I’m sure that many of you will, like me, have been asked, “Did you have a nice Christmas?” And I hope that all of you, like me, have been able to answer, “Yes.” But in some ways, it is more complicated than that. For most people, there will have been things which were very nice indeed, but there will have been other things which were not. Christmas can be a time of heightened and conflicting emotions. There will have been tiredness, loneliness, sadness. While many have feasted, some will have gone hungry. While some will have been rushed off their feet in a flurry of shopping, presents, trees and decorations, parties, relatives, cooking, eating and, hopefully, church services, for others the days will have seemed long and empty. And when you get through to the other side, as we just about have, we can look back and wonder, ‘What was all that about?’
Well, today, our gospel reading gives us the answer. John the Evangelist is telling us what it was all about. The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. The Word, living among us. That’s what Christmas is all about.
We have heard the stories that the other evangelists tell, of Mary and Joseph, of dreams and angels, of shepherds and wise men and, at the very centre, a fragile human baby. And it is good that we have heard these stories because they prepare us for this one. They show us in tangible, recognisable form what John calls ‘flesh’. The flesh of God is entirely real and entirely human.
That sounds like a very strange thing to say. Does not Scripture say that God is a spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth? How then can God have flesh?
But in Christ, everything is changed. When before there was division, now, in Christ, God makes unity possible. John speaks of division between light and darkness, and of a light which darkness cannot overcome. And there are other divisions overcome in Christ too – the division between eternity and time, the division between heaven and earth, the division between spirit and matter. All these divisions are reconciled in Christ, in God leaving eternity and entering time, taking on physical form, lighting a light which, in a fuller and more complete way can show us God. And all of this is accomplished in one baby, Jesus, born in Bethlehem, Son of God and son of man. Henceforth, the division between God and humanity is blurred. Through Christ, we have the opportunity to live both on a physical and a spiritual level. No longer are we bound entirely by time but we have a sense of eternity with God. No longer can we say we have no way of knowing God. By Christ, we are bathed in divine light and have access to the mind and will of God. No longer can we say we do not know what God wills. Jesus has revealed that.
The effect of incarnation is not, of course, just on us. While we are changed by the fact that God became one of us, one with us in Christ, even more significantly, God in Christ changed too. And that has huge significance for us. It means that God shares with us in our human experience. Since Jesus is truly God, then God is not separate from fleshly existence, but profoundly and intimately present. Our material existence matters. It matters in an absolute sense by virtue of God’s blessing it, but it also matters to God because God is in relationship with us. Since Jesus is truly God, then God came to share in human experience, in human suffering, in human agony of every kind – even the most gruesome of human deaths. Because of Jesus, the Word become flesh, God is not far away. God is as close to us as our next breath, and God bears the pain we bear as well as celebrates our joy in which we exult.
To express this truth, John chooses a simple but unusual phrase – the Word became flesh. The Word he speaks of is the word through which all things were made, a word of extraordinary power. But all words, even ordinary words, can be powerful. Today, as we wrestle with this passage, I want to ask – which words would we like to become flesh among us? You see, a word is just a sound, just an idea, until someone acts upon it. Justice is a nice sounding word, but powerless until it becomes flesh in someone acting to tackle an injustice. Compassion sounds good too, but means nothing unless someone acts compassionately.
So, standing at the beginning of a new year, and with changes ahead for us as a congregation, what words would we like to become flesh among us? One might be ‘unity’. If that is to become incarnate here, it will require openness, an acceptance of the different gifts and opinions of one another and a willingness to value differences as contributing a variety of strengths to the whole. Perhaps another might be ‘friendliness’. That too will depend on openness, particularly towards people whom, individually, we know less well. Or how about ‘hospitality’? Food is something we do well in this church, and it is about more than physical nourishment. It is about community. That’s another good word to incarnate among us, but it depends on participation, and upon sharing the burden of providing the food and the opportunities for community to grow.
I’ve spoken before about ‘mission’. That’s a good, churchy word that no one can argue against. But it is another which remains meaningless unless we actually do things to reach out to other people. We need to think hard about how mission may become flesh and live in this congregation.
These have all been good, positive words, and there could be many more. Not every congregation can put flesh on every good word. We need to spend some time, and we will, trying to decide which words God is calling us to incarnate here.
And, at the same time, we need to be on the look out lest we give flesh to harmful words. Imagine the harm that would occur if we incarnated ‘resentment’, or ‘indifference’, or ‘antipathy’ or even ‘disappointment’. If these words become flesh among us, there is no hope, no future for this congregation. And I have to admit I am fearful. Since the Session made the decision, which I believe was right, to unite the two services, I am already aware of people who have distanced themselves. I am fearful that the action we are taking to tackle the malaise of a disunited congregation, worshipping apart, may prove to be too radical if significant numbers of people simply refuse to worship together. But I have to struggle not to let ‘fear’ become flesh in me. I must put my trust in God, and in you – God’s people in this place – that my fears will turn out to be baseless.
As well as seeking to discern what words we might incarnate together, perhaps we should each be thinking of a word or words that we might incarnate in ourselves. For me, I shall try to make ‘confidence’ and ‘boldness’ take on flesh. I have been hugely challenged by the process of uniting the services, perhaps more than some might imagine. One of the things that several people in the Session said, during the course of discussion, was that the united service shouldn’t just follow the pattern of either of its predecessor services. So, from next week, the order of service will be different. Various things will happen at different points in the service. From time to time, there will be more congregational participation. We’ll need to give it some time to see whether it works, and I’ll be asking for views and opinions in some months’ time. I hope people will take the time to let the new order of service settle and become familiar. I will wait to see if ‘welcome’ or ‘rejection’ become flesh among us.
These two ideas, welcome and rejection, lurk in these opening verses of John’s Gospel. “He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” We speak of Jesus as God’s son, yet all of us, by virtue of his coming among us, may be counted children of God. All of us share with Jesus in being light to the world. All of us share with him in bringing life. The light and life we bring are of God and may be known to be so in the same way as Jesus was known to be from God – through their grace and truth.