December 31, 2017
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
There is much speculation about what John means when he refers to the Word that was in the beginning with God, the Word that was God and that became flesh and lived among us. The simplest explanation is that John knows his Bible and is referring to a common phrase in the Old Testament, “the word of the Lord.” For instance, in Genesis 15:1 we read: “the word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision” or in Jeremiah 1:2 we read: “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah in the days of King Josiah”. For John, the word of the Lord in the Old Testament becomes flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth.
Colossians 1:15 says that Christ is the image of the invisible God. Jesus fully represents God’s nature and character to us. Therefore, if we have grown up with a fear, say, that God is vindictive, ready to punish those who cause displeasure, we must challenge that view with the fact that Jesus shows no vindictiveness.
When a Samaritan city refuses to welcome Jesus, James and John ask Jesus if they can call down fire from heaven to destroy it, which may be why Jesus nicknames these brothers “the sons of thunder”.
But Luke tells us that “Jesus turned and rebuked them and they went to another village.” Luke 9:55
All of us have distorted and unconscious images of God that we’ve inherited from our culture, which are contrary to the image of God we see in Jesus. Therefore, we must correct these alien pictures of God that do not match what we see and hear in Jesus of Nazareth.
So the next time you hear someone say, “The church may fall down if I were to show up.” You can respond: “You’ve got the wrong God. Jesus will be glad to see you, which means God will be glad to see you, because God has great plans for your life!”
The central importance of the proclamation that Jesus is the Word of the Lord made flesh, is not so we can go around saying that Jesus is God, as if to say, “Our rabbi can beat up your rabbi”, or your Prophet, or your Buddha.
No, the point is so we can say that the character we see in Jesus is the character of the Creator of the Universe.
Though it is hard for us to fathom, in the early centuries of the Church, many people struggled to believe, not that Jesus was the Word of God, but that Jesus was really human. Those coming out of Roman and Greek culture were accustomed to the mythology in which the gods occasionally showed up on earth to interact with beleaguered humanity. They could believe Jesus was such a god who wanders around Palestine for a few years, but not that he was a fully human being.
One such heresy, called Docetism, from the Greek Dokeo, which means “to seem”, said Jesus only seemed to be human, but really wasn’t. It was too much of a scandal to think of God having anything to do with a human body with its drives, desires, and eventual decay and death.
But if Jesus isn’t fully human then he is not one of us and has not entered into our situation.
We have the opposite problem today: we struggle with the idea that Jesus was the Word of God, the Image of God.
The closest many can come is to think of Jesus as a hybrid—part human and part Divine. He’s like Superman, the Man of Steel, who looks and sounds like us, but who is “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
I think of a friend giving a talk to kids during Lent, saying that when Jesus was fasting in the desert he didn’t eat or drink anything for 40 days. Science tells us that humans can only last a week without water before our systems, largely made of water, begin to shut down.
The New Testament is clear: Jesus is the Word of God made fully human in the Jew from Nazareth. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey put it this way: “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christ-likeness at all.”
And for three years in his teaching, preaching, confrontations with the power of evil, and in his healing of the sick Jesus embodies God’s heart and descends to the deepest levels of our pain and suffering.
Therefore, as Jesus goes to his death for us, to free us from our bondage to sin and evil, we begin to understand the heart of God toward us: because that’s not just a man dying up there—that is God dying up there, God entering into the depths of what it means to be a fallen human being in a violent and broken world.
Jurgen Moltman, the great 20th century German theologian, titled his most famous book: The Crucified God. We have, as Greg Boyd writes, a cruciform God, the God who is most fully revealed in Jesus’ crucifixion.
Perhaps you saw just before Christmas an op-ed in the New York Times titled: “Where would Jesus Spend Christmas?”, by Stephanie Saldana. She spends most of the piece describing the horrific refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos. She says, “Winter is approaching” and “more than 6000 souls fleeing the worlds’ most violent conflicts—in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Yemen, and Republic of Congo are crowed in a space meant for 2,330. The scene is grim: piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside….the stench is overwhelming.”
She says “The Christmas story is a story of displacement, in which Mary and Joseph leave their home and give firth to Jesus in a strange city…. Jesus is born at the margins of society, poor…and laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” In Matthew’s gospel, she reminds us that Joseph is told in a dream to take Mary and the child to Egypt because King Herod wants to kill Jesus.
She ends with this startling line: “Today [this camp] is Bethlehem. Those stranded inside are not humans to be disposed of, but Emmanuel, God with us.” NYTimes December 22, 2017
The Christmas story is a story of displacement because first it is a story of identification—the identification of God with us, in Jesus the Christ, who is the Word of the Lord made flesh.
“Come, let us adore and follow him.”