A sermon preached at St. Peter Dynevor Anglican Church in Selkirk, Manitoba. With thanks to my parish for letting me preach and preside every other week and for being a source of grace and healing.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1: 1). It is a strange thing that what we celebrate on this night of all nights is the coming of a word.
Words are such ordinary things. We speak many words a day—16,000 on average—if you are a woman, at least. If you are a man, you speak only slightly fewer—roughly 15,400. Still, so many words!
And, of course, the words we speak can have dramatically different effects:
They may be used to communicate information: “It is Christmas Eve.”
They may be used to warn people of impending danger: “Careful! The roads are very slippery!”
They may weave a story to delight and entertain: “Twas the night before Christmas…”
But the Word that God speaks at the beginning is not quite like this. It’s not just intended to communicate factual information like a history or a science book exactly. And it’s not a word of warning; not a “You better be good for goodness sake…”, although perhaps too often religious people make it seem that way.
And it is also not merely a fairy tale. These are not words meant to take us to long, long ago, and far, far away—although it can certainly seem like that as well.
Perhaps the problem is that words are difficult to understand, and difficult to speak in spite of the fact that we speak quite a lot of them.
If you don’t believe me, think of the last time you tried to buy a meaningful Christmas card for someone you really, really love. No matter how many you read, they’re never quite right—after all, how can something as personal as your particular love for a particular person ever be communicated by someone else, and sold en masse?
Never mind cards for your dearly beloved, what of the chore of writing thousands of words in our Christmas cards for distant friends and family members because it is expected of us? Of trying to find the right tone, the right sentiment, of conjuring seasonal happiness when you truly feel worn down and not very Christmassy at all? Words are hard, and words fall short, and sometimes words even offend. We have to be so careful. Think of how measured our words will have to be in the days ahead in our family gatherings. We are happy to be together, but we feel pressure, too. We know that what we say can be taken the wrong way, and that people may just say things, intended or not, that can wound us during all that together time. It’s a risky season. And how hard it is to take back those unintended barbs, or how hard it is to recover from a barb aimed at us. Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” has not taken the power of words seriously enough.
But whatever that Word is that is at the beginning with God it is also not a word like this. We are told that the Word was with God and was the same as God. That is to say that the Word that God means and the Word that is spoken are one and the same. God is not like us, anxiously walking up and down the aisles at Hallmark to find the right Christmas message. God instead speaks what God intends and intends what God speaks. And that Word is not a warning or a tall tale or something that defies all doubt. The Word that God speaks is Jesus Christ. The Bible compares Jesus to the Word–the Logos–because he effectively overcomes distance between us and God, just like a well-thought and sincere word can overcome the distance between persons. But Logos in Greek does not only mean Word, it also means logic or order. The order that is spoken at the very beginning of time is bound up in the one we celebrate tonight—the light of the world, as gentle and as beautiful as a newborn baby.
The Word that is spoken is not a shout, or a slogan, or a manifesto. The Word is instead a child. Fragile as our own words, and as vulnerable to misunderstanding by us. Like the first “I love you” uttered between lovers. Or the promise, “I will take care of you,” that we speak those first nights standing over our babies’ cribs. This is the Word that we celebrate tonight. It is a Word by which God has said with grace and truth in Jesus Christ: “I am with you.” “I am with you.” “I am with you.” You may feel alone at times, but do not forget it: “I was with you in the beginning; I am with you today; and I will be with you even to the end of time.”
God is speaking this to you and to me, this beautiful Christmas Eve night, and God speaks it again, and again, even—and perhaps especially—in the darkness of our lives: “I am with you.” The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. God speaks this Word–this Word that is Christ–even when we are unaware or too busy or too afraid to listen. God still speaks in Christ. Beneath the clamour of this busy season, underneath the frenzied pace through malls, over the years that mark the passing of time, God still whispers from the crèche of long ago, “I am with you.” Look for me in the beauty of this night. In the love that surrounds you. In the poor and rejected ones of this earth. And in the children—always the little children. As John goes on to say in one of the most beautiful lines of the Bible: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
From the outpouring of God’s love in sending his Word into the world, we all receive. We receive the promise that God is with us, and we receive the capacity to see the world anew, according to the hidden logic of a manger in Bethlehem. And because of the Word that was given to us on that night over two thousand years ago, we are no longer destined to struggle to communicate, but may become those who can reach out with words, and gift others with our love, as God has gifted us. And just as the Christ-child grew in grace and truth, so too may we, as we leave this place to be with those whom we love most, grow in like grace and truth—to learn speak with tenderness to one another. And to treasure the Word God has whispered to each one of us as we would treasure a newborn babe.
And may the darkness never overcome it.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Amen.