Monday, July 17, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, July 16

Hi all--this is a copy of my sermon from Sunday, July 16. It's based on John 1:1-14, especially "In the beginning was the Word..." and "The Word became flesh and dwelled among us."

One of the most interesting things in the world to me is the way our words create reality. I’ve mentioned to you before that I took a linguistics minor in college, and one of the classes you have to take is phonetics. In phonetics class, you learn to take down every sound that you make and describe it so that other phonetics people can replicate it. For example, the “buh” sound that we make with the letter b is a “voiced bilabial stop” to linguists. The “f” sound is a voiceless labiodental fricative. Now it might not seem like a real worthwhile thing to do, but describing sounds like this helps linguists to see patterns in a certain language, dialect or accent.

Analyzing language in this way makes you even more amazed that words have any power at all. I mean, when you’re doing phonetics, you don’t pay attention to words, you pay attention to sounds. You hear stops and affricates and fricatives and clicks and a variety of vowels, all just kind of lined up next to each other. And you think, how is it that these sounds go together to make ideas? On their own, they are just sounds. When you come right down to it, what are words anyway except arrangements of noises we can make with our mouths, teeth, and tongues? Words are simply “mouth-sounds.”

And yet, of course, we know that words are much more than this. Words have extraordinary power, really. Words create reality. Consider this very common example:

A young man and a young woman in college–total strangers–see each other across a room. They are instantly attracted and so the boy says to the girl, “Would you like to go out sometime?” As they each leave, and return to their dorm rooms, life is somehow different. The boy is filled with anticipation of their date; and the world seems a sweet place indeed to the girl. Just forty-five minutes before, the boy was glum about an upcoming test and the girl was consumed with worry about a dispute with her roommate. Now everything has changed–and why? Words were spoken. “Mouth-sounds” were made, the right collection of stops, affricates and vowels, and as a result, reality was changed.

They date for a while, the relationship grows, and the boy asks the girl to marry him. Think of this–they walk into the room unsure, and they walk out committed to each other! What created the commitment? Words.

They walk into a church engaged, say some words, and they walk out of the church married. The words they spoke changed everything. Before they walked in, they could have walked away without cause or deep scarring, but now they have become one in the eyes of the Lord. And the words they spoke created that reality: not the music that was played, not the dress, not the cake, not the candle, but the words.

Lest there be any confusion about this, there was a wedding in the not-too-distant past where the husband died during the ceremony. Having quite a bit of wealth to his name, his bride wished to inherit his money and to be officially recognized by the state as his wife. The courts ruled that they were officially married because they had already recited the vows. If he had died during the prelude, during the preacher welcoming the people, they would not be married; but since he died after the vows, they were married.

Words create reality for people. Words send young people off to war and words declare peace and bring them home again. Words of forgiveness heal relationships. Harsh words break relationships even further. Perhaps even today I will speak a word that sparks some kind of new reality in you; perhaps you will hear some sounds that my mouth makes and you will go home and do something really constructive that will help you to grow spiritually. Or you may just go home and watch the Phillies game and you will see an umpire use words to create reality; when he says it’s a strike, it’s a strike. That’s what words do; they have the power to push new realities into being.

One of the most memorable examples of God speaking was at the creation, when Scripture tells us that God created with words. Out of the darkness, God spoke words. “Let there be light,” says Genesis 1, “and there was light.” God spoke a word, and instantly that word created a new reality. Where there once was darkness, now there was light, and it was all thanks to God’s Word being spoken. And then on each day of creation, God spoke another word. “Let the waters under the sky be gathered into one place, and let dry land appear.” And it happens. “Let the earth bring forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, etc. etc.” And it happens. And eventually, on the sixth day, “Let us make humankind in our own image.” And it happens. God speaks his word, and his word brings forth new realities, just like our words have the power to do.

And yet of course God’s word can do things our word cannot do. We cannot simply say, “Let there be a plate of chocolate chip cookies” and expect a plate of cookies simply to show up. Our words can create reality only insofar as they use the raw materials we already have in the world. Most things, we cannot make with words alone. I cannot simply say, “I take you, Ramona, to be my wife,” if Ramona has not consented to it. It takes not only words but also consent to make a marriage. Or, as another example, each week I practice Sunday's sermon in an empty sanctuary. Yet those words have never changed another person's life like a sermon on Sunday. Changing a life through a sermon requires words plus listeners (plus a healthy dose of God's Spirit). We can say, “Let there be a plate of chocolate chip cookies” and there will be--if our words combine with our willingness to follow a recipe. But our word only can go so far on its own; it is finite, limited.

God’s word, however, is infinite. God’s word doesn’t need anything else, no other materials. Just by speaking his Word, new realities are created. God speaks his word and worlds come out of empty spaces. God speaks his word and animals appear and start walking around in the Garden of Eden. God speaks his word and human beings are fashioned in God’s image, and granted dignity by the Almighty. God speaks his word and people are healed of diseases; God speaks his word and the oppressed are delivered from bondage. There is no need for any raw materials to be around, no need of any certain conditions. God can just speak and it is done, no matter what. That is the power of the word of God.

And so we turn our minds to this morning’s Scripture. It is a passage, many would argue, of unparalleled beauty and poetry. And it is one that we should approach carefully. Because what we are talking about this morning is a mystery. It cannot be dissected, and fully understood. And mysteries are fragile: if you try to explain them away, they fall apart. Mysteries cannot be fully understood because they are mysteries, so we shouldn’t try too hard. So we will try to shed some light on this, but we need to remember that there are some things we can’t fully understand in this life.

It starts simply: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God.” In the beginning there was simply this–God expressing Himself. And with every self-expression came something new, came something vibrant, came something strange and wonderful. After each day of creation, God looks down at all his word has accomplished and he says, “It is good.” God speaks his word and good things come forth: the day and the night, the earth and the sea, and all the bright and beautiful creatures that live in earth and sky and sea. And God says it is good. Without God imagining it and expressing it through his word, it was not created. But when God expresses it, good things come to be. The word of God is powerful. The word of God is good.

The Scripture continues: “The Word became flesh.” This is really where we get to the heart of the matter. This is something deep and mysterious. In Jesus, the Word of God has become flesh. Jesus was not an ordinary person like you and me, something that God imagined and created. Jesus, rather, is the very expression of God. And unlike things that we express, that are mere clicks, mere sounds we make with our teeth and tongue and mouths, Jesus was a word that became flesh. We speak our words and they evaporate and we can never recapture them. But Jesus was a word that could be seen and touched, a word that lived on earth and now lives eternally.

There’s an old–but worthwhile–preaching illustration about a farmer. And this farmer had gone through the whole harvest season and the weather was beginning to turn cold. In fact, it was the night of the first hard freeze–it came early this year. And he looked outside and on a tree, just outside his home, there was a family of robins: a mother and some babies. And the farmer was moved with compassion and wanted to coax the robins into his home–he had a little bird cage, and the family could stay there until the morning so they could be safe and cozy and warm.

So the farmer tried everything to bring the robins in: he’d put crumbs on the windowsill and the robin would fly in and grab them as quick as she could and escape before the farmer could get her in the cage. He called to the robin: “here, birdie, birdie, birdie...” and the robin wouldn’t come. He tried whistling like that robin in Mary Poppins but the robin was not impressed.

The farmer never could get those robins in the house. And the farmer was a kind man. Most of us would leave a situation like that and say, “Those stupid robins are really dumb. They just don’t know what’s good for them.” But the farmer, being kind, was touched by the robins. And he thought, “More than anything, I just wish I could be a robin, for just a few minutes. Then I could convince them, if I were one of them.”

Maybe the story is a little bit cliche, but it is beautiful in its way. The farmer can speak and cajole all he wants, but it could not compare to actually becoming a robin. All the spoken words in the world cannot compare with one word made flesh. This is Jesus: the powerful, and good, word of God become flesh for our benefit.

God expressed Godself to us most fully in Jesus. This powerful and good word, that creates, that heals, that delivers, that word took on flesh in Jesus. Jesus creates, heals, and delivers as powerfully as that spoken word of God back at the beginning of creation. This is what it means that the Word became flesh: that Jesus is the very expression of God’s will for the world. As surely as God spoke his word at creation and changed reality from what it used to be into something new, now God has spoken through Jesus and Jesus is powerfully changing reality, making something new.

This is why Christians take Jesus so seriously. For the Christian, Jesus is not merely one of many amazing teachers. He is not just a philosopher with a tremendous insight into the human condition. He is not merely a witch doctor who could heal people through amazing non-medical powers. He is not even merely a special prophet of God, not just someone who God sent with a message. He is the message. And so we Christians hang on Jesus’ every word, even worship him, because we believe he is a word straight from God, as divine as God, and indeed one with God. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

And we go on and we read “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” The word used here for “dwelled” literally means “pitched his tabernacle” among us. In the days when Israel was wandering in the wilderness, the tabernacle was a tent that the people would carry around and set up whenever they stopped wandering long enough to set up camp. And the tabernacle was a big tent and it was understood that God’s presence was in the tabernacle. God was not tied to any permanent building, but God came and went with the people and dwelled, as the people did, in a tent, a tabernacle, that was portable and moved with the people.

When the text says that the Word dwelled with us, it literally is saying, “The Word pitched his Tabernacle, or his tent, with us.” That old Tabernacle represented God’s presence to the people, but the presence was invisible and hard to discern. But now, in Jesus, God’s presence is with us most fully, because God can be seen and touched in the person of Jesus. God is no longer distant from the people, but is there with the people: laughing, living, loving, and doing as the word of God always does: healing, restoring, forgiving. In Jesus, the Word of God is no more a impersonal distant force that cannot be seen or known; in Jesus, the Word of God is made flesh, made human, and in Jesus we can see how we too ought to live to share the word of God with all people.

This is some of the best news you will ever hear: “The word of God became flesh, and pitched his tent with us.” We do not have to live anymore as if God cannot be known; we don’t have to live anymore as if God cannot be touched; we don’t have to live anymore as if God is distant. Because God’s good and powerful word, the word that made the earth, the word that sustains it, the word that heals and brings peace, that word has become a person, Jesus Christ. And Jesus has come to live with us, has pitched his tent with us.

Words create reality; God’s Word is especially strong and creates a new reality. It’s my prayer for each of us today that Jesus, God’s Word in the flesh, creates a new reality in you today–that you leave here burning to know Jesus better. Burning to know his teaching, burning to know his wisdom, burning to know his presence in prayer, burning to know the power of his resurrection. May these human words, and Jesus, the divine Word, give you this reality today. Amen.