On Christmas Eve we heard Luke’s great story of the nativity, and next Sunday we will mark the Feast of the Epiphany by telling Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi. For this First Sunday in the Christmas season, though, we pause from story-telling, to consider John’s great proclamation of the Incarnation: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, – “In the beginning was the Word.”
- To listen to the sermon press play:
“In the beginning.” Think for a minute about that phrase, and ask yourself where else it appears. How about Genesis 1:1, the very opening verse of the entire bible? “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” In the Hebrew scriptures that is where it all starts, right? “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God”—in Hebrew ruach Elohim, spirit of God—“swept over the face of the waters.” And how is form drawn out of this formless void? In and through the uttering of words. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
I suspect that many of us here know the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis; know that they are packed with a kind of theological insight that children don’t necessarily see when they first encounter the stories. There is in The Magician’s Nephew a rather extraordinary picture of Aslan the lion bringing Narnia into existence. The characters—the children Digory and Polly, Digory’s manipulative Uncle Andrew, a London cabby, and the witch Jadis—have landed in a place that is—in the words of the witch—“an empty world. This is Nothing.” Yet in the story it is not unlike the kind of “nothing” of the dark and formless void of Genesis 1
“Hush!” said the Cabby. They all listened. In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction is was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful Digory could hardly bear it… Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars… If you had heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which made them appear and made them sing.”
They watch in amazement as light floods this empty world, and see that it is a lion—the Lion— whose song is bringing all things into being. The stars, the sun, plants and trees, streams and rivers, the animals… “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake,” says the Lion in “the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard.” “Love. Think. Speak.”
“In the beginning was the Word,” John proclaims, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Do you see what John is doing here? Not unlike Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew, John is riffing off of the first creation narrative from Genesis, making an improvisational move on an ancient text, and bringing it forward in a new way. The story of Jesus he is about to tell marks a new beginning, as new as creation itself. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The Christ is not an afterthought, a sort of remedy to human brokenness inserted into history to fix a world gone astray. The Word has been from the beginning, John is telling us, and as you read the story of Jesus the Christ you must keep that in view.
As he unfolds his poetic proclamation, John offers that other extraordinary statement: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” or as Eugene Peterson freely translates it—and I referenced this on Christmas Eve as well—“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” John is insistent here that the Word—God—in whom all things came into being and without whom not one thing came into being—has joined the world as one of us. “[W]e have seen his glory,” John proclaims. We followed him, listened to his teaching, watched him reach out and heal broken people and cast out that which destroyed life. We also betrayed him, denied even knowing him, and ran into the night when he was arrested. Some of us watched him die on the executioner’s cross, and feared that his life had been for nothing. And then we met him again in his risen glory, “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth,” and then we knew. Forgiven in our weaknesses and unbelief, we knew. We truly knew that in him and through him we had seen God. And in seeing with those eyes, we have realized that it is all different now.
I really appreciate how the New Testament scholar Jaime Clark-Soles puts it in her comments on John’s prologue:
For John, with the Incarnation, God becoming flesh, bread is no longer just bread, flesh is no longer just flesh, water is no longer just water; vines, branches, sheep, shepherds—all of them reveal the nature of God and identity of Christ.
In other words, because God has become flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, everything in the neighborhood is shot through with new possibility, new life, new revelatory power. “No wonder,” she continues,
No wonder, then, that in healing the blind man Jesus takes the dirt and mixes it with saliva and puts it on the man’s eyes. Surely Jesus could have skipped all the messy, dirty parts and just healed the guy, as he does elsewhere. But the use of the earth and the spit should remind us of the creation as told by Genesis, where God creates the first person using the earth.
There’s that creation theme again, right? The Incarnation is earthy, even muddy, in its engagement with the world, because God truly loves the world, and “stuff” matters. Though it can sound odd to our ears, Archbishop William Temple famously described Christianity as “the most materialistic religion”; materialistic in the sense of taking the ordinary very, very seriously. As C.S. Lewis put it, “God loves matter. He created it.” “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak.”
People of God, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Do it all in such as way as you’ve learned from watching Jesus the Christ; God-with-us. Incarnate—en-flesh—his presence one to another and in the world in which you live. That’s the real claim that Christmas places upon us, and that’s the force of the reading from the Epistle to the Colossians; to live in a way that en-fleshes the living presence of Christ. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” Now St Paul has spent years planting his little church communities in places like Corinth and Philippi, and he knows how cranky and contentious those communities can be. He’s nobody’s fool, is Paul, and he can be rather cranky and contentious himself. And yet he knows with a deep-in-his-bones knowledge how crucial it is to keep pressing on and holding out things like forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, praise, and love as the things that the church in all of its human complexities must keep striving to incarnate.
People of God, Awake. Love. Think. Speak. And live, as best you can, within the peace of God which passes all understanding.