In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth.
(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Most people might consider me to be confused if on the heels of a very spring-ish week I offer you a sermon today preaching about the incarnation, the belief that God became human. The incarnation is really the stuff of Advent and Christmas. The incarnation is the belief that God took on flesh. God took the form of a little bitty baby. Immanuel, God with us. Joy to the World, the Lord is Come! A sermon on God becoming human is the materials of Christmas Carols.
But it is not Christmas--the budding trees outside tell us this. The daffodils and crocuses tell us this. The deep ache for better weather and more sunshine tells us this. It is not Christmas but the beginnings of spring.
So why are we talking about the incarnation today, about God becoming human?
We are talking about God becoming human today because the Christian season of Lent, not Christmas, is nearly upon us. We will gather on Wednesday evening at 7PM in the (newly painted) sanctuary this week to usher in the 40 days before Easter that many Christians call the season of Lent.
If you grew up in a tradition that observed the 40 days of Lent, you probably remember being asked to give something up--to fast from something. Maybe it was chocolate, coffee, alcohol. Part of this practice in Lent is to remember that Jesus was in the desert fasting for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry, being tempted with food, with power, with faithlessness.
If you grew up with Lent or have practiced Lent as an adult you know that Lent is the season that prepares us for Holy Week and Christ’s death. It’s a time to reflect on how we have fallen short, how we have failed at being human: in relationships, in caring for creation, in distraction. It’s really a truth-telling time. No longer able to hide behind lies or shame, we pray during Lent to God about how hard it is to be human and how we’ve struggled to do it well. We prepare ourselves for the realization of Holy Week that we too would have betrayed Jesus, we too would have watched him die on the cross, we too are not perfect.
Lent is that season of reflection, repentance, and surrender to grace. But that makes our understanding of Lent all about us, and Lent is certainly not limited to that.
While Lent is not known for being as joyful as the Christmas season, our passage today reminds us that theologically, Lent is certainly about similar things. Lent is about our belief that God became flesh. But instead of focusing on the moment God became human, the moment that baby arrived, like Advent and Christmas, Lent is instead focused on the life of a human. Lent is about the life that baby ended up leading.
In Lent we move our awe from the cradle at Christmas to the many years Jesus, God in the flesh, walked this earth and practiced being human. Lent symbolizes this through its 40 days--reflecting on Jesus’ struggle in the desert after his baptism. His struggle with the limitation of being human through fasting and loneliness. Lent is also about the 33 years after Christmas where Jesus had to figure out how to be incarnate--in the carn, in the flesh. Being born, as we all know, is just one part of our earthly journey. Living among other humans and living on this earth can sometimes be called the real miracle--and this is the miracle of Lent--watching and studying and reflecting on Jesus, God, being human.
So in addition to our own reflections on our humanity during Lent, and how we come short or make a blunder, Lent is also about reflecting on Jesus’ humanity: his struggles, his pace, his priorities, and even his blunders. Lent is, like our passage from the Gospel of John says today, about a God who took on flesh and lived among us.
There is actually so very, very much in this first chapter of the Gospel of John. It’s the kind of chapter in the Bible where a different sermon could be preached on each verse. We could talk about how some first Century Christians understood Jesus to be Logos--Word--the Greek concept of a unifying principle that created the world. We could talk about what it means to understand Jesus as being at the beginning, middle, and end of time. Whoa. So many sermons packed into this chapter.
So because of this, today we’re looking at just one single verse: verse 14. The rest of the chapter is important, don’t get me wrong. The other verses in fact build up to this moment in verse 14 where God steps into a human existence. In verses 1-13 God is the Word with a capital W--Logos--what they would understand as the designing element and guiding principle in all of creation, even before creation. God is the Parent, the light, the power, even when a whole history of people rejected God, God still was. This is John 1:1-13.
And then we get to verse 14. That immense, unending Word, Creator in 1-13 actually becomes part of creation: God took on flesh and walked, lived, tented among us humans--and in that we saw God’s glory, a glory of truth and grace. This is not just the good news of Christmas, this is the good news of the entire calendar.
God of the universe became human and being a human, ironically enough John tells us, didn’t reduce or lessen God’s presence among us, John says it actually revealed God’s divine glory. I think too often we assume that God is diminished in our earthly existence.
Being human is small, like a child. It is hard. Being human means you have and inflict rough edges and deep wounds. But the author of John reminds us that the Word became flesh and lived among us and in THAT exact experience we have seen God’s glory. Despite what we think of our capabilities as humans, we have seen divine glory in the story of a human, in the stuff of dust, in Jesus. In Christmas we celebrate this BUT in Lent we face the staggering reality of what that actually means: God’s glory is found amidst our messy, fleshy stories as we grow up and as we gain years, as Jesus grew up and gained in years. We dedicate 40 days before Easter to reflecting on this reality.
But the end of verse 14 gives us a little bit more to think about.
The first part of verse 14 is the realization and reflection that God became flesh and lived among us and in this, not despite this, we see God’s glory.
But this isn’t a glory that we might expect. Glory as we usually define it means renown, fame, prestige, honor, distinction, eminence, acclaim, recognition.
What I didn’t find in the dictionary were glory defined as truth and grace. Yet these are the two descriptions the author of John gives for the glory of God becoming a human. Grace and truth. The glory of being human, as God defines it, is not in the accolades and trophies and recognition of greatness--the glory of being human, especially as Jesus does it, is in truth and grace.
God’s priorities as a human were not to build up greatness as we define it. God’s priorities were not to amass kingdoms or build retirement portfolios or purchase the latest best iPhone. God’s priorities and God’s glory in human expression were defined by truth and grace.
We see this in the grace of Jesus’ open table. His commitment to healing. His friendships with both those above and below him. Grace upon grace upon grace. The glory of God taking on flesh is the affirmation that this human journey is filled with grace. This is God’s glory shining through.
And God stepping into flesh is also filled with truth--the truth about who we are as humans and who we could be. The glory of God as human embodies the truth-telling needed to repent and heal and forgive. God’s human experience was filled with the truth of calling out abuse, speaking profoundly about our brokenness, proclaiming the ways of love and justice and peace. That is the glory of the flesh when God gets a hold of it--the truth.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. The incarnation is not a moment on Christmas when a baby was born--the incarnation is also the life of glorious Jesus.
So on Wednesday we will start our 40 day trek to Easter. It is 40 days spent thinking about Jesus, about God as a human, and what it took and what example Jesus set. We’ll talk about the temptations of being human, we’ll talk about Jesus feeling abandoned, we’ll watch Jesus wrestle with the question of evil, and we’ll talk about how Jesus’ followers wrestle with their own “fleshliness.”
And I have a feeling that the glory we’ll see in God’s humanity for the next 40 days will not be the glory of castles and swords and victory and accolades, but of grace and truth, in all their many earthly forms.