“The Word Became Flesh” Means Everything

“The Word Became Flesh” Means Everything
David R. Weiss, January 2, 2022

This is my sermon, including my children’s message, for St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in St. Paul.

Children’s message

We’re going to learn some theology today—some big ideas about God. The word is INCARNATION. It comes from another language (Latin), and it means – “to be made flesh” or “to become bodied.” But what does THAT mean?

One way to think about it is “to be wrapped in.” [Wrap myself in blanket.] I’m now “incarnate” in this blanket. But it’s more than that. Because the blanket is just around me. And you can easily pull me and the blanket apart.

Here’s a better example. This is blue water. [Hold up blue water in bottle.] This is celery. [Hold up celery.] And THIS is the blue water is incarnate in the celery. [Hold up celery that has soaked in blue water until it has soaked it up all the way to its leaves.] Some of it has joined the celery in a way that now you can’t take the blue out of the celery anymore. They’re completely together. That incarnation.

We say that in Jesus, God became incarnate. God became bodied. Like the blue water in the celery. So completely that you couldn’t separate the human person and God. In Jesus they’re completely together.

Now, I don’t know HOW that happened. And, in fact, neither do your parents or Pastor Eli’jah. Not even Pastor Sarah. This is a BIG mystery. But we say this is the truth: that somehow in Jesus God became human. That’s incarnation.

And we say that incarnation changes everything. Because if God isn’t WAY out there far away but has chosen to be at home in a human body, it means that somehow every human being can soak up some God.

And while we don’t know how that happens, we know when it happens. When you’re being kind or thankful. When you’re showing someone, you love them. When you’re keeping a sad person company. Or feeding someone who is hungry. When you just feel yourself bursting with wonder. When you do those kinds of things, then we can tell that the blue water has soaked up into you.

Of course, God isn’t blue, God is love. And Jesus helps us see the love of God in human form most clearly. That’s incarnation. But each of us can also hold the love of God in our hearts, in our fingertips, in our voices. Every time you act with love – even in the littlest ways – that’s God moving through your heart, your fingertips, your voice.

So, I want you to go and be like celery today. Soak up some God and let that love find its way out into the world.

Now join me in this repeat-after-me prayer. Dear God, thank you for Jesus. Thank you for celery. Help me soak you up. And help me share you in the world. Amen.

*   *   *

Scripture from the Gospel of John, 1:1-5, 14, 16:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being that has come into being.

In the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen this glory: the glory of God in human form, full of grace and truth.

And from this fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

*   *   *

Opening Prayer Dear Blue-Water God, let us all—every one of us—soak you up, until our limbs and our lives reflect your love. Amen.

“The Word Became Flesh” Means Everything

There are a handful of one-line insights that I recall from my education. Single sentences that have stayed with me over three and four decades.

On the very first day of my seminary course on Introduction to Pastoral Care, Professor Herbert Anderson gave me one of those sentences. He told our class, in a tone that commanded seriousness, that when we began offering pastoral care to real people in real parishes, we would encounter persons who would confide in us seemingly unspeakable things. Unspeakable, but spoken to us.

Our impulse would be to inwardly leap backward in revulsion, disgust, and even condemnation. But we would be unable to minister, unable to carry God’s grace into that darkness and unto those persons, if we reacted that way. So, he encouraged us to ground ourselves daily in these words, “Because I am human, nothing that is human is foreign to me.” From THAT place, we could bear gospel to others.

I never became a pastor, yet the profound wisdom of that single sentence has accompanied me for the past 40 years. Surprisingly, it kept my company this week during my sermon prep.

In today’s text, verse 14 all by itself is sort of John’s entire Christmas pageant. Luke gave us shepherds, angels, and baby Jesus in a manger. Matthew gave us a star, the Magi, and Herod. And John gives us “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

So, I titled my message for today, “‘The Word Became Flesh’ Means Everything.”

And I mean that. Pretty much everything else in Scripture is a footnote to this declaration. Even the rest of the gospels mostly just expand on what this means and what it looks like in Jesus’ life … and maybe in ours. This single sentence is—rather literally—the very guts of the gospel.

But to really feel the power of this short declaration we need to understand the scene John sets up in the first five verses of his gospel. So we start there. We start—

“In the beginning …”

And if you’re among John’s first listeners, then before anything else is heard—and even though you know this is John’s gospel—you’re perched right at the edge of Genesis 1:1, which starts in exactly the same way. And you know what comes next: God speaks.

“Let there be light.”

In English it takes us four words to say that, but in the Hebrew of Genesis, God says … one single word. A verb. A spoken action. A present tense imperative. A divine command. An invitation uttered to all that is not yet: “Be lit.”

And from that singular initial Word, all creation unfolds. From the crackling of the Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago to the New Year we rang just in yesterday, ALL OF THAT begins with “Be lit.”

Here’s the whole first sentence of his gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Which is to say: “In the beginning was the Be-Lit-Waiting-to-be-Spoken, and the Be-Lit was with God—on God’s lips, and the Be-Lit was God—the very energy and love of Almighty God waiting, and ready to be spoken.”

Now, before we continue, here’s a fun fact: the Greek word for “Universe” is the Greek word that means “all things”—just with a definite article placed in front of it. In Greek, if you want to say, “the Universe,” you say, “the All Things.”

John continues:

“This ‘Be-Lit-ness’ was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Be-Lit, and without the Be-Lit having been spoken, not one thing—not one tiny corner of the All Things—came into being except as it was Be-Lit by God.

“And the Be-Lit of God was life, and the life was the light of all people. The Be-Lit of God shines in the darkness … in the chaotic not-yet-ness of that which resists being, and the chaos could not even fathom the Be-Lit of God.”

Those five verses set the stage. John is clearly using them to introduce his tale of good news about Jesus, and he is also very intentionally using them to link Jesus to the Word by which God created all things, even THE All Things. God speaks other words in the creation account, but that first Word— “Be-Lit” —illumines and orders, establishes the pattern for everything that comes next.

Another fun fact. In Greek, the word for “word” is logos, which John has been using repeatedly in these verses. And in Greek philosophy, The Logos was the name for the invisible patterning energy at work ordering the Universe. It was not regarded as God by these philosophers, but as the Principle of reason-pattern-and-harmony that was behind the world even when hidden by tumult.

So, John’s opening verses are actually a bi-cultural reference—drawing in both the centrality of the Word in the Jewish story of creation and also the Logos of Greco-Roman philosophy. And linking both of those to Jesus.

Now, you’re ready. Knowing that this phrase, “the Word,” resonates with the unseen Pattern of All that Is—but even more so with the reverberating speech of God that creates The All Things—now listen to verse 14:

“And the Be-Lit—the loving creative energy that spoke at the beginning of the All Things—THAT Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen this glory, the glory of God in human form, full of grace and truth.”

I hope the hairs on the back of your neck are trembling a bit with excitement, because this is some astonishing good news. Because the animating and liberating energy of God that brought all things into being—THAT energy became flesh and lived among us.

But even “lived among us” is too vague, as though this Loving Word was among us in a sort of abstract, undefined way. No, the Greek here says literally, that the Word “pitched its tent in our midst.” Lived right next to us. As neighbor. Stranger. Friend. Family. As person in need.

That’s the first “everything” that verse 14 tells us:

Consider what this means for God. God can now affirm “Because I have become human, nothing that is human is foreign to me.”

Consider what this means for us. We have holy company. Here in our midst.

We, who are so … ordinary. So unsure. So hesitant to live with the courageous daring that this moment requires of us. God has chosen to be with us. Right in the next tent. Showing us what it means to be “Be-Lit” in the world today.

But there is another “everything” in verse 14.

John tells us that this Word … became FLESH.

Fun fact: there IS a Greek word for human being—it’s anthropos. But John isn’t content to tell us that God’s creative Word became “human.” John selects a word that tells us God’s creative word became CREATURELY.

That in the incarnation, God’s creative, loving, liberating Word—became FLESH, which is to say that it bound up itself in ALL THAT LIVES.

By now I hope that not only the hairs on the back of your neck, but even your butt cheeks and the soles of your feet are trembling, because this is good news we have rarely heard.

John doesn’t know it, of course, but today WE know that every human being lives in concert not only with the ecosystem around us, but with a host of microbes within us. From our immune system to our lungs and mouth and skin … and especially our gut, there is no human person alive, from newborn to deathbed (including Jesus!), who is not entirely interwoven with microscopic beings. Trillions of them.

To say that, in Jesus, God became incarnate, is to say—as John’s choice of word here suggests—that God chooses incarnate intimacy even with the microbes in our bellies.

As I told you at the beginning, “the Word became FLESH” is—quite literally—the very guts of the gospel.

Consider what this means for God. God can now affirm “Because I have become flesh, nothing that is creaturely is foreign to me.”

We have not kept this awareness alive in our tradition. When Native Americans refer to other animals, even to trees and rivers and rocks, as relatives, they are expressing a recognition similar to John’s declaration that there is a common thread of holy kinship that links us to ALL THAT IS.

We need this TWIN recognition—this double declaration of astonishingly good news—perhaps more than any other news today.

We have fashioned the world around us—the world that is now collapsing before us—on the notion that we are somehow fundamentally separate from this planet. In so many ways we have built community by drawing rings of exclusion. Acting as though whatever is not human or not marketable, or whoever is not white or male or straight or American … and on and on … that whatever and whoever is not this or that simply does not matter.

MUCH of human history is the story of coming together at the expense of others. But in John’s gospel, at this point—where the Word becomes FLESH—here, by God’s choice, there simply … is … no … Other.

The same creating, animating, loving, liberating Word that was in Jesus is indeed in all persons and in all things.

“The Word became Flesh” means EVERYTHING.

Jesus reveals what it looks like for that Word to be pitching its tent in our midst: “full of grace and truth.” It looks like compassion and healing and teaching and tending and feasting and weeping and, yes, dying. For the love of all that is.

Finally, verse 16: “And from this fullness we have ALL received, grace upon grace.”

That Word, that creating, animating, loving, liberating energy of God, IS the grace upon grace that longs to become flesh … in us. And this means US—here in this congregation, in this perilous present moment.

As the pandemic reveals the fragility of our social safety nets—and the folly of our unfettered encroachment into wild areas …

As white supremacy rises with fresh vigor, led by voices drunk on othering, but also embedded in the systems and assumptions that entangle all of us …

As eco-systems crash and the climate reels and our human and animal siblings both here and around the world are threatened …

THIS is the world into which God cries out, “Be-Lit!” at Christmastime.

The Word, so vividly incarnate in Jesus, is also in ALL THINGS—including those things oppressed and pushed to extinction by human choices and actions.

Which is why this Word yearns especially for expression in human lives. We are uniquely able to invite the Word to pitch its tent in us. Uniquely able to invite that creating, animating, loving, liberating energy to flow through our lives and renounce the lie of living as though any others do not matter. And to instead embrace our kinship with the All Things … that came into being by this same Word.

Our Winter Book Read this year, Rooted & Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, brings together a community of faith voices that ask what it means to be “rooted and rising” in THIS WORD—God’s great “Be-Lit”—on behalf of ALL THAT IS.

I hope, if you’re able, that you join us in the Winter Read, either in a small group or on your own. But regardless of whether you can do that, I hope that ever after today, when you hear, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” that you also hear the echo of the Genesis story of God’s creating, aminating, loving, liberating Word … and recall the All Things that were made through that Word, patterned by that Word … and here declared by John to be hosts of that Word.

And that you sense in your own gurgling gut the very nearness of that Word pitching-its-tent in our midst still today. And I hope that as your own soul tingles with anticipation, you hear that “Be-Lit!” uttered unto you as a most holy invitation.

And that in response, you say with humble and exquisite delight, “Why, yes, may it be so.” And then you simply beam with God. Amen.

*   *   *

© 2022 – David R. Weiss

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

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