[This was prepared to be shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
This morning, as we consider our Gospel lesson, I need to ask you to do a big favor for me.
I’m going to ask you to puncture the Sunday morning fog, to leave the New Year’s celebrating behind, and to even forget the fact that the Buckeyes CAN win the big ones and instead, put on your thinking caps.
God gave us brains and sometimes our faith is deepened when we use them to consider the amazing, life-changing truths God presents to us in Scripture. So, please pull out the Celebrate inserts, where the Gospel lesson is printed and sort of follow along this morning.
It starts, “In the beginning…” Now, the first thought that hits us when we read that phrase is of Genesis 1:1, the first chapter and verse in the first book of the Old Testament. There, we’re told that, “In the beginning,” God created the heavens and the earth.
But today’s Gospel lesson takes us to before that beginning, before God created anything, back when all that existed was God. And with three occurrences of the verb “was,” we’re told a lot about this God. Or, at least, we’re told about one person of God. It says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This Word existed back when all that existed was God. So, if the only thing that existed was God and the Word was around, then the Word was God.
Now, that sounds pretty strange to us. We think of words as things that come from our mouths or that we read on a page or a computer screen. Words may describe something, we think, but they don’t actually live, do they? Don't they?
Let me ask you a question. Feel free to be un-Lutheran and shout out an answer. Do our words—our measly human words, I mean—have power? They sure do. Walk up to a person and tell them, “You’re stupid!” and I guarantee you will get a reaction of some kind. Words have power.
If that’s true for us, think how much more true that must be for God. God’s word must have power.
And in fact, when you think back to Genesis again, you find that we’re not told anything about the mechanics of how God created. It doesn’t say, “God took a teaspoon of hydrogen and mixed in some oxygen…” It says, “God said, ‘Let there be light!’; and there was light…God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures…’ And it was so.”
God spoke; things happened.
For God, there is no distinction between words and actions.
For God, words are actions. Powerful actions!
In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, God affirms this: “My word [God tells us]…shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
We believe that God’s Word still does what God sends it to accomplish. When a person is brought to the baptismal font and water is poured over her or his head in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, we believe that the water connected with the Word of God brings them new life. God declares the baptized as His own. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” we say for God.
And we believe that the only way in which the baptized person’s bonds with God can be broken is if the baptized person herself or himself unrepentantly sins and chooses to walk their own way, rather than God’s way. (And even then, it won't be God Who breaks the bonds, only us.)
When God created, His Word did exactly what it set out to do. God’s Word created a perfect world.
But we know what happened next. Humanity rejected God. We decided to go our own way.
Unless God intervened, God knew that His whole creation, including the pinnacle of His creation, the apex, the ones created in the “image of God”—you and me—could be lost for all eternity. God is willing to allow us to choose separation from God. God lets humanity choose hell. But God refused and God still refuses to let us go without fighting for us.
And so, centuries ago, starting with a couple named Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, God began to speak His Word to us again.
God knew that we don’t always wear our thinking caps.
God knew that He would have to use many active words to gradually penetrate our skulls and our wills in order to get through to us.
God spent centuries wooing the human race, helping humanity to get to know Him as a God of perfect love and perfect justice, as God with a will—expressed in the Ten Commandments—and a desire to forgive our failure to keep those commandments.
God kept speaking His Words to humanity, particularly to Israel, until He was ready to invite the whole planet back into the eternal intimacy He has always wanted to share with all of us.
Let me try to illustrate to you what I think this centuries-long project of God has been like. Very soon after Ann and I started dating, I knew that I loved her. But I didn’t tell her right away. I waited a while. I knew that she wasn’t ready to hear that. In words and actions, I built up to the point when I could finally say, “I love you.” Even then, I didn’t know either if I would convince her of my love or that she would respond by loving me back.
When I remember the moment when I first told Ann that I loved her, I recall that—whether it was true for Ann or not—my words had power for me. My palms sweated. My heart raced. And I can tell you that those words were more than mere abstract representations of my emotions. When I said, “I love you,” I put myself out on the line. My words weren’t just words. They were me.
Look again to our Gospel lesson. Let your eyes move to the first few verses: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The word which we translate from the original Greek of the New Testament as overcome, is katlambenon. It can be translated as comprehend or understand, instead of overcome. I think it should be translated that way, meaning that the passage tells us that those mired in the darkness of sin or life without God may not comprehend or understand God’s love and will for them…Not because they’re stupid, but because they've let the sin of the world, the sin in themselves, and the sin that comes from the devil himself take their capacity for thinking away from them. They live in a fog. They refuse to hear when God is speaking to them. They refuse to see when God’s light breaks the darkness.
And make no mistake about it, on the first Christmas, when Jesus was born, God was speaking His definitive word to us all.
Christmas is more than a date on the calendar.
It is the cosmic equivalent of D-Day. On that date, God stormed the beaches of resistant human sin and darkness—our love of independence, our desire to be our own masters--and on a silent night shouted that He doesn’t intend for His fallen children to experience desperation and disappointment in this world or death and hell in the next.
Verse 14 tells us the Christmas story, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” and then John says, “we have seen His glory.”
God’s Word is more than just God’s power. God’s Word is God and we know Him as Jesus, the Christ Child…Jesus, the Crucified Savior…Jesus, the Risen Lord.
The New Testament book of Hebrews starts out with these words, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets [God was building up to telling us and showing us how much He loved us], but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” [Hebrews 1:1-3]
When I first started seminary, I resumed something I hadn't done for about five years; two days a week, I substitute taught. One day, I was teaching a sixth grade English class when a student came in with a note from the office. Ann had left a message with the secretary there. It said that our happy suspicions were true; we were going to be parents.
I believed this word and yet, the first break I had, I called Ann to get her assurances that it really was true.
The Word was made flesh and has lived among us. God the Word—God the Son, Jesus—has lived on this earth and lived this life. He has died for our sin and risen from the dead. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection tell us Who God is—“God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart,” or lesson says, “had made [God] known.”
And our good news is that all who receive Jesus, who trust in Him as their only hope in an otherwise dark and hopeless world, are given the power to be the children of God. The Word of the Bible, all sixty-six books of it, is designed to assure us of this truth: All who repent and believe in Christ are saved as a gift of grace from God.
We are in a time of crisis in the Church and in the world. Both Church and world are mired in darkness, unable to trust in the Word made flesh, or in the Word of the Bible. We need reassurances that the Bible’s strange witness about God is true. That’s why John’s words for us today are important. God calls us to receive Jesus. If we can receive Him, God's Spirit will make it possible for us to believe in Him. If we truly believe—trust--in Him, our faith will be more than words we speak. They will be words we live—God’s Word made flesh in us. God's Word, Jesus Christ, will live in us.
This year, welcome Jesus every day. Receive Jesus and God’s Word—law and gospel—the stuff we like and the things we don’t want to even think about or consider—as God’s Word to us and for us. Trust in God’s Word. That is more than our heritage and theology as Lutherans; it is the only way to life forever with God. Amen