For Reflection: this week Benjamin reflects on how God finds us in the beginnings and endings of all things.
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth,when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth— when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when 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, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 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.
At the moment we stand in something of an in between time: after the end of Christmastide, but before the beginning of Lent. The Old Lectionary used to mark this time with, what seemed to me as a boy, the mysterious titles of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. Now they are merely titled the third, second, and last Sundays before Lent. The overriding sense we have on these Sundays, in fact during this whole time of year is that we are waiting for a beginning, whether the beginning of Lent, or the beginning of Spring and or even the beginning of a world beyond lock-down.
Beginnings are often illusive things. As children we are told that beginnings present us with something which is exciting: the beginning of “once upon a time”. But my experience is that beginnings are often very challenging things. Beginnings are challenging because they follow the ending of something else.
As a family we are looking towards a beginning as we prepare to move west to Carlisle. But this beginning will be, for us, coloured with the great sadness of the ending of our time here where we have been so happy. Equally for the Church Wardens and you all, you are looking at the beginning of a period of vacancy in the life of the Benefice. A time of possibility and reflection but a beginning, nonetheless. And all of us are looking to a time beyond lockdown and restriction, which also comes with some uncertainty of what kind of world we will emerge into, what kind of beginning we will find.
Our readings are about beginnings. Our Gospel reading, the great prologue to the Gospel of John tells us of greatest beginning. Its opening cry of ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ mirrors and trumps the beginning of Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ It is, if you will, the ultimate ‘Once upon a time…’
This reading is often used to stress the deity of Jesus Christ as God, to, as we are reminded at Carol Services, “unfold the great mystery of the incarnation”. John’s Gospel tells us that all creation came into being because of Jesus Christ. For John Jesus was, is, and will be, the creator God. The mysterious nature of the prologue to John comes because it is trying to grasp that greatest of mysteries: that Jesus, the Cosmic Christ, is God.
Some of our own personal worries about ending or beginnings, when placed next to the awesome power of John’s Cosmic Christ, when placed next to the power of the ultimate once upon a time, could seem to pale into insignificance. Next to the awesome beginnings presented to us in the Gospel reading what matter are our beginnings when placed on this great and wide canvas.
If all we were left with was our Old Testament reading then I think this concern would be a legitimate one. In this reading Wisdom, the Law, is described as being the first of God’s creation: before the beginnings of the earth. The writer of Proverbs goes on to show that Wisdom was there in all of God’s creation. Wisdom was there:
when he marked out the foundations of the earth…I was beside him like a master worker …rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
The comfort of wisdom is that we know that there is order and place in creation. Wisdom tells us that God delights in that creation, and in humanity as the pinnacle of that creation. But Wisdom remains an observer, the apprentice to the creator, coming along to see how it is done, helping and guiding that creation, but remaining, in the words of Tom Wright, a ‘shadowy figure’ who observes, rather than inhabits God’s creation.
Philosophers, when they have tried to make sense of the order and manner of creation, have often looked to this model. If there is a God, they reason, then God is a sort of divine-watchmaker. Someone who builds the machine ensures that it will work perfectly, winds it up, and sets it to tick away happily until the end of time.
This is not the God of Proverbs, but both visions of God could have the tendency to make sense of the whole picture and forget the detail. They explain to us how the whole thing works, but don’t necessarily help us make sense of who we are in the great and grand ordering creation. But if God is ordering creation, we might ask, where is God in the midst of this pandemic?
The answer for this is given to us in John’s Gospel. If the headline of John’s Gospel is that ‘In the beginning was the Word’ then the truth of the matter comes at the end of the reading: ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ The God who is Jesus Christ is the one true God, because he does not observe his creation, or design it and set in it motion, he took the form of that creation and dwelt among us.
He is the one who, I am sure you are all tired of me reminding you, ‘became flesh and pitched his tent among us’. The message of the prologue to John’s Gospel is that the awesome cosmic power of God is with us at all times, in all things, and through all things, not as a principle, or a shadowy figure, but the grounds for all existence bearing a human face.
John’s prologue is holding together two powerful senses of who God is to us. First he is the Cosmic Christ, the creating and defining principle of all creation. But secondly John tells us that this Cosmic Christ is the God who dwells among us. Who makes his home with us in all our beginnings, be it in a new workplace or school, in a new Church or community, or even in PPE clad halls of our hospitals and care homes.
Sometimes I find it a comfort knowing that in the seeming randomness of life there is a Cosmic God who brings it all together, who tells us confidently of ultimate “once upon a time”, because he will also be able to tell us of the ultimate “happy ever after”. But between these two Cosmic bookends stand our lives with all their endings and beginnings and all the doubt and fear we encounter as we turn the pages of our lives. The sense of comfort and assurance I get from the prologue to John is that Jesus Christ stands with us in all our beginnings; he is with us in those moments of doubt between our endings and beginnings; because in all our endings and beginnings is Jesus Christ who comes to be with us as he pitched his tent among us.
Questions for reflection
- Can you think of any “beginnings” you have lived through?
- What did that feel like?
- How we might remind ourselves that God is close to us in the these beginnings?