Christmas Day: The Fleshy Word

Audio is available here: The Fleshy Word

The Gospel of John is a different kettle of fish altogether, isn’t it? Most of us this morning know that. John is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The first three tell roughly the same story, accentuating different parts, rewriting different bits and pieces, here and there. But they are very similar.

This is why they are called the Synoptic Gospels. They see things “with the same eyes,” which is roughly what the word “synoptic” means. And of course, John sees with his own eyes. He has a different geography. He focuses on Cana and Jerusalem, not Galilee. He has a different timeline. His Gospel runs for three or perhaps four years. He has different miracles and sayings—the seven signs and the the fourteen I am sayings. He even has a different beginning—a beginning which is the Gospel lesson for this morning.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

It’s hard to not to be impressed by the loftiness of the Gospel’s prologue when compared to the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. There are no stories of sexual scandal that might cause the righteous to blush. There are no implausible angelic visitations to poke our inner Christopher Hitchens. There is no massacre of the innocents to dismay us.

We are given, rather, a theology of creation that includes Christ from the outset.  It somehow seems more fitting to a Christmas celebration—at least to me. We can leave the messiness, chaos, and even evil described by Matthew and Luke behind and contemplate John’s wonderful re-writing of the opening verses of Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

It may be that you find yourself this morning actually preferring the quiet contemplation of the deep eternal truths of the opening verses of John to the hustle-bustle noise that seems to dominate both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus origins. It’s understandable after all. We’ve had enough noise. (I think of Boris Karloff’s rendering of the Grinch with some sympathy. When he says, “All the noise, Noise, Noise NOISE!” he speaks for me). So let’s even set the noise of Matthew and Luke to one side and look at things from a higher perspective, contemplating the eternal truths that John compresses into the first four verses.

And it may be that it’s not just a matter of perspective. John’s account of the incarnation is so different from that of Matthew and Luke that some theologians—Wolfhart Pannenberg is the most significant—have concluded that they are, in fact, contradictory. And we should, therefore, choose between them. At best, Matthew and Luke convey in crude, clearly legendary language what John more precisely and pristinely sets forth in his account of the Word. John frees us from their crudities which did not, of course, actually happen.

And yet. . . .

However much I might want, especially after the rush and rudeness, meanness and messiness that defines Christmas for so many of us. . . .

However much I might want to  leave this world behind to contemplate the incarnation as an idea, not even John will let me. For he does not leave “the Word” as God with God in the beginning. He does not leave the Word as the one through whom all that is came to be. He does not even leave the word as the light that enlightens every one.

No. John goes further. And that “further” is the Gospel.

John says that, the Word became flesh.

With those four words, we have taken leave of philosophy and the universal truths of reason. We have started to talk about the particular truths of history.

Withh those four words, we have taken leave of the incarnation as an idea. We have left behind the incarnation as some lofty eternal principle.  Whether we like it or not, we have turned again to the earthy language of Mattew and Luke, who spoke crudely in the legendary language of a virgin conception and birth.

The Word became flesh. These words speak of an act. Theirs  is the language of event. Something happened. That very Word says John, became flesh. In the womb of Mary, The Word of God who was God and with God from before creation assumed all that it means to be human.

The web of family and social relations—John will tell us later of his mother and father, and of his brothers—that are common to all of us were common to him.

The everyday trajedies of life—from having to deal with brothers who did not believe to standing grief-stricken before the grave of Lazarus. All the messiness that makes us us, made him, him.

The full range of human emotions—from the love for his Beloved Disciple to the anger at the money changers at the temple—were common to him.

He even embraced the simple human desire not to end the party too soon—the water was, after all, turned into the very best wine. Why?

Because, says John, the Word became flesh. The writer to the Hebrews puts it even more evocatively: He was not ashamed to call us—to call you, to call me—his brothers and sisters. He became flesh.

And so the messiness of life that is starkly narrated in Luke’s account of a family forced to return to the family home for the sake of government regulation. The messiness of life that includes the hint of sexual scandal. The scandal that, for Matthew, confronts the righteous Joseph as he weighs what to do with his pregnant betrothed, intrudes here, in John’s four words.

The word became flesh. Once we say that, we are no longer dealing with what the theologians call the logos asarkos. The word without the flesh. We are dealing with flesh. We are dealing with a body. And not just singular. A body. We are dealing with bodies. For if the Word becomes flesh, then Mary—the one in whom the Word became flesh—walks into our imaginations, too.

And if we let Mary in, we may as well let the shepherds in their fields and the magi with their gifts, and the angels, and even the wily old Herod in too. For our world, as theirs, is a world of people who talk too much and understand too little, a world of grace-touched pagans, and evil kings. And if there is that much intercourse between their world and ours, maybe, just maybe, it goes both ways. Maybe, just maybe, there are angels who, if we listen, will still bring to us the glad tidings of great joy that unto us a Savior has been given. If we can nod sublimely at John’s insistence that God can become a human being, why scoff at the rest?

So it won’t do to let John rescue us from the more mundane renderings of Jesus’ entry into human history. He doesn’t want to do that. What he does want to do is announce at the outset the identity of the One whose Gospel he is about to proclaim. The one who confronts us as Jesus of Nazareth is none other than the Word that was with God, indeed is God, from all eternity. He is the one in and through whom creation is and hangs together. And in his becoming flesh, he does not cease to be that Word. Rather, because he has become flesh, he has become available to our eyes to see and to our hands to touch. He is the glory of God living and breathing and looking right at us.

That’s the mystery and miracle we confront at Christmas. The Word became flesh. Without ceasing to be “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten of the Father before all worlds,” he nevertheless “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.”

God’s has entered our world. God’s word has embraced our  humanity. He has taken it into himself. And in doing so, he has healed it. All of it. There is no mess from which he is foreign. No sin he will not forgive. No life that is without dignity or value.

And the life he lives in the flesh—for he has not left his humanity behind—he now gives to us by the power of his Spirit at this, his table. That we might live in Him and He in us.

So that our flesh—with his—might one day be taken into the very life of God.

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