The Word Made Flesh
The Word Became Flesh
December 17, 2017
I was listening to a radio documentary not long ago. It was the story of a physician in Africa. On the best of days, his life was a huge challenge because there were so few doctors in his country. To be a physician was to be constantly overwhelmed with the aches and pains and diseases of masses of people. On his worst day, ebola arrived.
In the face of ebola, perhaps the world’s most frightening infectious disease, he kept working and caring. He donned one of the few hazmat suits that was available. Despite his best efforts, he watched people die. Despite his best efforts at maintaining proper procedures, he noticed his own rising fever, the aches and the pains. He realized that he was rapidly moving from being the only physician in the area to being one of hundreds of patients.
Many people tried to care for him. Medical colleagues had him transferred into their care. In several cases, those colleagues died caring for him. Nothing seemed to help. However, against all the odds, he was still alive. Eventually, he was sent back home, not because he was better but mostly for comfort.
He tells the story of arriving home and being in his own bedroom and how comforted he felt, even as he faded into another intense fever. As he moved in and out of consciousness, he could hear that the people in his village had surrounded his home and were chanting and praying for his health. However, what stuck with him was the vision of who was caring for him. There was a person in the room, wiping his brow with a cool cloth and giving him sips of water. That person didn’t have a hazmat suit. Instead, they had taped together garbage bags and created a makeshift suit of their own. Literally, he would only have snippets of consciousness, flashes of this care. Yet, eventually, he realized, the person in that makeshift suit was his mother.
The doctor survived! His mother—amazingly—survived, as well. Her care, her love, her willingness on the basis of that love to put herself at the greatest possible risk to face something that she could not control—these things changed him. She loved him more than she loved herself. She would have done anything for him. In the presence of ebola, she sang to him and cared for him and called him back to life.
The very first story that the Bible tells us is of a God who calls the whole world and every creature to life. God says, “Let there be light…” and there is day and there is night. God separates the waters from the dry lands. God creates the creatures of the sea and the creatures of the land and the creatures of the air. God creates human beings. God says the word, “Let there be…” and it happens. And, the writer reminds us, every part of God’s creation is good. God’s word is the creative force that brings order out of chaos.
In the second creation story—the story of Adam and Eve— we have an account of how the chaos got back in—namely, that God made us so free that we have the capacity to make bad choices and break the world and ourselves. Adam and Eve eat from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”—they think they know better—and they fall from paradise.
Neither of these stories—for me—is a description of events that we could have videotaped. Yet, both are impeccably true statements about the nature of the world and the nature of human beings. At their core, they speak to the central paradox of living in this world. On the one hand, everywhere we look we can see evidence of God’s handiwork. Watch the hawk flying in the early winter sky. Just take in the silent beauty of the snow flakes. Feel the warmth of a good fire on that cold day. Life can be amazing. Life can also be devastatingly broken. People sometimes do terribly destructive things—to the earth, to each other, to themselves. Cancer and Parkinson’s disease and ebola happen and all we can do is love who we love and try to call them back to life.
The choice that we face is whether to participate in that kind of world. If I am going to be a loving, compassionate person in this paradox of a world, then I am going to suffer. Sooner or later, bad things will happen to the people I love and to me. The doctor was not immune to ebola. Either are we. Sooner or later, my own brokenness will be exposed. (The doctor had colleagues—good friends—who literally ran away from him when they realized he had the disease.) Do I face the truth about how incredibly amazing and terribly awful life, and the people around me and I can be and love anyway? Do I tape up a few garbage bags and grab a wet washcloth and care anyway?
The Gospel of John answers this question not by telling us what to do but by telling us what God did. In the beginning, God said the word and everything came into being and everything was good. In John’s words, “In the beginning was the Word…” That’s all he needed to say to an audience who was steeped in what we call the Old Testament. They got the reference. That God—the one who started time, itself—one day, instead of saying the Word, the Word became flesh.
Now, you have to stop and take in just how mind blowing this statement is. This is the truth that everyone tries to tame or avoid. This is the truth that should make our brains hurt because we are simply not going to think our way into it and have it make sense. One day, God saw what a mess the world was and how much God’s children were suffering and God did the most amazing thing: God became one of us; the eternal became particular.
Of course, that is far too philosophical of a statement. What we are talking about is not theoretical or abstract. When the mother saw the suffering of her son as he wrestled ebola, her love was so overwhelming that she had no choice but to enter that room. There was no other place to be—not when you love that much. We are either going to survive this together or we are going to die together but this suffering will not separate us from one another. When you are a parent, you are only as happy as your saddest child. When you are a parent, you will do anything—whatever it takes—to love your child and call them back into life.
That’s the thing for the Gospel of John: God is a loving parent. When the Word becomes flesh it is not because God did the math and liked the odds. When the Word becomes flesh it is not a calculated act at all. Rather, it is the out of our minds, crazy, loving act of a parent whose child is suffering. In John’s words later, “God so loves the world…” God so loves the world that God becomes one of us (Emmanuel!). God so loves the world that God becomes helpless (that tiny baby.) God so loves the world that God brings light into the darkness, a light that we can follow through the darkness, a light that can lead us to love—which, of course, is the only hope that is left for us at all.
It is as if God looks at us and thinks, “Well…I’ve tried everything I can think of. I’ve created the world. I’ve given you all good hearts. I’ve offered rules to live by and prophets to listen to. Even when I knew it wasn’t a good idea, I gave you kings because you wanted them so much. I gave you a temple which you fooled yourselves into thinking was something I wanted. I know that all you ever wanted was to be like everyone else. I watched you succeed and be broken just like everyone else. However, you were still my children and I still loved you. Still, though, nothing seemed to call you back to the light, back to the life, back to love…”
So, what happens, from John’s point of view is that the Word becomes flesh—God becomes a child—which sounds like all the other Christmas stories, just missing the shepherds and the wise men and the angels and all the other things we love. Here’s the thing though, what John tells us from the start is not just that the Word became flesh—that God became a child. What John tells us is that we are not just invited to stand there and stare at the child. We are in fact invited to become a child ourselves: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” The only thing that might be more amazing than God becoming a person is the possibility that we might yet—against all the odds—become whole persons, ourselves. In a different translation of the verse that I just read, “But whoever believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, he made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.”
For as complicated of a philosophical statement as John offers, he is really speaking a nitty-gritty truth. What we all know is that we fail every day to be the self who God created us to be. Some days we take a step in the right direction. Some days, we walk wildly away from our calling, hurting ourselves and hurting those we love. We try to run from this truth or deny it or at least hide it from others. What John is saying to us is that if we look very carefully, there is a light shining in our darkness. If we listen very carefully, there is a calling. If we are willing to open ourselves to the presence of the God who knows—who knows who we really are; who knows how this world really works, who knows how wonderful and how broken this life can be, all at the same time—that God will transform us. Things that used to matter way too much won’t matter so much any more. Things that we took for granted will never be taken for granted again. Our lives will include the things that we felt as children—unbridled joy, unflinching love, overwhelming gratitude. We will be made new.
God is the loving parent, calling each of us back to life. The Word has become flesh…