Reading the Bible, we encounter words weaving together the stories of God and humanity. Sometimes, these words puzzle, delight, disturb, empower. In these stories, we learn of God’s abiding love and presence within human history, particularly in times of great challenge and adversity.
In John’s gospel, as the gospel writer is seeking a way to introduce the story of Jesus, he harkens back to one of the earliest stories: the creation narrative of Genesis. This gospel begins with “In the beginning was the Word”, meaning before creation, before there was a concept of “before”, the Word “was”. The story of Jesus, the good news about his life, death, and resurrection, is interwoven into the story of the One who brought all of Creation into existence. John’s gospel develops the story further, speaking of how the Word became “flesh”, bringing God into the midst of the world. In this story of John’s gospel, we will behold the very power of the universe, voluntarily taking the form of humanity, coming down to dwell among us. Something familiar yet powerfully new is taking place in this gospel story.
Words.... When I’m on the road, sometimes, people ask what I do. Sometimes I just want to be “off the clock”, so I say, “My trade is in words.” Oh really? They say. What do you write? Then I sheepishly have to say, “Sermons.”
Words…. Each week, I chase after dozens of words, trying to coral and cajole a few together to make a point, honing them into sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes, late at night, I have been known to plead with them to make it onto the page sitting there blank before me. Some weeks, I find the words just show up, moving from mind to keyboard to printed page to pulpit. Other weeks, I feel like that hapless babysitter in The Incredibles film: no matter what I do, the unruly child called “just the right word I was looking for” just keeps getting more and more difficult to get a handle on it. A book written by clergywomen on the art of preaching has likened writing the sermon as similar to birthing.
Words…. Words can bear a much needed moment of truth and grace. Words can be used as blunt instruments, spoken in moments of frustration or rage. However we use words, they are best used with due care and consideration. Words well used create all manner of good.
A few years back, the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota commissioned a Bible to be designed and lettered by hand, a fascinating “old school” approach to creating a Bible. The “St John’s Bible” is laden with beautiful illustrations, including a frontispiece for each gospel. The St John’s Bible introduces John’s gospel with the image of a human form emerging from a swirl of the DNA helix and Greek and Hebrew letters, the languages of the Christian canon of scripture. It is an artistic way of communicating the story, reveling in the generative power of John’s language. In this passage of scripture, the strands of humanity’s encounters with God, our sins and God’s tireless effort to redeem us, weave together anew. In this story, the story of Jesus, we learn of the Word that came down and dwelled among us.
As I read John’s gospel, I often find myself stopping in the midst of the rich language of the opening chapter and just reveling in the words. I recall the fond memory of Christmas Eve services from my own upbringing when the minister read the Prologue of John as the candles were lit around the sanctuary. (You will note this tradition made an impression on myself, as I carry it on in my own worship planning.) The reading builds up from the ethereal language to a highpoint in verse 14:
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.
A few notes on the Greek text of John help at this point: The imagery is not merely Jesus becoming a man. The text is more fulsome, claiming the Word became part of what it means to be human. Jesus did not excuse himself from the grace nor the grit of human life, a body prone to aches and pain, capable of such much less. The Word becomes fragile flesh and does not live above but among, in the midst, of us, the whole lot of humanity.
The Greek text also uses a phrase that few English translations pick up: the Word became flesh, and (the Greek says) pitched his tent. It is such an interesting image: the great God above becomes a common person, somebody who lives as neighbor and fellow journeyer along life’s path. From time to time, you will spot bulletin cover art provided by a Brazilian Catholic artist who provides free art for churches based on the weekly gospel readings. (Ah! The global church enriches us! Vermont Baptists benefit from the art of a Brazilian Catholic!) This particular week’s image is quite interesting: Jesus is imaged in the midst of a field of tents, sitting on the ground side by side with another person, having what appears to be a heart-to-heart type conversation. As the Word, God has the power to create all we know. As the Word made flesh, Jesus shares life with the created.
As John’s gospel unfolds, we see the prologue’s lament that the Word came to the world yet the world did not know him. He moves among us, yet he is more often rejected, notably by the religious leaders of the day. Jesus chooses a less expected path, in the midst of the common people, offering his teachings and performing his signs and miracles in veritable obscurity. Jesus seeks not fame and recognition. The glory of God shines in the least likely of places, yet in those places, the gospel writer claims the shadows overtaking the world are cast away by the light of Jesus.
Words…. Christians use quite a few terms to describe Jesus: “Savior”, “the second Person of the Trinity”, “son of God”, Emmanuel, King, Servant, Messiah, and the list goes on. The terms are spoken out of religious devotion and explored by biblical and theological scholars. Our words for God are our ways as Christians to identify who we are and the ways we believe.
Words…. Jesus gave us words to live by, found in gospel narratives in the form of parables, sayings, and the conversations he engaged in with disciples, the crowds, the marginalized, the authorities. In these words called “gospel”, we are given words that guide us through life, help us know ourselves better by reading them and taking these words to heart (sometimes in the process engaging in a struggle of conscience to sort them out in the context of our own life and times).
Words…. Amazingly, God did not choose to remain aloof or silent up in the heavens above. Such texts as the prologue to John serve as a counter-witness to those times of despair and doubt when we believe God does not hear us, remember us, or stay with us. In our present day with a rising number within society self-identifying as “no religious identity” or “not religious or spiritual”, being able to share these sort of texts becomes that much more important.
Words…. Our texts form us to be a people who believe with heart and mind God is with this world. We believe God became flesh and dwelled among us. In turn, we cannot live aloof from the world or refrain from being in the midst of the crosswalks of life. To follow Christ means to follow him into the midst of the world and dwell there especially in those places we would not go.
Words…. Christ comes among us, speaking the words of life abundant. Can we stop and listen, hearing the word in our lives? Can we welcome the Word into our midst?