And the Word became flesh
Sermon preached on Christmas Day 2018, St. Luke’s Enmore.
Reading: John 1. 1- 14.
I suspect that most of us here this morning have done a fair amount of shopping in recent days. Some shopping experiences are more memorable that others. One that is embedded in my mind took place many years ago, in January 1971. I had recently started work as a Psychologist class 1, with the (then) Commonwealth Acoustic Laboratories, located in Grace Building in the city. On the day I received my first pay packet I decided to go and buy a new pair of trousers. I had often had trouble buying trousers to fit my atypical frame but I was confident that a particular store would provide me with what I needed. In fact this store famously advertised that ‘no man was hard to fit.’ So I confidently entered this shop and I placed myself right under the sign that declared ‘no man is hard to fit.’ A friendly gentleman appeared who asked what I needed and I was measured for a pair of trousers. However, his first words to me after his careful measuring, were: “I’m sorry sir we don’t have your size.” Words can let us down.
We with in an age where we have become suspicious of words. We are weary of fake news, of broken promises made by politicians who lie and deceive. We are surrounded by words every day: radio, television, emails, text messages, the written media. From the moment we wake to the end of the day, words are our currency. But we have learnt to be careful about words, which to believe and which to question.
The New Testament reading on this Christmas morning began with the words: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The prologue to John’s Gospel is John’s birth story of Jesus. There are no shepherds, no angels, no Mary giving birth to Jesus in a Bethlehem stable, John skips all of that and simply tells us that the Divine Word who was with God at the beginning of time and shared in the creation of the world, this Word became flesh and lived among us. It is an extraordinary statement. To make sense of what John is saying it helps to understand what the Word, the Logos meant to John’s first hearers. The Logos would have communicated to both Jew and Gentile in John’s audience. Jewish ears would have been reminded of the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the Earth…God said, “Let there be light.” As the Psalmist expressed it: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made and all their host by the breath of his mouth.” (Ps 33.6)
Students of the Hebrew Scriptures knew that God’s word is active and powerful: able to create, transform and subdue. Frequently throughout the Scriptures we read that the Word of the Lord came to his prophets telling them what to say, what message they were to communicate to their people. But when John spoke of Jesus as the Word, he was saying far more than Jesus spoke the words of God, he was actually identifying Jesus with the active and creative word of God.
Of course not all of John’s hearers were from a Jewish background. Some of them were Gentiles, familiar with Greek philosophy and thinking. In Greek philosophy, the Word, the Logos was a term used to describe the divine principle of order and reason in the universe. In a world where there was so much change, the Logos provided some sense of order and predictability. So when John described the Word coming into the world he was using a term that resonated with both cultural groups. But when he then went on to announce that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ he shocked both the Jewish thinkers and the Hellenists. The Greek word for flesh is sarx, the Latin is carnis from which we get words like carnal. In Greek philosophy the term flesh spoke of weak human nature and was incompatible with the divine. Greek gods might pay a visit to earth but to suggest that a God would come and live with us was absurd. God taking human from and coming to earth was equally disturbing for Jewish hearers. Paul described this concept as “Foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews.” After centuries of Christian tradition we have become used to the idea of God taking human form and we forget how strange it seemed to those who first heard it. But on this Christmas morning it is worth being reminded of the significance of John’s statement: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory.”
These verses of John’s Gospel explain the great truth that in the baby of Bethlehem God himself was coming among us, taking human form in a quiet unobtrusive way, born of a young teenage girl in a borrowed stable in an obscure part of the great Roman Empire. Now surprisingly the word John uses that we usually translate ‘as lived among us’ is a verb that literally means, ‘He pitched his tent among us’. Pitching his tent among us is a good description of the life of Jesus. From his humble birth in Bethlehem, to the flight into Egypt as refugees, escaping Herod’s wicked edict, to the journey back home to Nazareth in Galilee, Jesus’ infancy was spent on the move. Furthermore, during the years of his ministry as an itinerant teacher and healer, Jesus was a person of no fixed address. Once a young man wanted to join his group of disciples and Jesus warned him that although foxes have holes and birds have nests, ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Only follow me, Jesus was saying, if you are willing to leave the comforts of home and normal earthly security. At the end of his life Jesus’ body was buried in a borrowed tomb and even that was a short stay only. Jesus left this earth with no lasting monument to his presence, no books written, no temple constructed in his honour just a band of rather ordinary men and women who said he is alive and he has changed our lives.
John tells us that he, Jesus, “was in the world and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him.” When Jesus lived among us there were many who failed to recognise who he really was or why he did the things he did. To many he remained an enigma. A man sent from God wouldn’t be born in poverty and live the life of an itinerant preacher, with a bunch of pretty ordinary men and women as his followers. And surely he wouldn’t end up dying a painful and humiliating death on a cross. John says that Jesus came to his own and his own received him not. Two thousand years later, things haven’t changed very much. There are many who acknowledge Jesus as a great teacher and regard him as probably the best human being that ever lived but to receive him as the Word of God made flesh and worship him is a bridge too far. But we have gathered here this morning to give thanks to God for the great gift he gave to the world by sending Jesus among us. John tells us that to all who received him, who believed on his name, he gave power to become children of God. Christmas tells us that God is with us, he is near us wherever we are but we still need to invite him to share our lives. He does not force himself upon us but says today as he said to his disciples so long ago, ‘Come and follow me and find life.’