January 4, 2015 – 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day
You might be aware that Mark and I generally use the Revised Common Lectionary for the biblical texts that we preach from.
And you might be aware that there are three cycles of texts for preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary. There’s Year A, Year B, and Year C and then the whole thing repeats again. In Year A we primarily hear from the gospel of Matthew. In Year B—the year we’re in now—we primarily hear from the gospel of Mark. And in Year B we primarily hear from the gospel of Luke.
But, you might ask, what about the gospel of John? When do we get to its year? There is no year for John. Instead, we hear from John at “each of the critical turning points” in the Christian year: at the birth of Jesus, in preparing for the death of Jesus and in the joy of Easter. We turn to the gospel of John to guide us through these essential parts of the story of Jesus; through these essential parts of our story as followers of Jesus.
And so we get today to John 1. John 1 also shows up as the last reading in the traditional Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols. It appears as the gospel reading for Christmas Day and it reappears on the second Sunday after Christmas. This is no accident on the part of the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s an intentional effort to focus our attention on this mysterious text and the mystery of the incarnation.
King’s College Cambridge—the locus of the classic Christmas Eve lessons and carols service—titles the John 1 reading: “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.”
I appreciate that we speak of the incarnation as a mystery. Bill Placher, one of my favorite theology writers says, “Trying to make things clear is often a mistake in theology.” I love that! A scholar who wrote about theology his whole life reminds us that trying to make theological ideas precise and completely comprehensible—to completely unpack them and lay out all of their parts—can often be a mistake. Because part of all of this is a mystery. Not that we can’t talk about it, and study it and think about it. But trying to get it all figured out and nailed down and explained away belies that we are trying to put words to something that is ultimately greater than all our words. We can talk about God all day long but at the end of the day, all our words pale in light of the mystery of God.
The fourth-century desert abba, Gregory of Nyssa, said, “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything.”
Wonder is a key component of the Godly Play class at Central. I had a conversation with one of our Godly Play children not too long ago. I was worried that she might be getting bored because she had been in Godly Play for about four years and had heard many of the same stories repeated each year. When I asked her if she was bored, she said, “No! Every time I hear the story I hear something different.”
That’s why we keep coming back to a mystery. Every time we come back, we have the possibility of hearing, seeing, touching something different. And we are able to enter the mystery more deeply.
So it is with the incarnation. The mystery of the incarnation.In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. (1.1, 14)
God comes to be with us in the person of Jesus. When we talk about the incarnation, we are talking about the idea that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. Which seems like crazy talk because we have no other reference point for someone who is both fully human and fully God. How can someone be both at the same time? We might be able to imagine half human and half God but fully human and fully God seems impossible to comprehend.
So what if we didn’t try to make it fit as if we’re solving a math equation? What if we thought of this as a mystery or a paradox to hold lightly and to keep returning to it in order to encounter it more deeply?
Bill Placher in his book on the meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian faith says “Looking at Jesus is the best place to start in learning what it really means to be human.” Which might be a surprise because we tend to think of “being human” meaning messing up. “I’m only human” we say in our defense when something hasn’t gone right. But theologically speaking, “being human” means being created in God’s image. Being created “very good.” Created by God for right relationship with God and with others. And in Jesus we see this kind of human being. In Jesus we see what it is to be fully human.
One of the best things I’ve read about the mystery of the incarnation is in Shirley Guthrie’s classic book Christian Doctrine:
“In Jesus Christ God came to us in a human being and put God’s stamp of approval on human life. Christmas means that what God wills and accomplishes in the world is not the creation of religious people but the creation of human people; not just the salvation of our souls but the renewal of our flesh-and-blood humanity; not the ability to escape from our human existence but the ability thankfully to accept and courageously to live an authentically human life both now in this world and in the new heaven and earth to come. God’s coming to us in a human being means that God supports and participates in every religious and secular movement that enables human life to be more fully human and frees people from all the forces within them and around them that enslave and dehumanize them…whoever is against human beings (any of them), is against God, for in Jesus God took up the cause of humanity to make it God’s own cause.”
In other words, “If you want to know what it means to be a genuinely human being and to stand for the cause of humanity—look at Jesus Christ.” He was fully human.At the same time, in “Jesus of Nazareth, God was uniquely present in the world.” As we encounter most explicitly in John’s gospel, what Jesus does is what God does and what Jesus says is what God says. But even more, Jesus is God’s Word; the enfleshment of God.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, [we could also say, the Mother’s heart] who has made God known. (1.1, 18)
Again we encounter a surprise. Because, really, who expects God to show up in a person, be born to poor parents, grow up to be a friend of outcasts, and be tried, condemned and executed at a public execution?
God-with-us in Jesus—that Jesus is fully God—didn’t start as a theological idea or a doctrine. It started as a story. A bunch of stories. It was only after the early Christians “had lived in [Jesus’] company, listened to what he said, watched what he did, and especially after they had seen his death and experienced his presence as the Risen One…[only then] did they confess him as God-with-us.” What those early Christians experienced in Jesus was more than just another martyred prophet. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, they experienced the presence of God.
Fully God and fully human. “Instead of an explanation of how that could be possible, the Bible gives us stories that show [us].” We look at the life of Jesus. We read the stories. We hear from others who have followed him. And we find our hearts and minds challenged and changed, comforted and consoled.
Fully God and fully human. Does it matter? I think so. Preacher Tony Robinson says, “If Christ is only divine, our human lives are not embraced, known, hallowed and blessed by God. If Jesus is only human, then we know nothing finally, fully, or decisively of God [from him].”
Fully God and fully human. It doesn’t fit together in any equation we have known before. So we hold it loosely without trying to pound out a precise, scientific explanation. We let it be a mystery to explore and ponder.
Fully God and fully human. Does it matter in our lives? I think it does. A colleague of mine from seminary, Ken Kovacs, wrote recently:
“The Christian experience of transformation is not an out-of-body experience…the Spirit doesn’t take us out of ourselves or out of our bodies…the Spirit is not trying to rescue us out from the world or ourselves…The Christian life is an in-the-body experience…The Spirit is forever putting us into our bodies, putting us into the world, thrusting us down deep into matter, into concrete existence, into the physicality of flesh. God is always seeking incarnation. In Christ, yes,…but also in us and through us, because of Christ at work in us.”So incarnation is a celebration of God becoming flesh in Jesus and in us. Incarnation is “a celebration of love embodied in the world in Christ, and love embodied in the world through you and me. Humanity and divinity are linked together[—not only in Jesus but also] in us.”
In us! What wonder. What a mystery.* * *
1. Gail R. O’Day, “John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 494.
2. In the Presbyterian Book of Order, we also read about “the mystery…of the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in Jesus Christ.” F-2.03. It’s one of the confessions we Presbyterians share with most other Protestants as well as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions.
3. WIlliam C. Placher, Jesus the Savior – The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 31-32.
4. Quoted in Anthony B. Robinson, “Back to Basics,” Christian Century, July 26, 2003, 26.
5. Placher, 33.
6. Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, revised edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 247.
7. Ibid., 248.