TEXT: John 1:1-18
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
Throughout Advent and Christmas, we have been pondering this mystery: that, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God became one of us. He took on mortal flesh, which is what incarnation means. But more than this—somehow—what was truly divine became, also, truly human.
No act of God in time and history gives us more reason to hope in any age or any human condition than the Incarnation. At the right time and in the most undeniable and unforgettable way, God stepped into our world of sin and sorrow to break the grip of evil and to save us—from ourselves and all the forces that would deface the image of God in us.
On one night long ago, God entered our world as a helpless infant. He was truly that—and yet, he was more than that. As he grew older, it became increasingly obvious that this was no ordinary man. He looked like us. He grew up like any other child of his time. But he had a reason for being here—a purpose—that required him to be fully and truly human—and yet also … somehow … more than human. In him, we got a permanent glimpse of God; and, in him, we came to know more about God than has ever been known, before or since. In this man Jesus, we saw—and see—the face of God. That had never happened before. And it has never needed to happen—in precisely that way—again.
To the religious community of Jesus’ place and time, it should have come as no surprise that God would appear somehow to influence people and events. As someone has said, the Jewish people were marinated in a God-haunted history. Ever since Adam, God had been actively involved in the nitty-gritty details of their lives. God spoke to Abraham. God came to Jacob and Joseph in dreams. God sent word through the prophets to the leaders and people of Israel. David—Israel’s favorite king—had a life-long conversation with the Lord.
And of course, towering over all the other figures in Jewish tradition is the person of Moses. God’s guiding presence was never more obvious in the lives of any of the remembered heroes and leaders of Jewish history than in the life of Moses. As an infant, he was miraculously protected. He grew up in Pharaoh’s court. When, as an adult, he had to flee Egypt, it appeared that he was not to have a leadership role.
But then God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, and the rest, as they say, is history. God guided Moses as he led the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. And then this man—who had been the recipient of so much revelation and guidance—asked a favor of God. He wanted to see God’s face.
This man to whom God had spoken so clearly and so frequently and for so long, was told that he could see God—but not all of God. “You can see where I have been. You can see my backside, but you cannot see my face.” That was as good as it was going to get.
The Jews in Jesus’ time certainly expected that God would show up, but they did not expect God to show up the way he did—as a child of humble parentage, without royal credentials, without power as they understood power. And least of all did they expect him to come with a human face. A distant God speaking from the clouds—this would fit comfortably into their tradition. But the idea of God coming in human form … this would not. The proclamation that God had become flesh and blood—with the feelings and features of any other man—was unimaginable for them.
But God was doing a new thing. And so, here—in the person of Jesus—we come face-to-face with the God whose face even Moses was not allowed to see.
As John begins his Gospel, he offers no details of this remarkable birth. There is no manger scene. There are no angels, no adoring shepherds, no wise men from the East. There is simply the incredible, revolutionary announcement that God has become like us in Christ so that we can become like him.
In this transaction, we come to an understanding of the nature of God that surpasses any previous understanding. In Jesus, we are able to see all of God that we need to see. If we want to know what God is like, we need to keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus. No longer is God a disembodied voice from some far-off place. The Incarnation gives us the wonderful insight that not only is Jesus like God, but God is like Jesus—and always has been.
William Barclay, in his Bible study on the Gospel of John, tells a story about a little girl who, when she was confronted with some of the more bloodthirsty and savage parts of the Old Testament, felt called upon to offer some explanation in defense of God. She said: “That happened before God became a Christian.” 1
However, in John’s portrayal of Jesus, he tells us that God was always like Jesus, but we never realized that until Jesus came. And if God is like Jesus, we need not be afraid.
It is wonderful to know that the God who came in Christ still comes. The experience is not limited to dead saints and ancient history. It happens every day. It happens to—and through—some of the unlikeliest people and circumstances. It can happen to you. Perhaps it already has.
Most of us have a well-developed theology for the good times. When everything is going along well, we get along fine with the God of good times. And when times are real good, we sometimes get along fine without God. But our “good-time” theology—our theology of prosperity—falls apart when tragedy, sorrow and loss leave our lives shattered. Where is God when our world comes crashing down, and when we face tragedy beyond any human explanation?
In his book Night, Elie Wiesel wrote of the year he spent in Auschwitz, where both his parents and his sister died and where he witnessed unspeakable horrors. He told of one terrible evening when the whole camp was forced to witness the hanging of three prisoners. One of them was just a child whose crime was stealing bread. Wiesel said the boy had the face of a sad angel.
When the three victims were being prepared for execution, a man behind Wiesel asked, “Where is God?” As the whole camp was forced to march past the gallows where the two adults were dead, but the boy was still dying, Wiesel heard the same man behind him asking, “Where is God now?” Ellie Wiesel said he heard a voice in himself answer him, “Where is God? God is here, hanging on this gallows…” 2
The incarnate God in Christ—who himself was executed, dying an ignominious death upon a cross—is always with us. He does not leave us alone, ever—not in life or in death, not in the best or the worst of times. God shows up at the strangest times and in the strangest people.
In his play The Green Pastures, playwright Marc Connelly has a moving and memorable scene. While the Lord is anxiously looking out over the parapets of heaven, trying to decide what to do with the dreadful situation on earth, the angel Gabriel enters with his horn tucked under his arm. Sensing the Lord’s dilemma, he asks, “Lord, has the time come for me to blow the trumpet?”
“No,” says the Lord. “No, don’t touch the trumpet, not yet.” God continues to struggle with the problem. After watching for a while Gabriel asks the Lord again what he plans to do. Will he send someone to tend to the situation? Who will it be?
Gabriel makes some suggestions: “How about another David or Moses? You could send one of the prophets—Isaiah or Jeremiah. There are lots of great prophets up here. What do you think, Lord?”
Then, without looking back at Gabriel, God says, “I am not going to send anyone. This time I am going myself!”
“… the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as 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 Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 16-17)
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 Barclay, William, Daily Study Series, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1. Westminster Press, 1956. p. 16
2 Wiesel, Elie, Night, Bantam Books, New York, 1982. pp. 61-62.