East Meets West
We celebrate today manhood being taken into Godhead; God the Son taking on flesh and blood; the finite being home to the infinite. Divinity meeting humanity without either loosing the qualities proper to each, and we celebrate East meeting West, Oriental meeting Occidental, Jew meeting Gentile. Surely when reading your Bible you've noticed there are only 2 groups of people: Jew and non-Jew. Paul describes Jesus as the one who breaks down the wall between the 2 creating 1 man out of the 2. Paul differentiates between the 2 by saying the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks ask for wisdom. The Jews ask for doing; the Greeks ask for thinking. All of us are in one of these 2 camps, and today we celebrate God coming for us all in both camps.
You can't miss how John's account of Jesus coming into the world differs from Matthew's and Luke's. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." For the Jews the Word was primarily a doing. And John starts where they are. "In the beginning" is the opening line of Genesis 1. "In the beginning" is actually the Jewish name for the Book of Genesis.
So to the person who thinks of words as doing this passage resonates with them. The Word that was with God and was God, made all things, not one single thing was made without Him says John. All that God does in the world He does through His Word. God speaks and light comes to be. God speaks the heavens thunder and the ground shakes. Psalm 29 glories in what the Lord's speaking does: "The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning. The voice of the Lord shakes the desert. The voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare."
In the play Faust, Faust muses that John 1 should read, "In the beginning was the deed." That's how the Jews and some of you hear it. That was how a Sunday School teacher of mine in the 2nd grade illustrated it. She took a piece of paper and then used scissors to cut it into thin strips but not all the way through so all those thin strips of paper shared a common edge. She held this shredded piece of paper before her mouth and as she spoke the strips of paper moved. "See," she said, "when God speaks His Words actually make things happen."
East hears "In the beginning was the Word" and thinks of what the Word does. West hears it and thinks of what it is,of being, thought, reason. Faust, in fact, introduces his translation "in the beginning was the deed" over against what he says is the more common one "in the beginning was the thought." Most commentators go from the word John uses for word, logos, to the Greek understanding of logos because that word was popular among Greek philosophers. For them logos was the ordering principle, the thinking principle, wisdom itself.
For the Jews everything God does in the world He does by His Word. For the non-Jews the Word, logos, is the reason for everything. And for them the logos is the only safe way God can make Himself known to man. A myth of theirs illustrates how unsafe it is for a god to come to man in his essence. The mortal Semele is Zeus' lover. Zeus' wife Hera is jealous and tells her if Zeus really loved her he'd "come arrayed in all his splendors such as he wears in heaven." Semele pesters Zeus so much that he agrees to come to her but he puts on "his lesser panoply" thinking she can bear that. But as soon as he enters her room "her mortal frame could not endure the splendor of the immortal radiance. She was consumed to ashes" (Bulfinch's, 160).
Whether you hear this as a Jew or Greek would, please note where the Holy Spirit places the Deed or Thought. In the beginning was the Word." Don't get tripped up by that word was.' The Spirit uses the Greek being verb. He didn't have to. There's a Greek word, a common one, which would mean no more than at one time the Word was. This being verb means that in the beginning the Word, the Logos, the Deed, the Thought, already "is" already "be." The church fathers make much of this. For example, Hilary of Poitiers, "What mind can leap over the force of the word was...seeing that it always runs before whatever conception follows it" (ACC, IVA, 31)?
Go on; do as evolutionary thinking has taught us. Keep going back, back, back to something before this. Ask that question kids do? What was before God? And you'll find that in the beginning was the Word, the Thought, the Deed. You'd expect to read "In the beginning was God," but you don't. Rather than thinking of the Deity dwelling in unfathomable light as a consuming fire which we can't bear, John wants us to think of the Word.
But whether you're thinking of the Word as Thought or Deed it exceeds imagination, so you're still out to sea or up on a high cliff. The first 5 verses of John take us out to sea far away from concrete concepts to abstract ideas, to hazy doing. He has us gaze on rolling seas and unlimited expanse, so the mind has no point to focus on (ACC, IVA, 7), and therefore it reels. Or John's words take us to a mountain top and perch us on a cliff edge. Such heights can only make us dizzy. But that's not Christmas is it? Christmas is delight in gifts, in food, in flesh and blood families that our flesh and blood can appreciate. And to flesh John takes us.
Up until verse 14, "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" we were on the rolling high seas of pure thought or pure deed. We were looking down off the cliff of divinity into all thinking and doing. Augustine in his Confessions details his trip from philosophy to Christianity. He relates how he had read in pagan philosophy just about everything in John 1. He read all those things that leave us queasy on the sea or giddy from the heights. Then he quotes the part about how the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and says solemnly, "This I read not there" (9: 13, 14).
When John tells us the Word, the Thought, the Deed became flesh and dwelled among us, he beaches our boat to walk about the land. He brings us down from the cliff to the base of the mountain so we can look up and appreciate its grandeur. In Jesus the Deeds of God have shape and form. In Jesus the Thoughts of God have a Body.
The enfleshed Word is light, but bearable light. It can expose without burning up. Try as we may to hide our sins the Word that is light, lights them up. You can't hide the sin of worry behind concern, the sin of greed behind responsibility, the sin of lust behind appreciation. The Word made Flesh is Light and light hides nothing. See how He shined on the woman living together, on Peter's self-trust, on Thomas' doubt till each confessed? Jesus the enfleshed Deed of God keeps shining on you till you give up, give in, and admit you're a sinner in ever nook and cranny of your heart.
But don't stop with the Word made flesh shining to expose your sins. The enfleshed Word is not only a light that shines but He is life that is. John says, "In Him was life." You know how people say, "At one time I was just alive but now I'm living?" That's the Thought, that's the Deed here. The enfleshed Word of God, Jesus born of Mary, is Life. You go through life racking up death points. In a video game the more you get hit the lower your health goes. In real life, sin by sin we become ever guiltier of death. But Jesus is life. He went through life not sinning, not offending God, not needing to try to excuse Himself.
There is both the Thought of Life and Life in Him. O He died all right. His health ran out when He took responsibility for every sin ever committed in thought or deed. Jesus, as true Man had the flesh and blood needed to suffer and bleed in place of all flesh and blood sinners, and, as true God, His suffering and bleeding flesh were enough to satisfy God's wrath against sinners. He had the human life that Sin, Death, and the Devil demanded be forfeited because God's own Law said so. And He had the Divine life powerful enough to pay to redeem you, you, me and all those people out there.
Death couldn't hold Jesus because He is God; He is Life. He rose triumphant from the grave not a clod of the grave clinging to Him, not a whiff of Death, but only life, life and more life. Jesus as the Light of God does shine and expose sinners, but Jesus as the Life of God in flesh and blood is a place of refuge for flesh and blood sinners. Don't wait; run into Him now. Cover your sins with His holy flesh and blood that was put on you in Baptism. Put your sins on His flesh and blood and see them carried away in absolution. Eat His Body and drink His Blood so satisfy your hunger for forgiveness, your thirst for salvation, your longing for life.
All of us think either more in terms of ideas or actions. We think more like the East in terms of doing or the West in terms of thinking. At Christmas East meets West. God became flesh and blood to do things to save us and to be what we needed in order to be saved. He lived a holy life in our place and suffered miserably and mercilessly to death. While doing these things He was both True God and True Man. Jesus gave life and is life. He raised the dead and He is the Resurrection. He Baptizes and is Baptism. He absolves and is Absolution. He communicates and is Communion.
All this can still leave your head spinning, so don't look at this from out at sea or from up on a cliff. Look at it from the manger: See Mary holding Baby Jesus. Smell that barn smell. Feel the heat that comes from animals in winter. Touch the scratchy straw, and taste the morning air. And know without a doubt that the God who thinks so much of you that He is willing to do this for you can't possibly be mad at you and is always thinking and doing for you. If this doesn't bring you back to shore or down to earth, maybe this will: According to the West Jesus is the reason for the season. According to the East Jesus makes the Season. When John says, "In the beginning was the Word," these 2 meet as 1. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Feast of the Nativity (20121225); John 1: 1-5, 14