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In The Flesh

Sermon
And Then Came the Angel
Gospel Sermons For Advent/Christmas/Epiphany
"And the Word became flesh."

We hear those words so easily that they are lost on us. We quickly associate them with the baby in Bethlehem's manger, and rightly so, but then we dismiss them without being startled or shocked or even mildly surprised. "The Word became flesh," the gospel writer says, and we yawn in agreement.

Some of the Greeks didn't yawn. They were appalled at such a thought and quickly acted to correct what they thought of as a ludicrous, even sacrilegious thought. It wasn't that God could not have become flesh, but why would God have wanted to become flesh? By their way of thinking, the flesh was bad and the body was evil. If they could have found some way to live outside the body they would have, but they couldn't come up with anything. So, they tolerated the body as a necessary way to "house the soul."

We aren't ready to give up on the Greeks altogether. We too slip into this mind set that the soul is good and spiritual, and the body is bad and carnal. In April of 1996 Baylor University, a Baptist school in Texas, did the unthinkable. The school not only allowed, but sanctioned a campus-wide dance. There are more jokes about Baptists not being allowed to dance than there are Baptists, and that's why this is major news. Most Baptists traditionally have frowned on dancing because of the slippery-slope argument that dancing surely will lead to other things that are even worse than dancing. At the root of this is the idea that physical expression is bad and should take a back seat to the higher and purer gifts of the mind and the soul.

The Greek word behind flesh in this lesson is the same word Paul uses over and over to describe human nature in all its weakness and sin.1 In other words, when God became flesh God immediately became acquainted with all the desires, problems, and temptations inherent in human life, which is one more reason why the Word becoming flesh isn't all that desirable. Who wants a God who is so much like us? We want a God who rules over the earth, who gives power and dominion to human beings, and whose knowledge and goodness are always beyond reproach.

But isn't that the point of John's statement? There is in the earth the presence of the Holy One. The Eternal has appeared in time. The God whom no one has seen has become visible. The inaccessible One is now available to us. The Word became flesh is not a sign that the great God has been diminished to the lesser stature of humanity, but that the great God has paid us a visit in human form.

It's not the first time God's presence was made known, and it won't be the last. God is always looking for a place to dwell. God is present in the words of scripture, in the beauty of a painting, in majestic architecture, and in the stirring drama of great literature. God was present at the Red Sea, and at Mount Sinai, and in the foreign land where the people were held in captivity. But God did not become a book, or a painting, or a building. God took on human form. The Word became flesh.

A popular song asks, "If God had a face, what would it look like?" Maybe the question should be rephrased as a statement. "God has a face, and it looks like your face, and my face, and the faces of humans everywhere." If people want to know what God looks like, and they do, they are going to look at us. People who will come to experience something of God's presence will not arrive at that moment by persuasive arguments or logical thinking or scientific proof. More than likely, they will come to know what God is like through knowing God's people. People who experience love do not do so by reading about it in a book. They experience love through other human beings. There is much for people to read about God in scripture and elsewhere, but not much of it will hold water unless they come to know women and men, youth and children, who appear in the flesh in the same way that God appears on the page.

That doesn't mean we have to be perfect people, but it does call us to take seriously the fact that our bodies are God's temple and God's spirit dwells in our flesh (1 Corinthians 3:16). We can't be perfect people, but we can be so responsive to the spirit of God that "the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh" (2 Corinthians 4:11). It means that we not only see the heart or soul as religious, but that we "love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength" (Mark 12:30) and that we present our "bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1-2). Our existence is not about worshiping God with our souls and treating our bodies as if they were our own. Our earthly life is not about having a pure heart and paying no attention to our physical needs. Instead, we are about presenting our whole selves in faithful stewardship to God because we carry the good news in these bodies of ours, as well as in our hearts and minds.

In the 1995 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the church adopted a mission statement which calls the church "to be and to share the good news of Jesus Christ." We cannot share the good news until we become the good news. We are to become the good news in the flesh for the world to see.

It's always nice to hear people say, "Oh, I drove through your town last week and saw your church. It's beautiful." They are right, of course, but they only saw a part of the church. They only saw the building. They missed the best part. If they only drove through they didn't have time to see all those occasions when the church becomes the good news, when the Word becomes flesh. And the Word becomes flesh all over the place.

People volunteer time and money to prepare and deliver meals to those confined to their homes, and the Word becomes flesh. Church members visit those who have lost loved ones, and the Word becomes flesh. Mission teams respond to disasters that destroyed the towns of people they have never met, and the Word becomes flesh. A young man gives up a year's salary to fund scholarships for children who lost their parents in the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Word becomes flesh. Parents travel to Romania to adopt sick orphans, and the Word becomes flesh. A woman calls her neighbor every morning to make sure she is okay, and the Word becomes flesh. Friends wait with a husband at the hospital while his wife is having surgery, and the Word becomes flesh. The minister takes communion to those who cannot attend worship, and the Word becomes flesh.

And anyone who has ever delivered meals or visited the bereaved or responded to a disaster or given sacrificially or taken people in or sat with friends in a difficult time knows that what we give pales in comparison to what we get back. It's not just that the Word becomes flesh in our actions, but that the Word is already flesh in those to whom we minister. The courage of a woman who lives alone speaks to us, and the Word becomes flesh. The faith of a family waiting for the surgeon to come out makes a powerful witness, and the Word becomes flesh. The people who are rebuilding after the storm embody a hope that we desperately needed to see, and the Word becomes flesh. When we see that the foster or adoptive family is learning and receiving as much from the child as the child is from them we are reminded of all the people in our lives from whom we could learn more of the truth, and the Word becomes flesh.

The decline that so many churches are experiencing is baffling since we live in a time when there is a desperate need for community. People are less and less concerned about what church name a congregation has, and more and more concerned with finding a supportive, receptive, loving congregation that will welcome and take care of them. There is a lot of debate about various issues, but people who are hurting aren't looking for position statements. They are looking for the Word that gives life and comfort and hope, and they are looking right at us to see if that Word has any flesh on it.

The Word becoming flesh is a powerful statement about God's presence in Jesus, but it is also more. The Word becoming flesh leads us toward one another, pointing us toward a new community where we see the truth and dignity in all of God's children. The Word becoming flesh reminds us that the truth and light live in us. Yet, we know none of us are capable of holding all the truth and light, so we need and depend on each other for pieces of the truth and light that we do not yet have.

If we are all made in the image of God, if we are all distinct revelations of God, then we all carry within us some message and experience that the rest of us need to hear. Christine Smith writes about how we further insult the marginalized people by not listening to the truth they embody. Smith says that people who are older, handicapped, of a different class or race or sexual orientation all embody some word which deserves our attention. That is, they carry in the flesh some image of their Creator, some truth which would lead us to deeper understanding, and some gifts which would enhance our world.2

May we become and then share the good news. More than that, may we be open to the good news which all the people of the earth embody,learning and receiving from them as much as they learn and receive from us. May the love of God which we talk about so freely be recognized in the love of human beings like us.

Jerry had lived down the street from the church for nine years, but no one in the church or the neighborhood knew him very well. He didn't participate in the church or community. One afternoon his wife suffered a major stroke, and all there was to do was wait. Jerry and his three children waited 39 days in the hospital, but they didn't wait alone. Every single day of that 39-day stretch somebody from the church stopped by to say hello. Two church members drove grandchildren back and forth to school, ball games, and dances. Another church member mowed Jerry's yard and watered his flowers. Another person from the church transferred sick days from her account to Jerry's account so that Jerry would continue to receive a salary. During that time the people from the church got to know Jerry and came to appreciate him very much. On the day when Jerry's wife died, people from church were there.

And the Word became flesh.

____________

1. William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume 1 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 65.

2. Christine Smith, Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).

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