“Word” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, December 25, 2016 titled “Word” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.

Can we talk?  I know the very nature of a sermon is monologue, but ultimately communication isn’t happening without dialogue.  A sermon is wasted wind without some response of the congregation in your engaged listening, your thinking, your hearing some word from God, and deciding how you will respond in what you say and do in days to come.

Ever have that experience of talking to someone and seeing their eyes go out of focus?  You know, the lights are on, but nobody’s home?  They’ve quit listening, they aren’t there.  I’ve been on both sides of that equation. I’ve never preached without noticing somebody tuning out entirely and many coming and going like so many dolphins breaking the surface of conscious attention, then diving back to the depths of unconsciousness mind wandering.  And I’ve reached that age where I hold people hostage with my stories.  They nod their heads at the wrong time or just nod off.  I think to myself, “O, I’ve gone on too long.” That ever happen to you?  You might as well be talking to a statue.  Or a teenager.

I think God must feel that way sometimes.  “In many and various ways God spoke to our ancestors long ago by the prophets,” says the preacher in Hebrews.  You get the idea of a frustrated God who has tried repeatedly to communicate through diverse media and messengers, yet still doesn’t feel heard.

“But in these last days (God) has spoken to us by a son.”  God doesn’t give up trying.  Finally, God comes in person.  “The word became flesh and lived among us” John says, meaning literally “camped out” among us.  The Word John describes “which became flesh” was not a casual remark or throwaway line of God, but the eternal, creative, ultimate Word of God.  It’s the most profound claim in all the Bible.  And the most provocative.

“Logos” is the word for “word” in John’s Greek.  As always, John the gospeller loves to use simple words with a rich range of meaning.  Among the Greeks, “Logos” was the core principle of the popular Stoic philosophy, referring to the Divine energy which creates all things and connects all things and gives order to all things,  “logos” as in “logic.”

To the Jews, “Logos” is the Divine word speaking creation from idea into reality “in the beginning,” “the word of God” Moses delivers from Mt. Sinai, “the word of the Lord” which comes to the prophets, the word that guides the psalmist as a “lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Psa 119:2).  Unlike our words, which are as permanent as smoke, God’s word is true, God’s word endures, God’s word creates, shapes, concretizes, crystallizes.  Says the Word of the Lord through Isaiah, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11-12).

So Greeks and Jews are nodding “yes” when John starts his gospel:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  It was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being (John 1:1-3).  To the Greeks, all nature is Word of God.  To the Jews, sacred scripture is Word of God.

“What has come into being in it was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  “Yes!” say the Greeks.  “Yes! Yes!” Say the Jews.  The author knows his audience.

So far so good, but then John interrupts this lofty philosophical flight by grounding us in the here and now.  “There was this guy sent from God, whose name was John.”  It’s jarring when you read it.  By weaving in this mundane thread about another John, the Baptizer, the gospeller jumps back and forth from heaven to earth, from the eternal to the temporal, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But there’s a method in his madness.  He wants to tell us God’s eternal Word has a very practical application, that our faith is not just a philosophical construct but an concrete reality. That sets up Greek and Jew and me and you for the real shock in verse 14, where he makes the most scandalous claim of all time:  “the Logos became flesh and lived among us.”

Okay, here’s where we pause to reflect how amazing it is that God would speak to us at all.  I mean, if President Obama called you, would you be excited?  If Bradley Cooper or Jennifer Lawrence addressed you through the press, would you tell your friends?  If Willie Nelson interrupted a concert to call you up to the stage for a chat, would you remember what he said?  Those are all just people.  We’re talking God here, Sovereign of the Universe, speaking to you and me.  Shouldn’t we pause to listen?

God is still speaking to us in many and various ways.  Through creation.  Through scripture.  Through life events.  Through each other.  And we are as hard of hearing as ever.  I believe with the author of Hebrews God’s clearest word to us has come in the flesh of Jesus, who uniquely speaks with word and action and self-sacrifice the message of God’s abiding love.

Not all theologians agree with me.  There’s a line of thought which suggests God has stopped speaking because God has already spoken in Jesus.  “’Nuf said, y’all!” God has spoken the last word and is still waiting for our response.  The silence of God is God’s waiting for our reply like the person who risks an “I love you,” and waits with baited breath for “I love you, too.” If you’ve ever risked that, you know: in that moment no response is worse than awkward silence, unless it is pretending they didn’t hear.

It is amazing enough that God speaks to us, more amazing still that God doesn’t give up but keeps speaking through centuries of prophets.  But the most astounding communication of all is God taking on our flesh to speak in person, through the person of Jesus Christ. This is the Christian doctrine of incarnation, which literally means “in-flesh-ment,” embodiment.  But here’s the thing:  the Christian belief in incarnation is not just about Jesus.  It’s about the Word of God taking form in our flesh, too.

Last week I was addressing some cards to go with gifts I was sharing with staff and family members, and I kept misspelling “Christmas!”  I hardly write by hand any more.  I have this essential tremor, which means my hand shakes slightly, but enough to mess up my writing.  And like most people, I mostly use a computer these days, so I’m out of practice with the pen.  And I was in a hurry.  So I kept writing “Merry C-h-r-s-t-m-a-s.”  Six or eight times in a row.  And that’s when it occurred to me.  There’s no “I” in “team.”  But there is and “I” in “Christ.”  And that’s John’s point, too, don’t you see?

The Word of God is powerful and true.  The Word of God is faithful and sure.  But even the word of God is so much hot air, empty ideas that come to nothing, a one-sided monologue falling short of real communication – until it takes flesh in you and me.

In many and various ways the New Testament tells us we’re supposed to be Christ, too, God’s word in the flesh to a broken world waiting for good news. Jesus says, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).  And again,  “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).  Paul tells the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).  He tells the Corinthians, “You are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:2-3).  And again in Colossians, “God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).  In 1 Peter we read, “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet:2:21).  It was not by accident the followers of Jesus in Antioch were called “Christians,” – “little Christs!” – for that is who they were striving to be.

So.  As John would have it, Christmas isn’t real – grounded, concrete – until Jesus is born in you.  God has spoken, is still speaking to you.  Wants to speak through you.  What is your response?  Is there a conversation happening between you and God?  What is God saying through your life?  

Word spoken waits.
Unanswered, evaporates.
Okay, GOD has spoken,
But who listens now?
And what good is the Word
until it is heard?
What use is the sound
unless it is found?
“God’s Word became flesh
And camped in our midst?”
Mere monologue! – unless
God’s Word becomes our flesh.

Amen.  May we pray?

Loquacious God, speak your word of love into our hearts until we love as you love.  Speak your word of life to our souls until we wake up in you.  Speak the word of Christ to your church until we embody his mission to be your word of good news to the world, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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