21 December 2014

In the Flesh

Galatians 4:4-7 & John 1:1-18

Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 21st December 2014

You won’t find the Galatians text in any lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Neither will you find John 1.  The John text is often read on Christmas Eve.  It’s one of the suggested lectionary readings for the Nativity of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as Christmas Day.  While Christmas Eve might be the ideal time to preach on John 1, given all the festivities associated with the service, the lateness of the hour at the candlelight service, and the fact that many are simply exhausted just getting to that evening, folks are here for worship just to hear the music and the story.  But when do we take the time to seriously consider the radical claims we will celebrate this coming week?  When do we take the time to reflect on the true reason for the season?  Yes, Jesus is the reason for the reason.  But exactly what about him?  What about him, his manner of birth, the nature of his life, the purpose of his life?  When do we take the time to stand in awe and amazement before the wondrous announcement made to shepherds, to the poor, to the wise, to those in power? When do we take the time to consider the mystery of the Incarnation?  That’s what I hope to do here.

I have to admit, though, there’s considerable hesitancy on my part.  First, I’m getting over a cold or something flu-like and so my brain is a little foggy.  And so I look to the Holy Spirit to make up for my deficiencies—which is my hope for every sermon.  Second, it’s daunting to consider the subject matter.  There isn’t enough time in the world to explore the height and depth and reach of this theological claim. You and I are not equal to the task.  No one is.  And yet we are called to give expression to the inexpressible, to find words to say what cannot be said.  That’s what scripture does, it attempts in different ways to give expression to the inexpressible.

Our understanding of the Incarnation took some time to emerge.  The earliest gospel, Mark, written around 70 AD, doesn’t have a birth narrative. There’s no story about Jesus’ origins, he just shows up as an adult seeking baptism in the wilderness.  Matthew and Luke have birth stories, but they’re not the same.  In Luke we have the annunciations to Mary and to Elizabeth, we have Mary’s song, the Magnificat, we have shepherds and choirs of angels singing in the fields near Bethlehem.  In Matthew there are no shepherds, no choirs of angels, but he has the story about the Magi and the slaughter of the innocents.  John’s gospel says nothing about Joseph or Mary or shepherds or choirs of angels or wise men or Bethlehem.  John’s gospel, written around 90 AD, so very late after Jesus’ life, is far more philosophical and theological.  The first five verses of John, the prologue, are simply sublime and eloquent and jammed-packed with theological treasure.  Volumes could be, and have been written on these first five verses alone. 

So, we might say that the stories of Jesus’ birth come late in the emergence of Christianity.  And so it’s easy to see why the events associated with Good Friday and Easter have taken precedence in the history of the church.  Now, I don’t want to get into a debate whether or not Christmas is more important than Easter or vice versa.  In order for Easter, we need Christmas.  Jesus has to be born. 

Even though the gospels were written between 70 and 90 AD, the story of Jesus’ birth is older than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  How do we know?  Because it’s right here in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written between 50 and 60 AD.  Paul never read the gospels and yet he knew the story.  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4-5).

Or listen to what we have in Colossians, written in the 50s, a text singing to the supremacy of Christ, but also reflecting an even older tradition that refers not just to the birth of Christ, but another idea, that Christ was with God at the beginning of time and that all things have come into being through Christ.  Listen: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20).

There’s no record that the author of John’s gospel read Colossians, but we find similar ideas, right in the opening verses.  Here, John is intentionally linking the opening verses of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” with these words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  The Word here—capitalized—is a translation of the Greek word logos.  The use of Word or Logos to describe Jesus is heavily influenced by Greek philosophy at the time.  In Greek thought, the Logos or Word referred to reason, order, wisdom, logic, meaning, and intelligence.  Plato, for example, would have said that the Word brought everything into being.  According to John, the Word was in the beginning with God and “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

All of this sounds very philosophical and theologically abstract—and it is, but it absolutely necessary for us to have some sense of what John is doing here because then he leaves the prevailing philosophy behind, throws it out the window, and then takes an enormous theological leap to say, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory….” And the Word became flesh.  Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο (Kai o logos sarx egeneto).

And so here is the fullest articulation of the Incarnation that we have.  It’s implied elsewhere, but here it becomes as concrete and real as one can get. 

Every word in the opening of John’s gospel is significant.  Everything word is intentional, including the use of the word flesh.  Kai o logos sarx egeneto.  And the Word became flesh, sarxSarx was a crude term, a crass way of referring to the body.  It’s John’s way of saying that the divine wisdom, Logos, became gritty and grimy and human, something we can touch and feel and smell.  John links the living flesh of a human being, named Jesus, with the divine wisdom that holds the world together and gives it life and light and meaning.[1]  It’s all held together in Jesus, which means that humanity and divinity are now inextricably joined together in him, the spiritual and the physical are joined, heaven and earth are married, and nothing can divorce them, because love is the force that holds them together.  Love is the force that connects them.  Love is the force that binds humanity and divinity. Love is the force that intertwines them.  Christmas is the celebration of God’s enfleshment in history, through Jesus.  That’s why the angels sing!

Incarnation is the celebration of God’s enfleshment in Jesus.  It’s the celebration of God’s embodiment in him.  And because we are “in Christ” and live in him by virtue of our baptism into his life, the truth of the Incarnation is also a celebration of God’s enfleshment in us.  It’s a celebration of God’s embodiment in us.  It’s a celebration of love in embodied in the world in Christ, and love embodied in the world through you and me.  Humanity and divinity are linked together in us.  From a Jewish perspective, from the tradition of Genesis onward, the spiritual and the physical have always been joined together.  In Genesis God breathed into the dust and animated it, forming Adam: enspirited flesh or enfleshed spirit.  This wasn’t the case in the Greek world, which was dualistic, tending to privilege spirit over matter.  Privileging Spirit over matter is not a Jewish idea, or a Christian idea.  Spirit and matter are linked together.  Matter matters. 

The Franciscan Richard Rohr was eloquent this week in his blog, reflecting on the meaning of the Incarnation.  Rohr illustrates the significance of Jesus’s birth and then he brings it forward into our time, to our lives.  We can affirm and believe, “The Word became flesh,” but how does that, then, change the way we live, the way we relate to ourselves, to our bodies, to others, to the body of the earth?  Much hinges on our ability to fathom the mystery of the Incarnation.  Rohr said, “What Jesus allows us to imagine—because we see it in him—is that the divine and the human are forever one. God did not just take on one human nature, although that is where we could first risk imagining it in the body of Jesus. God took on all human nature [–yours and mine—]and said “yes” to it forever! In varying degrees and with infinite qualities, God took on everything physical, material, and natural as himself. That is the full meaning of the Incarnation. To allow such a momentous truth, to fully believe it, to enjoy it in practical ways, to suffer it with and for others—this is what it means to be a Christian!”[2]

 “For most Christians, though, Jesus is totally divine, but not totally human. We deny his humanity and overly assert his divinity—instead of the very synthesis that he came to exemplify, announce, and share!” I wholeheartedly agree with Rohr when he says, “We’ve paid a big price for such dualistic thinking because when we can’t put it together in [Jesus, being both divine and human], we can’t put it together in ourselves either. And that’s the whole point! You and I are simultaneously children of heaven and children of earth, divine and human coexisting in a well-hidden disguise….  The good news is that flesh and spirit, divine and human, coexist.” And the “oneness of being between Jesus Christ and God that characterized the Incarnation is not something of merely temporary duration,” that is occurring only for a time while Jesus was alive but then gave up, instead this oneness, this union “is a final reality enduring endlessly into eternity.”[3] Christ remains the Incarnated One. Unfortunately, this message has not been clearly communicated in the Church across the centuries.  “The consequences have been disastrous at all levels. Matter always reveals Spirit, and Spirit lies hidden in all that is physical, material, earthly, human, flawed, and failing.”[4]

Many years ago when I was in seminary, it was my mentor and friend, Dr. James Loder, who first helped me to see the importance of the Incarnation.  How we approach the Incarnation has considerable implications for the way we live as Christians, how we view God and Jesus, but also how we view ourselves, our bodies, our identities, how we see the world and engage it.  Jim once said me, I’ll never forget it, “Ken, the Christian experience of transformation is not an out-of-body experience,” meaning, the Spirit doesn’t take us out of ourselves or out of our bodies, the Christian life is not escapist, the Spirit is not trying to rescue us out from the world or ourselves.  Instead, “the Christian life is an in-the-body experience,” meaning, 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.[5]  In Christ, yes, certainly, but also in us and through us, because of Christ at work in us.

This has been true in my own experience.  I also think it was true for, of all people, someone like Ebenezer Scrooge.  Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) glorious Christmas Carol provides us with one of the most accessible accounts of the stages of human transformation and what is required for the human heart to be so transformed.  We all know how the story ends.  Unfortunately, the story has been reduced into a simple morality tale. What’s often missed in the countless versions of the story—plays, musicals, even cartoons with the likes of Mr. Magoo—is Dickens’ description of Scrooges’ gradual realization of what transpired throughout the night in his dreams. Scrooge was given a new life in the midst of the old.  Everything old is seen with fresh eyes.  The world is reborn on Christmas morning because his heart is reborn.  Everything has become every blessed thing.  For, how you see the world depends in large part upon what you bring to it, what we bring to the world through our hearts.  This is how Dickens describes Scrooge awaking on Christmas morning: 

“Yes! and the bedpost was his own.[–The bedpost.  And when was the last time you gave thanks to God for your bedpost?  If you have a bedpost.  Or, when was the last time you gave thanks to God for your bed, or your nightstand beside your bed, or your comforter?—] Yes! and the bedpost was his own.  The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!...  ‘I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!’ Scrooge repeated as he scrambled out of bed.  ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this!  I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!’”

On his knees.

“He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call.  ‘They are not torn down,’ cried Scrooge, folding one of the bed-curtains in his arms, ‘they are not torn down, rings and all. They are here:  I am here: the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled.’  His hands were busy with his garments all the time: turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, tearing them, mislaying them, making parties to every kind of extravagance.  ‘I don’t know what to do!’ cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath.  ‘I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody!’”  He’s so happy, he feels like a baby and he doesn’t mind feeling like a baby.

And then in the midst of his revelry he’s assailed, as Dickens puts it, “by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard.
Oh, glorious,


Glory, indeed.  Gloria!  Gloria in excelsis Deo!  Glory to God in the highest! And joy to the world, joy of the Word who never ceases seeking enfleshment in the world, in your world, and in mine.

Thanks to the members of the Thursday Morning Bible Study for last week's fascinating discussion of the Incarnation, a conversation that helped to shape the contours of this sermon.

Image: William Blake (1757-1827), Annunciation to the Shepherds, Morning of Christ's Nativity.

[2] Richard Rohr, “Incarnation,” adapted from The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis.
[3] Thomas F. Torrance, ed., The Incarnation:Ecumenical Studies in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed A. D. 381 (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1981), xv.
[4] Rohr on “Incarnation.”
[5] On Loder’s incarnational theology, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[6] Charles Dickens, The Annotated Christmas Carol, edited with an introduction and notes by Michael Patrick Hearn (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 149-150. Emphasis added.

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