1st Sunday after Christmas — 31 December 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 11:00 a.m.
RCL: Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Psalm 147:13-21 Gal 3:23-25; 4:4-7 John 1:1-18
(c) 2006 William S. J. Moorhead
And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
At Christmas the passages of the Gospel of which we are most fond, I suspect, are the narratives of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus — St. Luke’s story of the Holy Family’s refuge in the stable of the inn in Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds; and St. Matthew’s account of the visit of the mysterious Wise Men from the East and their extravagant and portentous gifts.
For many of us these are our favorite stories to tell, at least at this time of year; we love them, we know them, in fact we know more than is actually in the Scriptures themselves!
But also prominent among the Gospel passages for this season is another one, of a rather different character; one that is read on Christmas morning, and also on this following Sunday (this year coming a full six days later); one that also is familiar, and beloved of most of us I think; yet not exactly a narrative story of the birth of Jesus but more like the foundational presuppositions of the birth of Jesus: what we call the Prologue of the Gospel according to St. John. And I think it is crucial that as we celebrate God’s coming into the world in Jesus of Nazareth we hear, and read and mark and learn and inwardly digest these distinct, not to say different, “takes” on the incarnation of Christ.
“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 Word.” “The Word of God.” Not just “a word,” or a set of words, but something far profounder, God’s own self-expression, God’s own creativity, the self-giving in which God spoke the universe into being. And this Word became flesh — God became a human being.
Granted, this from St. John’s Gospel is pretty heady stuff (not just the prologue, but throughout the Gospel!). And so it’s important that as well as having the theoretical foundations, we also have the stories (though we do tend to pretty them up) — Jesus was really born, as a real human being. In fact, he was born in a barn, and almost immediately he became a political refugee. His childhood and young adulthood was obscure and mostly unknown; his public career was relatively short and came to a bad end.
And why should this have been? We know the story of Jesus well enough, and we read it and tell it over and over, together in church, in our families, in our own meditations. The question that I’m not sure we ask very often is, Why would God do such a thing?
Here’s the deal: God created the universe. By and by we came along in our own corner of the world, and, to put it bluntly, we screwed up. And we can’t fix ourselves by ourselves. God isn’t willing to abandon his creation project and throw us in the trash, so God will have to do the fixing.
Okay. So why doesn’t God just do it?
Why this incredibly convoluted plot? What’s all this about coming and being born in an obscure backwater and growing up as a nobody and having a brief flash of fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view), and then being gotten rid of, crucified by the local imperial authorities? How does this constitute “fixing” humankind’s problems? This isn’t very efficient! What’s the point of “the Word becoming flesh” at all? Why doesn’t God just appear in the clouds of glory and shout to the world, “You people just behave yourselves!” That’s what we’d do!
God created us human beings in the divine image and likeness, in order that we might respond to God’s love and to share God’s love with one another. The necessary condition of our being able to love is that we are free — free to love but also free to refuse to love. God always offers us the divine grace to enable us to love, but God does not force grace upon us. To reconcile wayward and perverse humankind to God’s love requires that God win us, not command us.
Well, that sounds just fine, but the fact is that we would rapidly run out of patience. God does not run out of patience. And we get very impatient that God does not run out of patience. But God will not reduce us to puppets, God will not make us robots, God will preserve our freedom even as we use our freedom to destroy ourselves.
So God does not appear in the clouds of glory and shout to the world, “You people start behaving yourselves!” God came to be one of us. Really. Not just looking like one of us. Being one of us. The Word became flesh, and lived among us.
And so Jesus was born in a barn. He grew up in obscurity and relative poverty. And when the time came he began to teach about the Kingdom of God, to proclaim God’s Kingdom, to enact God’s Kingdom, to challenge all the forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers that corrupt and destroy God’s children, the selfishness and greed that draw us from God’s love. And so they killed him.
But that wasn’t the end of it. It still isn’t the end of it. It’s just the beginning.
"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.”