I hope you all had a merry Christmas. In the liturgical calendar, today is simply called the “first Sunday after Christmas” (which is obvious enough), but I think of this week between Christmas and New Years as the best week of the year. There’s something about it that feels like stolen time. Emailing is generally frowned upon. This is a time to spend with your family and check out your presents. It’s a time to reflect, to read all the lists: Best Album of the Year, Best Book, Best Movie (which I think is a toss up between the Mr. Rogers movie and Leave No Trace, although I still haven’t seen The Incredibles II or Mission Impossible: Fallout). We also look ahead to the coming year. This week is what we call a liminal phase in the calendar between the past year and the year to come. During this week, we are especially aware of time.
The scripture from the Gospel of John that we just read takes us all the way back to the beginning. Not just January 1, 2018, but the beginning of time. In starting out his gospel with “In the beginning” John is intentionally harkening back to Genesis when God brings forth creation. First, there’s nothing. And then God speaks. From that point on and throughout all of scripture, we see that when God speaks things happen.
In ancient times, the Jews believed that words held a tremendous amount of power; unsafe when handled wrongly, unpredictable even when handled rightly. They believed that there was something alive about words that revealed a subordinate reality that could not be undone once spoken. A professor of mine once said, “Words illuminate the mind and intoxicate emotion. The Creator designed it that way.”
Such is the case when God speaks. The Book of Hebrews says that the Word of God “is living and active.” God’s Word doesn’t just describe things. It does things. Words are the very tools He uses to bring forth His plans. When there is nothing and God wants there to be light he says, “Let there be light” or, when Jesus shows up at the bedside of a girl who has died and he wants to raise her, he says, “Little girl, get up!” and she does; or when his friend is dead and lying in his tomb and Jesus wants to bring him back to life, he says, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man comes out. Time and again, God speaks and things happen. Isaiah 55 says “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there, but water the earth, making bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.” In other words, God’s Word is effective. A friend of mine once said, “Unlike human words which are full of hot air, God’s words are hot air.”
We have a tendency to try to diminish the power of words. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Really? Anyone who said that as a kid is hopefully in therapy right now. We’ll often describe something as “beyond words.” There’s also the classic quote in Christian circles: “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” That’s a useful saying for people who tend to talk too much, but I think it overlooks the essential power of words. Of course, I was an English major so clearly I have an angle for this sermon, but hear me out.
Words have the power to give something meaning. Henry David Thoreau once said, “With a knowledge of the name comes a distincter recognition and knowledge of the thing.” A more catchy saying is “Identification is appreciation” which is a useful expression in the birding world. Some of you know that Maddy and I like to go birding around Charlottesville, mostly at Ivy Creek Natural Area where, because of the reservoir, you see all sorts of birds – everything from black capped chickadees and barred owls to bald eagles and buffleheads. Part of the joy of birding, by the way, is in the names themselves – “bufflehead” sounds like a British insult (“You bufflehead!”).
But, just like any hobby, the more you get to know it, the more you learn its language, the more meaning it has. The author Simon Barnes writes in his book How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, “I am a good enough birdwatcher or at least an experienced enough birdwatcher to see the blue flash (plunging or shimmering) and be able to put a name to that flash. Kingfisher! I say. And mine is the heart that leaps.” Words give something a name and make it distinctly meaningful – be that a bird, an experience or an emotion.
The poet, Liesle Muller, once wrote about how, in the wake of her mother’s death, simply being outside in nature is not what actually brought her comfort. Instead, language is what helped her grieve. She writes:
When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.
It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the day lilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.
I sat on a gray stone bench
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
Words, you see, are what freed Liesle Mueller to express her grief. Words made her feel known. You may have felt similarly when someone was able to put into words what you had only felt as an emotion, but, once it was given a name – envy, hurt, anxiety – you may have felt freed from it. So words are, in fact, necessary. They bring light to where there was once darkness.
The Gospel of John says God’s Word was the “light of all people,” that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”
Because of Jesus Christ, God’s Word not an abstract idea or a worldview – it’s not just talk – but the Word made flesh. A man. A man who speaks your language. A man who knows you. A man who has good news to share specifically for you. Our theologian friend Fleming Rutledge says, “The story of salvation is not ‘beyond words.’ The New Testament is from beginning to end a living witness to the apostolic preaching.” The story of our salvation, you see, is the story of Jesus Christ. His birth, his life, his death and resurrection – that is the story of our salvation.
The great advent hymn “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” proclaims, “For the glory of the Lord now over earth is shed abroad; and all flesh shall see the token that the word is never broken.” You see, throughout scripture God makes a promise to redeem His people, to right what has been wronged. And in order for His promise to remain unbroken, Jesus Christ was broken on the cross for your sake. By being broken for you, God’s promise cannot and will not ever break.
Because when God speaks things happen. When God says in the book of Isaiah, “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (43:25), that becomes a reality. Without you doing anything, here is something stronger than your sins. Later in this same gospel, Jesus will say, “And when I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.” When he was lifted on the cross, that’s exactly what happened. The world which had rejected him was drawn to him.
I’ll end with a story from a book about Martin Luther King Jr. called Bearing The Cross by David Garrow. At the age of 26, after leading the Montgomery bus boycott, King was on his way to national celebrity status, but, after a series of telephone death threats, his courage and resolve had weakened. One night he sat at his kitchen table. He thought to himself, that, despite his father having been a minister, and despite having several degrees in religion from seminary and graduate school, he felt like he had no sustaining faith. He then heard an “inner voice” that he identified as the voice of Jesus. King says, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave to me, never to leave me alone.” It was a transforming moment for King, one that changed his life, one that he would constantly think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great.
God’s Word is not just talk. It is a man. A man who was not only there in the beginning but is with you now – a man who knows you, who has something to say to you – a word of comfort that you are not alone, that God is with us; that, although the world rejected him, he has drawn the world back to Him. God keeps His word. There’s nothing you can do to break it. As the book of Isaiah says, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” Amen.