Word Made Flesh

a sermon on John 1:1-18 for the 4th Sunday of Advent

 

In the beginning was the Word.

Before we ask what that Word was, what it spelled out for us, the first thing we might notice simply about it being the Word is that it means organization. Letters grouped on purpose, for a reason or with reason. Logical.

Indeed, that’s exactly the original Greek word here: Logos, Logos—logic.

That’s a remarkable notion, that there was logic and order, the Word in the beginning. Remarkable the Word was there from the start, partly because it was so long—billions of years until us, many millennia then until we had words for that beginning, much less had developed any language at all, and generations more of pondering, then coming to understand, and even now still studying and trying to explain what happened, what brought this about, what this order is. But the Logos says such sense was there before the first moment.

And it’s remarkable because we’d have no reason to presume there was order or logic to the universe. From a Big Bang explosion and the hot plasma that eventually birthed galaxies and nebulae of hydrogen and carbon and gold and water and single cells. Or logic for how we attempt to make sense of the world around us or organize our week or search for meaning in life. There is no apparent defining logic, through the end of a telescope, in a survey of cultural patterns, in trend reports, in navel-gazing.

Addressing a smaller question of logic, it may seem backward that we’ve been through 14 weeks of the Narrative Lectionary, through centuries of the Old Testament and progress of the story and development of relationships…and suddenly we’re starting over? After all of that, we’ve rewound and find ourselves back at the beginning?

Looking for the logic, maybe we return to the beginning now for 20/20 hindsight, a way of reorienting the past and reframing the history that also allows us to understand better what is coming in our own lives. Maybe we see something different about the Old Testament because of the reminder that the same God has been working in the same ways with Logos since the start.

And maybe this isn’t that those who forget the past are condemned…but is about the arc of the universe, about knowing the grain so we’re not going against it. I’m not sure we’d say this Logos sets a pattern that must be followed, an order or rule to life. It sure doesn’t feel like any of this is quite that insistently compelling, but rather feels almost optional, as if you could get away with doing whatever you want. While it’s a conundrum that we’re apparently able to work against following the directions of the universe, still, maybe in being properly oriented we find assurance or wisdom or our values. Maybe we find it a way of saying that it does, after all, matter who we are and what we do.

In the beginning was the Word. Logic. Cohesion. Intention.

It’s all the more remarkable because our sense of God couldn’t be so orderly. If we’re trying to uncover evidence by looking at the overall blueprint or shape of our lives, there’s a birth on one end but death on the other. The form of that pairing reveals or tells us nothing about God to discern the logic of life. Similarly, there’s beauty around us, but destruction also confronts us. Loving caring relationships stand versus the unknown stranger with our uncertainties, insecurities, fears. Evolution and progress, but certainly not on a clearly upward trajectory. No, from all of that, if we were trying to label God, we may well not come up with the insightful clarifying Word of timeless logic at all, but merely an odd jumble of letters.

Let’s try that as an experiment: give me six letters right now… [I think we ended up with something like M-R-X-T-A-Q.] Nonsense. Not a word. Made up. And if we added much more than that little bit, it would be utterly confusing.

plensa

In a similar feeling, I’ve been stuck deliberating about an art exhibit at MMOCA, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The pictures in your bulletin show this exhibit by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, made up of random letters from eight different alphabets: Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and our own Latin alphabet. The letters are totally disorganized, intentionally unintentional, broken apart from our normal sense of letters forming words. They are lumped together to be nonsensical, to take the letters away from their usual purpose of language and communication.

It becomes a reminder of global diversity and differences. The sculptures are described as breaking through cultural, linguistic, and geographic barriers. In a way, I like it—the sense that we may be standing next to and connected with somebody we don’t understand and can’t hardly comprehend.

But in another way, it was disturbing to me. I suppose partly because I’m a person of words and explanations, scientifically-minded, who likes logic. This exhibit, then, picked that apart and left it disintegrated, as if words don’t have meaning. Or maybe the reverse of that, the reminder that when letters float off by themselves out of any context, they are nonsense and emptied symbols until re-formed into a word, and then can communicate and share meaning and provide understanding. But if not rationally assembled, then are left like our six unprounceable letters as pointless, arbitrary, and literally insignificant—refusing to signify anything.

I’ve been contemplating this exhibit for several weeks now in light of today’s Bible reading. There, rather than an amalgam of random alphabets formed into a sculpture of the universe, of creation, of humanity, of something that would only have meaning by inventive happenstance, we are told this all came into being with logic, by the Word, that God has an organizing principle for creation, and that you, too, have significance as part of God’s Logos.

The Word for this logic of God’s creation, for our lives, and for God’s own self, this Word isn’t law, or order over chaos. It isn’t life. It isn’t growth or expansion or development, though we might label those in our community projects and in the complexification of the galaxy. God’s Word isn’t fundamentally even love.

God’s logic, the Word of God, is Jesus. In him is the embodiment of what God intends and conveys, is spelling out for us to understand. With hindsight from Jesus’ birth, we can see not just one star over a manger but that the cosmos from the Big Bang sings for him. The highest host of heaven condescends to kneel before him. Lowing cattle give way to make room. All of this as big flashing arrows pointing as signs from God for us. In Jesus, we come to comprehend God’s logic for creation, of healing and welcoming, of teaching and serving, of putting down and lifting up, all to save.

And looking ahead to where this story ultimately leads, the shape of God’s order in Jesus, finally, is cruciform, shaped by the cross. God’s order for the universe bears the marks of suffering for another, and of rising to new life beyond that suffering.

I don’t know which you may find more shocking and stunning, that Jesus is the Word that defines and gives sense to you, or that Jesus is the Word that defines and gives sense to God.

Jesus is the shape of your life, not because you are ordered to emulate him, but because in a happy exchange, at this table and more, he takes on your flesh, gives you his Spirit, dwells with you, becomes you, so that your own life embodies God’s Word. Your significance is shaped by Jesus.

And Jesus is the shape of God, because the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him, and he alone has made known to us God’s heart, a heart filled with sacrificially dying and yet endless, eternal, infinite love. God’s significance comes from Jesus.

The reason we go back to the beginning is for the ongoing clarification: If you want to understand your life, listen to the Word Jesus. If you want to understand God, listen to the Word Jesus.

 

 

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the Strength of Sermons (and the 1st for Advent Lutheran)

3rd Sunday after Epiphany – 24Jan16

Luke4:13-21; Psalm19; 1Corinthians12:12-31a; Nehemiah8
As Pastor Sonja and I are beginning this week, it’s only fair game for the fodder of jokes about recycling previous sermons. Though you’ve heard me touted as green and eco-conscious and a care-r of creation, I’m not a recycler in that particular way.

Without the reuse or recycle, I wondered if maybe I could emphasize the reduce side of things, as in reducing my workload. So I went searching on the internet. But I couldn’t find any good sermons for newly arriving pastors, and instead came upon this for two new veterinarians:

Greetings, dear dogs and cats. It is a pleasure to be here with you. Both Dr. Sondra and I, Dr. Nate, appreciate your patience in these recent months of having to sit, wait, and stay while you’ve been eager for us to arrive. We’re grateful for those interim professionals who were with you in the meantime, for David Claws-n-Barks, Jerry Paws, and Dan Beagle. As we begin serving among you, we look forward to the opportunity to care for you in times of sickness, to administer the proper inoculations against evil and dread diseases, to comfort you amid your fears, for office visits, and also to share snacks when you are good. Finally, we are held by the promise that all dogs do go to heaven.

So I could go on like that, but I’m going to stop for several reasons. First, such work of making up playful allegory does not serve to endear me to my wife Acacia. More importantly, it’s prompting us to move toward a larger point. Almost always in sermons, we have to consider how we’re hearing words and what we take them for. That gets highlighted in perhaps an opposite way when I told you those words of veterinarian greeting weren’t originally for you, not for your situation. By claiming that it was from an old vet clinic and not church here today I’d suspect it made you hear it differently, taking it with less weight.

Now, a sermon is much the exact reverse of that, since we should receive it with utmost importance. In our Lutheran understanding (since I’m so steeped in this identity, you’ll have to bear with me as I come to understand how this works and who may or may not identify as Lutheran in these gatherings), in our Lutheran understanding a sermon is very special, among the chances to hear directly God’s Word to you and for you.

This is a very different way to hear and apply words, amid our normal reality bombarded by constant communication and lying news updates, and also especially when so much of what we hear and apply together as church are very old words of the Bible and ancient liturgy. Let’s take another couple examples to clarify this direction.

One place I like to turn is to the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. It was disappointing this past week that my books were all packed away and so I was out of my normal rhythm of getting to be steeped in MLK for his birthday observance. It’s worth re-reading his words partly because he was so eloquent, such a fine preacher, and his words are still so moving.

That we’re moved by what he had to say also indicates that his words still have relevance. Partly that’s ongoing tensions and justice and rights that still demand to be worked out in our society. When he called for a “radical revolution of values” and to “shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society,” we hear that also as a contemporary calling. We still now observe that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” we are approaching “spiritual death” from “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” We long for life, and may take those words as emphatic and inspirational, desiring to have our own lives transformed and for the church again to serve as a beacon, a headlight to guide society rather than a taillight bringing up the rear.

What gets fuzzier, however, is when we try to ascribe larger credit or source to Pastor King’s words. Can we clearly say that God was speaking through him? And is God’s Word still talking to us through this preacher who has been gone for almost five decades? What do we do when those old words are chauvinistic or simply old, more of a historical document than meeting our present realities? Where does God’s voice go then?

Obviously there is no way to delineate that, no definitive way to attribute one voice or set of words as speaking for God while eliminating another. That ambiguity is, after all, what makes this faith: it cannot be proven.

To turn to another example, we read together the words from Psalm 19. The first half is seen as a Psalm of creation, that night and day, sun, moon, stars, and even new planets are declaring and telling the glory of God, that somehow God might be identified by the sky. Yet verse 3 contradicts that. It seems to say that the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork, but we can’t understand the message. Even though the voice goes out to all, it is an unheard voice, and whatever they have to report does not sound in our ears.

Though I don’t always like it, I appreciate that distinction. We may be in awe of sunsets or aurora borealis or of deep-gazing telescopes, but we’d have to confess that these don’t directly tell us about God. We may take them as validation for what we already believe, a God of beauty, of infinite handiwork throughout the cosmos. Converse perspectives don’t shy away from labeling natural phenomena as signs from a retributive God, exacting punishment. A poster outside one of our Sunday school classrooms downstairs asks what God looks like. It features a drawing of the sun, the answer “you,” plus the polar sides of “everything and nothing.” This discernment does get notoriously complex: is the pummeling blizzard on the east coast a message of divine displeasure? Is it a supersized dose of wintry wonderland gift to be enjoyed? Is it less a factor of communicating God’s identity and more of the climate change we’re causing? Or none of these? There may be knowledge being declared, but we have a tough time discerning the message, just as the Psalm said.

Similarly for that ambiguous message in the Psalm, let’s notice the final verse, on “words of my mouth” and meditations being acceptable. That verse is frequently prayed by preachers as an opener to sermons, perhaps here, too. I don’t use it. It may be that I’m a little too brash; I learned to begin with something shocking or provocative, or just to jump right in with the big stuff. But there’s also something that leaves me uncomfortable with that pre-sermon prayer, as a bit too un-Lutheran. Again, we don’t understand sermons to be take-or-leave meditations, not just one person’s ideas about God, but words from God. Because this isn’t intended as another among polyvalent spiritual suggestions, it’s not just sentimental trivialities that can be shrugged off.

On the other hand, in sermons I have said and keep on saying plenty that’s unacceptable, words that don’t seem very godly for being so earthy or mundane. I can forget to say what needs to be said, or I’m ignorant, or I just plain miss the mark. We know that sermons have been used to hurt and exclude, to manipulate, to claim that I’m right and you’re wrong, with the heavy hand of divine sanction behind it. There is the risk of sounding or even being authoritarian, though I hope and try that you don’t hear it from me. Yet it remains a difficulty, not only when we’re gazing to the stars, but when we’re listening for God’s Word from a mortal, fallible, and occasionally absurd human mouth. I say that speaking from personal experience!

Yet these words are where we listen to have God’s will conveyed to us, meaning both what God wants from you and also what God wants for you and is working for on your behalf. Even if we’re not yet familiar with each other, still you have called me here in some major way in order to be a mouthpiece, to proclaim God’s expectations from and blessings for you.

So after all that background about sermons, how they should function and why we have them, maybe it’s time that I actually get around to doing it. For this, we have what I consider to be a prototypical and foundational epitome in our Gospel reading. Jesus has gathered with others in worship. He shares a Bible reading. And then, also giving his first sermon—one of the shortest of all time—he declares, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

If we’re searching for God’s designs and purposes, Jesus is a good place to look (and listen). He’s the heart of why we’re here. And he proclaims God is sharing good news. Today, that sermon of his might seem to have more oomph, then, than mine or whatever the skies and weather patterns are trying to say. When he proclaims that something is accomplished, we might have inherent readiness to trust that.

Yet in picking up old words from the prophet Isaiah, he says they are speaking not just to ancient circumstances but continue to be purposeful. And not only are those old words still significant, but within the sermon is when they are accomplished, when God is doing what God says God will do. So just what is God’s Word saying to you today? Well, we might be best to repeat and reiterate from Jesus: from a Bible reading that speaks of good news to the poor, release to captives, sight for the blind, freedom from oppression, and God’s favor, again I declare this good news to you: this is fulfilled in your hearing.

Some of that truly is conveyed in the words themselves. You may know and trust in God’s loving presence with you and blessing for you because these words are what they promise.

Others of that you may find fulfilled in your life or through your life. Together, we are good news people. Through this gathering in worship, we are formed into the body of Christ. You become God’s hands and muscles and, yes, mouth. This work is for you and also through you, as God continues striving to love and serve our lives and this world in so much need. Rejoice: you are Jesus people, for the fulfillment of God’s work. Amen

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A Sermon about Sermons and the Word

2nd Sunday of Christmas — John 1:1-18
Six years ago, I was preaching on this Sunday, on these Bible readings, and started off with a Bob Dylan song. I only remember it because that was my last sermon before you sent me out on 10 weeks of sabbatical.

Recalling that, and being one week away from my last sermon before you send me out, I’ve been thinking of some of the sweep of my sermons and our lives together. As I’ve been here, serving as your pastor for 11 years and a bit, there are some things that you might’ve gotten used to hearing me talk about. Caring for God’s creation amid climate change, for example: pretty big themes. Love, likewise, widespread and fairly constant.

A more specific type of detail, you may recall I get a kick out of sharing the Greek word skubala, a word for waste, destined for the landfill or the sewer. It comes from Philippians by Paul, which you may also have realized I cherish and find important for our shared faith, because he emphasizes Christ’s devotion to you and how everything else by comparison is rightly called “crap” (also highlighting that I don’t shy away from us addressing coarse or difficult things).

Noticing that, you almost certainly also know that I talk lots…an awful lot…almost continually about Jesus. Maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to have a next pastor who doesn’t need to blather on so constantly with “Jesus this, Jesus that, Jesus is for you, Jesus loves you” all the time. I guess you could be praying about that.

But in the meantime, for eight days more, you’re still stuck with me and my Jesus talk, today with this start of the Gospel of John. This is also among my favorite Bible passages; it says so much, and says it so well. That has to make us think about how we try to share our faith, how I preach to you, or how we put words to what we believe. This reading talks about testifying, to be witnesses, categories for which it sets a pretty darn high standard.

Think about it this way: if I’ve been testifying to you and trying to bear witness and tell you about Jesus for the last 136 months, it could seem fairly disappointing that I haven’t managed to accomplish very much that’s explicitly memorable, unless by explicit you mean teaching a Greek cuss word. Of sermons I recall, I mentioned that Bob Dylan one. In another, I talked about making pumpkin pie. There are highlights in pieces of Bible studies and trying to peel back confusing layers and dig in to texts. But mostly from this pulpit, nothing resilient or glamorous. So little so, in fact, that perhaps you’ve even been asked on a Monday, if not at brunch after worship, “so, what did Nick have to say in his sermon?” And you’d have to reply with a shrug, “I dunno.” Quite frankly, there are plenty of weeks that would be my own reply.

If we’re trying to explain this in the kindest way possible, you may compare it to the meals you eat, that you can’t necessarily recall what you’ve had for each meal this past week much less over the years, but that those have nonetheless sustained you, the food has inexplicably given you what you needed to survive. Maybe sermons are like that, vital but entirely transitory and fleeting, working through that inexplicable Holy Spirit.

I mentioned recently that I’ve never re-preached a sermon. Partly that may be because they’re not all that great to begin with. But it’s also that the words don’t apply the same way in new times, when our lives are in different places, when the world is not the same.

Along those lines, with one more pre-Jesus detour along the way, let’s stop past old Christmas cards. Acacia and I were cleaning some stacks on shelves in the basement this week, which included sorting old Christmas cards. Those are nice words to pull out, to find former greetings and old tidings of cheer from another time and place. Among them were family and friends in photos, including watching new family members be added and then those babies changing year by year. Wide-eyed infants became cute toddlers who then took on poses and personalities. The transformations come so fast. My youngest nephew is 10 weeks old today, and every time I’ve seen him he has looked immensely different.

I’m eager to be done talking about me and turn our attention instead to—you guessed it—Jesus. So if we’re marking time since Jesus’ birth, this is day 10. Even at a week and a half old, that baby Jesus would’ve been different than when he was born. We’re past the point where he was named and circumcised at 8 days old. His family was already experiencing changes. The shepherds and angel choirs were gone and they were going on with life. Some of the news of this baby, some understanding of him was maybe beginning to sink in.

And, even though we celebrate his birthday with a very specific remembrance each year, though we look back on it and re-live it, after that nativity, Jesus was never a newborn again. (Unless you try to work it on a technicality with Bible verses about him being the firstborn from the dead, or by claiming that he’s present in and with each and every newborn. But still, you know what I mean.) Jesus continued to grow and change. Last week, almost as an out-of-place disjunction, we heard of him as a tween, almost a teenager, complete with testing boundaries and the attitudes still expected from adolescents.

Since he’s growing and changing and aging, that also would have to mean one way or another that Jesus was going to die. It ended up being on a cross on account of you, but even if we imagined him dying of old age, that still is a remarkable thing when we have identified Jesus with and as God. It completely fouls up any traditional concept of God, of divinity, of a supreme supernatural Being. As eternal, God wouldn’t be constrained by time. Being infinite is a term trying to define that God shouldn’t be bound by or even located in space. If almighty or supernatural—literally as above nature—God shouldn’t be governed by laws of physics or biology. We like those images, like to imagine God as bigger than any of those laws or boundaries, transcending everything that continues to confine us.

But if Jesus is God, we can’t say that. He is in time. He is in a particular place. He either couldn’t or didn’t fly away, disobeying gravity, or stop death from draining away life. Jesus undoes so much of that classic notion of God and gives us something new, totally different. This is a God who changes.

Again, it’s so nicely and enduringly said by this passage from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and this Word speaks all things into being, history we can accept and believe. Yet what happens next is that this Word of God is so invested in creation that when it has gone astray, when it stops listening to the Word, God continues striving to call it back, to speak again of love, to offer new beginnings. The Word that dictated, that set a plan and order for the universe also responds when things don’t follow that, don’t go according to plan. The Word is responsive. Those verses are about living, and struggling. And becoming, one of the richest ideas of our faith for our world, that what we might be or will be, we aren’t yet.

This, of course, isn’t just an innovative idea from the Gospel of John. All through our Old Testaments is a God who continues responding to our errors, our shortfalls, our forgetfulness, our rebellion. This is a God who continues to try new things, new approaches. This God is described on occasion with the surprising possibility of “changing his mind.” For our old, standard notions of God, that’d be impossible. God would have already known the future, and planned the future, and ruled out any other realities. But the God of the Bible is open and responsive, and so God can change God’s mind and meet you in a new way.

So our message as Christians and the good news we have to share is not static. This news is always new. While our faith may have some strong messages or timeless truths, they don’t stand once and for all but remain always changing as they engage again with fresh relevance for each moment in your life. The angel’s song at Christmas that “unto you a child is born, a savior” is a message we keep repeating, but what he has come to save you from or save you for is as new as each original sin and every individual moment of suffering. The ethic of our faith, to love our neighbors as ourselves, is reiterated and even identified as the “golden rule.” But what exactly it means to love your neighbor can’t be codified in some ancient rulebook. It’s new with every fresh work week, has its own meaning as school resumes tomorrow, and requires constant figuring in our families. More, it is different in our world of discerning what it means to love terrorists or prisoners or new basketball coaches or oil executives, just as it was a different set of boundaries and barriers and difficulties with your last set of neighbors, and for the previous generation, and back when God was walking around in the flesh.

Tim used to envision for us this as a Monty Hall kind of God, who let you pick what’s behind door number three and let you make a deal. This morning, we can simply identify this God as one who lets you make decisions and poor choices and yet won’t give up on you no matter how much of a bonehead you are. God is with you anew in a new year, is with me as I embark on a new thing (whether or not that was a good decision), is most certainly with you even when I won’t be.

I’m grateful at least for this moment that this isn’t my final sermon for you, because I don’t have any mighty or enduring or timeless “last words of wisdom.” All I have is the foolish word that God’s Word, the eternal Logos, the Sophia from on high, has come into our world, has become flesh to dwell with you, has come to reconcile you and redeem you and forgive you and love you. I don’t fully have any idea what that means for tomorrow, or even for the rest of today, or really even know what it means for you right this instant. But that’s the Word we have to proclaim and share, the Word who abides with you and lives in you.

Hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295)

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