John's Christmas Story

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Christmas
December 13, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Sermons Proclaim

Summary: John's message that the Word became flesh matters to us because God has identified with our human weakness, made a commitment to us and stands in solidarity with the ways the world harms our bodies.

We don't use John for our Christmas pageants. We love dressing the children up as shepherds, with Joseph sporting a fake beard and as Mary holding a doll. We mix the Gospel stories up and bring in some wise men to rub shoulders with the shepherds. Even though we all enjoy the sight of children acting out the story, we should take care with making the birth of Jesus too cute. Having to trudge to Bethlehem at eight-and-a-half months pregnant was not cute. Herod's jealousy was not cute. Nevertheless, we can make a Christmas pageant out of Luke and Matthew. We skip John for those pageants.

Certainly, we can understand why we don't use this passage for pageants. John begins with the creation itself, not shepherds on the graveyard shift. The Word existed before anything. God used the Word in the process of creation. By using the term "Word," John reaches in two different directions. He reaches back to the Old Testament to make that connection. In Genesis, God created the world by speaking: "Then God said, 'Let there be light': and there was light."1 In Proverbs, God uses Wisdom as a tool of creation: "When he established the heavens, I [Wisdom] was there."2 In biblical thought, Word and Wisdom were means of creation. John reaches in another direction with the use of the term "Word." The Greek term Logos, which lies behind our term "Word," was considered the unifying force of the creation in some forms of Greek philosophy.3 John accomplishes much with one term, a term that carries a lot of freight.

How would we dress a child up as a creative force? How would we dress a child up as a philosophical buzzword? Does John begin to leave us behind with his language?

John's Christmas story comes in verse 14: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us." With the term "flesh" we might stand on more familiar ground. We know flesh. We are flesh. Yet the term "flesh" carries some freight of its own. We talk of flesh when we want to convey our weakness. In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples, "Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak."4 The flesh drags us down, keeps us from living up to what we know is right. In some forms of Greek thought, the spirit or soul was pure, trapped inside a corrupt body of flesh. Our children are flesh, but we could not dress them up for a pageant as "flesh."

John's Christmas story carries much impact, even if we don't immediately gravitate toward it as we do the story of the shepherds. The creative force that operated at creation has become weak, limited flesh. What lies beyond our comprehension has become us. We can barely get our heads around it, much less put a bathrobe around a child's shoulders for it. Two things that can't mix, mixed. Even if we can't applaud our children acting this out, the Word becoming flesh matters for us.

Our weakness

It matters that the creative force behind the existence of the world has taken on our weakness. We may not like to think of ourselves as weak, but even the strongest of us become tired and hungry. The strongest of us feel helpless in the face of death and all the world's problems. Cruel words hurt any of us. We battle our temptations, scoring some victories, but losing more often than we wish. Because the Word has become flesh, God has insight into our weakness and vulnerability.

When something has us down, we want to know that someone else will listen, someone cares how we feel. When the Word became flesh, God became vulnerable to empathize with us. Church youth groups will sometimes spend an evening inside a shelter for people who temporarily do not have a home. They do more than read about the situation of those who are homeless. God has done that for us. We know that God can hear our thoughts, but when the Word became flesh, God experienced our feelings, our sadness, our grief. When Lazarus died, John tells us that Jesus felt "greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved." Many of us know that Jesus also cried at the death of Lazarus, a famously short verse, but a powerful one.5 The Word became flesh and felt our sorrow. The Word became flesh and shed tears that tasted like salt. Even if we feel as though no one understands our deepest anguish, God has become like us in feeling what we feel.

God's commitment

It matters to us that the Word became flesh because God has made a commitment to us. Not only did the Word take on our weak flesh, but Jesus lived among us. The sense of that term is that Jesus became like the ark of the covenant that represented God's presence with the people of Israel in the wilderness.6 God has lived among us, made a home among us. We may know people who wanted to learn a language, so they studied that language in an immersion experience. Perhaps they lived with a family, eating meals and sharing in the family routine. They not only learned grammar but also experienced the culture and the ways of the people who spoke that language. The creative force of the universe took an immersion experience with people of flesh. That commitment tells us that God is with us. Whatever we go through in life, God has not abandoned us. God has made a commitment to stay by our side. If the Word became flesh and lived among us, we can trust that he loves us and cares about us.

What the world does to our bodies

The Word becoming flesh matters to us because the world exploits, oppresses and damages our bodies. From the ways that men objectify the bodies of women, to the ways that pollution poisons the bodies of children, our bodies are vulnerable. Crime and war puncture and burn bodies, changing people forever, if they survive. Everyone must work for a living, but some jobs suck the health out of the bodies of laborers. Unrelenting, back-breaking labor can leave those on the bottom of the economic ladder with bodies that barely function after decades of work. Some children lose fingers to harvest the chocolate that we crave for the sugar and caffeine. Even the shepherds that we romanticize at Christmas likely moonlighted to make more money, depriving themselves of sleep.

A well-respected theologian, Clodovis Boff, chose to identify with laborers who performed dangerous work. Even though he held a comfortable position as a university professor and author, he spent half of each year joining the rubber gatherers of the Amazon jungle in Brazil. Boff wanted both to understand the situation of these workers and to identify with them. Miguel De La Torre, writing about Boff, described his approach to theology as "feet on the ground." Boff would walk with the laborers through parts of the jungle that lacked roads, sometimes with infected feet. In the words of De La Torre, "The grueling walk took hours, leaving Boff with the bruised feet necessary to better appreciate the plight of the poor."7 When the Word became flesh, God identified with our bodies, both in our inherent weakness and in the ways that the world devastates our bodies.

For John, our worship today recognizes that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. What was disembodied took on a body. What was beyond us and above us became us. We live in this physical world, with bodies that can become sick, and will eventually give out on us. The Word became flesh so that God could identify with us and understand us. Because the Word became flesh, God will heal and resurrect our bodies, giving us back what the world takes away. We don't understand all of what happened when the Word became flesh, but we don't truly understand angels appearing to shepherds in the field either. We can't take a picture of our children all dressed up when we draw on John's Christmas story, but we can celebrate all that it means that the Word became flesh and lived among us.