The Word Became Flesh

Reading: John 1.1-18
It has been observed that some children, once they learn to use their legs, are forever walking. Even though things were "moved up" at the crawling stage, the whole household has to be rearranged to accommodate this new-found skill. It has also been observed that some children, once they learn to use their voice, are forever talking. Suddenly, talking and listening priorities have to be rearranged to accommodate this new-found skill.

As adults (and older children), we spend so much time "priming the pump" as it were - delighted with each little response to our simple talk - that we are just not prepared for the "gusher" of words that come out when the talking really starts to flow!

Communicating is so much a part of personhood. In all sorts of ways people are expressing themselves - not just in words, but also in action, in creativity, in relationships... In fact, we become quite concerned about someone who withdraws into himself and creases to express himself. We are worried that he/she has become less than a person.

The Word

John begins his gospel by stating, "Before the world was created, the Word already existed; he was with God, and he was the same as God." J.B. Phillips put it, "At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning." This personal Expression of God - his Word - is described as pre-existent, personal, divine, powerful and creative.

The work of translation is difficult. We assume that a word in one language will simply correspond with another word in a second language - and all the translator has to do is look up his dictionary and he will know which word to put. But this is complicated on the one hand because the grammar of two languages - which is really the structure of their thinking - is different, but also because a word in one language will have a whole range of meanings and associations, only one of which is similar to the word in the second language.

Take the Hebrew word, dabhar, for example. It occurs over 1400 times in the Old Testament. Most times it can simply be translated "word" - especially the word of the Lord. But it is also used to refer to a matter of interest or concern, or something, or a happening. Now the major translation into Greek, the Septuagint (about 260BC) mostly uses a Greek word, logos, which also means "word". But besides speech, the Greek word also includes the idea of reason, cause, principle of working...

Now, back to John 1, "In the beginning was the Logos..." We need to feel the whole cluster of associations that is much bigger than we associate with "Word" - the sense of the event, the reason, the principle of working... - this Logos who was personal, powerful and eternally part of God himself.

The opening words take us back to the beginning of Genesis. Here God expresses himself in the creation of the universe. By his word ("And God said...") all things come to be. It is in his Word that they continue to have existence and meaning.

Today we can study the sciences of geology, biology, zoology, physiology... By these sciences we study and endeavour to understand the logos - the reasons and laws behind the rocks, life, etc.

John is, in fact, making the incredible statement that what we have called the "natural laws" are part of God's self-expression. One prominent geologist I knew used to describe his work as "thinking God's thoughts after him". God has brought light out of darkness, order out of chaos - the stamp of his mind is here. And the human race has been created with a mind to grasp this order and to respond to the Presence of God. That is part of what it means to be "in the image of God".

Failure to Recognise him

Yet the tragedy of the human race is that we have not listened to God speaking.

John writes, "The Word was in the world, and though God made the world through him, yet the world did not recognise him."

God has expressed himself in the very orderliness of creation. The Psalmist has written "How clearly the sky reveals God's glory! How plainly it shows what he has done!" (19.1). Every discovery of this scientific age ought to cause us to marvel all the more at the mind of God expressed in creation.

Writing to the Romans, Paul said, "Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made" (1.20). But we today, through our material values, continue to make the same mistake that the pagans of Paul's day expressed through their idolatry - "they exchange the truth about God for a lie; they worship and serve what God has created instead of the Creator himself..." (v.25).

Failure to Receive him

But God has not left it to our human reason, distorted as it is through sin, to discover his presence. He chose out Israel as his special people through whom he would make himself known to all people.

Now the Word of God comes to his own home and his own people - through his special messengers such as Moses and the Old Testament prophets. But even here it is the same tragic story - "He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him." How they had complained against Moses! How they had ill-treated the prophets and continued on their own ways!

Yet there were those in Old Testament times who did receive the Word - our mind goes to the well-known ones like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David... There must have been numbers of ordinary unnamed people as well. To all such people, back in Old Testament times, God, in his loving purpose, gave the right to become his children.

And the Word became a human being

"The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us."

Too often we have missed the grandeur of this thought by reading it back into verse 1. We need to see God expressing himself - God's personal and creative Word - in the creation, able to be perceived in the recognisable order of things, in the Old Testament Scriptures - and now in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh! We need to get the flow of the divine action!

That is what we have been celebrating at Christmas time - the incarnation, the Word-become-flesh! And there is a beautiful expression here - "lived among us" is literally "pitched his tent among us". A tent is a dwelling for people on the move. The Israelites had lived in tents when they were coming from Egypt to Canaan. God's tent was there too - the Tabernacle - the reminder that God was with them. And now God was paying them a personal visit as the Word, his own Son. "He became a human being and pitched his tent among us."

And why would God want to speak within human history - in the person of Jesus Christ? Over all these centuries had the human race been receiving all these parts of God's revelation of himself and now all that was needed was a personal visit? Was that it? They had grasped it all so far - now for the final revelation?

Not at all! He came, not to enlighten our minds with more factual information about his existence, but to deliver us from the rebelliousness that has so consistently refused to recognise his presence and revelation in all the other ways. He did not basically come to give us a set of rules to live by - he had already done this through Moses - but to rescue us, having turned aside from those rules, to forgive us and renew us. John says, "God gave the Law through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

Responding to the Word

The big question is, "How are we going to respond to the Word of God this time?"

We have arrogantly claimed all the credit for our scientific discoveries which are really only what we have found about the logos of God's creation. We think it shows how very smart we are - and fail to give glory to God the Creator.

But what are we going to do, now that the Logos has become a human being and lived as part of our human history?

The leaders of the day thought it would be a good time to get rid of him once and for all. They didn't need any extra "Word of the Lord", thank you very much! They had the Scriptures, the sacrificial rituals, the traditions... So they schemed to eliminate him - to have him nailed to a Roman cross.

The scheme was successful, but it did not eliminate him. That could only happen to the Word, the Son of God, if it was also part of the divine plan. What he accepted from us in the Cross, the Father was accepting as the final and complete payment due for our sins. Our ultimate human sin became the sin-offering! God is saying that he still loves us. He wants to forgive us and receive us back into his family - where he has always meant us to be!

So his promise comes to us - "Some did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's children."

How are we going to respond to the Word of God who became a human being and pitched his tent among us? Receive him - welcome him - believe in him!


© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 3 January 1993
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1984.

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