Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Word became Flesh...

John 1 has always been one of my favorite parts of Scripture. I wish I could say it's only because of its theology, but honestly it's also because it reads like something you could read at a poetry slam. It's like a Jim Morrison poem in a lot of ways... only where Jim Morrison's poetry only sounded deep, John 1 has depth beyond measure.

Anyway, having now completely destroyed any credibility I may have, here's the sermon.

John 1:1-18
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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The Bible is a unique book in a lot of ways. If one believes, as we do, that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are the written Word of God, then it follows that none of the words we read are unimportant – there's nothing in the Bible as filler material, nothing that simply serves as plot development or character background, no embellishment or digression or flight of fancy. It's all there for a reason.

One of the things that is most fascinating to see in Scripture is how our understanding of who Jesus is developed over the course of early Christian history. The earliest New Testament writer is the Apostle Paul. His writings stress the importance of the central event in human history – the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is understandable, of course; Paul was an eyewitness not to the life and ministry of Jesus, but to the resurrected and glorified Christ. Other Apostolic voices joined in with their knowledge of the earthly words and works of Jesus; the earliest Gospel, Mark, is understood as the collected memories of the Apostle Peter. Some of Peter's letters are included in Scripture, as well as those of James, Jude, and other Apostles. Matthew's Gospel followed Mark's, then Luke's, and as these writings appeared, Christian theology began to embrace not only Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah, but Jesus as Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”

It has been argued that Paul thought Jesus had become divine at the resurrection; that Mark thought Jesus had become divine at the baptism, that Matthew thought Jesus had been born both God and man, and Luke understood Christ to have been both God and man at his conception in Mary's womb. If this is so, it speaks volumes to those who believe that it is not the poor in spirit, but the pure in theology who will inherit the Kingdom of heaven, but that's another sermon for another day.

While disagreements and outright violence over the nature of who Jesus is would continue through to the Council of Nicea and beyond, it is in our Gospel reading this morning, the wonderful poetry of the first chapter of John, that we see the most complete theological statement of the nature of Jesus Christ.
Not at the resurrection, not at baptism, not at birth or even at conception did Jesus become God – Jesus had, in fact, been eternally God, present at and active in the creation of all that is.

This has been called the third Christmas narrative because it offers us a full understanding of Jesus not as a created being like you and I, but as the “Word made flesh,” God incarnate among God's created.

Now, aside from informing the development of our own twenty-first century understanding of the Triune God, These words were specifically pointed at a serious problem in that late first- and early second-century church.

I said that in the first century, Christian understanding of who Jesus is was developing, and anytime there are “gaps in the story,” if you will, there are always people more than willing to fill those gaps, and usually in wildly inaccurate ways.

One such group was called the “Gnostics.” Taking their name from the Greek word for “knowledge,” the Gnostics believed that it was only though receiving special, secret knowledge about God that one could be truly saved.

Borrowing heavily from Greek philosophy, one of their core beliefs was that the material world, including our human bodies, is corrupt, inherently evil, and only the spiritual is pure and unblemished.

In practice, this manifested itself in either participating in whatever sinful activity suited one's fancy, because what the flesh did had no impact on the pure spirit, or practicing extreme abstinence, because only through strict purification of the corrupt flesh can one hope to inherit the kingdom. Further, this belief in the absolute sinfulness of the material world gave rise to some strange beliefs about the nature of Jesus Christ.

For example, some believed that the human Jesus was a separate entity from the divine Christ. This separate entity Christ joined with Jesus at his baptism, and left Jesus before the crucifixion, choosing instead to appear on a mountain somewhere and have a chat with Peter while the human Jesus went through all that pesky dying business.

Others believed that Jesus wasn't an actual physical entity, but rather something of a purely spiritual being. Legend held that he never cast a shadow or left footprints in the dust.

Still others were of the opinion that Jesus might have been human, and might have been some kind of divine being, sort of, but any deity that would have anything to do with the material earth had to have been diluted. There was, with these folks, some kind of a theory involving progressions of gods from one pure and unblemished an perfectly holy God, down to lesser and lesser and weaker and weaker gods until one could derive something that could stand to be present in human form. Kind of like those Russian dolls, where you open one up, and there's another, smaller one, you open that one up, and there's another one, and so on and so on.

The problems with these kinds of theological views of Jesus Christ are not so much that they are ridiculous, but that they completely nullify any possible atonement Jesus might have made for mankind. If Christ was not present with Jesus on the cross, then there was no atonement in that sacrifice. If it was a spiritual being rather than a biological human on the cross, then there was no atoning sacrifice period. And if there is not one God but dozens or hundreds of progressively smaller and smaller gods, then this act of redemption makes no sense at all.

It was into this confusion and misinformation that the Gospel of John speaks clarity and reason:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was 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.”

Jesus didn't just happen. Moreover, neither the birth of Christ, nor the ministry of Christ, nor the death and resurrection of Christ was some kind of cosmic “Plan B.” God wasn't strolling the golden streets one day and decided to throw some Holy Spirit down on some guy standing next to John the Baptist – God had been planning this whole thing all along.

Neither was this the kind of thing where Jesus got up one morning, said “'bye, Dad,” and went down to earth to be born. Nor did Jesus slip out the back door and rush down here to do something to make up for humanity's blunders and appease a really angry God who was about itchin' to smite everyone.

Time and again throughout the New Testament we are reminded that the plan of redemption, which centered, as all of human history does, on Jesus Christ, had been set in motion when the universe itself was created. What's more, since (as we've discussed before), no act of a Person of the Trinity is made independent of the Trinity, all of God is present in all that God does, including the redemptive work of the Incarnation.

The Greek language about John the Baptist makes this clear in a beautiful way. Where we read, “There was a man sent from God,” the original Greek says “There was a man sent from the side of God.” The triune God – not a demi-god or some minor angel or heavenly file clerk, but the one true God – was personally and intimately involved in the commissioning of the one who would proclaim and baptize and become the first martyr for Jesus Christ!

What does this mean for us, on this first Sunday in 2010? Two millenia removed from the ministry of Jesus Christ, two thousand years into the twilight-before-dawn of Christ's return, we can rest assured that we do not worship a concept, or a set of principles, or an idea. We are not Christians because we like the songs or because there are donuts in the back room. We do not claim relationship with the Creator based upon adherence to rules or because we were born in the proper caste or class or country or political system.

We worship a God who is and has been intimately involved in the affairs of humankind – a God who loves us and always has loved us, no matter where we have been or what we have done. We are Christians because Christ really was born, really lived, really died and really rose again. We rejoice in relationship with God because in the completed work of the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection, God has done everything necessary to make that loving, eternal relationship a reality.
We love because he first loved us!

That “the Word became flesh and lived among us” is not simply a statement of truth for the then-and there, but for the here and now. Emmanuel is present-tense, God is with us, through whatever 2010 brings our way – tragedy and triumphs, challenges and victories, questions and answers, failures and successes, God is with us!

Thanks be to God!


  1. Excellent! Think you nailed it. I have always loved John 1. I think John pushes back on the gnostics and brings balance all thru his gospel. It is critical truth to embrace Jesus as fully human and divine! Blessings as you bring it!

  2. Excellent sermon as always, John. I wish your church had the means to produce a podcast of your preaching. I too love the intro passage to John's Gospel and you did an excellent job of exposition.

  3. Generally, it is very, very good. Even so, as a person that has been known to make a paycheck by writing and has read something other than Sports Illustrated, I have a quibble.

    The back story is important. You need plot development and character background is important to understanding stories.

    This is not just talking about reading the Silmarillion or all the background material in the Lord of the Rings. I say this even with how much Sir Peter Jackson used the background material in Lord of the Rings in his movie trilogy. (After all, last I heard Jackson still doesn't understand the importance of the Scouring of the Shire.)

    There is back story in the Scriptures.

    Take this character called Jesus. Look at his genealogies. In particular, the genealogy that includes the women. Important information, that is.

    A person's Jewishness is carried through the mother.

    The female forebears of Jesus all were all social outcasts.

    So, even though Jesus is from the line of David, he isn't exactly from the right side of the tracks.

    How does knowing this back story on Jesus help us understand who he is and about his mission?

    V. The Word was made flesh.
    R. And dwelt among us.

    Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

  4. Bob, you make a very good point. I didn't mean to imply that backstory and such isn't important, but that every word of Scripture is vital to our understanding of God, and our understanding of ourselves. Hopefully your clarification will help to make this clearer.