Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sermon for Christmas Day

John 1:1-18 December 25th 2007
The Word becomes a Human Being

Talk is cheap’, so the saying goes. We live in a world soured by the empty promises of politicians of all stripes and weary with the endless chatter on TV talk shows. We’re tired of words; we want to see some action. “Preach the Gospel”, said Saint Francis of Assisi, “and use words if necessary”.

And yet – I would still want to affirm the power of words. Some of the greatest movements in human history have been inspired by the words of gifted leaders, for good or for evil. On the one hand, I think of Dr. Martin Luther King and his famous “I have a dream” speech, which galvanised the civil rights movement in the USA. On the other hand, I think of Adolf Hitler, also a powerful public speaker who used his gift to stir up the German people and motivate them to go to war. In his case, talk was not cheap: it ended up being very, very expensive.

No – words are not powerless things. Words can end a marriage, or bring healing to an industrial dispute. Angry words can wound a person for life, and gentle words can turn away anger and bring peace. Words can bring comfort and reassurance to someone facing cancer surgery, or they can incite fear in the hearts of victims of threats of violence. Words can cast a vision for the future that inspires people, and words can ridicule that vision and ensure that it never comes to pass.

What actually is a word? You can learn a lot about me from observing my behaviour; you can watch how I spend my time, you can look at my credit card records and analyse my spending patterns. But if you really want to know what makes me tick, sooner or later you’re going to have to have a conversation with me. If you don’t, you’ll never know what my dreams are all about, and what my deepest fears are. Your knowledge of me will only be superficial. The most intimate way for me to express my thoughts and feelings is through words.

And so, when John wanted to tell the Christmas story, he chose to do it, not by talking about the manger in Bethlehem, or the angels and the shepherds, or the visit of the wise men. He knew other people had already told those stories. He wanted to go deeper, to get to the heart of what was really happening when Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the reign of Herod the King. And this is the meaning: God spoke a word, and that word became flesh, became a human being, became one of us.

But John wants us to know that Bethlehem was not the real beginning for Jesus. The real beginning goes much further back than that. In the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, we read that God brought the universe into being by speaking: God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. God’s words were powerful and creative, speaking a new world into existence. Now John tells us that those words had a personal identity of their own; they were not just ‘words’ but ‘the Word’; “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3).

But this mysterious being, ‘the Word’, goes even further back than that. Before all things came into being through him, the Word was already there. “In the beginning was the Word”, says John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. We understand the limitations of human language and how John is struggling here to tell us something about the nature of God, who is by definition beyond definition! A word forms itself in the mind of God, and God speaks that word – but then something strange happens. The literal Greek says ‘the word was towards God’ – or, as one commentator puts it, ‘God spoke a word and the word spoke back!’ All writers know how true this is; our words often speak back to us. We learn things from our own writing, things we couldn’t have learned in any other way.

So John is letting us in on the secret of the true identity of the baby in the manger. The Word of God, who is himself God and yet is also ‘with’ or ‘towards’ God – the Word who existed before all time and will exist after time – at a certain point stepped into time and became one of us. God, the author of the story of human history, at a certain point wrote himself into the story as a character who looked and sounded like all the other characters, and yet was more than just another character, because he personally expressed the thoughts and views and personality of the great author himself. God’s dreams, God’s thoughts, God’s ideals, now took on flesh and lived and breathed and walked around in view of all people. That’s who Jesus is; that’s why the baby was born.

And so in Bethlehem in Judea God spoke a word, a living and breathing and visible word, a human being. John says, ‘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’ (John 1:14). We get the theological word ‘incarnation’ from the Latin version of this verse, to ‘become flesh’ or to be ‘in the flesh’. Think for a moment about what a radical idea this is. Many people who are interested in ‘spirituality’ think of it as getting away from the material world and getting in touch with what they think of as spiritual reality. But that’s not what God did when Jesus came among us; God embraced the material world. He experienced the pleasure of taste and touch, the warmth of the sun and the blast of the wind, the pain of bashing his thumb with a carpenter’s hammer, and, later, of having nails hammered into his own flesh.

Genesis tells us that after God created the world, he gave an opinion about what he had made; he said that it was ‘very good’. I like that. It reminds me of an artist who has just finished a painting on a huge canvas; he steps back a few feet, looks critically at what he’s done, and eventually nods his head in satisfaction; “That’s what I had in mind”, he thinks. And in the same way God expressed his pleasure and joy in what he had made: “It’s very good”.

Of course, we know that evil later came into God’s good world, so that what we now see is very far from what God originally had in mind. But still, when you look at the created order, you can get a glimpse of the sheer creative joy of God. There are thousands of species of bugs; why do we need so many? Why does God paint the evening sky with colours that no artist would dare to use together on a canvas? Why do some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet live so deep in the ocean that most human beings never get to see them? Who are they beautiful for?

We can climb a mountain and get a glimpse of the grandeur of God. We can enjoy human love and family life, make music and create literature, run a business and do well for our customers and employees. This is human life, and God says, “It is very good”. He doesn’t ask us to run away from it in order to find him. Rather, he himself came into the midst of it in order to find us! The incarnation – God becoming flesh – is an affirmation of the created world; by his presence among us, God has given his blessing to created life – including created human life.

But more than that – in the context of created human life God has revealed himself to us in a more perfect way than ever before. Of course, in earlier days God spoke to his people through the scriptures, but the coming of Jesus took the process of communication to new heights. Our epistle for this morning says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

You know the old story of the little girl who told her Sunday School teacher that she was drawing a picture of God. “But no one knows what God looks like”, the teacher protested. The little girl replied, “They will when I’m done!” “No one has ever seen God”, says John; “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:14).

How do we know what God is like? We know by paying attention to the life and teaching of Jesus. Yes, the rest of the Bible is important too; it tells the story of God’s dealings with his people and his gradual revelation of himself to them. But Jesus is the pinnacle of that revelation; he is the clearest picture we have been given of what God is like. And so we read the rest of the Bible in the light of Christ, knowing that if we are interpreting other parts of the Bible in ways that contradict Christ, we’re on the wrong track. We sometimes call the Bible ‘the word of God’, but in the truest possible sense, as John tells us here, it is Jesus who is God’s word. He is the key by which we unlock the meaning of the whole of scripture.

The coming of Jesus is God’s affirmation and blessing of our created human life; the coming of Jesus is the highest revelation of God to us. But more than that; it is the highest revelation of God’s will for us. Because when I say that God gave his blessing to human life, I am aware of course that there were parts of human life that God did not give his blessing to. Human life as we know it includes both love and hate, both greed and generosity, both war and peace, both gentleness and violence. In his life and teaching Jesus showed us the way; he affirmed what is good in our human life, but turned resolutely away from what is evil, and told us to do the same. Martin Luther called Jesus ‘the Proper Man’ – in other words, the one who shows us what God had in mind when he created human beings in the first place. After he washed his disciples’ feet Jesus said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

So we understand Christmas as also a call to follow Jesus. What began in Bethlehem was a blueprint, a living and breathing example of God’s will in humanity. At a certain point that blueprint gave an invitation: ‘Follow me’. In other words, ‘Become my apprentice in the art of living as God intended it’. Jesus still gives that invitation, and we are still invited to respond.

Note the word: ‘invited’. In the middle of today’s gospel John says, ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:10-11). Some people find this puzzling. Why was God so ambiguous? Why did he not make himself obvious, so that people couldn’t help believing in him? I don’t have an answer to that question, although I find myself wondering if we could survive such an encounter. ‘From heaven you came, helpless babe’, says Graham Kendrick, ‘entered our world, your glory veiled’. What if his glory hadn’t been veiled? Would our eyes have been fried – and maybe our brains as well? Was the veiling of his glory an act of love on God’s part?

Well, whatever the reason, the choice is now ours. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). The Word of God became a human being and shared our life; in response, he invites us to share his life, his intimate relationship with God, as children of the Father. A new baby was born in Bethlehem, and ever since then new babies have been born all over the world, or ‘born again’, as Jesus put it in his conversation with Nicodemus.

So we are invited to welcome Jesus into the centre of our lives. That’s what you have done this morning, on this Christmas morning, at a time of day when there are many other really attractive options for spending your time! You have chosen to come together with Jesus’ people, to focus on him and worship him, to meet him in the sacrament, and to put him at the centre of your Christmas celebrations.

Let’s do the same when we leave this place. Just as God sent his Son to share his love with the world, so God sends us out from this place with the good news, which we share with our neighbours by our words and our actions. ‘As the Father sent me’, said Jesus, ‘so I send you’. As God came into the centre of our human life, so he sends us back into our ordinary daily lives to live and share the message we have received, so that the world will be touched and changed by the love of the God who came to live among us as one of us.

No comments: