The Nativity of our Lord: Christmas Day
25 December 2013
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
What has just happened? As we’ve navigated another season of Advent, returning to some very memorable moments in the story of God’s eternal love for us, reimagining the birth of a baby in the darkest part of the night, we’ve reached the point where that question begs to be asked: what has just happened? The entire New Testament consists of so many attempts by apostles and church leaders and their communities to come to grips with that same basic question, stretched out to include not just the birth of Jesus but also his death and resurrection. And two thousand years of church fathers, bishops, priests, scholars, theologians, philosophers, psychiatrists, artists, poets, curates, seminarians, you and I, with all our theologizing and preaching and teaching and pondering and praying, have yet to get to the bottom of the mystery that is that question. Part of me wants to say it is an unanswerable question. And on one level, this is probably true, because it is easily recognized by us to be a question answer whose answer is inexhaustible. Father Blume’s series of sermons going back to the summer illustrates this point. Each has taken up in some way the core concept of incarnation, the very articulation of God’s love in a human being, and he would be the first to admit that he has not come to the end of making its meaning. But on another level, the answer is simple: what happened in Jesus Christ—precursor prophecies, angelic messages to a teenage girl, virgin birth, baby in the manger—what happened is that God did again what he did in the beginning: God spoke. Yet what seems simple is actually rather complicated. It is speech, language that forms the core of human consciousness; it is the medium of all thought and holds within it the capacity to bind people together. But language/communication is notoriously imperfect, subject to misunderstanding, and riddled with gaps. The meaning of words is only ever more words . . . just check any dictionary. And a gap will always exist between the message I wish to communicate—which I compose of words assembled into a statement—and what is finally understood as my message. This gap may not be noticeable or problematic if the message is about the weather; but if I ask you to describe the taste of chocolate, or the love of God, the limitations of language reveal themselves in the piling up of adjectives and synonyms and the groping for metaphors. Enough linguistics for one day—you probably get the point. What happened in the birth of Jesus; what has been happening over the past 4 weeks or so? God has spoken.
St. John, the beloved disciple and mastermind of the Fourth Gospel, the last of our canonical Gospels to appear in print, according to tradition lived longer than any of the apostles. And after a good long time of teaching and preaching and theologizing and trying to help the church that grew up around him to answer our question, fifty years or more, and having developed a fairly significant arsenal of theology, St. John put quill to parchment, and wrote down in his own fashion the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The first edition probably began abruptly, leaping straight into the ministry of John the Baptist, more like Mark’s Gospel in this respect than Matthew and Luke’s. But in its use of language, its rich imagery and theological symbolism, John’s story, if I can shift the medium for a moment, became that rare work of art—pigments, brushstrokes, light and dark, composition and perspective, all driven by inspiration—that the other three Gospel writers could not quite achieve. Indeed, they had no such aims. They chose to locate Jesus and his redemptive ministry in the history of prophecy and human life. John does not ignore these things (rather bending them to his own will), but chose instead the canvas of eternity on which to paint the episodes of the epic story of God’s love for the world. John’s depiction of the story of Jesus renders it a mystery—one that drops clues all along the way. These clues John intentionally calls, “signs,” “semeia,”—actions which do not exist for themselves but rather exist to point to something beyond themselves: the signs were designed to assist the disciples, first, and then attentive readers (including us), second, to make meaning, to answer that question which is Jesus himself. What has just happened? Yet when John is about to stop painting, exhausted, he realizes he has set out to do the impossible; he scratches his head and says, “You know, there are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” And at this point, as I like to imagine it, he sat down and wrote more words to explain the words he’d already written:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
You’ll hear the words of Genesis 1 in this masterful variation on the creation story. The surprising appearance of “the Word,” the Greek term λόγος (Logos), is an explosive literary touch, and gives to John’s language a reach into several worlds of thought at once: Greek philosophy, Hellenistic ethics, Jewish concepts of the Wisdom of God, in all of which, in different ways λόγος is fundamental to conceptions of existence. And, frankly, the English translation of all of this as “Word” cannot bear the load of meaning that the original means to express. But at least it grants us a connection with God’s creative “speaking” in the Genesis account; God’s very utterance that brings all things into existence: light and life. When that connection is made, with John’s use of language, we look again on that baby in Luke’s manger and we see the eternal Son at the center of creation, the medium by which creation came to be. Again language will fail as the apostles attempt to describe this mystery: John says, “all things were created through him”; Paul adds: “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created . . . all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together;” or as the author of Hebrews writes: “he sustains all things by his powerful word.” This truth of the Son’s eternal existence, articulated poetically in the first lines of the Gospel, silently gathers force as the next few verses hurriedly sketch the life, ministry, and unthinkable rejection of the One who is light and life for the world. Then, as if only just now after 50 years of reflection he realizes the enormity of what he has just described, John steps back from the easel and surveys the whole, steps forward again adding a brilliant final touch to describe what has just happened: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory…”
So, through the lens of John 1, when we find ourselves to have arrived at Christmas, yet again, what has just happened? God made what the writer of Hebrews describes as “one last, final attempt to speak into the kosmos and human history, one grand attempt to close the gap between signifier and signified,” between the “words” used to construct a message and the final message apprehended. The result was the perfect coalescence of “medium and message” into divine revelation—the Word became flesh. Henceforth the human failure to apprehend this message is not about the shortcomings of language; it is about our failure to speak the language of God fluently. For the eternal God, in the person of the Son, translated himself from boundless eternity into limited time and space, into vulnerable human flesh, into a corrupt and polluted environment to be with us, to demonstrate truth and love to his people who have such a hard time accepting divine love, to share in human pain, suffering and death, and in doing so to break their hold on us, so that we might live. It is this incarnation-communication of the creator God to us, unfathomable in the medium of a baby boy, which gives meaning to each part of the Gospel story. Our task, which begins or resumes today, is to make meaning of this message. Who is it that changes water to wine, who multiplies the loaves and fishes, who walks on water and stills the storm, who ignores the cultural and religious rules to bring healing and forgiveness to people who most need it, and who is it who will one day experience the utter abandonment of death on a cross?
Making meaning of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us cannot be done with a dictionary or a calculator; our question, “What just happened,” is a question, a problem that has no software solution; and the Christian life of faith is not a spectator sport. We can only live our way into the answer by embracing incarnation ourselves. Intrigued by John the Baptist’s description of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” two would-be disciples began following behind Jesus. Jesus turned and asked them, “What do you seek?” And they asked him, “where are you staying, or where do you live?,” which is really just a polite way of saying, “Who are you?’ And he said to them, “Come and see.” May God renew our curiosity that we may “come and see.”
© 2013 Philip H. Towner