The Word Became Flesh
A sermon by Revd Richard Carter.
Readings for this service: John 1.1-14
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has spent four years making a film called Human Flow. In order to make it he visited 23 nations and 40 refugee camps. It’s a remarkable visual expression of the movement of peoples in search of home and belonging- through Africa, Asia, central America and of course the Middle East. A lot of the film is filmed from above- so you not only see the individual but the shape of that movement, the huge numbers on the move, and get a sense of the vastness of the deserts and nations and oceans and borders and fences they seek to cross in the mass human exodus of our time. There is one shot in the film that is mesmerising. It is shot from a drone high up in the sky looking down. At first you think you are looking at an intricate pattern: a maze of rectangular shapes drawn in the sand, like the bricks of the most massive wall. And then as the camera zooms in you see that there is movement. It looks like tiny black ants industriously moving in the runs between the shapes. Then slowly, as the camera descends, it’s as though the ant’s nest has been disturbed and the closer you come in from above you realise that they are people, hundreds of people and- and the thousands of shapes you thought were a pattern are the hundreds of roofs of housing units in a refugee camp accommodating nearly a million people . As the camera draws closer still you see they are looking up at the drone in the sky and running and waving and there are children and people of all ages and then suddenly the camera is there with them in the thick of human life and you are aware of the beauty and life of the individual.
I think the opening of John’s Gospel is a bit like that. It’s the last Gospel to be written and it begins most far out high up– with the biggest broadest picture as it were. Mark, the first Gospel to be written, begins with Christ’s baptism- direct, immediate, we are straight into the action. Matthew, written for the Jews, takes us back to the birth of Christ and through Joseph in a long genealogy to Abraham the father of the Jewish nation. Luke writing for a Gentile audience begins even further out linking the birth of Christ with a genealogy that goes back to Adam-the first human being. But John’s Gospel begins highest of all. This is a vision of the incarnation from the very beginning of time. In the beginning before all else the Word is calling life into being- and all that exist in relationship with God. It is a vision of the transcendence of God- above us beyond us- before all things- the scale of God creation – the billions of years- the vastness of time and space, the minuteness of our own lives in relation to the incomprehensible scale of the universe.
It’s a strange passage to have read on a rather ordinary Sunday in February- during the cold of winter. We expect it on Christmas Eve like a fanfare to the birth of Jesus Christ- or in the dawn of Easter day when we wait in the dark to hear how Jesus Christ has overcome the darkness of death. But what does this passage mean for us in February at the time of year which people say is the most depressing. Certainly not much transcendence visible at this time. This prologue is a bit like the Ai Weiwei sequence I have just described. This incredible poem which begins the gospel establishes the Word embracing all of creation and all of life from the very beginning- we glimpse the height, breadth, the inclusiveness of the Word: “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”- here is the embrace of God and all of life- And then John’s Gospel, like a camera picturing this event from above comes closer, tells us that this Word this true light, this man was in the world- among his own people yet still not recognised- not fully seen or accepted. But now the Word is right down in the streets as it were- this vision for all time has come among us, descended into the activity of our human neighbourhood here and now- visible this morning in the baptism of a small baby Gebrielle
And then like the Ai Weiwei film sequence you suddenly realise that this is not some abstract pattern- some distant ants nest- this is our world, our lives and these are human beings and the Creator of the universe has descended among us- unrecognised. And suddenly this Gospel prologue tells us the profoundest and most beautiful of all truths- different from any other belief or faith: it tells us this:
The Word became flesh and lived among us.
Think about those words, words so familiar that we don’t really always sink in. They are saying that the meeting place with God is not a voice from the sky, or commandments carved into bits of stone carried down from the top of a mountain, – no the meeting place with our God is the human flesh. The Word became flesh, living flesh. God is in the thick of things. With us in the shouts and cries, and the hands that reach out. God face to face- in humanity.
It is a belief so radical that it still frightens us. And religion has often found that hardest of all to take on board. It’s easy to bind people to a God who is far away, or to control people if God is an object for veneration. Or if you can separate God from the dirt of life by making God abide in a sacred place which you visit on Sundays. In the Solomon Islands people believe in the sacred power of objects- they used to come to me and ask me: “Father bless these four holy stones.” “Why?” I asked them. “So I can place them round my house to protect my house from intruders and evil Spirit. “ “How about I bless you instead I asked so you become the one who protects? For the Word has become flesh- our flesh.” You may think that sounds far removed from our western world. But how fearful our own society has become. Fearful of the body, fearful of invasion, fearful of relationship that may threaten our boundaries and security- we become fearful even of beauty and touch and intimacy. And there are of course many reasons, abuses and betrayals of trust that have led to this. We see the extremes- the threat of the body treated or manipulated like a commodity without respect, and at the other extreme a suspicion and hostility which makes people cynical about the mystery of love and fearful of the risk and beauty of relationship. Our digital age reinforces a kind of image idolatry because it often keeps relationships distant- objectified in this world of cyber contact- where the play and flirt of relationship, or friending or unfriending, liking or unliking can be a hollow substitute for real encounter with the whole person. A facebook which actually does not really see the other face to face.
This is not a transaction, we are not consumables, – there is a human being in here, in our flesh. There is God in here and our bodies. Our bodies are of God This is the meeting place, warts and all- this is us. This is where the relationship is formed. Down here in themes and thick of things. Nazareth you see is here. This actual world is the dwelling place of God.
So what can we do? Well as the psalmist said “Lord we do not know how to act and so we keep our eyes on you” Yes. We keep our eyes on God both above us but also with us, close up- God filling our broken humanity. Not a drone up in the sky- but our eyes, our touch, our feet, our hands, our hearts- our love our praying, our caring. I invite you in a world tempted to fear and alienation from the world to see again the beauty and wonder of the Word made flesh here among us: God’s invisible grace made present our humanity. Discover Nazareth his dwelling place in silent attentiveness, in sacrament, in acts of service, in studying his word- in sharing. Everything starts with this encounter with God. We need to begin by praying for our own dwelling place. The very place where God makes his dwelling. Here in the thick of things
Today feel the wonder of the life of Gabrielle Hubert we have just baptised
The miracle of our births
The mystery of love
The gift of life
See the people you pass
The lives they carry
The stories in their faces
The fragments of their conversations
The relationships of those walking together
The uniqueness of each face
The pain of some you pass like a cry of longing in your own heart,
And the laughter
And the cultures and the youth and age and their differing heights and breadths.
Imagine the choosing of the clothes they are wearing
Notice the colours
See the person, the beauty of this diversity
The depth and the richness and mystery of our humanity
The understandable and the incomprehensible
Each and every person made in the image of God,
We who have stepped over the sleeping bags on our church steps
And smelt the despair that does heads in.
We who have seen the tower block burn
And the photos on the wall for the missing
We who have heard the scream of tyres and turned round fearfully
Who have heard sirens and wondered who
We have seen the documentaries of cities bombed and people on the move
Who have seen trapped poverty and a system which does not respond.
We who have turned away not because we do not care but because we have cared too much
We have been called to pray for our city
And recognise the Word made flesh here among us now.
The Word made flesh in this city of London
Also for those-
Who drive its buses and trains
Who clean its streets and stock its shelves, or build its skyscrapers
Police it, and drive its fire engines and ambulances and staff its hospitals.
Who serve in its shops or banks or businesses,
Or wait at its tables and take our tickets or clean its offices,
And mend roads in the night or dig out fat burgs from our sewers,
And take away our rubbish, or sleep on our streets.
Who care for our elderly with compassion when we can’t.
Who sing, who dance, who play guitars or violins, who paint, who perform in our theatres, or concert halls, who score goals and hit boundaries, or plan its London marathon
The word made flesh for those who worship in its churches, cathedrals,
Mosques, temples synagogues, and prayer space.
We pray for London for the people who populate it
From every part of the world
And who bring their extraordinary gifts.
The babies, the children, the 20s and 30s the middle aged the elderly, those giving birth, the healthy, the sick, the dying.
See the beauty of this child Gabrielle
Baptised into the love and family of God today
Like the child on our portico
With the words written underneath
The Word became flesh and lived among
And we have seen his glory.