You may have noticed that we did not publish our regular series Sunday Homilies with Pastor Wanda this week. That’s because Pastor Wanda was away attending a family funeral, and in her absence graciously asked me to deliver the homily at St. Luke. Here’s the manuscript.
A Word that Transforms the World
Have you ever heard a word—or perhaps it was one that you yourself spoke—that changed your whole life? Words can do that, you know? Throughout history, words have established deals, freed slaves, bought and sold companies, started and ended wars, destroyed friendships and mended them again. Think of how a just a few simple words can change your life. Words like: “You won!” or “You’re fired!” Words like “It’s cancer,” or “I do.” Just a word and suddenly your whole life is turned on end. That’s what the Apostle John is writing about in his gospel: a Word that transforms the world.
In the beginning…that where John beings. Pretty good place to start, I suppose. But it’s more than that. Those who, like John’s original audience, are familiar with the Old Testament, cannot help but hear this as an echo of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And this is intentional. The first eighteen verses are to John’s gospel as the overture is to a classic opera. The overture, as you know, is the bit at the beginning that summarizes and synthesizes the whole of the opera that is to come. So John’s prologue is his entire gospel in miniature. John is a masterful writer, probably the most sophisticated of the New Testament authors, and in these first eighteen verses he introduces every theme that he will fill out as the story unfolds. John begins in the beginning because the whole of John’s gospel is about new creation—it is a retelling of the story in Genesis 1 and 2. That’s why at the end of the gospel when Mary sees the resurrected Christ she does not recognize him, but mistakes him for the Gardener. Indeed, he is—for he has come to re-plant the Garden of Eden, to restore the Creation to its original design and for its original purpose. So this strange Christmas story that John is telling is about how God is re-creating the world, not least, how he is re-creating you and me.
What’s there in the beginning, says John, is a Word—a simple Word, nothing more. That’s the way it is with John’s gospel: things that seem trivial or insignificant turn out to have transformative power. And words are often like that. Sometimes a simple word spoken by the right person at the right time can change the fabric of reality. Think about it: when an umpire says the words, “you’re out!” even if the runner made it to the plate before the ball, the fact that the umpire uttered those words makes it the case—the runner is out. Or when Christ speaks to us his word of promise: “This is my body broken for you.” We feast each week on what looks, smells and tastes like merely bread but because Christ gave his word, he is present in with and under the host. Luther says, “we chomp on him with our teeth.” So it always is with God’s word. John’s audience knows that when The God of Israel speaks things happen. “By the Word of the Lord were the heaves made,” sang the Psalmists, “all the host of them by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:36). It is this Word that was there in the beginning that becomes in John’s story the agent of transformation and new Creation.
With John’s use of this word “Word,” or “logos,” he brings two Old Testament themes together with the prevailing pagan philosophy of his day. One of the major questions of the entire Hebrew Bible is this: How is it that this God who is wholly other—this God who dwells in the highest heavens and speaks the word into existence—how can he be covenantally bound, intimately connected to his creation. One answer is that God is united to his creation through the Torah, or the Law—his word to Israel. The alternative answer given is that God is present in the Jerusalem Temple, that the Temple is the physical dwelling place of God’s presence on earth. When John writes in v. 14 that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the Greek word he uses is skēnoō, it means tabernacle, or Temple. The Word became flesh and tempeled among us. In other words, every way it is thought in the Old Testament that God is present to Creation is bound up in this one Word that became flesh.
Logos is a significant concept also in the pagan Greek philosophy of John’s day. It is the symbol of rationality, of eternal divine wisdom. John is in effect saying to the prevailing culture, “the logos is not just some vague eternal, limitless rationality. He is a person, and I’ll introduce you to him.” And indeed that’s exactly what John sets out to do in the rest of his gospel: to show how the fullness of God rests in this one human person, Jesus of Nazareth.
But this is a hard pill to swallow, for both the Jews and the Greeks. Some people just cannot stand this kind of particularity: God with bodily fluids and raw emotions? I mean birth is painful, right ladies? Babies are inconvenient and messy. There is a lot of trouble involved with having children, trust me I know. Eugene Peterson puts it best: “It’s easy for us to accept God as Creator of the majestic mountains, the rolling seas, the delicate wildflowers, but when it come to the sordid squalor of the raw material involved in being human, surely God would keep his distance from that.”
You see, we tend think that we’re different, that our souls are above the business of diapers, debts and domestic trivia. We believe we are made for higher, more spiritual things. That’s why the ink was barely dry on the stories of Jesus’ birth before people started publishing alternative stories, more “spiritual” than the ones we find in our gospels. These stories are recorded in what are called the Gnostic gospels, which were immensely popular in the times of the early Church, and people are still writing them today. In the Gnostic writings, the doctrine of the incarnation is dismissed as crude—God with dirt under his finger nails? Instead, they’re replaced with something more palatable to sensitive souls. Jesus was not truly flesh and blood, the Word made flesh, but entered into a human body temporarily to give us the inside scoop on God. The body taken from the cross was not Jesus at all, but just a costume he borrowed for a few years and then discarded. That’s the sort of things the Gnostic gospels say.
But the real gospels won’t have it. Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary and was made man. Fully God and fully human, that’s the Christian doctrine. He was born in a dark, cold, stinking barn and laid in a feeding trough. He was, Matthew tells us, a baby refugee born in the middle of Herod’s genocide, his family had to seek asylum in Egypt. If you think, by the way, that the gospel has nothing to say to the political issues of our day, ask yourself what it means that our Lord was an illegal alien seeking refuge in Egypt. Not to mention what he had to say in Matthew 25 about how in welcoming the stranger we may unwittingly be welcoming him as well.
It was a cruel and violent world into which Jesus was born. But somehow, amidst the singing and the lighting of candles, the cookies and the time we spend with family, we have gotten the idea that Christmas ought to make us feel at ease, when perhaps the one thing Christmas ought to do is make us feel uneasy. Christmas is that time of year when we are faced squarely with the dissonance between the old world into which Jesus was born, with its violence and injustice, and the new world of righteousness, justice and peace that he is inaugurating. There are Herods in our day—oppressors and wielders of war—and learning to be uneasy under their rule is part of the meaning of Christmas, too.
But it’s no surprise that people have been attracted to the kind of Gnostic spirituality that has no use for a barn-born refugee, that attempts to flatten out and universalize the messiah so that he has nothing to say to the powers. The Word become flesh has always been a hard word to understand. Most of all it frustrates people who think they are in the know. To the religious leaders of his day Jesus says “my word has no place in you, because you cannot hear it” (Jn 8:37,43). Even some of his disciples abandon Jesus when he begins to tell them that he is the bread of heaven, and that to receive eternal life they will have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. They walk away saying “this is a hard word” (Jn 6:60). This is a classic example of what biblical scholars call Johannine irony. In John’s gospel, the religious leaders, the disciples—the people who think they are in the know—rarely “get it.” But to those who shouldn’t get it, the wisdom of God is revealed. To the imprisoned he says, “If you abide in my word, then you have the truth that sets you free” (Jn 8:31f). And to the stained soul he says, “You have already been made clean by the word I have spoken to you” (Jn 15:3). The “spiritual” in John’s gospel are discovered to be the in the dark, even while the blind see and the def hear. Those old and weary souls who have nothing in the world to cling to but faith in God’s Word, they are the children of God. That’s what is on offer at Christmas: not just gifts and time with family and warm fuzzies, but a Word that is incomprehensible and frustrating but that, when we learn to hear it, transforms our entire being.
And this is the great news of John’s gospel: As he says in v. 12, “To all who believe in his name, [Jesus] gives the power to become children of God.” To all who believe in his name…That line echoes across gallows of time as to say this is a word spoken to you and to me. It’s what Luther calls the pro me of the gospel: it’s good news for me! John reminds us that it’s important, when we reflect on the birth of the Son of God, to reflect on how we too can be born in new ways.
Now, I know, when I say things like Christmas is about being “born again,” some of you have red flags immediately popping up in your heads. That’s because many of us grew up in or around traditions where to be born again meant simply to hold to a certain set of doctrine or beliefs. In the broader culture, by the end of the Carter administration, to be “born again” had come to be synonymous with a certain type of conservative evangelicalism. And, perhaps more to the point, most of us have known at least one person who was “born again” in a remarkably unattractive way that resulted in sort ridged fundamentalism and an “us”-vs.-“them”-mentality. Traditionally we Lutherans have felt a bit threatened by all of this. No doubt, some of you, like me, became Lutheran in part to escape some of the going on about being born again in your tradition. But I think it’s time we look again with fresh eyes at this born again language.
Look at what John says: “To all who believe in his name will be given power to become children of God” (v.12).” So at the heart of what it means to be born again is a new kind of power. We see one kind of power in the birth stories of Jesus: Herod ruled first century Palestine with the power of violence and fear. The Herords of our day are more apt to rely on the power of money or social status. But John is talking about a power that is quite different from the power of the kingdoms of this world—the power to become children. Talk about irony. Children, especially in the first century, are regarded by the world as less important because they lack power, prestige, money and social status. But our Lord says that if we are to enter the kingdom of God, we will become like one of these little children—not yet conditioned to “need” control, money and social respect. All who believe will receive the power to become children. “Ahh!” you say, “but it is children of God.” Yes, but remember the meaning word God is being redefined, so that we only really discover who God is when we look at Jesus, the Word made flesh, the helpless baby refugee born in a barn, the one who reveals God’s glory on a cross.
This is the Word spoken at Christmas time. The Word that was with God in the beginning, and still today reveals who God really is. It is a Word that is incomprehensible and often frustrating to those who are in the know, who rely on the power of control, money, and prestige. But to those who can do nothing but cling with faith to this Word, to these is given the power to become Children of God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.