Isaiah 61:1062:3; Psalm 147:1321; John 1:118
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the One God.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
Last Friday morning, at the strike of midnight, most if not all the Christmas music disappeared from our AM/FM radio stations—the great oratorios of Handel and Bach disappeared. “Rudolph” and “White Christmas” disappeared. Ever since Thanksgiving we have had a constant reminder that Christmas was coming. All during Advent, we were listening to Christmas carols.
But now when we have finally arrived at Christmas and we are celebrating the festive season of Christmas, the great oratorios disappear. Rudolph and White Christmas (at least the song) disappear.
But this morning we heard one of the most famous hymns ever written in human history, written by John, the author of the Prologue of John.
In the Prologue of John, John makes the most incredible statement of faith in his hymn. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” For the Semitic mind in the first century, this was an outrageous claim. The Word becoming flesh. Outrageous. God becoming flesh in Jesus. Again, outrageous. God does not take on human flesh.
For a Jew in the first century, and today, the word is central to God’s nature. The word of God was God’s creative force. In Genesis, we remember that in the beginning God created by speaking. God says “let there be light” and there was light. That creative word at creation is the same as the “word” in John’s Gospel. But, John was writing to a Hellenistic community. John relates the creative word to the pre-eternal Jesus: Jesus becoming flesh and living amongst us. John understands Jesus as being with God before the creation. In other words Jesus was “co-eternal” with the Father, the Creator.
Ever since the Early Church, the Prologue of John has been under intense discussion. Questions like “What did John really mean?” have been fully debated. Dissertations have been written about the Prologue. One of the outstanding contemporary Roman Catholic biblical scholars, Raymond Brown, wrote a commentary on the Prologue of John in which he wrote long paragraphs on each word in the Prologue.
I promise you that I am not going to do that this morning, but there is one point that Brown makes that needs to be explored. Brown argues that in this hymn John shows the unique relationship that Jesus has with God, so unique that John can speak of “God the only Son.”
The Prologue of John is a unique confession of the Christian, that God took upon God’s self human flesh. This, of course, is a stumbling block for the Jew as they wait for the Messiah to come. It is also a problem for the Muslim who sees the divinity of Jesus as a stumbling block because there is only one God. For the Muslim Jesus can not be God. Jesus can not be with God in creation.
For the Christian, however, we see in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. In Jesus, God revealed God’s very nature in human flesh. John says that God comes and dwells with us. Indeed, an outlandish claim, but that is what John proclaims in his Hymn—that God comes and tents/dwells with us (it is interesting that John uses the Hebrew expression of tenting like the Hebrews did when they left Egypt). God comes and tents with us. God comes and dwells with God’s people.
With the birth of Jesus, we have a new creation. In Genesis God says, let there be light and there was light. Now in that same creation, John’s hymn tells us, “He was present with God in the beginning,” “in God’s presence.”
The gift of Jesus’ birth gives us a unique insight into the nature of God’s love: “this enduring love comes through Jesus Christ.” Or as John later describes it in John 3:16: “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
What an incredible statement of God’s love for the world, for God’s generous, abundant love for all of God’s people.
Last year at this time my wife, Kirsten, and I had just returned home from Tanzania, attending a retirement celebration for Bishop Simon Chiwanga, one of the great bishops in the worldwide Anglican Communion. While we were in Mpwapwa, a rural, poverty stricken district in central Tanzania, we experienced first hand what this generous abundant love of God is all about.
Let me tell you about Paulina, who is the bishop’s secretary. I have known Paulina for at least 10 years, but I really didn’t know Paulina until we went to her home for dinner. Paulina is a single mom. Her 11 year old son, Jonathan, was home from school and one of the nights we were in Mpwapwa, they invited Kirsten and me to their home for dinner. We had no idea what to expect. What we found was indeed an example of God’s love and generous spirited Christianity.
Over the last dozen years Paulina has been building her new home. As soon as we arrived we were greeted by Paulina and her son and they welcomed us into their home. As is the custom in Mpwawpa, we were offered some soft drinks as we had a conversation in Paulina’s living room. After a half hour of conversation we were invited to have our dinner. It was really delicious: we had potatoes, rice, beans and a tomato based vegetable stew. For dessert we had some freshly picked fruit. After dinner we returned to the living room and we had more conversation.
It was then that we had the most incredible conversation, a conversation that put the Prologue of John into perspective for me…and to be honest with you, the Christmas Gospel has been quite different for me this year as a result of Paulina.
The day before our dinner with Paulina, the bishop had told me that most of the clergy in his diocese had not received any salary because of drought and the poverty that the drought had brought. But that night at Paulina’s I learned that it was not only the clergy who had not been paid, but also Paulina who had not received any salary since last April.
Now the most any clergy in the diocese makes is 40 US dollars a month, but most clergy receive only a fraction of the salary, even in good times, because the people simply do not have any money.
But what really impacted me was when Paulina told us that she had only 100 Tanzanian shillings left to her name and that was all she would have for Christmas. 100 Tanzanian shillings is worth 10 cents in American currency. 100 Tanzanian shillings will not even buy a quarter of a pound of beans in Tanzania.
But in spite of her poverty, Paulina had invited us to her home for dinner. She was willing to share with us what she had. As I sat in Paulina’s living room, thinking about the delicious meal that she had prepared for us, and as I have reflected on that evening since we have returned home, I know more about the meaning of the Prologue of John today. Because of Paulina, I have seen God’s generosity. There is no question in my mind that the Word /Jesus came into this world to reveal that God calls his people to be generous with open arms to all of God’s people.
This Christmas season Paulina challenges each one of us to live in the radicalness of God’s Son born in human flesh. This Messiah, this king, was absolutely the opposite of what the world was expecting the Messiah, the king to be. Instead of another Herod or another Caesar, God revealed God’s understanding of Messiah/Kingship in Jesus. A king who would turn upside down everything the world holds to be so important: authority, power, wealth, prestige, military might. Instead the perfect icon of God, Jesus, shows us a king concerned about the poor, the oppressed, those living in bondage, the sick, the infirm, the lonely.
This king, born in Bethlehem, is concerned about the Paulinas of this world, those who have no power, but those who would welcome a guest into her home to share a meal with them, even when she only has 100 Tanzanian shillings left to her name. I have no question in my mind that Jesus is indeed living/tenting with Paulina.
God becoming flesh calls us to do business in a different way. God wants us to do business in a different way. Are we really serious about God’s agenda in this 21st century of Paulinas? Are we really serious about God’s agenda when we witnessed on our televisions yesterday morning the killing, the death and the injuries of 465 Palestinians living in Gaza?
Ultimately I suspect each of us has to ask ourselves the hard question of Christmas: Do we really want God to tent/do we really want God to dwell in us this Christmas-tide? Do we really want God to tent, to dwell with us in 2009. The cost can be pretty high.
In the name of God.