Have you ever struggled to make yourself understood? This is a rather common experience. We want a young person to understand the wisdom we have to impart, so she can avoid the same mistakes we made. We want an elderly person to understand the research we have done about geriatric care, so she can make the best choice on her own regarding the future.
Or, have you ever struggled to understand someone? To be on the receiving end of this experience is also rather common. We may be listening intently to a speaker. We sense that what he has to say is important and useful for our lives, but we have a hard time following him. We strain to make sense of his words, and soon we lose him, finally tuning him out altogether.
The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day emphasizes that God is a speaking God. To the people to whom John is addressing his gospel this claim would have been familiar. Most would have known Genesis. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth by speaking everything into existence, according to Genesis 1. “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made, declares the Psalmist, reflecting on Genesis 1 (Ps. 33:6).
But John wants to say more. In the Old Testament, the word goes out from God with the power to make that which God wants to bring into being. But in John it assumes a kind of personhood of its own and stands alongside God. If in Genesis, we hear of the word of God at the creation, in John we hear of the Word of God before creation. In the beginning, the Word already was. “He was in the beginning with God.”
But there is even more John wants to say. He tells us not only about the distinctness of the Word from God. He tells us also about the essential oneness of the Word with God. In the beginning, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. These two affirmations seem impossible to reconcile logically, but both have been and are still held to this day to be central to a Christian understanding of God.
All things were made through God’s Word. God speaks things into existence. To speak presupposes the desire to be heard, to be understood, to be known. Do we ever consider that God wants to tell us about who he is through what he has made, through the things he has spoken into existence? The Apostle Paul tells the Christians at Rome that ever since the creation of the world, God’s attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, can be seen through what has been made. The Reformers taught that creation itself should have been sufficient to make God known. Put otherwise, we should have heard the voice of God in all that God has made. But through no fault of God’s, we do not hear that voice, at least not distinctly enough to know and praise God as God. We, the creatures God has made to return praise to him, turned away from God to ourselves. We should have made out the clear and distinct notes in the melody of God’s creation, but we became deaf to the word that God spoke and still speaks and so became mute.
I recently read that “You’re on mute.” might have been the top phrase of 2020. While this phrase is in reference to the toggling between mute and unmute on Zoom calls, muted might be a good description of how we as God’s creatures feel towards God. Even though God has spoken and continues to speak, we human beings are deaf to him, and so to us it’s as if the one speaking were on mute. Deaf humanity says to God: “You’re on mute, God.”
That is not a good state for us to be in. In that Word which we should have heard, to which we should have responded in praise, is light and life. To be deaf to that Word, then, is to live in darkness, in the shadow of death. Even though that light shines in the darkness, the darkness has neither grasped nor understood it, and so becomes as it were blind to it. Through the centuries God sent his Word to his people through the prophets, and the people did not receive him. This is the state in which we found God’s people before the arrival of the Savior, as we heard on Christmas eve. They’d been walking in darkness; they’d been living in a land of deep darkness.
From all this we can at least say that God knows what it’s like to struggle to make himself understood. And we know what it’s like to struggle to understand God. But it’s here that John tells us something we never could have imagined on our own. In fact, it is so revolutionary that it breaks with all religious thought that precedes and follows it. “The Word became flesh.”
The Word, the agent of creation, has become a creature. This is what Christians mean when they use the word “incarnation.” The theologian T.F. Torrance defines “incarnation” as follows:
[Incarnation] is the new act of the eternal God whereby God himself becomes man without ceasing to be God, the Creator becomes creature without ceasing to be Creator.
Torrance pauses to reflect on the implications of this claim and concludes that it is even more astounding than the act of the creation of the universe out of nothing. In the incarnation the almighty living God becomes little without ceasing to be the mighty omnipotent eternal God. The self-humiliation of God in Jesus Christ does not mean the self-limitation of God or the curtailment of his power, but the staggering exercise of his power within the limitations of our existence in space and time.
The early Christians never ceased to wonder at this act and tried to capture it in words. Drawing on the whole of the gospel story, St. Augustine exclaimed:
Man’s maker was made man, that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that the Truth might be accused of false witness, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.
God sent into the world his Word, to take on our flesh, to become one of us, in order to make himself known and understood. Here John shifts to personal language. The Word of God is the only Son of the Father, who reflects the Father’s glory.
When used of a person, the term glory has to do with how a person appears to others, suggesting an appearance that is noble and honorable, even royal. But glory is more than an image of honor. It also points to God’s character. When Moses asked God to see the divine glory, God hid him in the cleft of a rock, and announced: “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex 33:19). Glory and goodness and mercy and compassion are all bound up together in one package here. That is restated in John’s witness to the glory of the Son who is also full of grace and truth.
When we want to make clear to someone how much they mean to us, we struggle to make ourselves understood. It seems that the more they mean to us, the harder it is for us to find just the right words to tell them. We then go to a trusted friend to whom we regularly go for advice, and tell him about our struggle. The friend tells us: “speak to them from your heart.”
God wants to make clear to us how much we mean to him. And in the incarnation, God speaks to us from his heart. “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known.”
God the only Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh—the incarnation is the deep mystery that we celebrate during Christmastide. In preparing for this season several weeks ago, I had a conversation with one of the members of this congregation. He called attention to a story that one often hears from the pulpit this time of year. I told him I’d heard it before. He then suggested that it might be worth retelling to illustrate the struggle God has in making himself known to us, his estranged creatures, and how God, as it were, resolved that struggle. With it we will conclude our message this morning.
It was Christmas eve. The man told his wife: “I’m really sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” Since he didn’t really believe the story, he said he’d feel like a hypocrite, that he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed home and they went to the midnight service.
After the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries. They soon became heavier and heavier. He withdrew from the window and returned to his chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…then another, and then another. It was a distinct thudding or thumping sound. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, they’d tried to fly through his large landscape window.
He didn’t want to let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he thought of the barn where his children kept their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could somehow direct the birds into it.
So he put on his coat and boots and tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not follow him. He then had an idea: food would lure them! So he hurried back to the house, made bread crumbs, and brought them outside. He then began to sprinkle them on the snow, making a trail to the open door of the barn. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. Then he tried catching them. When that didn’t work, he tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms. That only made them scatter in every direction, except into the warm barn.
And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? He’d already discovered that any move he’d make tended to frighten them, to confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be lured or caught or led because they feared him.
“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear, so that they could know and understand.”
At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas.
And then he sank to his knees in the snow and began to pray. Amen.