This is the second version of my sermon, The Word Became Flesh, preached at KBCF Lighthouse Church on December 12, 2010. Text is from John 1.
I knew, of course, that Brother Jun was going to be introducing me to you, because Pastor Alvin asked for a that biographical sketch of myself, highlighting my education and current work.
But as I was writing this sermon, I had a very overwhelming sense that I really ought to contextualize myself to you a little further… Or that is, introduce myself a little more to you so that you might understand just a little better what exactly I am preaching about and why I am preaching about it. Especially since this, I hope, is only the first of at least a few sermons that I will have the chance to share with you.
I am not sure how much it value it will be, I am treating this sermon more like how we do it in my church during communion Sunday, that is more like a short devotional leading into to communion. So no worries, I won’t be speaking for 40-45 minutes like I’ve been told Pastor Alvin does.
Anyway, I very much identify myself with what you might call a “new breed” of Ministers that is emerging, ready to tackle the new kind of challenges that this culture is presenting to us today. There are many different ways to describe this challenge – but possibly, the most popular term that you might be familiar with is “Post Modernism”. There many things that characterizes this new movement, or era, or whatever you might like to call it, but what is most relevant to us, is that it is characterized, in part, by a deep scepticism about Religious Faith in general, and in particular, because it is so prevalent in the Western World, the Christian Religious Tradition.
There are a few things you need to know about this new breed of ministers, and as such, that you need to know about me. First of all, as you can see, I am preaching off of my iPad. Yes, we new ministers have very much embraced technology and use it widely in our ministries. We have Facebook profiles, we tweet, and we own iPhones and Blackberries. In fact, I am pretty sure that at least 80 percent of the communication I have with the people in the ministries I am involved in at Morningstar is through email, or facebook… while the last 20 is through the phone.
Secondly, we tend to be much more open to engaging the culture around us… At the very least, this often means that we are less “dressy” in church, and we often use band instruments like electric guitars, and drums in our worship.
But even further than that, we even go to the point of using some of the products of this culture in our ministries. I know that a popular trend nowadays is for preachers to take secular movie clips and songs and using these in their preaching and teaching. I don’t plan to do it today, but it is something that, if done correctly – that is, as a way to open up dialogue about the gospel to a people that might be otherwise closed to it – is actually quite biblical.
In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul does something a little unusual to open up a dialogue with the men of Athens. It’s one of my all-time favourite passages in the Bible – Paul is walking around Athens, being praised for the “new philosophy” that he is teaching.
Then starting in verse 22, what you might know as the “Sermon on Mars Hill”, Paul stops and begins to talk to the people around him. He says to them, “Hey you guys are pretty religious. Great! You even worship this idol to labelled ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’. Man you must really take this seriously. But you know what, I know this god that you don’t know, and I want to tell you about him. His name’s Jesus!”
I’m paraphrasing of course… But it’s quite incredible. Paul took a literal idol, made of wood, or stone, or whatever, and used it as a launching point for the Gospel! Yes we new ministers are very much in the world – but of course, not of the world.
As thirdly, despite this increased engagement with secular culture, we are quite deeply orthodox in our theology. This usually means being much more reformed in theology – or “Calvinist” as some call it: something that makes us especially sensitive in our defence of the authenticity, authority, and inspiration of the Bible.
With that then, let’s begin.
There is this thing called, History… that many people know, study, and talk about. But I’m not sure they really fully grasp it. Often, this is simply because most people’s idea of what history is, is quite limited. Ask people in the street about a date in “history” that they think is significant, and I think you would be hard pressed to get an answer that is more than a hundred or two years ago.
A Filipino, for example, would probably give a date like June 12, 1898…. That is when Emilio Aguinaldo declared independence from the Spanish. Or maybe February 25, 1986 … when Cory Aquino was inaugurated as President after the EDSA “People Power” Revolution.
Canadians on the other hand might consider a date like July 1, 1867, which is of course the day of Confederation. Or maybe May 2, 1967… which was the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won a Stanley Cup.. Interestingly, the Maple Leaf flag only became our national flag in 1965, English and French were both declared as Canada’s official languages in 1969, and the Constitution Act was only passed and received Royal Ascent by the Queen in April 1982.
Yes, people tend not to look too far back when we talk about history.
Now I’m gonna confess right now that I was the same way. Despite being a student of history, myself. Though actually, I’m not the only one… at my school, University of Toronto, History students are actually forced to take at least one “Pre-Modern” course. I think because most students focus too much on the past 2 or 3 hundred years, forgetting the thousands more that occurred before.
Things changed for me though around May of last year when I decided to get a membership at the Royal Ontario Museum. I had only been in the ROM once or twice before with my parents when we were new to Canada – like 12 or 13 years ago. And so I didn’t really remember much about it.
But last year, I was really excited to get my membership because of two things – first of all, I had just started at Toronto Baptist Seminary, and one of the first classes I took was Biblical Hebrew, and second, it just so happened that the Dead Sea Scrolls – which are some of the oldest copies of the Old Testament – were coming to the ROM for as an exhibit. So yeah, I was studying really hard, hoping that I would be able to read some of these old Hebrew scrolls that were going on display.
Throughout the summer, I made it a habit to visit the ROM twice a week – Mondays and Thursdays, which the days my Hebrew class met. I would go through an entire exhibit at a time – and I wouldn’t just wander around either. I would actually read the little cards that told me what I was looking at.
And I remember that what really struck me about the items I was looking at was, amazingly, how old they were. The first exhibit I went through, for example, was the Egyptian exhibit, and I remember looking at old clay pots, jewellery and even mummies that were from 1000BC. And I was thinking, man! That was right around the time when David was King over Israel!
Then, after the Egyptian Exhibit, I went through the Greek exhibit, then Mesopotamia, which is what they used to call the Middle East… And after a few weeks of looking at all these old artefacts, I have to tell you, History started to really expand for me.
After a few weeks of being just inches away (behind a looking glass of course) from items that were 2, 3 and even 4 thousand years old, I didn’t think of history anymore as just stuff that happened a hundred years ago. I was thinking about thousands of years ago. As in, the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joseph, Moses, Joshua, the Judges, King Saul, King David, King Solomon.. I was thinking about the Babylonian exile and prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the remnant returning to Israel and their prophets like Haggai, and of course… I was thinking about Jesus, his disciples, and the early Christians.
These are names that we hear about all the time of course. We read about them in the Bible – at least I hope we do. These are people that we know well and that we know a lot about. But when you think about it, have they ever actually been real to you?
I mean, as real as I am to you? As real as that chair that you’re sitting on? It is especially unfortunate for us Christians not to think this deeply about history, because history – or that is, God’s engagement with history – played such a important in the salvation plan that he had set in motion for us.
Think about it. God is eternal. We all agree about that right? God never ends. God, never had a beginning. He always was, he always is, and he always will be.
Now contrast that with history, which has a beginning, a middle, and an end… And us, human beings of course, who are very much a part of history, because we live in it. We were made for it, in fact.
If you really think about it, the contrast between these two concepts is actually mind boggling. It actually seems incompatible. But amazingly, the interaction with these two things – between history and eternity – is what our passage is talking about today. I really hope it will actually help us to understand the significance of God’s salvation plan, and more specifically, the part of that plan which we will be celebrating in a few weeks time. The birth of Jesus Christ.
What you will probably notice right away about John 1 is how different it is from the way the other Gospels begin. Each of the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, begin essentially like a human story. Kind of like a biography. Matthew starts with the Genealogy of Jesus. Mark begins with … “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. While Luke actually says that that he is writing an … “orderly account” … of what happened in Jesus life.
It is because of this difference that I think John 1 is not often highlighted during Christmas time. Or that is, it’s not as well highlighted as the other Gospels. My church, next week, is putting on a Christmas production, which for the first time I think, is an actual retelling of the Christmas story.
We’re quite familiar with it of course. An angel announces to Mary that she will become pregnant with the Messiah. Who is shamed because she is betrothed to Joseph. Joseph, as an honourable man decides to break this betrothal quietly, but is also visited by an angel and as a result takes Mary as his wife anyway.
A decree then comes down from the Caesar Augustus, commanding everyone in the Roman empire to register in the city of their birth.
This forces Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. There, they struggle to find a place to stay, and end up at a stable where Mary gives birth to Jesus.
During this time, of course, angels also appeared to Shepherds to declare this good news, and Magi – or Wise Men from the east follow a star to Nazareth, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This part of the Christmas story is, of course important, and in this sermon, I don’t mean to diminish it in any way.
This nativity story, which is essentially an amalgamation of Matthew and Luke’s account, serve a purpose, of course, and that is to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah.
But John, in contrast to this… and I hope you picked this up a little while reading… begins a little differently. He begins kind of like Genesis… “In the Beginning”. In fact if you were a Jew living in first century Palestine listening to a reading of John’s Gospel, hearing these opening lines, you definitely would have been thinking Genesis right away.
Except instead of hearing “God created the heavens and the earth”, you heard… “was the Word. And the word was with God. And the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”
But of course, you would have been thinking about those first few lines in Genesis right?
So you would have been thinking about creation. But just in case you missed all that, John makes it perfectly clear just how he wants to start his account of the good news about Jesus the Messiah.
He does not want to start at the beginning of his earthly life… No, not even with the prophesies about him… He wants to start at the beginning of History itself! “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
At this point, John pauses for a second to talk about John the Baptist. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light”
This interlude, by the way confuses people. Because there is a little bit of a disagreement right now about who actually wrote most of these early verses in John…
That’s because this text actually has a structure in the Greek that we lose in the translation to English. I won’t get in to that right now.
But just to give an example of this structure, John 1:1, if translated exactly word for word from the Greek would actually read like this…
“In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And God was the Word.”
You notice the difference there? The Greek structure actually takes the last thought of a sentence, and uses it to begin the major thought in the next sentence. In the beginning was the WORD. And the WORD was with GOD. And GOD was the WORD.
Anyway, the structure of this verse, as well as the verses leading up to the John the Baptist is very poetic, and it makes people think that the Apostle John used a poem that someone else composed, a poem that early Christians probably recited often, and kind of snuck in these little bits about John the Baptist (there’s another one in John 1:15) to make it more narrative-like.
This isn’t something that should alarm us if it’s true. Paul does it too, for example in Colossians 1:15-20… where he includes in his letter what some scholars believe is a quotation from an early Christian hymn.
I personally believe that John composed this poem himself… it has something to do with the parallels he draws with Genesis, and how Genesis 1 itself is structured.
But anyway, it’s not really all that important because I think what we need to see here is that John specifically structured this text with these narrative parts to remind us that, well, still is writing a narrative. It’s the story of Jesus! Or you might say, it’s the historical account about Jesus.
Anyway, after this little narrative portion, he continues the poetry, returning to the themes of life, light and darkness – themes, by the way that continue all throughout the Gospel – and in doing so, also gives a little bit of an over view of the entire gospel story.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own and his own people did not did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Finally, then, he gets to verse 14… Yet another one of my favourite verses in the Bible.., In fact I think it’s one of the most important verse of the Bible…
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth”.
Based on what I have said already about history and God’s engagement with history, I hope it is already clear why I love this verse so much.
I love it because of the two incredibly contrasting – yet wonderfully complimenting – truths about God that John portrays here… The God of eternity, stepped into history and dwelt among us!
Do you see the contrast? Eternity… no time at all. No beginning. No end. And… well… History.
Folks, “the Word became flesh” is the greatest event in history! Yes, the nativity is about fulfillment of prophecy. Yes that’s important. But God stepping out of eternity and into history set the nativity in motion..
Even more amazing is the incredible act of self denial that this event represents. In Philippians 2:6, the Apostle Paul explains that though Jesus was “in the form of God”, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”.
And I submit to you that John 1:14 is where that began. Jesus is the Word that became flesh. Again, the God of eternity, who stepped in to our history.
One thing that I absolutely love about the way my church handles our Christmas productions, is that it’s not all about Christmas. I mean obviously, Christmas is the theme that we use to tell a story.
But that story never ends with just the nativity. Christmas isn’t just about wise men, or angels or stables, or a baby in a manger. Though these are important parts of it of course.
This year, we inserted a song that isn’t originally a part of the production as we purchased it. The song is called “Glorious Day”, and it’s a song that we actually originally introduced to our church last Easter.
That’s because the story of Christmas doesn’t end at the nativity, but continues on to the cross.
It is appropriate, after this – what I’m sure is only the first Christmas sermon that you’ll hear in the coming weeks, that we turn to the Lord’s table. An ordinance instituted by Jesus Christ, the Word of God, on the night that he was betrayed.
The Lord’s Supper is not limited to members. I’m not sure if there are any visitors among us today. But it is open to all those who are professing believers in Jesus Christ. It is meant as a reflection and reminder of His death, burial, and resurrection.
As we enter this Christmas season, may we be reminded that ultimately, the Christmas story is a story about sacrifice. It’s a sacrifice from beginning to end: starting with the sacrifice of the God of eternity who stepped in to history, leading to the sinless God who sacrificed his life at the cross for our sins.