Prologue: The Word Became Flesh

Scripture: John 1:1-14

I heard a Christmas Eve sermon once that was only about three minutes long.  The pastor told a story of a scared little boy hiding under the bed.  His father tried and tried to coax him out; he did everything he could, but nothing could bring this little boy out from under the bed.  So the father got down and crawled under the bed with him.

That was all.

I’ve heard a lot of Christmas Eve sermons in my life, but that is the one I remember best.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and this is what we’re waiting for: for God to get down here with us, here – in our fear; here – in our pain; here – in our brokenness.

It’s almost Christmas, and God is about to do it.

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of Advent, we began reading through the first chapter or prologue of John’s Gospel together, and we’ve been reading cumulatively since then. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  Those are the words John opened with, setting his story even before creation. Later the Word, in John’s imagery, became the Light: the true light that shines on all people, coming into the world, rejected by many, welcomed by a few.  Today, as we come to the verse that has been called not only the climax of this poem, but of John’s whole Gospel, and even of the New Testament,[1] Jesus is once again Word.  The Word became flesh, and made his home among us.

There’s a word we use sometimes in this season: incarnationIn carne, becoming flesh.  Specifically God becoming flesh, God becoming human.  What happens at Christmas, the event we’ve been waiting for and expecting these past four weeks of Advent, isn’t just the birth of a baby, not even a special baby, who makes angels sing from heaven and shepherds leave their flocks and wise men follow a star.

What happens at Christmas is God becoming one of us.

It’s possible those words don’t really pack that much of a punch today.  We know them; we expect them.  But can we really wrap our minds around them? The Word, who was with God and was God in the beginning, becomes flesh, becomes bone and fat and muscle and blood, becomes all the things that make up these frail human bodies of ours.  It’s a paradox because the eternal can’t be limited like this; these mortal bodies can’t contain the very Logos of God.  It’s unbelievable enough that some have called it the “scandal” of incarnation – enough to drive people away from faith by the very impossibility of it.

Early Christian leaders and theologians fought a lot about this thing called incarnation and how it really worked.  Some of them said Jesus was a regular human being who attained special divine status along the way. Some said Jesus was a god who only took on the appearance of a human being, kind of like a ghost; he only seemed to die and rise again.  Some said he was kind of half and half, part human and part divine, two natures swirled together like a candy cane.  Today we call these people heretics, but I think it’s good to remember that they were all faithful people trying to figure out how all of this worked at a time when that really hadn’t been agreed upon.  We may still have some differences of opinion today.  But in time the church agreed that none of these things were what incarnation meant: it was, instead, one thing truly and fully becoming another, without at all ceasing to be the first.  The Word became flesh.

The Word became flesh and made his home among us.

If you remember back to our series on Exodus this fall, you may remember that Exodus ends with God’s presence filling the tabernacle, the tent-like mobile divine dwelling place and proto-Temple that God instructed the Israelites to build in the wilderness.  The tabernacle was the sign that God went with the Israelites as they marched toward the Promised Land.  The word that John uses here for “made his home among us” is in, Greek, “pitched a tent,” and it’s the same word the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible uses for tabernacle.  In one translation (NLT), the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.

That tells us, I think, that dwelling among us is the kind of thing that God has been trying to do for a long time, now.

God’s desire to be with us and walk with us and know us and help us from our level isn’t just a decision God makes somewhere around the year 0 or nine months before.  It’s part of who God is, in and from the beginning.

Hebrew Bible scholar Ellen Davis brings a similar understanding to the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush, from earlier in Exodus.  When God tells Moses to take off his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground, Davis writes: “not only a place where God is heard speaking, but the place where God comes down, all the way to the ground….The essence of the gospel is heard already from the burning bush: God has come down to holy ground to deliver us and to bring us up to a land of promise.”  It’s inevitable, she writes, “that the early Greek theologians…would see the link between the burning bush and incarnation,” and in fact if you go to St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, you will see an icon of Mary as the burning bush: she who held the holiness of God in her own body, but was not consumed.[2]

I think it’s easy for Christians sometimes to look at God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament and think we are getting some kind of upgraded version: that God shrugged God’s shoulders along the way and decided to try be loving instead of wrathful, or decided to give grace instead of law a shot; but really in Jesus we are meeting, in the flesh, God as God always has been.

And yet in Jesus God is also doing something wholly new.  Never before has the Word become flesh.  Never before have we experienced, fully, the scandal of incarnation.  Each time before, there was something mediating God’s voice and presence to us: a burning bush, a dark cloud, a divinely-attuned prophetic intermediary.  In fact, in Exodus we are told that no one was allowed to see God’s glory – except for Moses, once, in passing.  But in Jesus, John says, we have seen God’s glory.

The Bible paraphrase The Message translates this part about making his home among us a little differently.  The Word became flesh and blood, it goes, and moved into the neighborhood.

I love that for its concreteness and specificity.  God isn’t just eternal mystery wrapped in a dense cloud in the middle of an ancient wilderness.  God is the guy down the street with the U-Haul, wiping his brow as he figures out the best angle to get the sofa in the door.  God is the woman with the yappy dog who’s new in the apartment down the hall.  God is the person who just staked out their sleeping place in the woods by the river.  A God in our neighborhood is a God we can know.

Have you ever moved into a new neighborhood?  Most of us probably have, at some point.

Maybe you bought a house and stayed there for most of your adult life; maybe you went away to college and your dormmates became your new neighbors; maybe you had a two-year stint somewhere with the Foreign Service; maybe you’re the type who wanders from place to place as opportunity or necessity calls.  Maybe someone brought you muffins; maybe someone helped you find your way; maybe someone did something to let you know you were not welcome there.  No matter what experience you’ve had, moving in means to invest yourself in a place, in some way, to some degree.  You will see the same people day after day, walking their dog or in the elevator.  Maybe you’ll feed someone’s cat or get their mail while they are away.  You’ll have your spots, the place you stop for coffee and the place you can almost always find parking.  You’ll notice the way the light hits a tree across the way just so in the morning.  You may or may not love it – few of us probably love every place we live equally – but it will become yours, even if only for a short time.  It will be part of your story, and you will be part of its story.

When the Word became flesh, the Word didn’t do so in general.  He did so concretely, specifically.  In Bethlehem, the year of the census.  In Nazareth, the Galilean backwater that people said nothing good would ever come from.  In Capernaum, by the lake, where fishermen hauled in their catch of the day.  In Bethany, where Mary and Martha cooked dinner.  In Jerusalem, the Temple, his places, his people, he part of their stories and they part of his.

The idea that one specific person living one specific life can be present with us today and offer salvation to us today is called  – and here’s the word scandal again – the scandal of particularity.  And yet Christ is universal exactly because he is particular, or specific.

It strikes me that here in verse 14, where John writes that the Word became flesh and made his home among us, it is the first time he has used that first-person pronoun, us.

Till now the prologue has been in third person: the Light came to his own, and they did not welcome him.  Those who welcomed him were made children of God.  But this isn’t just a story about them, it’s not just a story that takes place there; because the one who moves into the neighborhood is the one who was with God and was God in the beginning, it’s also a story of us and here, Jesus present in the specifics of our lives.

Let’s think for a moment about our own neighborhood, Rosslyn.  Some of you live here; you at least go to church here; or, you are at least here today.  Tell me about Rosslyn.  What words would you use to describe it?  What kinds of people do you meet?  What are your places here?

Incarnation means that Jesus can be found here too: in the business people, the State Department types, the recent college grads beginning their first jobs, the people who sleep at the Metro and panhandle on Lynn Street during the day; at the Gold’s Gym and the Compass Coffee and Chipotle and Gateway Park and the Safeway everyone used to love to hate but is now actually reasonably nice; in the new apartment buildings going up and the office buildings still trying to rent space and in the church on top of the gas station, bearing witness in the middle of it all.

Incarnation means this is where God is; this is where God’s story unfolds.  This, right here under us and around us, this is holy ground.

I do wonder sometimes why God chose to do it this way.  In some ways it would have been a lot easier to believe in a clockwork universe kind of God – one who sets things in motion and then just sits back, untouched and unaffected and uninvolved with what happens after.  The mystery of what must have happened back in the Big Bang may intrigue some of us, but it doesn’t scandalize most of us.  God could easily have left things at that.

The reason God didn’t, I think, is that that’s not who God is.

God is love, and that means God isn’t just content to sit back and leave us to our own devices.  If we are here in our pain and our brokenness, our fears and self-centeredness, if we aren’t capable of loving and welcoming others on our own, if we haven’t yet managed to find abundant life in the Reign of God on our own –

Then God is going to come down.

For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son…

Who became one of us and moved into the neighborhood.

And through him, we have seen God, in all God’s messy, mundane, and dazzling glory.

 

 

[1] Feasting on the Word, Vol. 1, p. 143 (Exegetical Perspective)

[2]Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 45-46.

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