A Christmas Devotion from NT Wright

A few weeks ago I attended a conference at Southern Methodist University (where I attended seminary), at which the featured speaker was N.T. Wright.  If memory serves, this is the fourth time I've heard him in person, and it was excellent.  As always, Wright's ability to respond off the cuff to questions with extremely thoughtful answers far better than I could produce with weeks of research impressed me.  I was even more amazed because in the precious little time Bishop Wright had between our lectures, he was apparently giving other lectures and sermons to other clergy gatherings, including the following.  Here is some deep theology for the Advent and Christmas seasons:

Reflections on John’s Prologue

In the beginning was the Word…. And the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us; and we gazed upon his glory. 
John positively urges us in his prologue to see the whole of the story he will tell within the long reach of the first two books of the Bible. John, after all, focuses his story again and again on the Temple, on Jesus’ upstaging of the Temple, on his implicit warning to the Temple and its guardians, and on his final performance of that which the Temple itself could not effect.

What has that to do with Genesis and Exodus? Well, everything: because Genesis 1 and 2 describe, to anyone with first-century eyes, the construction of the ultimate Temple, the single heaven-and-earth reality, the one Cosmos within which the twin realities of God’s space and our space are held together in proper balance and mutual relation. The seven stages of creation are the seven stages of constructing a temple, into which the builder will come to take up residence, to take his ‘rest’: Here is Zion, my resting-place, says Israel’s God in the Psalms. 
Within this Temple there is of course, as the final element of construction, the Image: the true Image through which the rest of creation sees and worships the creator, the true Image through which the sovereign and loving creator becomes present to, in and with his creation, working out his purposes. Genesis 1 declares that the God who made the world is the heaven-and-earth God, the working-through-humans-in-the-world God. (I wish there was a word for that; it might be easier in German; or perhaps we could take the Greek and speak not just of ananthropic God, a God who was appropriately bodied forth in human life, but adianthropic God, a God who desired to express himself perfectly by workingthrough humans in the world.) And already, with this vision of Genesis before us, we understand both the beginning and the climax of John’s gospel: in the beginningen archebereshith: in the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh. And on the last Friday, the ultimate sixth day of the week, the representative of the world’s ruler declares ‘behold the Man’: like Caiaphas earlier, Pontius Pilate says far, far more than he knows, acknowledging that Jesus is the Proper Man, the true Image, the one at whom, when people gaze, they see the Father; the one through whom the Father is present, and powerfully working, to bring about his desire and design. And in the end, when the light has shone in the gathering darkness and the darkness has tried to extinguish it, the final word echoes Genesis once more: tetelestai, it is finished. The work is accomplished. There follows the rest of the seventh day, the rest in the tomb, before the first day of the new week when Mary Magdalene comes to the garden and discovers that new creation has begun. John is writing a new Genesis, and the death of Jesus places at the heart of this new heaven-and-earth reality the sign and symbol of the Image through which the world will see and recognise its Creator and know him as the God of unstoppable love, the sign and symbol of the Image through which the Creator has established that love at the climax of world history and as the fountain-head for the rivers of living water that will now flow out to refresh and renew his whole world. That is the primary story John is telling.
But if it is a new Genesis it is also a new Exodus. For years, when reading Exodus, I confess that I used to misjudge what Moses says repeatedly to Pharaoh: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert. I used to think this was just an excuse: we want to go home to our promised land, but let’s just tell Pharaoh that we want to worship our God and that we can’t do it in his land, surrounded by his gods. But the whole logic of the book of Exodus, and indeed of the Pentateuch as a whole, forbids that interpretation. If you read Exodus at a run you will easily arrive at Mount Sinai in chapter 20; up to that point it’s a page-turner, one dramatic incident after another, but then suddenly the pace seems to slacken as we get miscellaneous rules and regulations, though not (to be honest) very many of them yet. Don’t stop there; forge ahead; because the whole narrative is indeed moving swiftly forward to the aim and object of the whole thing, which is the restoration of creation itself, the purpose for which God called Abraham and his family in the first place, the purpose through which heaven and earth will be joined together once more, only now in dramatic symbol and onward pointing sign. The giving of Torah itself is just a preparation; what matters is the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the microcosmos, the little world, the heaven-and-earth place, the mysterious, untameable, moving tent – or perhaps it is the world that moves, while the tent stays still? – in which the living God will come to dwell, to tabernacle, in the midst of his people, in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. The whole of the book of Exodus is itself moving towards this moment, in chapter 40, when the Tent is set up, constructed and decorated with the highest human artistry, which itself is part of the point, and the Divine Glory comes to dwell in it, so that even Moses couldn’t enter the Tent because of that glorious presence. Exodus 40 answers to Genesis 1 and 2: creation is renewed, heaven and earth are held together, the world itself is halted from its slide back towards chaos, and the people of God, tent-makers and tent-keepers and pilgrims wherever the glory-filled Tent will lead them, are to live the dangerous and challenging life of the people in whose midst there dwells, in strange humble sovereignty, the promise and hope for the whole of creation. (This is course is why Leviticus is where it is and what it is, with the priests as the humans who stand at the intersection of heaven and earth; but that’s another story.)
All of this and much more – think of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 8, think of the vision in Isaiah 6 – is then poured by John into the dense and world-shaping reality of the Prologue as it reaches its climax. In the beginning was the Word; and the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us; and we gazed upon his glory. We have been allowed where Moses was not. We have seen the glory, the heaven-and-earth reality, the human microcosmos, the Tent where the God of the Exodus is revealed as the One God of creation and new creation. The Exodus through which creation is rescued and renewed; the new creation which comes to birth on the eighth day after the dark power, the great and terrible Pharaoh, has been defeated once and for all. This is the story that John is telling.
Excerpt from an Address to Dallas Episcopal Clergy, 16 November 2016, by N.T. Wright

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