Second Sunday of Christmas, John 1:1-18
Our Christmas worship thus far has featured the stories from Luke’s Gospel about the birth of Jesus and then also the narrative of Jesus’ visit to the temple in Jerusalem at age 12. All of this has been in keeping with the character of Luke’s gospel, which promised to offer an orderly account of the events of Jesus’ life.
Today we turn from a more empirical accounting of events of Jesus’ birth and childhood to a more theological interpretation of these events featured in the prologue to John’s Gospel. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Jesus was and is in John’s understanding the very embodiments of God’s word which existed already and was part of the whole world’s coming into being at creation – this is admittedly a great deal more abstract than a baby in a mother’s arms.
But the point is that in these latter years of this thus-far two-thousand-year epoch, the eternal word of God came into this world of God’s creation to become one us in the fullness of both humanity and divinity.
All of this happened in and for this world. What were the characteristics and conditions of this world into which the word of God entered in the flesh?
According to Jeremiah in today’s first reading, the world that the prophet addressed was one characterized by exile in which there was much weeping and mourning and sorrow, stumbling along crooked paths. People were scattered. There was much languishing.
That’s the language the prophet Jeremiah employed to describe the condition of the exile of God’s people. But that chosen language also describes the condition of the world in which we find ourselves.
Of all the descriptive words, I am most drawn to the theme of languishing. Much has been written about this state of being during these pandemic days as we soon enter into the third year of this global upheaval, made still more intense and acute by the Omicron variant of the virus.
Languishing, according to those who have written about it, is not a state of diagnosable depression strictly speaking. And it certainly is not one of thriving or flourishing. Sociologist Corey Keyes coined the term languishing as the opposite of flourishing. Languishing is characterized by apathy, restlessness, feeling unsettled, or having a lack of interest in life and activities that used to bring joy. Stagnation, monotony, and emptiness also describe languishing. Languishing sounds quite similar to ennui.
The Word who is Jesus Christ enters our languishing world to pitch a tent with us.
And yet, we may not even recognize this good and holy word, nor believe it. Indeed, the gospel writer John in today’s passage suggests the world into which God’s word was sent to become flesh did not know that word. And many did not accept the word. It was a world of shadows and night, bereft of the benefits of the light the word brought.
So, too, in the world of our day, as we languish in night’s shadows often without recognizing the ongoing, eternal word among us, failing thus to trust that word.
Even so, God’s word breaks into this world with good news, a salutary message, a gospel that makes for flourishing, the opposite of languishing.
Listen to the language of today’s scriptural readings that describe the nature of God’s intervention in this world by way of both the prophetic word and the divine word that became flesh.
“With consolations I will lead them back,” we hear in the reading from Jeremiah. The prophet continues speaking the word of the Lord: “I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” “They shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.” “Their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness instead of sorrow.” Even the priests will have their fill of fatness “and my people shall be satisfied with God’s bounty.”
That is not the language of diminishment and languishing. Rather, the opposite, again, that of flourishing. These are words of promise and return from exile.
Then listen to the language from Ephesians in today’s second reading. Let these words wash over you, we who live in a needy, diminished, languishing world: We are promised every spiritual blessing; are destined for adoption; and all of this according to God’s good pleasure and will, glorious grace, freely bestowed; with riches of grace lavished on us; occurring in the fullness of time, God gathering up all things in Christ; accomplishing all things according to divine counsel and will. (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14)
Likewise, John’s gospel offers language of flourishing and thriving beyond languishing. The word that takes flesh is full of grace and truth. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” “[And] to all who received [the word made flesh] who believe in his name, he has given power to become children of God” born of the will of God.
These are lovely, wonderful words. But what difference do these good messages concerning God’s good, fleshly word make? Has the world really changed since the word became flesh two millennia ago? What we know of and experience in the world is more in keeping with the prevalence and persistence of exiled languishing.
Perhaps the word becoming flesh is less about changing the world and more about introducing or revealing realities in this world that we cannot otherwise see.
The power and significance of God’s word is perhaps that this word guides us to perceive reality that our unbelief prevents us from seeing. The coming of God’s prophetic word and the word becoming flesh make for hermeneutic shifts giving us the eyes of faith to see reality as it really is from God’s perspective.
It’s the same world, but we come to see realities through faith that were otherwise hidden in our languishing.
Maybe we can say that it’s a matter of seeing is believing and then also believing is seeing.
Seeing Christ, we perceive God, and then come in faith to see how God sees. That makes all the difference. Or as John reports: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”
Consider our circumstances in Christian assembly here in this place. Water in the font is just that – water – in the shadows of the world’s darkness. But by word and the Spirit in faith, such water is integral to our becoming God’s children.
From the perspective of the world’s shadows in unbelief, words are mere words. From the perspective of faith, words accomplish what God intends in proclamation and in absolution, making us forgiven children of God.
From a merely worldly perspective, the bread we eat and the wine we drink at this table are just bread and wine. In faith, we apprehend that our sacramental meal contains the fullness of Christ’s presence.
And this change of perspective in seeing scared flourishing amidst languished diminishment can indeed make for real change in a real world when we become God’s word in deed in loving service to neighbors in need.
If the word was at the beginning in creation, that word is likewise living and active in creative ways in our own time, now through us – once again, God’s work, our hands.
To get a sense of how Christian perspective has changed the world, as a case in point, consider the radical idea of God’s word becoming flesh, central to Christian thinking. This theological affirmation introduced an equalizing dynamic in the world of ancient hierarchies such that we have come to affirm the sacredness of all persons, which was not the case in ancient thinking. We take it for granted that all are created equal. But this basic affirmation arguably has roots in basic Christian understanding of God becoming one of us in Christ.
In the word, dwelling with the word, we become the realities to which the word points, which the word signifies. This is yet another gift to all of creation at Christmas.
And all of this makes all the difference for the world into which the word became flesh. Thanks be to God. Amen.