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What’s in a Word?

Judy Skaggs

January 2, 2011
John 1:1-18

01-02-2011 SermonFor the past couple of weeks we have heard the story of the birth of Christ told mainly by the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. We have heard the angels bringing good news to all; we have watched as the shepherds ran to the manger to see the baby; and we have heard of the exotic visitors from the east who worshipped the child and offered their gifts.

But John’s gospel begins with a completely different tone – more reflective, more theological, more cosmic. Instead of a child wrapped in bands of cloth, John echoes the story of creation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” 

If we had only John’s gospel, what would we do on Christmas Eve for our children’s instant pageant; what would we sing for Christmas carols? But because we have John’s gospel, we are given the theology behind the story of the birth of the child. John forces us to think about why the incarnation is so significant.

John Claypool tells the story of one Christmas when he received a book by J B Phillips entitled When God Was Man.  He had been enjoying reading the book during the holidays and one evening when he and his wife went out to dinner, he left the book on his chair. An older woman from their church came over to stay with their little boy while they went out.

When they came home, he said he could tell as soon as he entered the house that the baby sitter was very excited. She picked up his book, which she had found on the den chair, and began to wave it around, and said, “Is this true? When did it happen? What was He like?”

Of course, Rev. Claypool was taken aback because he thought he knew this person; she was very active in the church; she even sang in the choir, and, therefore, he was surprised that this title would have come as such a shock to her. But for all her years of churchly activity, it had never dawned on her that at one point in history, God did become a human being; that is, the One who is eternal entered time; the One who had always inhabited the heavens chose to come and live as a human being upon this earth.

Perhaps this woman expresses what many of us have wondered about –did this really happen? How did the Word become flesh and live among us, or as Eugene Peterson translates, what happened “when God moved into our neighborhood!”

This news really is almost more than we can comprehend. In a sense, I wonder if we fear the idea of incarnation because it makes our faith so real, so particular, or maybe even too worldly. Don’t we often want to keep God at arm’s length, full of power and knowledge and wisdom?  But with the incarnation, all that power is hidden in vulnerability, in a tiny child born to very poor parents in an obscure part of the world.

Now, if we think about it, it would come as no surprise to the religious community of Jesus’ time that God was showing up in some manner. The Jewish people were saturated in a God-haunted history. God spoke to Abraham, came to Jacob and Joseph in dreams and sent word through the Prophets to the leaders and people of Israel.

The Jews in Jesus’ time were not surprised that God would show up, but they did not expect God to show up in this way–as a child of peasants, without royal credentials, without power as they understood power. The proclamation that God had become flesh and blood, with the feelings and features of any other man was to them beyond strange.

And yet, this is the announcement that John makes in his Gospel. God has become like us in Jesus Christ in order that we might become like him.  In Jesus, we are able to see God and know more of God. The incarnation of Christ says that God meets us where we are. We do not have to give up our humanity or leave this world in order to know God.  But, John declares that we look to Jesus, we learn of Jesus, when we want to know what God is like.

So with the incarnation, we see more of who God is in the person of Jesus, but we also see more of who we are intended to be. The Word became flesh and lived among us. But the Word also continues to become flesh in us – in each of us.

Yesterday, New Year’s Day, I went with a friend to Mass down at St Austin’s Catholic Church. On New Years, our Catholic neighbors’ liturgy is about Mary, Mother of God. According to the sermon that I heard, Mary symbolizes the people of God, the church, in need of God. Because of Mary’s willingness to say yes to God, Christ was formed within her. So Mary becomes the symbol of what God means for all of us, to have Christ formed within each of us.

I know we Reformed thinkers don’t dwell on Mary, but I found it very interesting to contemplate what Mary could symbolize for all of us who are part of the body of Christ – who yearn to have Christ formed within us. As I listened to that sermon, I began to think that he was preaching on this text from John, about the Word becoming flesh, not only to live among us, but to live within each of us.

Think about it this way – when a stranger is welcomed, when the hungry are fed, or the naked are clothed, then the Word has become flesh.  When we so something we are ashamed of and we find that family or friends are willing to forgive our offense, then the Word has become flesh. When our attitude changes or we are able to be more loving or kind, the Word has become flesh. When we visit someone who is suffering from an illness or has had a death in their family and offer words of comfort, then the Word has become flesh in us. When we gather at this table, it is the Word that invites us and we often pray that as Christ as fed us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation that we would be able to go out into the world to feed others.

Last Sunday when we were baptizing baby Isabella, we heard these words, “…in baptism, God claims us and seals us to show we belong to God…” And, “we are made members of the body of Christ and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.” For each of us who have been baptized have been claimed by God and joined to Chris’s ministry, but sometimes I think it takes us our whole lifetime to understand and really know what that means, and ultimately, to live into that claiming and calling.

But this is the promise – The Word has come to dwell in our midst. This Word offers light and life, and offers us a new identity. So as this new year stretches out in front of us, let us give thanks and take time to reflect on this light and life-giving Word.

 For the Living Word among us, for the Living Word within us. Thanks be to God. Amen.