NB: I preached a version of this sermon on January 5, 2020 (Christmas 2A) at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas, Texas
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us; and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.”
This may be the definitive line in the Gospels.
Our religion has a lot of cool stuff in those books, don’t get me wrong. We’ve got a virgin mother, we’ve got prophecies, we’ve got miracles, we’ve got ethical teachings that will break your head. We’ve got tense encounters, arguments, scandal, betrayal. Meals! Lots of meals. We have a crucifixion. We have a body raised from the dead.
All of this is important. It is life-and-death, heaven-and-hell stuff. But pretty much all of it can be found somewhere else or fit into a different interpretation than the one we choose when we say “We believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.”
But not this: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
The first thirteen verses of John’s Gospel are beautiful but they would not have been shocking to the world of the 1st century. It was not unusual for people in those days, whether they were Jews or pagans, to believe in one God. Even though the religions of the pagan Roman world had many deities, the more sophisticated pagans understood that these many gods were in fact images or avatars or creations of the One. So people would not have been put off by a passage talking about God.
Likewise they would not have batted an eye at hearing that there was, with God, something called the Word. The term we translate as “Word” in English has a bigger, more abstract meaning in Greek. It’s bigger than word as in “twine” or “couch” or “football.” It includes something more like thought or idea or pattern. We get the word “logic” from the Greek word “logos.” The Word, or in some places Wisdom, of God was the means God used to create and govern the universe. God in Godself is so perfect and untouchable and self-contained that there needs to be a bridge between God and the creation. And that’s the Word of God or the Wisdom of God.
We hear this today in the passage from Sirach, an Old Testament book that shows the influence of Greek philosophy. Wisdom comes forth from God and covers the whole Earth, enlightening everything. The smarter set of pagan Greeks and Romans would have agreed.
But John’s Gospel says more. John’s Gospel says that this Word did not merely bridge the infinite space between God and the creation; this Word became flesh. The thought, the idea, the pattern entered into the world it had made and became a part of that world, a body in that world.
This was the big, defining, devastating claim at the heart of Christianity. People could believe in a resurrection from the dead every day of the week and literally twice on Sundays. Believing that the force who shaped and guided and sustained the universe became frail human flesh, became a mortal human body was simply too much.
This is why Christian faith is distinct among religions. It’s not, first and foremost, a list of rules to follow or rituals to practice or beliefs to hold. Though we do have rules, rituals, and beliefs. But Christian faith is, first and foremost, about an event. All the rules and rituals and beliefs spread out around that event: the Word of God, with God and of one being with God before all time, became flesh and pitched its tent among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
That, we confess, is a thing that happened. We don’t need to have figured out how. We just need to confess and hold that it did. That’s why the ancient church was so thorough and specific in the Nicene Creed: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made. For us, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven; he was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. He was not a little bit God, but true God from true God. He did not appear human, but became truly human.
Now this was a long time ago. People used different terms and thought in different ways then. Can we even still hear the shock in these words?
They are, after all, still quietly shocking. The world of flesh—the world of stuff—is still frail and fragile. We are still tempted to believe that the real truth of God or the Universe or whatever is somewhere up there, beyond our earthly existence. We are still tempted to believe that we are, as the bumper sticker says, spiritual beings having a physical experience.
But our faith tells us something very different. Our frail and fragile flesh houses the Savior. The Truth of God came down to earth. We are not spiritual beings having a physical experience. We are physical beings whose life has been taken up into God through God’s own Son.
And that means that everything matters. Every person matters. Every life matters. Every cell in every body matters. Every ache and pain racking our bodies, every bullet tearing human flesh vibrates in the very being of God. Every hungry or despised or neglected body has been taken up into God along with every one of us. Every gimpy leg and arthritic hand is holy. Your hands—holy hands! Your feet—holy feet! Your pumping heart, your quicksilver brain, your tensing muscles—holy heart, holy brain, holy muscles! Not because God is fond of them, though God is fond of them, but because God is incarnate in them.
And the Word becomes flesh, here and now on this altar and pitches its tent among us, among us poor distracted sinners who are yet holy and sacred and precious in every fiber of our fleeting bodies. Bodies that were made to be joined to God in the sacrament now by faith and love, and in eternity by the fullness of our existence. Amen.