December 25, 2011

Word Of The Father, Now In Flesh Appearing

Passage: John 1:1-2, 14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. ... 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.

It is a delightful thing to watch the eyes of a young child open a Christmas gift; you can see the excitement sparkling as they hurriedly remove the Christmas wrap and then the joy as the gift comes into view and they see it was something for which they were hoping.

Many parents and grandparents agonize over the task of getting that perfect gift that will elicit this response of delight from their child or grandchild.  Admittedly, we do it for ourselves as much as for the child.  And most of us have also seen that same child excited about the new toy now setting it aside to play instead with the box it came in; the box ends up being of greater and more lasting interest.  Our response is to pick up the toy and encourage our child that really they should want to play with it rather than admitting we should have just gotten them the box.  Perhaps the lesson is that we should recycle all boxes immediately upon opening the gift.

I wonder if we Christians do something like this with God’s Christmas gift to us; once opened we are content to play with the box it came in.  God keeps showing us the gift each Christmas; we keep playing with the box.  Somewhat like coming to a birthday party content to enjoy the food and fun; singing the obligatory Happy Birthday song but the name enunciated at the end of the song is really beside the point.  I am inviting you to take this gift of God’s into your arms, so to speak, and look at him, look closely.

When a baby is born we generally inquire about three things.  Are mother and child well?  What name has been given? And how big is the baby?  In Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy stories we have the rich narrative of the family into which Jesus was born and of others who came to know of his birth.  In John’s gospel his singular focus—in a manner of speaking—is on the question of how big is the baby.  Jesus’ birth is taken up in this glorious text: “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.”

John’s story begins with a wondrous articulation of the magnitude of this child.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  I invite you to reflect with me on the wonder of this gift we have been given.

1. The Apostle John stated that Jesus Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, is the Word of God.  John's Christmas message is as patently simple as it is fathomlessly profound: the word of God has become flesh, our flesh, and now dwells among us. This is the great good news of Christmas.

Great as the good news is, however, we must still ask how far-reaching it might be. Is it good news, but only for a few people? Is it good news, but only for the religious dimension of human existence? Or is it good news of cosmic scope so vast as finally to be imponderable? In short, how big is the baby?

As I invite you to reflect on the truth expressed by John in this text, we reflect on that which is fathomlessly profound; on something which is indeed so vast it is finally imponderable (can’t get our brain around it).  I cannot begin to describe to you how this text has been so profoundly precious to me.  Still, though imponderable, we can say some things even if we can never come to the end of what can be said.

I grew up going to church—the Sunday after I was born I was at church.  I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not believe.  When I went to university it seemed that everything about my Christian faith was under assault.  Though never said quite this directly, the clear implication was that if you had an ounce of intellect you would abandon such quaint beliefs—like the virgin birth of our Saviour for example.  Human reason ruled and the gospels were said to not be able to hold up under reason’s scrutiny.  I didn’t want to abandon faith and neither did I want to be stupid.  I could not imagine that my Saviour who died to redeem me would deprecate the intellect he created in me.

I studied philosophy and what I discovered was that every philosophical rendering of life had severe intellectual flaws.  Most died on their own sword; that is to say the sabre with which other philosophies were cut apart became in turn the death of their own thought structure.  Take postmodernism for example that claims there are no absolutes; the claim itself is an absolute so you cannot with intellectual honesty say there are no absolutes while using an absolute to make the claim.  This is not to say that philosophy has no value; every preacher of the gospel would be well advised to study logic, for example.

Soren Kierkegaard—quite possibly the greatest Christian thinker—made this same point about philosophical speculation’s ultimate weakness (with greater alacrity, of course), when he said that every philosophy ends with the suppositions with which it began.  Philosophy, ultimately, cannot break free from that circle to substantiate its own claims—the best it can do is end up where it began.

Around 3000 years ago the writer of Ecclesiastes made this same observation stating it this way: (8:16-17) “When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.”

Simply put, no human beginning from herself can come to discover the meaning of their own existence.  The logic of the cross of Jesus Christ also shows us this.  We come to know the disease we have (sinfulness) in the revelation of the cure (cross of Christ).  Our reason has been so corrupted we cannot see our own sinfulness much less say that it is sin that is the root of our problem.  It is disclosed to us from the heart of a loving God whose love refuses to leave us wallowing in our mess and breaks through the barrier which intellect alone can never penetrate.  It is revealed to us from the outside—so to speak.  Christian faith says that the meaning of your existence is disclosed to you in the coming of the Son; it is revealed from without not ascended to from within.

John says of this Word of God who comes to us in the Babe of Bethlehem; it is through this word that the all things came into being.  The creator of your reasoning capacity is in your arms as you examine this baby.  This word is, therefore, the ordered force for reason that resides in the cosmos and the human mind.  The fact that your reason is able to apprehend anything about the actuality of our world is looking into your eyes as this baby looks up at you.  If there is anything that will make your intellect soar it is to be apprehended by the One who is the very ground for which a human can say they know anything.

This is why this little sentence so grips my heart and being; “and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory”. It is why every time I sing this Christmas carol there is a kind of electricity that overwhelms my soul when we get to that line... “word of the Father, now in flesh appearing”.  I do not have to live in that awful angst where every philosophy left me of never really knowing.  Instead the One who is reality itself has made himself known to me!

I know that this may seem a little too much a philosophical discussion; bear with me just a little more.

Science is possible at all only because there is a correlation between patterns intrinsic to the scientist's mind and intelligible patterns embodied in the physical world. If this correlation didn't exist then there would be no match-up between the scientist's mind and the realm of nature that the scientist investigates. To say the same thing differently: science is possible only because there is a correlation between the structure of human thought and the structure of the physical world. If this correlation didn't exist then no one could think truthfully about the physical world. Then what is the origin of this correlation, this match-up? The origin is the word, the logos, through which the realm of nature and scientists themselves have alike been created. John Polkinghorne, a mathematical physicist and a Christian writes, "The Word is God's agent in creation, impressing his rationality upon the world. That same Word is also the light of men, giving us thereby access to the rationality that is in the world."

Everyone knows that science is based on observation. But to observe nature scientifically is not to stare at it. If I were merely to stare at the stars for the next twenty years I still shouldn't learn anything about stars. The kind of observing that science does is an observing that is guided by theoretical insights. These insights uncover the deep regularities undergirding what can be observed. Where do these theoretical insights come from, ultimately? They are produced by the word, the logos, the rationality of God, the word that became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth; for through this word both nature itself and the human mind were fashioned.  How big is the baby?

2. When John writes his gospel and says that the Babe of Bethlehem the Word that was God he chooses the Greek word logos, logos of God.  For our Hebrew foreparents a word was an event. In fact the Hebrew word for "word" (DABAR) means both word and event.  For our Israelite ancestors a word was a concentrated, compressed unit of energy.  The psalmist writes, "By the Word of God the heavens were made."  God speaks and the galaxies occur.  So weighty were Hebrew words that they were always to be used sparingly, carefully, thoughtfully.  It won’t surprise you, then, to learn that at the time of the first Christmas the Hebrew language contained only 10,000 words (very few, in fact) while the Greek language contained 200,000.

When the apostle John sat down to write his gospel he was living in the city of Ephesus.  John was Jewish; his readers, however, were chiefly Gentile, like you and me.  In speaking about Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of the Word of God, John looked for a word which Gentiles would understand, yet a word to which he could also marry the full force of the Hebrew understanding of "word".  The word John chose was LOGOS. LOGOS is the Greek word which means "word". But it also means reason or rationality or intelligibility. It means the inner principle of a thing, how a thing works.  The logos of an automobile engine is how a cupful of liquid gasoline can be exploded to propel a two-ton car, how the engine works.

John brought the Hebrew and Greek concepts together when he stated that Jesus Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, is the word or logos of God. When the Hebrew mind hears that Jesus Christ is the word of God it knows that Jesus is the power of God, the event of God, the effectiveness of God; an effectiveness, moreover, which can never be overturned or undone, a reality permeating the world forever. When the Greek mind, on the other hand, the Gentile mind, hears that Jesus Christ is the word of God it knows that Jesus is the outer expression of the inner principle of God himself; Jesus embodies the rationality of God; Jesus discloses how God "works." John brings together both Hebrew and Greek senses of "word".

St Augustine the fourth century Bishop of Alexandria said of Christmas:
He so loved us that, for our sake,
He was made man in time,
although through him all times were made.
He was made man, who made man.
He was created of a mother whom he created.
He was carried by hands that he formed.
He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, he the Word,
without whom all human eloquence is mute.             (Augustine, Sermon 188, 2)

4.  You realize that we have only touched a little of what is ultimately fathomlessly profound; we have pondered a tiny part of the cosmic significance of something so vast that it is imponderable.  In the church of my youth we did not have Christmas Eve services; unless December 24th fell on a Sunday.  Like our church we had Christmas Day worship if it fell on a Sunday.

Somehow it feels right to me that we worship on December 25th.  It is my general habit to attend worship with our Anglican friends on Christmas Day and when I go I am really hoping that the carol O Come All Ye Faithful will be sung (our first carol today)—often it is.  The simple but fathomlessly profound word from John’s gospel imbedded in fifth stanza is simply life-saving for me; often overwhelming my heart such that I cannot make sound as I try to sing.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given;
word of the Father, now in flesh appearing: