“The Word Becoming Flesh” on John 1:1-18 by Joe Ellis - Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2022
For some of us, this passage in the Gospel of John is anything but our first time reading it. We have become intimately familiar and profoundly shaped by this passage. With that familiarity, it's easy to lose the deep mystery behind John’s words. We take it for granted that John, the Apostle who wrote this Gospel, is talking about Jesus of Nazareth. Yet if you or I were reading the prologue of John's Gospel for the first time, a human figure would likely be the furthest thing from our imagination as we began reading John's words. My main hope for this sermon is to help us to imagine reading this passage for the first time.
If that were the case, what would you imagine as you read about something called ‘the Word’, and that this ‘Word’ simply was, and it was with God, and it was God? 'The Word.' “Hmm?” Say you didn’t know anything about Jesus, but you had some familiarity with the Hebrew Bible — enough to recognize that when John starts by saying “In the beginning” you are able to make the connection to those first words in Genesis that say, “In the beginning, God created the the heavens and the Earth.” You remember that God in that story is described as forming and shaping this beautiful world through speech. God said, “Let there be Light” and “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” And “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And as each Word was spoken, that which was spoken came to be.
But while in Genesis the words are taken for granted, just a humble background feature of the story — here, in John’s Gospel, the Word takes centre stage. The Word has power. The Word has agency. The Word is not just a product of a being, but is itself Being. Read carefully, for John tells us that “Without the Word, not one thing came into being.” As you are imagining this Being called the Word — this Word that was in the beginning and was with God, and was God — don’t let anything too fixed emerge in your imagination too soon. Just let the possibilities emerge from this sea of possibilities, and keep reading with your imagination.
Before we have time to really wrap our imagination around this being called the Word, John swiftly expands our imagination with another image. Life. “In Him was Life,” the passage says. Now, I want you to notice something. John gives us a pronoun in verse 3, “Him.” Because our minds crave familiarity, we might latch onto that word, “Him.” We might want to trick ourselves into thinking that we’re now on familiar ground and cling to it like you’d cling to a floating log in this sea of possibilities. John said, “Him” — this must mean a male figure — it must mean Jesus. Our minds tend to want to reduce mystery with familiar categories. But I’m not so sure we’re on familiar ground yet. The word ‘him’ is simply a masculine singular pronoun referring us back to the Word, which is also a masculine singular noun — bluntly put, we aren’t anywhere near describing a human being — so I’m going to use the pronoun ‘It’ just so we don’t get too comfortable with the Word too soon.
We’re just told that the Word was life. This Being that’s been introduced. It's called The Word, and Its essence is life. The Life of this Word pours into all people. This Word sustains all people. What possibilities are beginning to emerge as you imagine a Being, called The Word, whose very essence is Life? Are you able to do this, or do you jump immediately to the familiar?
John keeps us in this strange realm a while longer, he invites us to consider in verse 4-5 another metaphor. This Word. This Word of Life. This Word of Life is the "Light of all people." Now, we have moved out of the realm of hearing — the realm of words and speech — now are invited to imagine the Word through our eyes. Can you see this Word, who’s essence is not only Life, but also Light? Can you see this Word whose embodiment is beautiful, brilliant Light? An overcoming Light that pierces the darkness, and drives the darkness away?
We’ve been using our imagination to enter some deep, mystical territory. This is hard work, so John decides to give us a break. He lets us rest for a while on familiar ground. John tells us, “There was a man sent from God.” That’s solid enough ground. We know what a man is. We come across them every day. John tells us that this man was sent from God. We still think we are on solid ground. ‘God’ is a word that we sometimes imagine we know what is meant when we say ‘God’. We use the word ‘God’ often in conversation. We imagine a definition, a concept, perhaps even some sort of Being. But our familiar way of saying ‘God' can just mask our ignorance of God. John is telling us of “a man sent by God”. We’ve heard talk about people being sent by God. We’ve actually talked about this in church for the last several weeks — people sent by God to do a particular thing, a particular task, say a particular something. This helps us feel that in verse 6 we are on more familiar ground. There was a man (so far so good), he was sent by God… to do what? Well, here John plunges us back into mystery. About this man, the Apostle John tells us in verse 8-9 that “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the Light. The true Light, which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” With this mysterious way of referring to John the Baptist, we are brought back into a world of strange metaphor and mystery. It was John the Baptist’s job to announce this Light — this Light coming into the world that would enlighten everyone. What does this mean? What was He sent to announce? ‘Here comes the sun?’
John the Baptist was sent to announce the coming Light, but what sort of Light would he be announcing? Close your eyes for a moment. Picture a Light, the Light that eclipses all other lights — picture this Light coming into the world. Now picture this Light not being received but being rejected. Maybe it’s like when someone turns on the Light too soon in the morning and all you can do is close your eyes and shout, “Turn off the light!” That’s what those in the darkness have tried to say to the Light. But will that Light listen? Will this Light retreat? Can this Light be stopped?
Then the Apostle John repeats what he said before about this Light, that the world came into being through It. Again the World does not know this Light. It came to what was its own, and its own people did not accept him. Yet this Light was seen by some. This Light was received by some. Some eyes adjusted to Its Light, and in verse 12-13, John tells us that “All who received this Light, who believed in Its name, It gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.” This Light, John tells us, has a curious power. Power to bring flesh and blood human beings into new birth — a birthing from God Himself. This Light has the power of motherhood.
Now John is about to say something even more mysterious. John says in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Let’s pause at the phrase: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This simultaneously becomes more mysterious while also grounding us in the familiar. The Word has become flesh. As we talk about the Word becoming flesh, remember that the Word is primary. The Word comes first. Life is primary. Life comes first. Light is primary. Light comes first. These are the images that John starts us out with. This Word is God. This Life is the genesis of all that has been created. This Light shines in the darkness and overpowers the darkness. Now, we come to something startling, but nonetheless secondary; the Word has become flesh. Flesh comes second; Light has become flesh; flesh, the material that covers the bones of a human. The Word has transformed itself into the material that covers the bones of a human. Life transformed itself into the material that envelopes the bones of a human. Light transformed itself into the material covering the bones of a human. Word, Life and Light transfigured itself into skin, muscle, blood, sinew, nerves and neurons — Light, Word, and Flesh mixed together and came and lived with us. What would that look like? Imagine this Being moving in next door as your neighbour. If your friend asked you what your neighbour was like — what would you say?
We’ve been dealing with some powerful concepts. ‘The Word’ that was spoken when God said, “Let there be light.” This Word itself is Being, and creates Life through its very self. This Word is Life, and this Word is the Light of all humankind. This Light shines through the darkness, overcomes the darkness, and is powerful enough to birth people into becoming children of God. Now try to grasp the strangeness of what I’m about to say: "This Word became flesh, It became human and lived among us.” The Word that was and is Divinity, Light and Life — this Word has become flesh and blood. The Word became one of us.
Why on Earth would the Word do this? When I frame all of this in mystery, I really don’t have an answer. This Word is Life and Light — through Him all things have been created. When you imagine all that could be done with the power of The Word — would you imagine that the best way to use this power would be to take on the flesh of a human? That wouldn’t be my first choice. Why on Earth would this Word, this Life, this Light choose to constrict and maybe even contort itself into the form of a human being? Why be born as a human being? This Word was not even born as one of the humans higher up on the ladder — like a Caesar, or a King, or a Prime Minister. This Word chose to become a human being, a human being that was born into a family that had far fewer resources than probably every person gathered here this Christmas morning. This Word, Life and Light chose to become a human being in a relatively poor family, in a poor country, in a culture that had far less and seemed to know far less than we do today. Why would this Word choose to become flesh then and there. Why would this Word become flesh at all?
When put this way, it all seems like an incredible adventure, doesn’t it? An absolute adventure! It makes the story of the princess who became a commoner to find her true love seem utterly uninteresting. The Word taking on human flesh seems utterly like a fantastic adventure. To become one of us, the Word must have truly liked what It created in us. The Word must have truly enjoyed what it means to be human. God said through His Word, “Let us make humankind in our own image.” Christmas must have been born out of desire. What desire?
It was a desire to bring a Salvation completely and totally new. John says in verse 16, “From his fullness we have received grace upon grace." Here grace is another word for gift. A gift of salvation brought to us by the Word. Here we learn why the Word became flesh — to give us a kind gift. The Word of Light has given gifts before. Yet now It has become a completely new Salvation. The Word would show what sort of Salvation could come about through becoming flesh and blood, becoming one of us. This flesh would grow, would mature, would make friends, develop disciples, and would experience profound hardship. This flesh would be betrayed by one of Its closest friend. This flesh would be nailed to a cross. This flesh would bleed for our flesh, until the life drained from Its body and the light snuffed out of Its eyes and the word died on Its lips.
This act of Salvation is as mysterious as the Word itself. From the Word’s death, a new sort of Life would come to us. Its Flesh died for us, carrying in Its Flesh all of Its children. We died with It. That’s the mystery. If this Light was Life, all our life was wrapped up in this Word as It died and lay in the tomb. But Its power was not spent. God returned Life to His Word. Light returned. The Word returned — up from the dead It rose — and we rose with It. Our resurrection is yet to be experienced, but we certainly shall rise with It.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” From His fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through the Son. No one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known. Here we learn that the Word has a name. The Life has a name. The Light has a name. It’s Jesus the Messiah. The Word took on flesh that our flesh might be healed through His Word, through His Life, through His Light.