SETTING THE CONTEXT FOR THE SCRIPTURES
Let us tie together the unfolding drama of God that we have reflected upon so far. We began with God’s original blessing. In the beginning, God spoke and all that lives was created. God then took the initiative to form a people first making a covenant or committed promise with Abraham. Then when the people were enslaved and oppressed, God acted on that covenant rescuing the Hebrew people and leading them to the Promised Land. As Bernard Anderson summarizes, “Israel was called and formed as a special community in order that this people might be the bearer of God’s purpose in history, the agent for the accomplishment of God’s historical plan.”[i] The people of Israel however turned away from God and betrayed the covenant for generations. Finally their betrayal led to capture by foreign nations and Exile from their land and everything that connected them to their faith. After this “spiritual blackout”, by God’s initiative Israel was restored again and the people were given the chance to renew the covenant they had betrayed and rebuild their nation.[ii] But even with this second chance the people didn’t understand and turned God’s direction through the Torah into a list of do’s and don’ts rather than as a pointer to the way of blessing, this is where we ended last week.
Several hundred years later in 332 BCE, the restored nation came under the rule of Alexander the Great and under the influence of the Greek civilization. Over the next few centuries there were several changes of rule with lots of political intrigue. In 167 BCE, just over 150 years before Jesus was born the ruler forbade the practice of the Judean religion and set up an “abomination” in the Temple. There was a violent armed Jewish resistance led by a man named Maccabee. Three years later the Temple was restored, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah celebrates this part of their story. The Temple was restored, but the country was still under occupation. Later, the Romans assigned Herod to be king of Judea.[iii] Then a pivotal event took place that is the climax of the unfolding drama. This event is so important that history is split by the time that passed before the event, BC and the time since AD. This event was tied all the way back to the beginning and as we will see in the coming weeks tied to the very end.
Read John 1:1-18
Of course, the event I’m speaking of is the Christ-event, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Jesus came to be the bearer of God’s purpose in history; he would be the agent for the accomplishment of God’s historical plan.
Act 2 of our unfolding drama opens with the same words that our story opened with in Act 1, “in the beginning.” The writer of John wants us to know that this story connects back to the very beginning of the great story. As George quoted last week, “Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the [Torah] or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) and so the two acts, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are inseparable; they are two parts of the one story. As Bible scholar Gerard Sloyan says, Jesus “was to come to his own home place and his own people – those prepared for such an event by centuries of God’s loving self-disclosure.”[iv]
God had tried since the beginning of creation to have humans be “the agents of the accomplishment of God’s purpose in history,” [v] but as we have seen over the last few weeks humans had failed over and over again. George told us last week that Torah means literally someone standing and pointing saying ”go this way.” The restored people of God however turned the Torah into a set of legalisms; they transformed teachings that were designed to be a guide to living life, a guide showing them how to be a blessing to others, and turned them into a list of religious dos and don’ts that served to alienate and exclude people. And so God had to clarify even further, so God expressed Godself in human form as Jesus, the Word made flesh. As the Scripture told us, “The law or Torah was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) Moses gave the teachings and Jesus made the character of God visible.
Incarnation is a churchy word, but I always tell people if you speak Spanish or eat Mexican food you can understand this word easily. Have any of you ever eaten chili con carne? What does the con carne mean? It means with meat. En-carne means in the meat or in the flesh. Jesus is the incarn-ation of God or God in the flesh. As Gail O’Day said in the New Interpreter’s Bible, “The incarnation means that human beings can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible. … The relationship between divine and human is transformed, because in the incarnation human beings are given intimate, palpable [or tangible], corporeal [or physical] access to the cosmic reality of God.[vi]” The law and the prophets tried to point people back to God yet the people still didn’t get it, so God came even more directly to get the message across and to ensure that God’s purposes in history would be accomplished through the Word made Flesh.
As the Gospel tells us “The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory.” (John 1:14) The Greek word translated lived means literally “pitched a tent.” Just as God appeared in the tent of meeting during the long years the people of God were journeying through the wilderness, so now God dwells among us in the Word Made Flesh. Only God’s presence isn’t shrouded in mystery and fear as in the tent of meeting, but Jesus came to give us intimate access to God. John the Baptist stood and pointed to Jesus and said, “Go this way.” Jesus in his life, death and resurrection embodied the way. As he himself said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” And he embodied the way not in a perfect world, but in a fallible, fallen world like the one we all live in.
Louis Cassels tells the best story I have heard to explain Jesus’ incarnation.[vii] “ It’s the story of a decent man who didn’t believe all that stuff about an incarnation, which churches proclaim at Christmas. He simply could not understand this claim that God became human. So on Christmas Eve, his wife and children went to church while he stayed home. Shortly after his family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window and watched the flurries getting heavier and heavier. After a few minutes, he went back to his chair by the fireplace and began to read his newspaper. All of a sudden he was startled by a thudding sound. The sound was quickly followed by another, and then another. He thought that someone must have been throwing snowballs at his living-room window, but when he went to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They had been caught in the storm, and in a desperate search for shelter had tried to fly through his window. "I can't let these poor creatures lie there and freeze," he thought. "But how can I help them?"
Then he remembered the barn. It would provide a warm shelter. He quickly put on his coat and boots and tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on the light. But the birds didn't come in. "Food will bring them in," he thought. So he hurried back to the house for breadcrumbs, which he sprinkled on the snow to make a trail into the barn. To his dismay, the birds ignored the breadcrumbs and continued to flop around helplessly in the snow. Finally in desperation, he tried shooing them into the barn by walking around and waving his arms. They scattered in every direction--except into the warm, lighted barn.
"They find me a strange and terrifying creature," he said to himself, "and I can't seem to think of any way to let them know they can trust me. If only I could be a bird myself for a few minutes, perhaps I could lead them to safety." Just at that moment he realized his question had been answered. As the church bell rang in the distance, he sank to his knees in the snow. "Now I understand, Lord," he whispered. "Now I see why you had to come."”
Jesus is the human expression of God leading us “birds” to the Way of Life. What an amazing gift that God has given to us! What an amazing act of love! There is another lesson in the story that I really appreciate. If the man had been able to become a bird, the form would still not contain all that he is. I believe that Jesus was fully God, but I also believe that there is more to God than Jesus’ form could contain. Human form cannot contain all the power and mystery and “otherness” that I believe is God; this is one of the reasons I don’t like to see God portrayed as an old man. This doesn’t however diminish the importance of the Word made Flesh for he does help us to relate to God in profound ways.
A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual truth. One could say that Jesus was the ultimate sacrament, the outward and visible sign of the reality of God. As Eugene Peterson in The Message Bible says, “God speaks and acts through Jesus the Word, and forgiveness and judgment happen, healing and illumination happen, mercy and grace happen, joy and love happen, freedom and resurrection come to pass.”[viii] Let us celebrate the opening of Act 2 in our unfolding drama today by joining in another sacrament made possible by Christ. In the sacrament of Holy Communion, we share in the outward and visible signs of the bread and cup to reflect with inward connection we have to each other and to God through Jesus the Christ. May we have the wisdom to follow Jesus, the Word made flesh for his light shines in the darkness, through the storms and blizzards of life to lead us to blessing. Amen.
[i] Anderson, Bernard W. The Unfolding Drama of the Bible, p. 63
[ii] Anderson, p. 63.
[iii] Rogerson, John & Davies, Philip. The Old Testament World, Prentice-Hall, p. 158-194.
[iv] Gerard Slovan. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: John (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 14.
[v] This is part of the quote by Bernard Anderson before the Scriptures were read. See endnote i.
[vi] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Vol. IX p. 524.
[vii] Louis Cassels. “Christmas Humbug Fades in Snowstorm”. In Prepare Our Hearts: Advent and Christmas Traditions for Families by Muriel Tarr Kurtz, p. 117.
[viii] Based on a sentence from the Introduction of John’s Gospel by Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, p. 1914.
Sermon delived by Rev. Nancy Cushman on April 2, 2006.
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