“The Word became flesh” tells us of the significance of the Incarnation. Christmas helps us understand God, demonstrates that we can reflect God, and shows us that God depends on us. God had been speaking to humankind all along, but Christmas was God’s loving shout.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard the Christmas story, drawing readings from the Gospel of Luke. That gospel writer tells us about the baby being born in a stable and wrapped in swaddling clothes. He tells of the angels and the shepherds. If we want to add the angel’s appearance to Joseph, we can read Matthew.
But that leaves two other gospels. One of those, Mark, has no Christmas information at all. The remaining gospel, John, has no Christmas story either, but John’s got this magnificent opening chapter in which he tells something else about Jesus’ birth into the world -- he tells us why it is significant.
One difference between Luke and Matthew on the one hand, and John on the other, is that while Luke and Matthew tell the story of Christmas, John theologizes about the event. Theology isn’t always the easiest of reading, and in the hands of some writers, it can be wooden and dense. But not with John. He manages to make it both meaningful and poetic.
His statement of Christmas is this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us ....”
John’s gospel was the last of the four to be written, perhaps as late as A.D. 100. By that time, Christianity had expanded far beyond the Jewish community into the Greek-speaking world as well. In fact, it’s been estimated that even by A.D. 60, there were 100,000 non-Jewish Christians for every Jewish Christian. John therefore sought to use terminology that would be understood by both Jews and Gentiles.
The term “Word,” in Greek thought meant the controlling and organizing force in the world, the higher mind that held everything together. In Jewish thought, “Word” was shorthand for the creative power of God. In the creation story in Genesis 1, everything that came into being came not because God acted, but because he spoke. Each of the six days of creation begins with the phrase, “And God said ....” So, if we put these two understandings, the Greek and the Jewish, together, the term “Word” refers to what could be known of God through his actions as the Creator of the world, and the as the One who caused everything to work, the essence of God. And the world can be seen as the result of God speaking.
What Christmas is about then, according to John, is that this essence of God came to earth in the human, physical presence of Jesus of Nazareth 2000 years ago.
So “the Word became flesh and lived among us ...,” but what does that say to us today?
Well, for one thing, it says that Jesus helps us understand God better.
Jesus came as God in the flesh. He was a tangible manifestation of God’s Word. At Christmas, God cloaked his Word with humanness, and that helped us to understand him better.
The presence of a person makes a difference. I read somewhere about the children who lived in London during the nightly bombings of that city by the German air force during WW II. For safety’s sake, many of the families in London sent their children to stay with relatives or friends in the country. But some children remained in the city with their families -- or at least with their mothers, since many of their fathers were away serving in the armed forces. Sometimes these kids lived with their mothers in bombed-out ruins, often on poor rations and without sanitary facilities. Yet studies of both sets of children later found that despite the nightly bombings, the children who stayed with their mothers emerged with fewer emotional disturbances than those who were sent to safer quarters but separated from their mothers. Those children were loved by their mothers too, but the tangible presence of the mothers made a difference. So too, the tangible presence of God in Jesus made a difference and helps us to understand God better.
A scientist walking in his garden one day was thinking about the complexity of the universe. He was convinced that a world such as ours could have only come into existence through the efforts and energy of a higher power. He wondered, however, how such a magnificent Creator could be known by his creations, by people.
Just then, his shadow fell across an anthill, and he noticed that the ants began to scurry for safety. The scientist meant them no harm, but he could not tell them that. It occurred to him that the only way he could communicate that they had nothing to fear would be if he could become an ant himself. And he realized, of course, that that is the essence of what God did at Christmas: he sent his Word to us in a form we could recognize. As John put it, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
A second thing the Word becoming flesh says to us is that God loves us.
Some years ago, there was a medical missionary serving in Egypt. He was perplexed that many of the people he loved and served there suffered from life-sapping anemia. All his efforts to treat this disease failed. Finally, he learned that the anemia was caused by a parasitic flatworm, known as a liver fluke. These flukes lived in the soil of the riverbank along the Nile and got into people’s systems through the water.
To find a cure, the missionary gathered a sample of the parasite and flew with it to the U.S. to have in analyzed at Johns Hopkins Medical School. However, when he landed in Washington, U.S. Immigration officials refused to permit him to bring the liver flukes into the country.
He explained the situation and pleaded his case, but the immigration officers stood firm. Finally, defeated, the missionary went to the men’s room to dispose of the flukes. But then he remembered his friends in Egypt. Without any more hesitation, he drank the contents of the jar containing the flukes and entered the country.
He spent the next five years struggling to stay alive, but in receiving treatment for the anemia himself here in America, he was able to provide the medical community with the specimens they needed to find a cure for his Egyptian friends.1
That’s real love, and it’s also illustrative of what God did when his Word became flesh in Jesus Christ.
Listen to how in Philippians the Apostle Paul describes the Incarnation: “[Jesus’] state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as [mortals] are ...”2
Having been like us, Jesus knows what it’s like to live in our skins, to be tempted, to feel anger, to need tenderness, to be overwhelmed, to grieve, to love, to rejoice, and so forth. All that familiarity with the human condition must make it easier for us to view Jesus as a brother in our efforts to connect with God. In fact, John, in our passage says that: “To all who received him ... he gave the power to become the children of God.”
Another thing the Word becoming flesh says to us is that humanity can reflect God. Mary, who was chosen to be Jesus’ mother, expresses for us what is possible for a human being who bows himself or herself to God’s will. After the angel had visited her and Mary knew what God was asking of her, she sang a song, recorded in Luke chapter 1. The first line of that song says, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary was saying that her humanity, in its acceptance of God’s will, declared the greatness of God the eternal God.
There is one more thing that the Word becoming flesh says to us, and that is that God depends on us. When God put his Word into the flesh of the baby born at Bethlehem, he entrusted himself to human hands. Jesus, the baby, would not have survived without a mother to hold him and nurse him, and without a father to keep him from Herod’s death squads. Jesus the man needed disciples to carry his message on after his death. He needs us to pass it along today.
Well, those are a few of the things God said at Christmas by making his Word flesh.
But here’s the thing: it’s not that at Christmas God first started speaking to humankind. He had been speaking to humanity all along. The author of the book of Hebrews puts it this way: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son ....”3 And we don’t want to make the other mistake either, that at Christmas God said his final word to us. He had been talking to people all along, and Christmas was something of a shout from God, but he continues to speak to us today.
Christmas reminds us to listen to not only what he said back then in Bethlehem, but also what he says today to us in our hometown. And he surely does.
Listen with your ears.
Listen with your hearts.
Listen with your praying hands.
1 Thomas L. Are, Faithsong, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981), 91-92.
2 Philippians 2:6-7, The Jerusalem Bible.
3 Hebrews 1:1-2.