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Christmas: An Event in Four Words

 

John 1:14

TRUTH For years I have been intrigued by the psychology of perception. What do people see? What do they think they see? Or hear? Or not hear? Everyone knows that people tend to see what they want to see and tend not to hear what they don’t want to hear. In situations of stress or fatigue or social pressure people can “see” or “hear” what isn’t there to be seen or heard at all.

Recently I found myself listening to a psychologist who has worked much in the area of perception. He told his audience the following.

An adult is placed in a pitch-black room. A pinpoint light is turned on, 10 or 15 feet away. (The light is only a pinpoint; it illumines nothing else.) Once the light is turned on it remains fixed in the same place for the duration of the exercise. Without exception, the psychologist reported, the person in the pitch-black room will say that the light moves. How much it is said to move varies from person to person: from 1 inch to 8 feet, the average being 4 inches.

There is another aspect to this experiment, an aspect that makes my blood run cold. When all the people who participated in the experiment are brought together to chat among themselves, they eventually agree (no one has overtly pressured them into agreeing) that the light moved 4 inches. Even those who, when asked alone, reported that it moved anywhere from 1 inch to 8 feet; even these people now swear that the light moved exactly 4 inches.

Note, in the first place, that people “see” what isn’t there to be seen at all: they are inventing something (a light that moves), and then are genuinely unable to distinguish what is from what they imagine. Note, in the second place, that they come to agree unconsciously lest they appear odd person out, lest they appear to be a social misfit. Note, in the third place, that all of this occurs with something (the pinpoint of light) that hasn’t been rendered deceptive or seductive in any way.

By extension, what does this experiment say about our society’s perception of political issues, educational issues, moral issues, spiritual issues, issues that concern us all?

Now suppose that the pinpoint of light, instead of being left in place, were manipulated so as to deceive people. Then think about the political issues, educational issues, moral issues, spiritual issues where there are attempts and schemes aimed at misleading us. In an election campaign Brian Mulroney swore that Canada’s social benefits were untouchable (“a sacred trust”). Upon being elected, the first thing he did was try to tamper with old age security. What did Canadians do about it? They re-elected him. Lest you think me politically biased I must remind you that Pierre Trudeau defeated Robert Stanfield by means of a promise never to implement wage and price controls. Trudeau implemented them within 90 days of being elected. Whereupon Canadians elected him again.

The two instances of turpitude I have just mentioned aren’t very subtle. (For all their obviousness, however, most Canadians still didn’t recognize them). Every day there are instances of deception far more subtle, far more devious, far more convoluted. Every day we are lied to, and lied to again, as falsehood is piled upon falsehood, fabrication upon fabrication.

How much worse it would all be if we (and our society) were victimized not only by the cunning of men and women, not only by the propaganda of the politicians, not only by the ideologues in the offices of social planning and the military and the church, but also by malignant spiritual forces that underlie and compound and disguise the distortions that we know to be deliberately engineered! Scripture insists that this very thing is happening all the time. St.Paul reminds us in II Corinthians 4 that “the god of this world” obstructs and obscures and perverts the spiritual perception of us all.

Then where is there truth? More profoundly, what is truth? Unless we know what truth is, we shan’t know where to look for it. If we don’t know what truth is and therefore don’t know where to look for it, how shall we ever find it? As a matter of fact, we aren’t going to find it. We are never going to find it. Truth must find us!

Our foreparents in faith were ecstatic over Christmas just because they knew that truth had appeared; truth had found them. Truth had overtaken them and stamped itself upon them when they hadn’t known where to look or what to look for. Truth had come upon them when their perception was distorted (and they were unaware of it), when they had been deceived by human cunning (and were unaware of it), when “the god of this world” had deceived them (and they were unaware of it).

Truth, in John’s gospel, always has the force of reality. Truth is reality as opposed to illusion (illusion being, as Freud taught us, deception that mentally healthy people cling to). Truth is reality as opposed to delusion (delusion being, as Freud taught us, deception that mentally ill people cling to). Truth is reality as opposed to falsehood, as opposed to mythology, as opposed to fantasy. Truth is reality, John insists.

John, we all know, was a Jew by birth and upbringing. He knew Hebrew. Truth, in Hebrew, has the force of firmness, stability, solidity. When truth (firmness, stability, solidity) describes a person, that person is said to be steadfast; and because steadfast, trustworthy.

“The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Christmas upholds the incursion of truth into our world. The incursion of truth means the incursion of reality, firmness, solidity, steadfastness, trustworthiness. Jesus Christ comes to us with a unique power to penetrate our world of misperception, deliberate falsification, and spiritual deception. Jesus Christ is truth.

GRACE All of us make promises. When we make promises we intend to keep them. Despite our utmost resolve to keep promises, however, we break them. We are promise-breakers.

God, on the other hand, is the promise-keeper. He invariably keeps the promises he makes. There is no treachery in him that could lead him to “welch” on his promises to us; on the other hand there is much treachery in us that could excuse him for abandoning his promises to us. Still, nothing deflects him. However exasperated he is with us, he never gives up on us. However frozen our hearts may be to him, his heart throbs for us. However fitful we may be in our devotion to him, he is constant in his to us. Fitfulness in us is met with only more resolute faithfulness from him.

Now to say that God is faithful is not to say that he is inflexible, rigid. Because he is flexible his faithfulness to us takes a special form when his faithfulness meets our fickleness and folly: when his faithfulness meets our sin his faithfulness takes the form of mercy. (If God were inflexible, then as his faithfulness met our sin his faithfulness — his promise ever to be our God — could only condemn us, without provision for our rescue and without opportunity for our repentance.)

You must have noticed that St. Paul begins his letters to assorted congregations with the greeting, “Grace, mercy and peace to you”. Grace is God’s faithfulness to us, promised from of old, kept unto eternity. Mercy is God’s faithfulness “flexing” so as to deal with our sin. Peace (the Hebrew word is shalom); peace, in Hebrew, is a synonym for salvation. Whenever Paul speaks first of grace he speaks finally of peace; the peace, shalom, salvation that grace finally forges. In other words, grace is faithful love so resilient, so resolute, so undeflectable that not even our icy ingratitude, not even our defiant disobedience, can discourage such love. Grace is faithful love so flexible that it “bends” itself around our sin. Grace is faithful love so constant and consistent that not even our resistance can impede it or interrupt it. For this reason whenever Paul begins by speaking of grace he ends by speaking of peace, shalom: he has imprinted on his heart the logic of grace.

Let’s gather it up in a nutshell: GRACE is God-in-his-faithfulness keeping the promises he has made to us, all for the sake of a mercy-wrought salvation that renders us his children, members of his household and family forever.

To speak of grace and truth is to say that God’s promise-keeping faithfulness (grace) is the reality, the solidity, firmness, stability, that we can trust in a world of distortion and deception and depravity

WORD Perhaps there is a sceptic (even a cynic!) among us who has a most important question to ask. “If God keeps the promises he makes to us, does he do this merely because he wills to do it (the implication being that he could break his promises if he willed to break them), or does he keep his promises because it’s his nature to keep them?” When God keeps his promises, are we merely looking at something God does (for reasons known only to him), or are we looking into the innermost, unalterable heart of God?

We have already determined that grace means God is consistent in his attitude and act. But is God consistent in the sense of being a consistent actor? When the movie Awakenings was about to be filmed Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who wrote the book (Awakenings), spent much time with two superb actors, Robin Williams and Robert de Niero. Sacks was startled and more than a little frightened at the ability of these two actors, since he noticed that they could take on any role, any identity, and act it with perfect consistency for as long as they wanted. But of course none of the roles, identities, they took on were they themselves; none of their roles reflected their innermost heart.

What about God? The “face” that he “puts on” for us in Jesus Christ; is this “face” only skin-deep, or does it reflect depths in God that are so deep they couldn’t be deeper? Does it reflect the innermost heart of God?

As we answer this question you will have to bear with me as we make a short detour into the Greek dictionary. There are two Greek words for word. One word for word is hrema, while the other is logos. Hrema means “that which we utter”. Logos, on the other hand, means “outermost expression of innermost essence”. When John speaks of the Incarnation as the Word becoming flesh, he uses logos. John is plainly telling us that what looms before us in Jesus Christ isn’t merely an act or action of God (as though God could act differently if he felt like it); what looms before us in Jesus Christ is the outermost expression of the innermost essence of God himself.

God doesn’t keep his promises to us just because he feels like keeping them, his promise-keeping telling us nothing about his heart or nature. God doesn’t keep his promises today, the implication being that he might not tomorrow. The consistency God displays isn’t the consistency of actors like Robin Williams and Robert de Niero. Rather, in Jesus Christ we are beholding the heart of God himself. God will never do anything other than what he has done in Christ and is doing now simply because he cannot do anything other.

To say the same thing differently, grace and truth are not roles that God acts superbly; grace and truth are the Word, the outermost expression of the innermost essence. God will always be — can only be — what he is for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Put the other way around, what God is for us in Christ he is in himself eternally. It is the innermost heart of God that has invaded our world of distortion and deception and depravity.

FLESH “The Word became flesh.” Typically, in scripture, “flesh” refers to our creaturely weakness. “Flesh” is the bible’s one-word abbreviation for our frailty, our fragility, our vulnerability to betrayal, to disappointment, to disease and to death. “Flesh” refers to our ultimate defencelessness in the face of everything we struggle to protect ourselves against but finally can’t.

To say that the Word became flesh is to say that God has stepped forth from his eternal stronghold and has stepped into our frailty, fragility, vulnerability and mortality. But he hasn’t done this just to prove that it can be done; and he hasn’t done this just to keep us company. He has done it in order that his grace and truth might become operative in you and me this instant. He has done it in order that grace and truth might seize us and soak us and shake us as often as we think that our vulnerability or our fragility or our mortality is the last word about us. He has done it in order that on any day of confusion or collapse truth will find us yet again; on any day of disgrace grace will bend the love of God around us and wrap us in his love as God’s faithfulness to us flexes yet again in the face of our sin. He has done it in order that on every day we shall know that we aren’t orphans lost in the vastness of the universe; rather we are children of him who has promised never to abandon us, always to cherish us, thoroughly to save us.

Christmas: an event in four words.

TRUTH: a firm, stable reality we can trust.

GRACE: God’s promise-keeping faithfulness as his love becomes mercy whenever it meets us in our sin, bringing us peace, shalom, salvation.

WORD: All of the this reflecting not merely something God does occasionally but reflecting who God is eternally.

FLESH: God himself going so far to keep his promises to us as to step forth from his stronghold and give himself up for us in the midst of our suffering and death.

“The Word became flesh…full of grace and truth.”

Victor A. Shepherd
Christmas 1995