Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Word Became Flesh and Lived Among Us Version 2

First Sunday After Christmas – Year C (RCL)
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Sunday, December 27, 2009 – Trinity, Redlands

[N.B. This is a slightly modified version of my Christmas Day homily, created for the First Sunday After Christmas.]

“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)

Wait a minute! This is Christmas! What happened to all the drama and pageantry we heard about just a couple of days ago? What happened to Mary and Joseph? Where’s the child in swaddling clothes? Where’s the manger? Where are the shepherds? And what about the choir of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest?” Just a couple of days into the Twelve Days of Christmas and we’ve already moved on?

After all the build-up of Advent, all the hype that we have endured since Thanksgiving, if not before, is it too much to want more of the well-known and beloved story of Jesus’ birth in a manger in Bethlehem? Does the drama have to end after just one night? Do we have to leave the much-beloved imagery of a young girl giving birth to her child, the Son of God, in low and meager conditions, surrounded by cute and cuddly animals, under the adoring eyes of lowly shepherds and the heavenly host of angels alike? Can’t we go back to Luke’s portrayal? After all, it is so much more heart-warming and touchy-feely than the way John portrays it, with all his talk about the Word this and the Word that. It’s so cold. It’s so . . . so theological.

Sorry, but no. Life goes on. Big events in life can’t last forever – even something as big as the birth of God’s Son. We all know that, no matter how much we don’t want it to, those warm and fuzzy events in life must eventually come to an end. There’s always that let down after a big event. But is John’s portrayal of the coming of the Messiah, with all his cryptic talk like “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and about how “the Word became flesh” really a letdown?

After all the hustle and bustle leading up to Christmas Day, after the pageantry of Christmas Eve, after all the pomp entailed in “Glory to God in the highest” and “Joy to the World,” the remainder of the Christmas season is, in many respects, the time for settling in, for adjusting to the life changing event that happened on Christmas Eve. It is a chance for us to stop and catch our breath, to take a few moments and reflect on what it all means. Maybe we need the more esoteric, less sensory loaded imagery of “the Word became flesh and lived among us” to give us the space we need to take it all in, to catch up, to live into what all this really means. As the narrator noted at the conclusion of the Christmas Eve pageant: “The Father uttered one Word: that Word is His Son – and He utters Him forever in everlasting silence. And the soul, to hear it, must be silent.” Maybe that’s why we have twelve days of Christmas – to give us the time we need to be silent, at least interiorly, to let it all sink in.

After the bucolic imagery surrounding the humble birth of our Lord and King, maybe the time is right for something a little more abstract, more enigmatic, something entailing the language of mystery that is befitting such a profound, if not unfathomable, event. This is the time to reflect, and to realize that life following the events of Christmas Eve will never be the same again – life in the aftermath of the birth of the Messiah will never be the same.

No, the Prologue to John’s Gospel does not meet our expectations for drama, but it provides something even more profound – even more profound than the scene at the manger. The very fact that the Word became flesh proves that God does not conform to our expectations. Before this day, we knew God in more of an indirect, abstract way. We knew God through the revelation of scripture. We knew God through second-hand information, through the words of the prophets. Through such second and even third-hand accounts, we were able to come to believe in and worship God who was unseen, and who seemed, in so many ways, to be out there, out of reach, just beyond our grasp. But now, through the Word-made-flesh, we know God in a different way – we know God in the flesh. God-made-flesh is God manifest in body so that we might have a conception of the unseen Father, so that we might know God as we ourselves are.

But “the Word was made flesh and lived among us” means so much more. The term we translate as “lived” is more properly translated as “pitched his tent.” Or as “tabernacled.” Just as the glory of God tabernacled, lived among, the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness, guiding them all along the way. John is telling us that in the Christmas event, God was not just born into human form. Rather, God came to be in our midst, to travel with us, to be an on-going companion on our journeys through life, just as he was with the Israelites.

But even for the Israelites, with whom God dwelt, tabernacled, God was still a mysterious houseguest at best. There was so much about God that was unfathomable to them. God may have been in their midst, but was still not truly known. There was still a distinct separation between God and worshiper, between divine and human. The Prologue of John’s Gospel indicates that such separation, such dichotomies are inherent in creation. Creation contains many things and concepts that in our limited human nature, we cannot fully fathom – heaven and earth, Creator and created, human and divine, light and dark, eternity and the time-bound, life and death, death and resurrection, acceptance and rejection, mortal life and eternal life, exclusivity and inclusivity, fallen creation and creation as God meant it to be. Such are the mysteries of the creation of which we are a part. Such are the mysteries of the One who created all things.

The Prologue reveals that all creation, along with all these dichotomies came to be through Jesus Christ, the Word. Yet, it is this same Word, in the Word-made-flesh, in the birth of Jesus, that serves as God’s act of reconciliation breaking into time and space, reconciling the dichotomies present in creation and beyond creation – reconciling those mysteries that separate Creator from the created. As such, in the Word-made-flesh, God is not just come among us. Rather, it is through this act of becoming flesh that God is allowing himself to be known to humanity in ways that He has never been known before. God is no longer an unknown and unknowable deity, but becomes a physical, flesh and blood companion, capable of knowing us and being known by us – God has come to reveal the fullness of himself, dichotomies and all. God becomes an intimate companion who wants to fully know us and who wants to be fully known.

As such, the Prologue from John serves to move the church beyond the singular birth event portrayed in Luke’s Gospel. As one commentator notes, “this passage speaks to the very heart of the Christmas message by answering the question ‘Who is the child of Bethlehem, and why should we care about his birth?’” (Bauman, 188). This passage moves the theology of the Church from “birth” to “incarnation” – to an ongoing state of God with us – a God who is no longer unseen and out there somewhere, but instead, is now God-made-flesh, who is with us, in the same form as we ourselves are. The point of the Gospel of John is that God became human through Jesus, and that as a result, He is one of us. He is truly known to us and by us. As a result, God is not distant, uninvolved, impersonal, static. Rather, God is ever-present, involved, personal, dynamic.

In the Word-made-flesh, in God-made-human, God is brought to our level, seeing humanity as we are, experiencing humanity as we do, in all its fullness – in the joys and the sorrows, in the good times and the bad. And the flip side is that in Jesus, God reveals His vision of what humanity is supposed to be. He provides the ultimate example of what humanity can be. Jesus reveals the way to true human life – to what we are intended to be. And in the Word-made-flesh, in God-made-human, we see humanity as God sees us. We see how much God loves us and cares for us, to come and be among us, to share with us that which was previously unknowable. God did not have to do this. But God chose to do it out of sheer love. That’s the true miracle of Christmas. That is the unfathomable mystery of Christmas.

This is why we need, in these days immediate following the birth of our Messiah, to hear such abstract and mysterious language as the Word-made-flesh – to let the message sink in. The event of Christmas Eve, despite all the pageantry, all the beauty, was a one-shot deal, a singular event. On the other hand, the mystical language of Word-made-flesh, the revelation of Incarnation, of God come among us, and all that that entails, is an ongoing event – the ongoing gift of our God living among us, sharing our lives with us, sharing himself with us, the ongoing assurance that we are not alone, the ongoing gift of our God who loves us unconditionally.

“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” – God-with-us, the ultimate expression, the ultimate glory, of God’s love, given to each and every one of us, his beloved children.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bauman, Stephen. “John 1: (1-9) 10-18, Pastoral Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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