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Note: In this reflection I’ll consider primarily today’s Gospel reading.

Reading: John 1:(1-9), 10-18

John 1 is one of those passasges you just can’t say too much about. Today’s reading is a grand christological/theological proclamation, audacious in its claim that God did something unprecedented in the incarnation of Jesus. At the same time, John is clearly attempting to connect Jesus to Jewish tradition, to remain within the bounds of “orthodoxy.”

What do I mean? First, of course, we notice that verse 1 reformulates Genesis 1:1, placing Jesus with God at the beginning of God’s creative work. Except, second, we notice that John avoids naming Jesus and instead calls him “the Word.” Whatever the other implications of the Greek words logos, John identifies the Word as a figure through whom all things were created, a concept found in Jewish tradition in the figure of Woman Wisdom (for example, see today’s accompanying readings in Sirach 24 and Wisdom of Solomon 10).

Then we come to verse 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.” Here is John’s most scandalous statement. To assert that God would in any way become visible directly contradicts the Second Commandment, in which God commanded the people not to make idols—of other gods, of course, but also and apparently of God, too. As John goes on to assert in verse 18, no one has seen God. So to say not only that the Word became flesh, but that we have seen his glory (“the glory of the Lord” is a common OT euphemism for God’s presence) appears to be blasphemy of the highest order.

But there may be a certain theological logic behind John’s statement. As Patrick Miller notes in his recent book on the Ten Commandments, it may be that one of the reasons God prohibits the people from making idols, or images, of gods or Godself is that God had in fact already created an “image of God”—that is, humanity itself. The only one allowed to create an image of God is God. Turning back to John, then, it should probably come as no surprise that, in order to make the stunning assertion that God became flesh, John takes the reader back to Genesis 1 and God’s creative action. God creating an image of Godself when the Word becomes flesh has a certain continuity with the idea of God creating humanity in God’s image. With the notable exception, of course, that this particular image of God is full of God’s grace and truth (see also Colossians 1:15, where Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”). Finally, if we read slowly, we notice that it is not until John establishes this basic idea that he goes on to name Jesus as the particular one in whom the Word became flesh.

Heady stuff for Christmas (in typical secular understanding). But these words from Gregory Fruehwirth say it nicely: “The fullness of God’s Self was present in Jesus, and as a result of God’s indwelling Spirit, we can begin to live the moments of our lives as likewise filled with God, open to the full reality of the eternal Word. This new potential of creation to bear the fullness of God’s life and light is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is what Jesus’ birth announces” (Words for Silence, p. 43).

I’ve just started Patrick Miller’s new book on the Ten Commandments. I’m still in the first chapter on the first and second commandments, but one of the aspects of the book I appreciate already is that, beyond merely explicating its meaning, Miller surveys how each commandment is picked up and used throughout the rest of the biblical literature beyond its appearance in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

For example, Miller notes that Jesus affirms the first commandment (“you shall have no other gods before me”) by quoting Deut. 6:13 when tempted by the devil to bow down and worship him: “The Lord your God you shall fear/worship; him [alone] you shall serve.” For Miller, the significance of this is that, even—or especially—as the Son of God, Jesus’ relationship to God is not marked by special privilege that exempts him from giving ultimate allegiance to God; rather, the opposite is true. For Jesus’ disciples, this means that

Following Jesus is not to replace the object of our worship but is a commitment to follow no other gods, however tempting they may be, and to worship the Lord your God and the Lord alone. Whatever identity is made between Jesus and God, whether in the language of “Son of God” or of “Lord,” the incarnate one embodies a faithfulness to the First Commandment that shows the way for all who follow him. (44)

I don’t think the significance of this can be overstated. The point can be made in many ways, but it’s especially obvious in the story of Jesus’ temptation: Jesus (and the early church) saw himself as being faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Did God do something unprecedented in raising Jesus from the dead? Yes. But for those early Jewish Christians, Jesus’ resurrection meant not the beginning of a new religion but the affirmation of the faithfulness/righteousness of the God the Jews had known from of old.

As Christians learn to follow Jesus, we learn that we are part of a story that stretches back to and begins with God’s creative intentions for the world, and includes the way God chose a people to embody those intentions. If some of our earlier ancestors in the faith had remembered this, perhaps some of the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism could have been avoided.

Growing up in church, I tended to think of Christian faith in terms of intimidating lists of do’s and don’ts. Do go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t go to the wrong kind of movies. “Obeying the gospel” was another way of saying “be baptized,” which was itself the final item in a list of things to do to be saved: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. It took many years before I understood that faith was a radical reorientation of one’s life toward God and others out of which one did or did not do certain things.

“Living justly” can often feel like “living legalistically”—like a return to those days when I felt shame and fear for my sins of commission and omission. The sheer number of ways a typical American’s lifestyle contributes to injustice—as well as the vast number of recommendations out there for how to live a green or sustainable lifestyle—can be overwhelming.

That’s why I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that Julie Clawson begins her book Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP, 2009) with the words “Don’t panic.” Julie knows that the biggest risk of writing a book like this is that the reader will be so paralyzed that she will do nothing. So she addresses 7 specific areas from our everyday lives (coffee, chocolate, cars, food, clothes, waste, debt) where we can make small but significant changes, but in the process shows how living justly (or not) in these areas connects us to other people from around the world. EJ

Everyday Justice encourages us to take seriously the two greatest commandments according to Jesus: loving God and loving our neighbors. First John 4:20 puts it this way: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” The problem is, as Julie points out, that many of the things that Americans consume are produced by the poorest people on the planet in horrifying conditions. The fact that we do not see these people, except when the occasional scandal exposes their plight,  is no excuse for supporting the systems that keep them poor or otherwise endangered by their working conditions. But we do precisely that with our consumption patterns. Many of the things we buy support companies that treat their workers unethically. And many of the things we consume were produced in ways that deplete the earth of natural resources or were made with dangerous chemicals.

But Everyday Justice is a light shining in this darkness. Yes, it exposes the darkness, causing me to be depressed. But it also gave me hope by showing how I can alter my lifestyle and love my unseen brothers or sisters around the world by supporting companies that pay their workers fair wages or make their products without wasteful plastics or dangerous pesticides.

The area in which the book challenged me the most was clothing. I pride myself on maintaining a simple, inexpensive wardrobe. But I’ve realized that my inexpensive, colorful t-shirts may have a hidden cost, as they could have been made by people who weren’t paid fairly, and were doubtless made with cotton produced with the use of outrageous amounts of pesticide. Further, I have way too many items of clothing purchased specifically because they are relatively “care-free,” i.e., “wrinkle-resistant” or “unshrinkable.” I bought them even though I knew that it took chemicals to make them that way. Our culture trains us to think that we are successful consumers if we find the best bargain on clothing (or whatever). But cheap clothing, as with cheap food, has other costs that are built into its production from the get-go.

Many readers will be on the same theological page with Julie, as I was. The book’s value for them, as for me, will be to help them put their theological values into practice. Other readers may be a little suspicious of what may appear to be a “liberal social justice agenda.” But I suspect these readers will be moved by Julie’s accounts of the real-life impact of our consumption patterns on those who are considered “the least of these,” and may find their theology shifted in subtle ways. But all of us, if we have ears to hear, will be moved a little closer to truly obeying the gospel. And that’s a good thing.

Readings: Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise to God that helps us put things in perspective. Although God’s name is “majestic” in all the earth, God is not the same as what God has created: God’s glory is “above the heavens.” At the same time, neither does the psalmist denigrate the created order. Creation turns the psalmist’s thoughts to God and to humanity’s relation to God.

In this light, humanity appears small and insignificant: “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Yet humanity is not so insignificant after all: “you made them a little lower than God.” Again in line with Genesis, the psalmist describes humanity’s task: “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”

Lest we begin to swing the pendulum the other way and think too much of ourselves, we might turn to the New Testament reading, where the writer of Hebrews picks up Psalm 8 to describe Jesus’ mission and ministry. Hebrews 1:1-4 exalts the risen Christ in every way possible: he is superior not only to prophets but also to angels. The world was created through him, and “he is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Then the writer uses Psalm 8:4-6 to name at least one way in which humanity also has an edge over the angels: in relation to the world, “God left nothing outside [humanity’s] control.” We might be tempted to follow this logic: while we are not God, we follow Jesus, who created and sustains all things, and Scripture says God has put all things under our control. Clearly, the world is ours to do with as we wish. Right?

Wrong. Wrong, precisely because we do follow Jesus, and Hebrews 2:9-10 makes clear that Jesus’s lordship was/is not displayed in domineering tyranny but in self-sacrifice and suffering. While our readings describe both Jesus and humanity as having been crowned with glory and honor, Jesus was so crowned “because of the suffering of death.” Jesus gave up his status and joined humanity for a little while as being “lower than angels.”

These texts call us to a proper perspective on our relation to God and to the world. As Genesis 1-2 and Psalm 8 affirm, we have been given a tremendous responsibility, stewardship of all creation. Lest we sinfully distort the boundaries of that stewardship, however, we need to follow the example of Jesus, who, though God, took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2). These texts speak to us deeply as we consider our relationship to God, to each other, and to all creation. Do we have ears to hear?

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