the kind we’re supposed to follow. The ones we’re supposed to follow lead too close to the flame. Final metaphor mixture coming up… Before the end, it’s time to recognize the cancer before it spreads. The cancer of fleeing the light, the cancer that sends us running after power-filled leaders, the cancer that drives us from relationship. The cancer that leaves us failing to live our faith, and share our lives.
What to do?
We might, like Dylan Thomas,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Or we might acknowledge, like Bruce Cockburn,
You got to kick at the darkness
’till it bleeds daylight.
Either way — here’s to the light.