The Word Became Flesh, John 1:(1-9) 10-18
Plymouth First United Methodist, January 5, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
The painting on the front of our worship folders and on the screen before you is entitled “Holy Family” and was painted by Rembrandt in the 17th century. It portrays the nativity as if it were taking place during that time period. Mary and Joseph’s clothing and furnishings are what one would find in a typical Dutch home from Rembrandt’s own day. Mary is seated with an open well-thumbed book, presumably the scriptures, held open by her left hand. Her right hand, on the top of a rocking cradle, has pulled aside a covering to reveal a soundly sleeping Jesus. Mary’s head is turned from the book to gaze upon the infant. Immediately behind her and in much fainter light is Joseph, bending over and planing a piece of wood. Above him we see in the upper left corner of the painting, cherubim hovering with outstretched wings.
Whether or not Rembrandt intended it that way, the painting is an illustration of different ways we encounter and understand the Word of God. On the one hand, there is the Bible, the book that Mary has been reading as Jesus sleeps and Joseph works in the background. The Word of God is found in scripture. We read the words and they speak to us: we are addressed by the Word of God. We read them again and again. That’s why the book in Mary’s lap appears well thumbed. Rembrandt portrays Mary as one who knows the word of God well and who ponders it in her heart.
But she doesn’t ponder the page alone. She ponders as well, the infant beside her, “the Word made flesh,” not only the Word made paper and ink. The Word is blood-warmed, breath-enlivened creature sleeping beside his mother.
When Mary returns to her reading, she will understand what she reads at a greater depth because she has encountered the Word through the Word made flesh. When she tends to the child, she will understand the child at a greater depth because she has encountered the Word through the words in the book. Back and forth between Word made flesh and Word through words.
There are three different narratives of the nativity in our scripture: the gospels of Matthew and Luke speak of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus, while the Gospel of John uses poetic language expanding the birth narrative beyond human and geographical realities to encompass time at its very beginning, creation, light and darkness and God’s Word made flesh. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us,” scripture tells us. The Word became flesh so we could see, so we could understand, so we could live as God’s people in the day and age in which we reside—in each generation—sharing the good news, being light and life and love in a world where we encounter too much darkness.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us.
Over these past several weeks, I’ve been emphasizing the humanity of Mary and Joseph. I’ve wanted us to experience them as real people in a real time in a real place. They were people who encountered challenges different than ours, yet these challenges were no less frightening and real than the ones you and I face in our world today. When I see Rembrandt’s painting, I think about how it can help us to understand this thing that God has done, to visualize the reality of the nativity, the reality of the Word made flesh, by re-setting that scene and all that it means into our life and our day and our experience. Doing that doesn’t diminish the holiness of the event, but re-embodies it so that we can better see and relate the experience. Because the Word continues to be made flesh today, here and now—in this place, in this day and in our lives.
Though I’d love to be able to paint on canvas for you the many ways in which this happens, instead, let me paint a few ways for you with words. Perhaps we can, like Mary, look back and forth between the words of scripture, and the Word made flesh and better understand this amazing gift as she did…
The Word became flesh and made his home among us…
In Eugene Peterson’s translation of this scripture, he writes “the word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” God in the flesh, in Jesus, moved into the place where you and I reside, here and now.
How? The Word of God becomes flesh as we express God’s love and grace in the ways we serve and respond to others in need.
I think of the Community Meal. A couple of years ago, several members of our congregation were inspired in worship to begin cooking for members of the community who might be hungry: hungry for good food, for companionship, for a warm welcome. And so every month since then, many of you respond to the list of needs, our women begin cooking up a storm, and usually on the last Wednesday of the month, we open the doors and people come. Some of the people are us, who enjoy the cooking and companionship, and others are folks who live around us, north of us, south of us, and can really use a good, nutritious meal.
If I were able to paint this, it would include smiling faces serving food over the counter in the kitchen, a few others helping to pour drinks and replenish desserts, and another table with some goodies being passed out for children and their families that our children put together to give to them.
It’s a beautiful picture. I might try my hand at painting a few cherubs in one of the corners. Well-fed looking cherubs, because it would be really wonderful if every child had enough to eat…
The word became flesh and made his home among us, through what we do with our hearts and hands…
I also think of how the Word becomes flesh through the work teams we send out. We send a group to Illinois to the Midwest Distribution Center to put together a variety of needed things: cleaning kits, flood buckets, layettes, school items—they’re sent “around the corner and around the world” during times of need.
We send a group to Henderson Settlement in Kentucky every fall, and those projects have involved siding, roofing, painting and those sorts of tasks, in addition to establishing relationships with other missionaries, employees and residents in the area who need help to repair, restore and renovate.
We’ve sent 2 groups to Guatemala and are scheduled to return in January of 2022 to work with Mission Guatemala, another opportunity to experience another culture, establish relationships and provide the people power to repair, restore, renovate and make new.
We have a new scholarship available to help first timers participate in any of these work teams. We love sending folks out who have been to these places before, but we always want new folks to participate, too…
Here at home, our Social Concerns team every month gathers offerings of finance and food, and in other ways assists people who are in need in our local Plymouth community. And there are so many other groups who—in their own way—go out themselves or make it possible for others to go out and be the Word made flesh. I think of SAWS, Meals for Methodists, Adam Street Kids, Outreach, The Well, Funeral dinners, the Longest Night service, Youth and Education, Vacation Bible School, Trustees, Finance, Brush of Kindness. There are probably more!!
In each of these, and all together, I could paint beautiful scenes of people you know, looking back and forth from the word of scripture to the Word made flesh, sharing their love and talent “in the neighborhood” as Eugene Peterson writes, and beyond… Becoming better acquainted with one because of their encounter in the other.
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood, making his home among us.
A young woman was challenged by her mother to go visit her grandfather in the nursing home. He wasn’t so far away, but other priorities always made themselves known. It was easy to not go…Grandpa had been an alcoholic for much of his adult life, and his granddaughter remembered the evenings he spent at the bar instead of at home before her grandmother died and how he more than once ruined family dinners.
When she had visited him, he was rude, seeming to prefer watching whatever was on television to paying attention to her, so it was easy not to visit.
But she decided she really needed to go and went anyway, preparing for…not much.
He didn’t see her right away because he was watching television, but then he did. He grinned and turned it off.
She gave him a hug and noticed that he had grown frail and he had whisker stubble on his cheeks.
His eyes moistened and he finally spoke, “You’re looking mighty pretty today.”
“I know,” his granddaughter smiled in response.
He asked how her job was going, and then began reminiscing about working in his younger years. She remembered how she loved his stories.
He had an untouched tray of food next to him, so she urged him to eat. When he tried to open the package of saltines, his fingers couldn’t tear the cellophane.
Embarrassed, he explained, “My arthritis is bad.”
As his granddaughter tore open the package for him, something happened: her heart drained of contempt for a staggering drunkard and refilled with compassion for an old, lonely man. He needed much more than an open package of crackers—he needed her.
When she finally rose to leave, she squeezed her grandpa in a warm, little-girl hug, and he choked back tears. “Don’t be a stranger,” he said.
And the young woman realized that Jesus had called her to be a conduit of his compassion, and that he waits to receive it as one of the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40).
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood, making his home among us…
If I could, I’d paint a picture of someone visiting in a nursing home, of someone visiting in the home of someone who isn’t able to get out of their own home like they once could, of someone visiting in the hospital. We would reflect on the word of scripture and the Word made flesh…and the presence of one would strengthen and empower the other.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…
You and I have the opportunity this morning to share together in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Christ has been given to us and is present with us: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God is present with us: in our prayers, in our worship, in our church, in our friendships, in our interactions with family members and with strangers, and even as we relate and care for all creation that surrounds us.
The Word of God in scripture and the Word of God that became flesh and lives among us: may each strengthen, empower and inform the other within us. Amen.