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The Word Become Flesh
PUTTING AWAY JESUSThis past week most of us completed the annual ritual of putting away the Christmas decorations for another year. In our family after the last remaining Christmas gifts have been stored away, the ornaments come off the tree and then the string of lights are unwrapped from the branches. The atmosphere in the house is never the same as the day we decorated the tree. There are no cookies, no Christmas carols. There is almost a drudgery to the chore, the holiday joy is absent. The contrasting mood is most noticeable when the manage scene is repacked and little baby Jesus is put away for another year.
Ironically this is the exact opposite of the
symbolism of the two Sundays after Christmas in the Christian year. We
adorn the church in white to remind ourselves that God does not put away
his son but reveals him to the world. Last year we celebrated the coming
of the wise men. This year we heard the story of his dedication ceremony
in the Temple and Simeon's and Anna's grand prophecy concerning the Christ
child. God answered the question, "What Child is this?" with a stunning
announcement. This week the apostle John continues that theme. He opens
his gospel not by packing Jesus away but by revealing his splendor.
Not only was his goal rather ambitious, John also faced several challenges. First he had to describe in human words the divine mysteries that become reality in Jesus. Secondly, he had to translate these perplexing wonders to a foreign culture. John was born a Jew. His family were devoted Jews. He was raised in a culture that was shaped, governed and guided by the Torah, the Law of God. Jewish custom, law and tradition was all that he knew but he was writing to people who were unaccustomed the Jewish heritage. They were Greek. They lived in a Hellenistic society. They were more familiar with the stories of Hercules, Zesus, Prometheus and Athhena rather than Abraham and Sarah, Moses and David. They had read the writings of Plato and Aristotle, not Jeremiah, Isaiah and Micah. John had to translate his Hebrew understanding of the life of Jesus into a Hellenistic world. The business community knows how difficult translating a message into the context of another culture.
Over the years automobile manufactures have had a number of success stories. The Chevy Nova was a very popular care in the mid-70s. Encouraged by its sales in this country, Chevrolet tried to market the American car throughout the world. However, even after an aggressive advertising campaign the car sales in Latin American countries were very disappointing. Undaunted by their initial failure the company did what any good American company would do-they spent more money on advertising. But sales remained sluggish. The sales directors could not understand why the car was not selling until they finally discovered that the name of the car, Nova means no go in Spanish. Perdue Farms also had problems translating their slogan "It takes a strong man to man a tender chicken." Their first attempt produced "It takes a virile man to produce a chicken affection."1
THE WORD BECAME FLESHFortunately, the apostle John had greater success in translating the theological truths of his message into the vernacular of Hellenistic culture. However, to accomplish this he choose a Greek term that has lost its meaning today-logos. Simply translated it means word but to the Greek mind it meant so much more.
The concept of the logos assumed central significance in Greek philosophy and the natural sciences. While each specialty gave it a slightly different emphasis the term captured the essence of all truth. Unlike the myth which god places in the heart of the poet, the logos encompasses all objective knowledge of the material world. It includes all the facts, all the laws and all the data of the universe. For the philosopher it also encompassed the mind and thoughts of the divine ideal.
John explains that this logos, the Word became flesh. In three brief words John present one of the most perplexing concepts of Christian theology-the Incarnation. Divine reason and Divine power take on an earthly existence in the frailty of a fleshly human body. This was God's plan and purpose since the beginning of time.
In Creation God made a rather remarkable decision. He choose to set humanity apart from all human existence by breathing in us life, the capacity to experience the spiritual realm. No other animal enjoys this. No other animal has the knowledge or concept of God. Evolution may explain many things about the development of life on earth but science has yet to determine why men and women are so different from other animals.
Unlike other species in the animal kingdom, men and women have a hunger for God. Pascal called it a "God shaped vacuum that can only be filled through an encounter and relationship with God. That capacity was designed by God. The apostle John tells us that it actually takes place. In Christ, the Word becomes flesh. This truth is central to our faith. It is the litmus test of orthodoxy. If you want to test any other religion or sect ask the question, "What do the teach about Jesus? Was he God mad flesh or was he just a god made flesh?" Anything less than incarnation of the God of Creation dwelling in human flesh is heresy. The glory that John saw in Jesus was the voice that first spoke at creation was same voice that cried out his mother's bosom in a Bethlehem stable.2
THE POWER OF THE SPOKEN WORDOur society has become inundated with words such that words have lost their meaning. We use words and phrases with reckless abandon. Our ears are bombarded from every direction with words: from magazines, the radio and TV. Through the internet we can download more words than we can possible comprehend or understand with just a few clicks of the keyboard. Look at the unsolicited mail that clogs our mailboxes, the unread magazines piling up on the floor. Listen to the preachers, politicians, parents and teachers. All of them are using words to get our attention, to offer their advice or to solicit their product. They force us to hunt for words in self defense. We make promises that we have no intention of fulfilling and dole out polite but insincere praise and compliments. Words have not always been spoke with such carelessness.
Often these words have become detached from their original meaning. The sign says, "Vine ripened tomatoes," but they seldom are. A friend says, "I'll call you," but the phone never rings. The TV preacher says, "The more you give, the more you will receive" so you write the check and wait. Soon you become cynical of people and their words. Someone makes you a promise but how long must you wait for them to make good on their word. After awhile words start become indistinguishable from the sound of a passing wind or the clang of a noisy gong.
John writes his gospel to tells us that when the logos became flesh a different word came into existence. The logos of God is not a unit of speech but a way of life. The logos of God does not deliverer complicated and boring lectures on the biological workings of disease and the human body; the logos of God heals the sick. The Word of God does not conduct extensive research projects on the social, political and economic impact on the poor in Third World nations; this Word feeds the hungry. The logos of God does not leave video tapes on their neighbor's doorknobs; this logos of God visit them in their home and sits with them at their hospital bedside to talk and pray.
The incarnate word does what he says and says what he does. In Christ word and reality become one. There are no well intentioned but unkept promises. There is no incongruity between what he says and who is. If you want to know what God looks like, like at him. If you want to know what God values, look at what he values. If you want ot know how God acts, read about what he does. By the apostle John's writings we discover that Jesus is God's word in action. "This is God's self, God's soul, God's life-force in the flesh."3
This is the Word that seeks to become incarnated in the lives of his creation. Every now and again someone steps forward to offer their life as a symbol of this incarnation, such was the life of Henri Nouwen. Many of you may know him as a write and lecturer. He was trained psychologist and thologian who taught at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. He had a resume that many would die for-which was the problem. The demands of his schedule were suffocating him. He tried to escape the pressure by going as a missionary to South America for six months but when he returned the speaking requests only increased. Finally he took up residence at a L'Arche community in Toronto called Daybreak. The community is dedicated to caring for the severely disabled. They have a home in Tacoma and I recently learned that they are now caring for little Sarah Eckblad.
Living as the chaplain in residence at Daybreak was quite a change for Henri Nouwen. He lived in a small room with a single bed and only one bookshelf. A few pieces of Shaker-style furniture and one print of a Van Gogh painting adorned the room. He did not have a fax or a computer. His Daytimer's was removed from his simple desk. Each morning he would rise and care for Adam. It would take him nearly two hours to get him ready each morning. He had to bath and shave him. This would be followed by brushing his teeth and coming his hair. Next he would guide his hand to allow Adam to eat his breakfast.
When a fellow author suggested that this might not be the best use of a busy priest's time, Nouwen replied, "I am not giving up anything. It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from the friendship." Those simple repetitive act of caring for Adam had become for him an hour of meditation. This had not been easy for Nouwen. At first touching Adam was difficult. The messiness of caring for an uncoordinated person was uncomfortable. However, Henri learned to love Adam, truly love him and in so doing discovered a little of what it must have been like for God to love us-spiritually uncoordinated, retarded, unable to respond to the call of the Divine voice.4 In caring for Adam, Henri symbolized the miracle of the incarnation.
CONCLUSIONIn a dirty messy manger stall the words of God become a living realty. God put into action, put into one life, all the words that he had been saying since the beginning of time. He delivered on a promise to present to us his glory and grace. He now calls us to allow that Word to become incarnated in our lives.
1. James Emery White, Rethinking The Church, (Baker, 1998), p. 38 quoted by Sermon Illustrations at http://www.sermonillustrations.com/nti/john/1_6-8and19-28.htm.
4 . Phillip Yancy, "The
Holy Inefficiency of Henri Nouwen," Christianity Today, December
9, 1999, Vol. 40 No. 14, p. 80.
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