John 1:10-18—The Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us
Good morning, church, and merry Christmas, happy new year, even though this isn’t how I wanted to ring it in with an online service. God is good and faithful to us still, and please be in prayer for those who are sick. Thank you, sincerely, everyone who allowed me to take a week off, to my friend Ben for preaching, and for the Shipp family and others who bore so much of the load of the service.
As we keep an eye on the church calendar throughout the year, this time of Christmastide is meant to be a time of celebration of Christ dwelling with us, Immanuel. Twelve days of celebration of the birth of Christ, ending in Epiphany, or twelfth night, which aside from being a good play and the start of king cake and festival season here in New Orleans, is a celebration in the church of the wise men visiting Jesus, a reminder that anyone who searches for Jesus will find him, and find life in him.
I didn’t grow up with the church calendar, it was a later-in-life discovery for me when I was in seminary at Gordon-Conwell together with men and women from denominations of all sorts. I’m still very much discovering these things. Even this week, I learned something new, that the song “12 Days of Christmas” was created in England during a time when Catholicism was being suppressed there, and the song is a kind of underground nemonic for children to learn about Christianity and celebrate the lavish gifts of our Lord in times of hardship.
The “true love” giving gifts in the song is the Lord, and each gift he gives throughout the twelve days of Christmas corresponds to a gift of God to his church, such as the two turtle doves representing the New and Old testaments in harmony with one another, and the four calling birds representing the four gospel writers declaring the good news of Jesus to the world.
I grew up hearing the song thinking how lavish it would be to celebrate Christmas for twelve days in a row, not realizing, that we are meant to take this time to celebrate the gifts God gives to us lavishly and freely, out of his true love for us.
For me, the discovery of the church calendar has been a constant reminder that time is not something I can control, not something that’s even about me, but time is in the hand of our Lord: everything from the number of my days on this earth to the time until he comes again.
So merry Christmas, God is with us. Go with me, to the apostle John’s telling of the Christmas story in John, chapter 1, starting in v.10.
John’s gospel is the last gospel written of the four in the cannon, written by the apostle near the end of his life, and since John was very young when he knew Jesus, this gospel is written many years after the death of Jesus. The story of Jesus’s birth among his followers was largely known by that point, so John’s focus is less on the story surrounding the birth and more on the meaning of his birth—on who Christ is, and what it means that he would empty himself and be born an infant to live life among us.
Read with me, John 1:10-18. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God who chose to redeem the world rather than abandon it to sin; Christ, through whom we receive grace and truth; Holy Spirit, who bears that truth across the ages to us; show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
We could talk all year about what John is trying to communicate in these few words, and I know you know that’s true, because you did talk about John’s gospel for a year right before I got here. But I’m just going to talk about it today, and I want to start with a little three-word phrase that the apostle John knew, when he wrote it, would astound and probably offend basically anyone who read his gospel account. In English, it reads, “the word became flesh.” My first point for today is just that: the word became flesh and dwelt among us.
At the time when John first wrote the phrase, he was getting old, the other apostles having died for the most part, and new leadership had arisen in the church. And early on in the church people really struggled with the concept of the incarnation. They didn’t see how God, how divinity, could possibly have anything to do with humanness.
Most people at that time would have considered spiritual things and bodily things to be polar opposites. Spiritual things were pure and separate from the physical world. The human body was dirty and representative of everything that was wrong with the world. Spiritual people were those philosophers and orators who could comprehend high, hidden knowledge, who could refuse the desires and surpass the limitations of the body. To die, to most Romans, was to finally shed the body and pass into a spiritual afterlife.
But John, in his gospel written to the church he was leaving in new hands, reminds everyone that Christianity is not this way. We don’t believe in a separation of soul and body, and when we’re raised, we’re raised bodily from the grave to an afterlife, not in some far-away spiritual realm, but on a renewed and peaceful earth. John calls God “the word” in this passage, borrowing a phrase from Roman spirituality, and he writes “the word became flesh,” what in that time would have sounded like a contradiction, reminding the early church that Christians are people who believe in a God who dwelt in human flesh, with all of its weakness and messiness.
Still, today, we struggle to conceive of the word become flesh. We have a spiritual self that we put on like church clothes when we are doing something spiritual, and we have other selves that we change into when we get home or go out because our spiritual selves are a little uncomfortable, and God forbid they get stained or wrinkled. When people I meet find out I’m a pastor, they quickly hide anything in their life that’s messy or broken. We try to keep the spiritual as far separate from flesh as we can. We talk about our spiritual lives as though somehow our spiritual life is separate from our daily life; and spiritual health as separate from physical health, as if the two don’t coincide, as if our body and spirit are separate.
We haven’t let the spiritual side of things infiltrate our daily lives, our daily routines, the ways we eat or drink or have sex or spend money. We keep all of that separate. Spiritual and physical. We like them separate.
This separation bleeds over into our thinking about God, and therefore into the ways we interact with him. Many of us in the church tend to conceptualize Jesus as a far-away God, and we struggle with a God who came to live life with us, one who cares enough about us to weep with us or share a meal with us. You can hear it in the way people pray, the things we choose to tell God about, what we think he’ll be interested in.
We never speak to the Lord about the messiness of our daily lives, or of our sin, thinking God wouldn’t be interested in all the things we go through in this broken world, not remembering that God miraculously crossed into our world specifically in order to enter into the messiness and dullness of our daily lives, to redeem them. We don’t allow God’s view of us as people, or God’s view of our bodies, which he intricately crafted, to effect the ways we define ourselves or how we look at and treat our bodies or the bodies of those around us. In these ways we forget that we worship the word become flesh.
Either that, or we deny the divinity of Christ and focus only on his humanity. We say that he was a good man, a good teacher, maybe even a prophet, but we deny that he is Immanuel, God with us. But if Christ was not human, our humanness can’t be redeemed; and if he was not God, his death was just another death of a good man at the hands of the powerful, and we have no hope in Christ of our world changing.
I hope you’re able to say with confidence what John scandalously asserts here about the incarnation of Christ, that God became flesh and dwelt among us. The creator of the universe content to dwell in one of the smallest parts of it, to grow up in a family, live life among us, and even die to redeem us.
It’s still a scandalous statement today: that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. I wonder: if Christ were to dwell among us today, do you think we would respond differently than the Romans did so long ago? Would we recognize him today if he walked into our churches, or would we still not know him? If he came to his own people today, would we receive him, or would there still be no room in our homes or at the inn for the poor family and their wedlock child? Be honest. The word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is still something we struggle to believe.
But I hope you do believe what John writes. The word made flesh, God with us. Believe it, not because it’s convenient, or easy, or inoffensive, or tolerant, but merely because it’s true. God cares about your daily life, and wants to spend time with you. He’s with you through pain and when you’re lost to sin. He wants you to pray when you’re mad at him, or to admit to him that you don’t really believe anymore. He wants to hear about your pet dying, that thing your kid did, the thing that happened at work, and the fight you had with your friend because he is God with us in this life. He cares about the small things enough to become small himself and live among us.
And yet, he’s still God, strong enough to restore and redeem us. Powerful enough to bring peace to the earth, to bring justice where now there’s only wrong. God became flesh and dwelt among us.
And my second point is this: Grace and truth are given through Christ. Grace and truth are given through Christ.
One of the things Anne-Elise and I have talked about over and over again in parenting is just the strange nature of giving in the parent-child relationship, particularly how one-sided the giving in the parent-child relationships is. Take household responsibilities for example. We started this year giving AJ an allowance, but we decided not to connect it in any way with chores, and we’ve talked about chores more as what you do when you’re a part of a family, you help take care of the family, and as a part of the family, he receives a portion of the money our family receives, because he is our son.
A few months ago, AJ was playing, I was home from work and making dinner, and Anne-Elise was taking a moment, probably about 15 minutes, to herself after caring for AJ all day, which allowed me to go to work. I asked him to take out the trash. He did it, and when he got back inside, he went back to playing, but I asked him to put a new trash bag in the can; and he sighed. I asked him if something was wrong, and he answered me honestly: “I’m just sad because I feel like I have to do a lot more for our family than momma does.”
I know this is the wrong response, and I’m not trying to say that this was in any way appropriate, but I burst out laughing at him, and then we had a conversation about everything momma does for our family. Anne-Elise and I were talking about it later, about how much we give to him and do for him that he doesn’t even notice, and I thought this was beautiful: Anne-Elise said, “I’m glad that he’s able to take advantage of me so much. I don’t want him as a child to feel the weight of what I’m doing for him. There will be time for that when he’s older, but for now, I want him to play and grow and let us carry the weight of the world.”
There’s no possibility that I’m going to be able to communicate to you the weight and significance of the grace and truth given to us through the incarnation of the Son, God with us. I can’t describe to you what it cost for Christ to leave the throne of heaven, empty himself, and become man, a servant. There are not words for me to tell you just how much Christ has done for you in taking on flesh, but one day, when we’re face to face with him, we’ll know the fullness of this act of incarnation. We wouldn’t even be able to bear the weight of the glory of our God were he to reveal himself fully to us.
For now, even the wisest of us are children in our understanding of the value of what God has given in the incarnation. We’re asked merely to participate in the giving of grace and truth here on earth, and we sigh, like my son, and think we’ve been asked too much, when the reality is we’ve been adopted into the family of God, called to be sons and daughters.
So when I say grace and truth are given to you through Christ, I know it falls short of the glorious reality of Christmas, of the incarnation and life of Jesus Christ. But I’m glad to spend the rest of my life saying it. Grace and truth are yours through Christ, if you choose to follow after him. You’ll be called a son or daughter of God and receive a divine inheritance. This is freely given to you in Christ. Merry Christmas.
God has given us grace in Christ. Our true love gave us the two turtledoves, the old and the new testament, to convict us and lead us to grace in Christ. The law reveals the sin and brokenness in the world, and the gospel grants us grace to forgive us our sins and welcome us into the kingdom and the redemption of this world.
And God has given us truth in Christ, this miraculous ability to know God truly as he is truly revealed in Christ, truth that like Christ himself is so often rejected from the places you would most expect to find it, and so it dwells in mangers, and in small towns, and in people who hardly seem dignified enough to be called sons and daughters of God. Even in you and me.
And in speaking of the grace and truth of God in Christ, I want to close by dwelling on the idea of fullness. John writes, v.14, that Christ is full of grace and truth, and in v.16, from this fullness we have received grace upon grace.
We worship a God who is completely full of grace and truth, and in his incarnation, he brought both grace and truth with him. He was so full of grace and truth, that as he lived and moved among us, grace and truth came flowing out of him, unable to be contained, filling even the people around him. He offered them, come and drink, and never be thirsty again. As Paul writes, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him.”
So while I can’t tell you the whole of what Christ has done for you, just like I can’t tell AJ the whole of what his mother has done for him, I can tell you the result of knowing him, of being near him; it’s fullness, full of grace and truth together. It overflows in him.
My invitation today is an invitation to fullness, to being filled with grace and truth. May God fill us with grace and truth and dwell among us.