IS THE BABY?
Most people feel
that words are easy to use; words can never be used up (there are so
many of them); therefore words are largely useless. No wonder
words are flung about frivolously. The microphone is stuck in
front of the celebrity and she is asked to say something. She
uses many words to say nothing, and no one expected her to do anything
else. The politician is questioned in the legislature. He
starts talking. Fifteen minutes later he hasnít answered the
question; in fact, his words are a smokescreen behind which the
question is lost in ďbafflegab.Ē And preachers? No
doubt you have listened to preachers, many of them, who were no
different. Words are easy to use; words can never be used up;
words are largely useless -- so why not fling them about?
But it was
different for our Hebrew foreparents. For those people a word
was an event. In fact the Hebrew word for "word" (DABAR)
means both word and event. For our Israelite ancestors a word
was a concentrated, compressed unit of energy. As the word was
spoken, this concentrated, compressed unit of energy was released.
Thereafter it could never be brought back, never re-compressed just as
an event can never be undone. Once the word had been uttered
this unit of energy surged throughout the world, changing this,
altering that, creating here and destroying there.
The closest we
modern types come to the understanding of our Hebrew foreparents is in
our grasp of how language functions psychologically. We
recognize that inflammatory speech can excite people emotionally; we
recognize that sad stories can depress people. We'll admit that
words may alter how people feel, but we still maintain that words
donít alter anything in reality.
conviction is different. The psalmist writes, "By the Word
of God the heavens were made." God speaks and the galaxies
occur. So weighty were Hebrew words that they were always
to be used sparingly, carefully, thoughtfully. It wonít
surprise you, then, to learn that at the time of the first Christmas
the Hebrew language contained only 10,000 words (very few, in fact)
while the Greek language contained 200,000. A word is an event,
said our Hebrew foreparents. A word has vastly more than mere
psychological force. Once spoken, a word is an event which sets
off another event which in turn sets off another, the reality of it
all extending farther than the mind can imagine.
When the apostle
John sat down to write his gospel he was living in the city of
Ephesus. John was Jewish; his readers, however, were chiefly
Gentile, like you and me. In speaking about Jesus Christ, the
Incarnation of the Word of God, John looked for a word which Gentiles
would understand, yet a word to which he could also marry the full
force of the Hebrew understanding of "word". The word
John chose was LOGOS. LOGOS is the Greek word
which means "word". But it also means reason or
rationality or intelligibility. It means the inner principle of
a thing, how a thing works. The logos of an automobile engine is
how a cupful of liquid gasoline can be exploded to propel a two-ton
car, how the engine works. The logos of a refrigerator is how
electricity (hot enough to burn you) can keep food cold; how it works,
its inner principle, the rationality of it all.
John brought the
Hebrew and Greek concepts together when he stated that Jesus Christ,
the babe of Bethlehem, is the word or logos of God. When the
Hebrew mind hears that Jesus Christ is the word of God it knows that
Jesus is the power of God, the event of God, the effectiveness of God;
an effectiveness, moreover, which can never be overturned or undone, a
reality permeating the world forever. When the Greek mind, on
the other hand, the Gentile mind, hears that Jesus Christ is the word
of God it knows that Jesus is the outer expression of the inner
principle of God himself; Jesus embodies the rationality of God; Jesus
discloses how God "works." John brings together both
Hebrew and Greek senses of "word". John's Christmas
message is as patently simple as it is fathomlessly profound: the word
of God has become flesh, our flesh, and now dwells among us.
This is the great good news of Christmas.
Great as the good
news is, however, we must still ask how far-reaching it might be.
Is it good news, but only for a few people? Is it good news, but
only for the religious dimension of human existence? Or is it
good news of cosmic scope so vast as finally to be imponderable?
In short, how big is the baby?
I: -- Think first of
science. Two or three generations ago it was feared that new
scientific discoveries were taking people farther and farther from
God. The advances of science added up to atheism for intelligent
people. Some people reacted by speaking ill of science: "It
doesn't have all the answers, you know." (No scientist ever
said it did.) "There's lots more to be discovered".
(Of course there is; this is what keeps science humble.)
Nonetheless, the bottom line was clearly stated: "If your sons
and daughters are going to study science, don't expect them to be
The apostle John
disagrees entirely. John insists that the realm of nature which
science investigates has been made through the word, made through the
logos. This means that the inner principle of God's own mind and
being, the rationality in God himself, has been imprinted on the
creation, imprinted on nature, and imprinted indelibly. There is
imprinted indelibly upon the creation a rationality, an
intelligibility, which reflects the rationality of the Creatorís own
mind. What's more, the inner principle of God himself which has
been imprinted on that creation which science investigates; this inner
principle is the word which has been made flesh in Jesus Christ.
All of which means that however much we may come to know of science
our scientific knowledge will never contradict the truth and reality
of Jesus Christ; our scientific knowledge can never take us farther
Science is possible
at all only because there is a correlation between patterns intrinsic
to the scientist's mind and intelligible patterns embodied in the
physical world. If this correlation didn't exist then there
would be no match-up between the scientist's mind and the realm of
nature that the scientist investigates. To say the same thing
differently: science is possible only because there is a correlation
between the structure of human thought and the structure of the
physical world. If this correlation didn't exist then no one
could think truthfully about the physical world. Then what is
the origin of this correlation, this match-up? The origin is the
word, the logos, through which the realm of nature and
scientists themselves have alike been created. John Polkinghorne,
a mathematical physicist and a Christian writes, "The Word is
God's agent in creation, impressing his rationality upon the world.
That same Word is also the light of men, giving us thereby access to
the rationality that is in the world."
mathematics and physics; mathematicians donít make scientific
investigations. Mathematicians arrange symbols, the symbols
representing relations within human thinking. Physicists, on the
other hand, physicists do investigate the world of nature.
Recently it was found that when mathematicians and physicists have
compared notes they have seen that the relations purely within human
thinking reflect the patterns and structures in nature which
scientists uncover. In short, there is a correlation between the
rationality of human thinking and the rationality imprinted indelibly
in nature. How? Why? Because all things have been
made through the word of God: all things in the creation, including
the mind of the scientist herself.
Everyone knows that
science is based on observation. But to observe nature
scientifically is not to stare at it. If I were merely to stare
at the stars for the next twenty years I still shouldn't learn
anything about stars. The kind of observing that science does is
an observing that is guided by theoretical insights. These
insights uncover the deep regularities undergirding what can be
observed. Where do these theoretical insights come from,
ultimately? They are produced by the word, the logos, the
rationality of God, the word that became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth;
for through this word both nature itself and the human mind were
How big is the
baby? Very big. He who was born in Bethlehem is the Word
of God incarnate. All things were made through him. He is
the outer expression of God's "innerness". And by him
God's "innerness" has been imprinted on the "outerness"
of nature. Scientific discovery never distances us from God,
never contradicts the truth of God, never points people toward
atheism. On the contrary, to uncover scientifically the
rationality imprinted indelibly on the creation is ultimately to ask
for the ground of nature's intelligibility. The one, sufficient
ground of nature's intelligibility can only be the intelligibility or
word or logos of God himself.
II: -- How big is the
baby? Big enough to embrace not just someone here and someone
over there; big enough, rather, to embrace all men and women
everywhere. All humankind, without exception, is summoned and
invited to become sons and daughters of God. To receive the Word
made flesh; to receive Jesus Christ in faith, says John, to embrace
the one who has already embraced us is to find ourselves rendered
children of God.
A minute ago we
spoke of the rationality or order in creation. Without such
rationality scientific investigation would be impossible; more to the
point, without such rationality or order life would be impossible.
No one could survive in a world where bread nourished us one day but
poisoned us the next; where water doused fire one day but fuelled fire
the next. Without elemental order to the universe human
existence would be impossible. And yet while this elemental
order perdures in a fallen world, the fact that the world is fallen
means that the dimension of disorder is always with us. Disease,
for instance, is a manifestation of disorder.
Yet the disorder in
the natural realm is slight compared to the disorder in the human mind
and heart. We men and women are fallen creatures. We are
alienated from God in mind and heart. Because we are alienated
from God in mind and heart we are disordered in ourselves; in
addition, we are an infectious source of disorder in nature. The
environmentalists never weary of reminding us of this fact: we human
beings are an infectious source of a huge disorder in nature.
The environmentalists donít understand, however, that we are such
inasmuch as we are disordered in ourselves and unable to
restore order in ourselves.
It is as we embrace
the word incarnate who has already made us and embraced us; it is as
we become children of God through faith in the Son of God that
alienation from God gives way to reconciliation. Mind and heart,
disordered to this point, begin to be re-ordered. We are on the
road to recovery, and we are guaranteed utmost restoration.
How big is the
baby? The word made flesh is big enough to embrace every last
man and woman. The word made flesh, our Hebrew foreparents would
remind us, is also strong enough, effective enough, to render us all
children of God and keep us such until that day when nothing will even
threaten to separate us from him.
III: -- Lastly, John
tells us that out of the fullness of the Word-become-flesh you
and I have received, and will always receive, grace upon grace.
To say that the Word has become flesh is to say that Jesus Christ has
taken on our humanity in its totality; he has taken on our humanity in
its exhilaration, its weakness, its frustration, its sin and its
mortality. And this humanity, yours and mine, is so surrounded
by the goodness and kindness and mercy and wisdom and undeflectable
purpose of God, so steeped in the grace of God, says John, that
we are always receiving "grace upon grace". To say
that we are set behind and before by the grace of God isnít to say
that God is indulgent or tolerant or blind in one eye. But it is
to say that there is a gracious persistence in God as he pardons us,
assists us, and takes up whatever is done to us and whatever we do to
ourselves and uses it all as only he can as he moves us toward a
restoration so complete as to bring glory to him and adoration out of
How big is the
baby? So very big that out of the fullness of Jesus Christ we
shall always receive grace upon grace and nothing but grace. The
Lord who knows my profoundest needs better than I know them myself
will always supply what I need most. It would be a very small
Lord who gave me what I wanted, or gave me what I thought I needed.
If I were given what I wanted or thought I needed I should only be
confirmed in my superficiality and cemented into my immaturity.
Yet so big is the incarnate one that he gives me not what confirms me
in my disorder, but precisely what moves me a step closer to my
recovery and restoration in him.
When I was ordained
and appointed to a seacoast village I spent hours at the beach
watching the Atlantic. Hundreds of metres out to sea a wave
emerged from the ocean's immensity. It broke on the beach,
flooding the sand. Before the wave wholly receded, however,
another wave broke on the beach and flooded the sand. Now the
sand was flooded both by the incoming wave and the outgoing wave; that
is, the sand was always flooded. And then a third waved surged
onto the beach before the second one (even the first) had had time to
recede. Wave upon wave. One day as I stood on the beach
before the Atlantic and watched wave upon wave I understood what John
meant when he wrote, "Out of Godís fullness we have all
received grace upon grace."
It all adds
up to this. Godís immensity is always flooding us with grace.
However much we blunder, our blunder cannot ungrace us. When our
faith flickers and we feel like a half-believer at best, our
flickering faith wonít expel us from the sphere and realm of grace.
When we are proud and need humbling; when we are dispirited and need
encouraging; when we are bruised and need comforting; when our
resilience is shaken and we need reassurance; whatever our profoundest
need the immensity of grace will always prove sufficient. The
Word made flesh is this big.
At the beginning of
the sermon I said that for our Hebrew foreparents a word is charged
with power. It is an event that, unleashed, alters reality in a
way that can never be undone. For our Gentile foreparents a word
is the inner principle of a thing, its rationality, how it works.
John brought these two senses together when he spoke of Jesus Christ
as the Word of God made flesh.
of the incarnate word is mirrored in the structure of creation and
in the structure of human thinking, thus facilitating scientific
investigation. The recreative power of the incarnate
word is able to render us children of God, thus remedying our
disorder. The grace of the incarnate word is
fathomless, thus proving daily that Jesus Christ is deeper than our
Then John's cry
must elicit an identical exclamation from us; namely, that to behold
the Word made flesh is to behold glory, glory without rival and