31 December 2006
This is Christmas. This is Incarnation. No shepherds, no angels, no crèche. The stories we read this time of year attempt to explore Jesus’ origins. No two Gospels agree on this. In Mark Jesus just comes walking into the story fully grown up seeking to be baptized by John. In Matthew his origins are traced back to Abraham and Sarah, establishing his Jewish identity. In Luke his origins are traced back all the way to Adam, establishing a more universal identity – Jesus for Jews and Gentiles.
Then there is John. These eighteen verses push Jesus’ origins back even further than the first person. Note the opening words: “In the beginning….” The first to hear or read John’s Gospel have heard these words before. The entire Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning….” Jesus’ origins are cosmic – at the very root of the universe, all that is, seen and unseen.
John puts Jesus present before anything was made. Before God said the words, “Let there be….” God speaks and things come into being. Before God speaks, however there was the “word.” In Greek that is logos – word.
But for Jews and Gentiles alike in the first century, this word logos meant more than what we think when we say “word.” For at least six centuries before Christ came into the world, logos had currency among philosophers like the Stoics. Logos was what they called the principle of reason that ruled the universe. In Hebrew the word dabar carries a similar meaning – dabar describes God’s activity in the world. Logos could also describe the Hebrew idea of wisdom – hokma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek . According to the rabbis, wisdom was responsible for creation.
All in all, the power of the poetry of these opening verses of John’s Gospel resides in his choice of this one word, logos, for it has universal, multi-layered meanings hidden within itself. To identify Jesus, as eventually John does, as the logos is to say that God in Jesus comes to Jew and Gentile alike. Gentile, of course simply means anyone who is not Jewish.
So universal is this Word, this logos, that it is in everything that has been created. There is nothing “made that was made” that is not made through this Word. This is why we promise in our Baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Christ as logos is in all persons. And in all things.
In the Word is life, and this life is light, and this light is a beacon of light that shines and cuts through all darkness – and darkness has not overcome this light. That is there is evil, not just in people but in all the created order. But this evil has not overcome or absorbed the light. So our redemption in and by the Word – the logos- is a vital part of a larger project – the redemption of the entire universe of God’s creation.
Yet, we who come from this Word, this logos, this sophia, this wisdom, do not readily recognize him. He comes to those of us who claim his name as our own – Christian- and yet we know him not. This continues to be a problem. Just look around us. Two Thousand Years of claiming his name as our own, and just how brilliantly does the world around us reflect this life giving light? In a world of ongoing brutalities – torture, killings, hangings, capital murder as retribution, bombings, not to mention hunger, loneliness, hatred, bigotry, poverty – can we really believe it pleases God to let a man hang from a rope? Do we truly believe we can bring about a greater good that reflects the life-light of God in the dark places in the world and in our own hearts through such ongoing brutalities? We are promised that all who do receive him, accept him, follow him, are given power to become “children of God.” We say we receive, accept and follow Jesus, the Word, but is this at all reflected in all that we do or say? Or, in all that is done or said on our behalf by others who claim to know, receive, accept and follow this Word?
It makes it all the more remarkable that this Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. The text literally says he “tabernacled among us.” That is he pitched his tent, this Word, this logos, this divine wisdom, set up shop right in our midst despite our not knowing him. We are meant, of course, to recall that other time in our tradition’s past when God tabernacled among us in the tent of meeting in the wilderness – that place where “the glory of the Lord filled the tent.” Again we behold his glory!
For John, this is Christmas. No shepherds, no angels, no kings, no manger – but rather the Word of God comes and pitches his tent to sojourn with us, giving us another chance to know, accept and follow him. We behold his glory. He adopts us as his own.
A story is told about some Navy Seals sent to free a group of hostages in one of the dark corners of the world. As they storm into the hiding place, they find the hostages huddled on the floor in a corner of the room. The Seals tell them they are there to take them home, get up and follow us. No one moves. They are so damaged by the experience of their captivity that they do not believe these are really people sent to set them free. So one of these Seals does something: he takes off his helmet, puts down his gun, gets down on the floor, softens his face and huddles up next to the captives, putting his arms around a few of them. No guards would do this. He whispers, “We are like you. We are here to be with you and to rescue you. Let us take you home. Will you follow us?” One by one the prisoners get up and are eventually taken to safety on an aircraft carrier and brought home.
Lots of rhetoric and ink has been spilled to explain the miracle of the incarnation – how it is God becomes one of us to take us home – to redeem us as a step in redeeming a broken world and broken universe. God sees us captive to many things, unwilling to simply step away from those things that keep us in prison – often prisons of our own making. In Jesus, God takes off all his glory, gets down on the floor with us, huddles up with us – tabernacles among us, pitches his tent among us – and whispers, “It is OK – I am with you – I am one of you now – come with me, follow me, and I will take you home.”
John tells us that the essence of Christmas does not need a creche, does not need a pageant, does not need a tree, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word, to accept the Word, to get up and follow the Word. There is no way, says John, that we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Christ, the logos, the Word, we can see the light and the logos, and He will lead us home. This is Incarnation. This is Christmas. Amen.