Lazy Sunday Readings (Christmas Edition): The Word Made Flesh

The following is from a sermon delivered by theologian/pastor/historian NT Wright on Christmas five years ago.

What is this Word?  ‘In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was made flesh.’  We are so used to it, to the great cadences, the solemn but glad message of the incarnation; and we risk skipping over the incomprehensibility, the oddness, the almost embarrassing strangeness, of the Word.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness didn’t comprehend it; the world was made through him but the world didn’t know him; he came to his own, and his own didn’t receive him.  John is saying two things simultaneously in his Prologue (well, two hundred actually, but let’s concentrate on two): first, that the incarnation of the eternal Word is the event for which the whole creation has been on tiptoe all along; second, that the whole creation, and even the carefully prepared people of God themselves, are quite unready for this event.  Jew and Gentile alike, hearing this strange Word, are casting anxious glances at one another…

That is the puzzle of Christmas.  And, to get to its heart, see how it works out in the rest of John’s gospel.  John’s Prologue is designed to stay in the mind and heart throughout the subsequent story.  Never again is Jesus himself referred to as the Word; but we are meant to look at each scene, from the call of the first disciples and the changing of water into wine right through to the confrontation with Pilate and the crucifixion and resurrection, and think to ourselves, this is what it looks like when the Word becomes flesh.  Or, if you like, look at this man of flesh and learn to see the living God.  But watch what happens as it all plays out.  He comes to his own and his own don’t receive him.  The light shines in the darkness, and though the darkness can’t overcome it it has a jolly good try.  He speaks the truth, the plain and simple words, like the little boy saying what he had for breakfast, and Caiaphas and Pilate, incomprehending, can’t decide whether he’s mad or wicked or both, and send him off to his fate.

But, though Jesus is never again referred to as the Word of God, we find the theme transposed, with endless variations.  The Living Word speaks living words, and the reaction is the same.  ‘This is a hard word,’ say his followers when he tells them that he is the bread come down from heaven (6.60).  ‘What is this word?’, asks the puzzled crowd in Jerusalem (7.36). ‘My word finds no place in you,’ says Jesus, ‘because you can’t hear it’ (8.37, 43).  ‘The word I spoke will be their judge on the last day’, he insists (12.48) as the crowds reject him and he knows his hour has come.  When Pilate hears the word, says John, he is the more afraid, since the word in question is Jesus’ reported claim to be the Son of God (19.8).  Unless we recognise this strange, dark strand running through the gospel we will domesticate John’s masterpiece (just as we’re always in danger of domesticating Christmas), and think it’s only about comfort and joy, not also about incomprehension and rejection and darkness and denial and stopping the ears and judgment.  Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything’s all right.  John’s gospel isn’t about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying ‘Of course!  Why didn’t we realise it before?’  It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations, and the darkness not comprehending it.  It’s about God, God-as-a-little-child, speaking the word of truth, and nobody knowing what he’s talking about.

That is the puzzle of Christmas.  And, to get to its heart, see how it works out in the rest of John’s gospel.  John’s Prologue is designed to stay in the mind and heart throughout the subsequent story.  Never again is Jesus himself referred to as the Word; but we are meant to look at each scene, from the call of the first disciples and the changing of water into wine right through to the confrontation with Pilate and the crucifixion and resurrection, and think to ourselves, this is what it looks like when the Word becomes flesh.  Or, if you like, look at this man of flesh and learn to see the living God.  But watch what happens as it all plays out.  He comes to his own and his own don’t receive him.  The light shines in the darkness, and though the darkness can’t overcome it it has a jolly good try.  He speaks the truth, the plain and simple words, like the little boy saying what he had for breakfast, and Caiaphas and Pilate, incomprehending, can’t decide whether he’s mad or wicked or both, and send him off to his fate.

But, though Jesus is never again referred to as the Word of God, we find the theme transposed, with endless variations.  The Living Word speaks living words, and the reaction is the same.  ‘This is a hard word,’ say his followers when he tells them that he is the bread come down from heaven (6.60).  ‘What is this word?’, asks the puzzled crowd in Jerusalem (7.36). ‘My word finds no place in you,’ says Jesus, ‘because you can’t hear it’ (8.37, 43).  ‘The word I spoke will be their judge on the last day’, he insists (12.48) as the crowds reject him and he knows his hour has come.  When Pilate hears the word, says John, he is the more afraid, since the word in question is Jesus’ reported claim to be the Son of God (19.8).  Unless we recognise this strange, dark strand running through the gospel we will domesticate John’s masterpiece (just as we’re always in danger of domesticating Christmas), and think it’s only about comfort and joy, not also about incomprehension and rejection and darkness and denial and stopping the ears and judgment.  Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything’s all right.  John’s gospel isn’t about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying ‘Of course!  Why didn’t we realise it before?’  It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations, and the darkness not comprehending it.  It’s about God, God-as-a-little-child, speaking the word of truth, and nobody knowing what he’s talking about…

John’s Prologue by its very structure reaffirms the order of creation at the point where it is being challenged today.  John is consciously echoing the first chapter of Genesis: In the beginning God made heaven and earth; in the beginning was the Word.  When the Word becomes flesh, heaven and earth are joined together at last, as God always intended.  But the creation story which begins with the bipolarity of heaven and earth reaches its climax in in the bipolarity of male and female; and when heaven and earth are joined together in Jesus Christ, the glorious intention for the whole creation is unveiled, reaffirming the creation of male and female in God’s image.  There is something about the enfleshment of the Word, the point in John 1 which stands in parallel to Genesis 1.26–8, which speaks of creation fulfilled; and in that other great Johannine writing, the Book of Revelation, we see what’s going on: Jesus Christ has come as the Bridegroom, the one for whom the Bride has been waiting.

Allow that insight to work its way out.  Not for nothing does Jesus’ first ‘sign’ transform a wedding from disaster to triumph.  Not for nothing do we find a man and a woman at the foot of the cross.  The same incipient gnosticism which says that true religion is about ‘discovering who we really are’ is all too ready to say that ‘who we really are’ may have nothing much to do with the way we have been physically created as male or female.  Christian ethics, you see, is not about stating, or for that matter bending, a few somewhat arbitrary rules.  It is about the redemption of God’s good world, his wonderful creation, so that it can be the glorious thing it was made to be.  This word is strange, even incomprehensible, in today’s culture; but if you have ears, then hear it…

Listen, this morning, for the incomprehensible word the Child speaks to you.  Don’t patronize it; don’t reject it; don’t sentimentalize it; learn the language within which it makes sense.  And come to the table to enjoy the breakfast, the breakfast which is himself, the Word made flesh, the life which is our life, our light, our glory.

I really didn’t want to steal the whole sermon. I think, even in reading it, there are some gaps that need to be filled in. But if you would like to read more by Wright, a good place to start would be NTWrightpage.com, which has many links to speeches, sermons, interviews, and even chapters that he’s written. One of his most recent books, Surprised by Hope, is another great primer and one of my favorites.

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