Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4,(5-12); John 1:1-14
Words are hard. They’re dependent utterly on hearing, context and history. The subtext and impact of a word may be totally different between how you hear it and how I hear it. The Epistle of James even famously calls the tongue “a restless evil” so aware was he of the power of words to sow discord in misunderstanding and become weapons in malice. That’s why clear communication is so critical to relationships. Even then, with the best of intention, there is still the chance words won’t communicate what one wants them to.
And yet, so often they are what we have. Philosophers, evangelists, poets, songwriters and storytellers do their best. Know that your preachers pray, desperately, that our words may bear some the weight and truth of the Good News of God in a way that can be heard. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, if they are gifted and received with love, words can also fire our imaginations.
What do you think of our Gospel passage from John today? It is one of my favorites; I find it quiet and beautiful and intimate, much like our Christmas morning service. In teaching this passage with young people one time, one youth noted it made them feel small, in a good way, and another that it sounded like a lullaby. That has stuck with me ever since.
John gets described, sometimes with admiration, sometimes as critique, as highly philosophical, theological, and that his depiction of Jesus floats ten feet off the ground, by which I guess people mean the divine nature of Christ shines especially bright. And that’s true, in its way, but John is also rooted deeply in the flesh and blood, the tactile and the visual.
Think of a candle in a dark room, like last night during Silent Night. Think of a lantern in the deep woods. Think of the stars shining their light through the depths of space to reach us even down here. How little light it takes to break through and catch our eye.
The last line of our passage is moving to me too, that “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 makes me think of seeing the children of the parish gather to follow the cross to children’s ministry every Sunday at our 10:30 service. Can you see it, parents looking at their children, glorious, full of grace and truth?
My words don’t really do it justice, the way it is to look at light or to look at a child. You may still know the feeling and understanding I’m trying to convey though, probably because you have seen light in the darkness, or looked with love upon a little child. If those images fire the warmth of love, raise hope renewed, or life given, it’s because you’ve experienced them.
In the end, even the most beautiful, the most powerful words are only vehicles.
They fall short if they don’t have truth to carry.
God knows our need for the flesh and blood of experience. This is the gift of Christmas, that the Word was made flesh, that “Christ was born to love you” (this phrase, which we all need to hear, borrowed from colleague the Rev. Sarah Condon.) Mary and Joseph knew the infant Jesus. The disciples listened to and followed the man, witnessed the mystery of the Incarnation in life, death, resurrection and ascension. They shared the story of their experience with others, more words, yes, but rooted in experience, and the early Church was born, because, mysteriously, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, they continued to experience Jesus, through words, and bread and wine, and otherwise.
And it began with the birth we commemorate today. Br. James Koester, an Episcopal monk in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, writes “[t]he mystery of Bethlehem is that God can be known in gentleness and in weakness. The mystery of Bethlehem is that God can be born in the hearts of God’s people. For God chooses the hearts of those who love Him in which to be born. The mystery of Bethlehem is that wherever you are, Jesus is waiting to be born in the stable of your heart and the glory of God’s light is waiting to dawn in your life.”
At our children’s Christmas pageant last night, I saw something I’m not sure anyone else did. Our little Mary was holding the beautiful baby Jesus, and the pageant was nearing its end. Our little Joseph, tentatively, gently, reached out and held the baby’s foot. I have no idea what was going through his mind, but I wonder. I wonder if the child, in its vulnerability, in its innocence, drew him in. I wonder if he got a very first little glimpse of feeling paternal love, of the outpouring desire to care for this little creature. I wonder if he had a sense of the need of this child, of the need of all of us children, for loving, caring touch, for connection to another.
God knew it. God knows it. In what seems to human eyes as folly and weakness, God gave his beloved Son to our care as a vulnerable baby. The Word became flesh in love and as love, both sign and lived experience of God’s love for the world. He came to draw in human love, out of us. He came to pour out divine love upon us. “Christ was born to love you.” May he be born again this day in you, in those you meet, and in those who meet you. Merry Christmas. Amen.