The Word in the Words, a Sermon by Jay Phelan
A Sermon by Jay Phelan, Intern for Holy Orders, on December 26th, 2021 for Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church Saint Paul, MN
Author Annie Dillard in perhaps her most famous essay tells the story of a man named Larry living on one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington. According to Dillard, Larry was attempting to teach a stone to talk. Larry’s futile efforts, she suggests, are the result of the silences we moderns live with. There was a time when the world was full of voices. Gods and goddesses spoke from sacred caves and through shamans and prophets, prophetesses and crones. The world was full of holiness both benign and terrifying. There were places, called “thin places” by the Irish, where the border between this world and the next was permeable, where saints and angels passed from one to the next. But now, Dillard writes, “the whole world seems not-holy. We have drained the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and snuffed it in the high places and along the banks of the sacred streams. We are a people who have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism.” We have, in other words, gone from seeing the divine everywhere to seeing the divine nowhere.
We have, in the process, drained the world of mystery and, as a consequence, drained it of hope. We have silenced transcendent voices and are left with the empty echoes of our own voices. In our sophistication we have sneered at the primitives who found God under every bush only to realize that God’s absence is infinitely worse than God’s presence. “It is difficult,” Dillard concludes, “to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave . . .. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind use to cry, and the hills should forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of the earth, and living things say very little to very few. . .. What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain? . . . What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?”
In the book of Exodus God addresses the people of Israel from Mount Sinai, giving them the Ten Commandments. And it is quite a show. The mountain shakes and flames and smokes and the people are terrified. After it is over, they go to Moses and suggest that the next time God has something to say he sound say it to Moses and let Moses relay the message. Confronting God’s glory was just too much for them. Moses as an intermediary would work just fine. Moses remonstrates with them, tells them not to be afraid. But they are adamant. So, in the future, Moses alone will enter the cloud and darkness to speak with God in the light. And the Jews believe that as time passed God spoke less and less to fewer and fewer prophets and sages until the final prophet, Malachi. After that God only spoke indirectly and obscurely through what they called a bath kol, a kind of ambiguous divine echo.
Perhaps this is what is so startling about John 1. In the beginning, John writes, was the Word. The Word. Words are the way we make sense out of our inner life and experiences. How do you feel? We ask. What was it like? We wonder? What do you think? We inquire. In each case we are looking for words, or their equivalent. It could be spoken words, written words, are American sign language, but without words we can find ourselves frustrated by our inability to communicate, answer questions, express ourselves. And, as Dillard has suggested, our modern society has in effect silenced God and now appears desperate to get God or someone, anyone, to speak again, even if it is from Mt. Sinai with fire, flame, and wind.
John suggests that the Word, God’s Word, the expression of God’s mind and purpose was there from the beginning, was always there, with God, alongside God, working in a kind of partnership in the creation of the world. The Word is the agent of creation, the means by which God made the world. Life dispelling death; light dispelling darkness, order dispelling chaos: all of it is from the Word. Both Jews and Greeks would have gotten this. For the Jews this was the role of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. For the Greeks it was the word of the Stoics, the organizing principle of the world, the world’s rational principle. Word for both Greeks and Jews was the tool in God’s hand, a communication of God’s purpose.
So far so good. But then John says something genuinely startling: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” For John the Word is no longer the remote and hidden instrument of God’s work of creation, or the Stoic’s organizing principle of the world, but flesh and blood. Incarnate. For John, and for Christians, this Word spoken out loud by God, was spoken into the world in Jesus of Nazareth. For Christians Jesus is God’s way of breaking God’s silence. And he breaks that silence not by shouting from a mountain, or working through a prophet, or even through the slight whisper heard by Elijah, but by a living, breathing, speaking, loving human being. As Hebrews puts it, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son . . . He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”
Now this is all well and good. But what does it mean? For one thing it means we need to start listening. Eugene Peterson once said that he thought his job as a pastor was to get people to pay attention to God. For far too many Christians the only thing that was important about Jesus was that he was born and that he died—and perhaps they throw in the resurrection for good measure. But for the Gospel writers’ people were not simply called to believe in Jesus but to follow him. And by following him we take up his words as our own words. And Jesus, John tells us was “full of grace and truth.” Those words suggest on the one hand an enduring love and on the other a commitment to God’s justice. And this is what we are called to. It is not easy. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, the Christian faith had not been tried and found wanting, but it had been found difficult and left untried.
In following Jesus, we hear his words and take them up as our own. We become partners with God in speaking those words—words of reconciliation and hope, words of generosity and compassion, words of warning and judgment. God’s Word became one of us so that God’s word could live in us, so that the world will no longer be silent, but full of light and love. Paul speaks of us as being “in Christ”, united with Christ. We are now the Word made flesh. We make present the love of God, the hope for justice, and joy of being human, being heard, of being addressed and addressing.
The Word comes to us out of silence on this Christmas morning and bids us hear and speak aloud. The Word comes to us in the darkness and bids us step into the light. The Word comes to us in mystery and bids us reveal all. The Word comes to us enfleshed, tactile, real, and bids leave behind our pale shadows of fear and step into the fullness of our humanity, following Jesus on the way. Thanks be to God.