The World Became Flesh
By Rev. Jonathan R. Pia, Senior Minister & Administrative Pastor, Silliman University Church
(Delivered in December 2013 during the Faculty and Staff Convocation.)
Text: Jeremiah 31:7-9; John 1:10-18
If you read the four gospels, they tell the Christmas story in different ways. The gospel of Matthew is the only one that mentions the visit of the Wiseman or the magi for his emphasis is on sharing the gospel to all. Mark tells us straightforward that Jesus was born as prophesied by the prophets. Luke tells us of the visit of the shepherds and the visit of the angel to Mary. In spite of the difference, these three gospels have a lot of similarities.
The gospel of John however is different. Because of his Greek readers, he opens the gospel with violins and soaring phrases: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …” (John 1:1). With these ethereal phrases at the beginning of John's gospel, it is no wonder that the church selected, as a symbol for John the Evangelist, the high flying eagle. If John's poem had ended after the first line, the noble Greek philosophers during his time could have voiced their admiring approval for they, too, wanted to mount up with eagle's wings, to leave the earth behind, and to ascend into the celestial heights to be with God and God’s Word.
However, John's poem does not end with the first line. The eagle suddenly dives toward the ground; the violins give way to the blunt thud of a bass drum. The closing notes of the hymn fade, and startlingly an earthbound announcement: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us ….”
This is how John tells the Christmas story. He did not talk about Jesus being born in the stable, nor of the virgin birth. But John, to make it understandable with his Greek audience, he talks of a God who refused to float in sublime isolation above time and space, but became in Jesus Christ, flesh and blood. And it is here that John and the Greeks part company. For the Greeks, the very idea that the ultimate meeting between humanity and the logos of God or the Word of God would come to our world of sin and darkness was unthinkable. It was unheard of in his first century world: the Word, the power, the dynamic, the reason that orders and controls the world “has become flesh and dwells among us.” God, who was so distant, is now here with us in flesh and blood. John goes on to say “we have seen with our eyes … and touched with our hands … the word of life” (1 John 1:1-2). If we want to see what this creating Word, this dynamic power, this controlling reason looks like we just look at Jesus of Nazareth. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4). This is what theologians call as the doctrine of incarnation.
What does this mean for us today? Among other things, it means that we can encounter the living God in the ordinary things in life. We do not have to wait until we go to heaven to have a personal encounter with God. We can meet God in the mundane or in the “fleshy” details of life. When we help the victims of the flooding, the typhoon, the landslides, the earthquake; when we come together for worship and fellowship; when you teach in your classroom; when you attend with meetings – these are the places where God’s holiness can be experienced.
And our God listens to us, walks with us, journeys with us even at those times when we think that God is not there, even in those times when we get angry with God. I believe that God is big enough to love us when we cry out to him even in anger. The Bible is full of stories of deeply religious persons who one time or another have also felt like shaking a fist upward and saying, “God, why don't you come down and face me?” I do believe that God through Christ has shown us that God is here with us and understands our feelings. And we need not fear expressing sometimes our helplessness, frustrations and anger. When we are angry to the evils in our society, such as the corruption we see, God is angry too; when we cry with the victims of the typhoons, earthquakes and flooding, God cries with us; when we get discourage because it would seem that there is too much to do and there is not much we can do to help, God sustains us with his love; when we feel weak and it would seem that we could not move on, God empowers us. What we need to do is open ourselves to God’s presence in Jesus Christ. And God can use us to make changes in our sinful world.
For me this is the good news for us on this Christmas season. In the words of the gospel of John, “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.”
Ron Mehl tells the story of a grandfather who is trying to comfort his little grandson, Jeffy. Jeffy has done something wrong; his punishment is a time-out in the playpen. But Jeffy cries and begs his granddad to get him out. Grandfather knows that Jeffy’s punishment is just, but his love for the boy won’t allow him to watch the child suffer. So Grandfather chooses to be both just and loving–he climbs in the playpen with Jeffy. In this way, he shares his grandson’s punishment and at the same time offers him comfort. (1)
From the very beginning God saw His children’s plight and God crawled into the playpen of our existence. This is what Christmas is. From beyond time and space, down past the galaxies and the entire heavenly firmament, in an event that surpasses our grandest attempt to get our little brains around it, God has come down. And as told by Luke, in a little obscure town outside of Jerusalem, in a lowly stable, as a tiny babe born to a humble couple from a backward village called Nazareth, God has come down. And in all of the gospels, they tell us that God has come down through Jesus to forgive us of our sins. If we want hope, he is hope; if we want peace, he is peace, if we want love, he is love. And it is up to each of us whether we will let him be part of our lives today in the midst of our sinfulness.
From the heart of the Creator straight into our lives, a tiny babe was given, all wrapped in swaddling cloth, sorrounded by his mother, Mary and his father, Joseph, the cattle and sheep, the shepherds and later, the wise men and above them lingers a star. Angels sing in the heavens and for one glorious night, we see a glimpse of why this world was created. We live in a God-invaded world. And because God came to us, everything is forever changed. Someone has summed it up in a little Christmas fable:
Once there lived a humble fisherman and his shrewish wife. Nothing the fisherman did was good enough for his wife. Her complaining nearly drove him up the wall. One day, the fisherman caught an especially shiny, large fish. Before he could toss it in his nets, the fish spoke up, “Release me into the sea again and I will grant you a wish.” The fisherman, though skeptical, gave it a try: “I wish my wife could be a fine lady of leisure, and live in a comfortable house.”
Imagine the fisherman’s surprise when he returned home to find his humble shack transformed into a cozy cottage with lovely furnishings. Instead of her usual shabby clothes, the fisherman’s wife wore crisp linen dresses and served his dinner on china plates. And the fisherman thought all was well. Not much time passed before the fisherman’s wife began to complain again. “If you’d been thinking straight, you would have asked for the fish to turn us into a Duke and Duchess who live in a splendid mansion.”
The fisherman went back to fish. Then one day, what should pop into his boat, but the shiny, talking fish who had granted him a wish? “I’ve got another favor to be asking you,” the fisherman stammered. “Ask away,” the fish replied. “Could you maybe make the missus and me into a—-um, a Duke and Duchess living in a fine mansion?” “Of course,” the fish replied, and then it leaped over the side of the boat.
And for a very short time, the fisherman enjoyed peace and quiet at home. Soon, his wife wanted a bigger mansion and a better title. And each time she complained, the fisherman would go back to the lake and call for the fish to grant his wish. Finally, the fisherman’s wife decided that she wanted to be God. Nothing less than ultimate power and luxury would do. The fisherman reluctantly returned to the lake to make this final request. “So she wants to be God, does she?” the fish asked. “Are you sure that’s what she wants?” “Positive,” the fisherman replied. “Of course,” the fish replied, and then it swam away.
The fisherman was too scared to see the results of this wish. But when he rounded the corner in the woods, he didn’t see the fine castle he shared with his wife. In its place, there was a small cave, and inside that small cave was a feeding trough for animals and inside that feeding trough lay a tiny baby. The fish had granted his final wish. (2)
We live in a God-invaded world through the baby in a manger. That is the great truth we celebrate this afternoon. And it is through us that the Christ reaches out to others.
1. Mark Adams, http://www.redlandbaptist.org/sermons/sermon20041212.htm.
2. Victor Spencer’s ([email protected]) “Preach Christmas–A Grimm’s Fairy Tale.” Cited by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2004, http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/sermons/a‑ad04su.php.