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Words Make Worlds
December 30, 2012
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. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Words Make Worlds
It began with a word. Breath spoken into darkness. Light, and there was. World, and there was. Sun and moon, and there was. Trees, fish, flowers, birds, and cows, and there was. All things began with a word. Out of nothing, something. Out of chaos, order. It is a story we all know, or at least have some recollection of.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. It is a story that tugs at the seams of our sense of reason. God spoke the world into being? Matter from nothing? Surely there were other forces involved in creating the world. A big bang, evolution, geological processes. Surely something as simple as a word couldn’t be powerful enough to create a world right? After all, the story in Genesis never quotes God as saying, let there be velociraptors and stegosauruses, and there were, but then God smote them shortly after for they looked silly.
We know that this world is old, and that the marvels of science have shown us the beauty in the order of nature. But nevertheless, our story, the story of our faith, begins with words. Words created the world.
What is it about words that make them so powerful? After all, who here today isn’t sick of words, especially at this time of year? I always breathe a sigh of relief after the Christmas crazy dies down. Between the Christmas carols that begin playing in stores shortly after the fourth of July, the flood of advertisements for holiday sales, and the endless banter over “Merry Christmas” versus “ Happy Holidays”, we can all give thanks that our ears can take a break.
But that feeling is short lived. The average adult living in America sees over 2,000 product advertisements a day. A study conducted this past year revealed that by the time children start kindergarten, they have already heard 33 million words in their lifetime. The same study showed that on average, a middle class adult consumes over 100,000 words a day – whether by reading, hearing, or speaking. On top of that, the average adult speaks 8,500 words a day. The bulletin sitting in the pew beside you has 1,926 words in it. And you can trust me on that one… we counted.
In a culture flooded with words, it is no wonder that words have lost some of their power. We become desensitized to words. Lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks! If we didn’t see thirty of those ads a week, we might actually believe it. 20 workers die in a chemical plant explosion in India. If stories like these didn’t cross the CNN newsfeed every day, we might actually feel moved to tears by such a loss. Words have become the ether we move in. Words wash over us without creating much sway in our daily routine. Are there any words left that carry that kind of world creating power anymore?
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. 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.
It begins again with a word. Breath spoken into darkness. Word breathed into flesh, becoming flesh. Word as flesh. Echoing the story of our creation, the Gospel of John opens with a poetic exposition on the story of the new creation, a new reality, ushered in by a word. But not just any word. The ancient readers of this text would have understood the use of the Greek word Logos, in a way far different than how we understand a word as the basic unit of communication. For the ancient Greeks, the word logos was believed to be that which created and ordered the universe. Words were divine things, the building blocks of reason, philosophy, and deepest spiritual truth.
The Word animated the world and was thought of not as something cognitive or immaterial, but as something real, tangible, and deeply powerful. Words separated humans from animals. Words were gifts from the divine to humans. The Greek Stoic philosopher, Zeno of Citium wrote in 300 BC that each person possessed a portion of the divine logos. The Word was the operating principle of the universe, that which gave active reason and life energy to otherwise inanimate matter. Breath spoken into darkness. Word breathed into clay.
This is what the writer of John’s Gospel believed when he wrote that “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” The thing that created and ordered the universe, the most mighty, most powerful, most divine, became for us the most fleshly, most real, most tangible. Emmanuel, God with us. The Word of God. Jesus the Christ.
Now, while this is all well and good, there is still the problem of connecting this concept of the eternal Word made flesh to how we understand words today. As easy as it is to digest ancient Stoic philosophy at 10:30 in the morning, we still grapple with the significance of the power that words have in today’s society. But perhaps there are some words out there that still matter. Perhaps there are still some words that we say that have the power to create a new world, or a new reality.
Think for a moment about a wedding service. After getting to know one another, dating, engagement, and months of wedding preparations, the couple arrives at the church on the big day. Standing in front of family and friends, the couple professes their love for one another, make promises to one another, and exchange rings. All of that is wonderful, but there is something that is significant about the moment that the presider says “I now pronounce you husband and wife” or “ I now pronounce you married in the eyes of God and one another.” With those words, a new world is made. A new reality is created. Something new out of nothing. These are words that are performative, words that do something. These are not words that just float out there to be passively absorbed by whoever intercepts them.
Think of other words that create new realities. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister, and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” “Eternal God, pour out your Spirit upon these gifts of bread and wine, that the bread we break and the cup we bless may be for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.” These words of the church are spoken with the hope and expectation that God will breathe into being something new, something different – a reality that had never existed before – now, has come into being.
What about words that we encounter in our daily lives that change the world as we know it? “We’re having a baby.” “The doctor says I’m in remission.” “I love you.” In the mess that is modern communication, there are still words that make us take pause, catch our breath, be deafened by the thundering of our hearts. There are still words that create worlds.
In this Christmas season, we celebrate the Word that has created a new world, and continues to create new worlds every day. In the name of Jesus, the Word made flesh, we serve those in this community who are in need and help create new worlds of possibility and opportunity. In the name of Jesus, the Word made flesh, we sing with hope and joy in the midst of tragedy and loss. It is in the name of Jesus, the Word made flesh, that we are bold to say that even at the grave, we make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. We rejoice that God, infinite and almighty, came to us in bodily form, to show us that the radical world of God’s love is real, tangible, and most profoundly, possible. Christianity is not about knowing the right words, but about living into the Word, into who we were created to be.
Friends, hear the good news of the Gospel, in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, our world is not defined by words of sorrow, despair, and death. Rather, our world is made new by the awe-inspiring nearness of God with us. For unto us is born this day, in the city of David, a savior, which is Christ the Lord. Amen.