The Word became flesh: A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 4 February 2024- 10:30
A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Colossians: 1: 15-20 and John 1: 1-14
It’s often said that we live in a visual culture. In our Western hierarchy of the senses, sight is often placed above sound. We have an expression, “seeing is believing,” meaning that you need to see something in order to believe that it’s true or that it exists. Living in a culture that’s so saturated with images and books, it’s extremely hard for us to imagine ourselves back into an oral culture, where there were no printed words or virtual media, and where all beliefs, values and facts were communicated face-to-face, stored only in human memory.
In the world in which both of today’s readings were originally experienced, cultures were much more oral than ours is today. Both readings are hymns, originally designed not just as written texts but to be heard and read aloud, possibly even sung, as part of worship.
In these cultures, hearing was regarded as powerful. The theologian John Calvin wrote that, in the bible, the phrase “to hear” is virtually synonymous with “to believe”- very different from our “seeing is believing.” At the start of creation, God makes the universe by speaking. “Then God said, “Let there be light,”; and there was light” we read at the start of Genesis. Although there are many visual images of scenes from John’s Gospel in early Christian art, in catacombs and on friezes on sarcophaguses or coffins, these did not include images of today’s passage- which is about God and Jesus as the full and complete self-expression of who God is. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that God himself was portrayed visually: before then, it’s been argued, he was conceived as sound or vibration.
“In the beginning was the Word.” In our literate culture, we have, perhaps, lost something of the original daring- and power- of these words. In literate societies, we tend to treat written words as labels attached to objects; when words are written, they tend to become part of the visual world, losing the dynamism that is so characteristic of the auditory and spoken world. But what these words describe is not a thing so much as an event: a dramatic event that changed the world. God, the invisible, omnipotent, most high God, was coming into the world.
The theologian John Calvin, who I mentioned already, translated the word “logos” not as “word,” as we have it here, but as “Speech”- “In the beginning was the Speech, and the Speech was with God, and the Speech was God.” This Speech refers to God speaking the world into being in Genesis. It refers to the words spoken by the prophets, or by divine Wisdom, or the word of life spoken in the psalms. It refers also to the Christian good news, the Gospel message as preached by the apostles.
In Mark’s Gospel, which we will be hearing more of this year, we will see how Jesus’ teachings and actions, and his death and resurrection, reveal his message, his words or speech, to be inseparable from his being. John’s prologue, or hymn, even more, combined with “I am” sayings that come later, and the narrative of Jesus’ teaching, signs, death and resurrection, insists on Jesus’ identity as the “word” or “speech” of God- God’s full self-expression. This Gospel, in a very deep and philosophical way, more than any other, seeks to answer the question, “who is Jesus?” And John’s answer, in this Prologue, is “the Word.” The meaning of this resonates not just with the whole of scripture, but with the intellectual world view in the wider Greek speaking world of the time. This way of thinking was strongly influenced by rhetoric- and regarded the Word, or Speech, as closely associated with thought and rationality, and with the meaning at the very heart of things.
Combined with this morning’s beautiful hymn from Colossians, John’s Prologue gives us a potentially explosive new way of thinking. In many ways, John is not like the other Gospels; his is what theologians call a high Christology, a highly elevated and solemn of way of talking about Jesus that could make him seem less human and more distant and remote than the others. “All things came into being through him.” To talk about Jesus as the unique personal revelation of the one true God, as the one through whom the Creator made all things, in a deliberate echoing and reframing of Genesis, could seem shocking, but perhaps it was also not that surprising after all. As well as the Word or Speech, John, like Colossians, has Wisdom in mind, God’s handmaid in the book of Proverbs, his personal agent in the creation of the world, the one through whom all things were made.
And- if his Jesus seems distant- John, in his Prologue, puts relationship at the very heart of God. Jesus is “the Father’s only son,” who is close to the Father’s heart, a shockingly intimate image. John’s Gospel refers to God as Father more often than anywhere else in the New Testament. Used more than 100 times, this is the main title used for God, a clear change of emphasis from the Old Testament, where “Father,” though important, was not a common title for God.
The audacity of addressing God as Father breaks the reserve with which we previously spoke about God. And this is the essence of Jesus’ “good news.” Because he has come to earth in Jesus, God is no longer distant or aloof but- scandalously- has drawn near to us. God can only be a “Father” because Jesus is a “Son.” This denotes a new intimacy, not just within God, but between God and all his people. And in John’s Gospel, these two terms- Father and Son- are inseparable. As the rest of the Gospel will make clear, the relationship between the Father and the Son is above all a relationship of love. And this audacious, shockingly close relationship is one into which we too are invited.
We began this sermon by talking about sound and speech. Jesus’ voice will become increasingly familiar, and a sign of this new intimacy, as we progress through this complex, multi-layered and mysterious Gospel. His words to characters like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, who he is inviting into deeper relationship with him, are deceptively simple, elevated yet direct and personal. Later in the Gospel, he will call his sheep by name, and within the cacophony of animal noises and calls of different shepherds, they will pick out their own shepherd’s voice, recognising and following it in order to stay alive.
In our own culture, the voice is still vitally important. For all our literate sophistication and visual media, it’s still our human voices that bind us. This is fundamental. Our literacy hasn’t replaced our orality, only supplemented it. The voices that we recognise- our parents, our friends, our spouses and children- are more precious to us than anything. The human voice is the personal and social glue that binds us, the first thing a baby hears when it’s born, that ties it emotionally to its parents and helps it develop.
The event of Jesus as the Word made flesh- the divine Speech that spoke the earth into being and brought us salvation- is one of the most daring and paradoxical, shocking and strange ideas we could encounter. But it resonates with us, with our human need for meaning and relationship. John’s Prologue is one of the most important bits of scripture that we will hear, a passage that- like a favourite bit of music- we can listen to again and again and find that in it there is always something new to hear.
There are many words being spoken in the Church at the moment, as we navigate challenging times and debate heated issues such as the place of LGBT+ people; some of these words are less than loving. Can we be equally daring in our response to the Word made flesh, in the words we speak, especially to those with whom we disagree- whilst still being faithful to the tradition that we have inherited? The Word becomes flesh to reveal God’s redemptive glory in the places where it is so desperately needed. The challenge is how are the words we have heard are to become flesh in our day and in our lives. How is this God to be known, how is her word to be spoken, in our conversations, in today’s complex and fragmented world, and in our Church?