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How Big Is The Baby?


John 1:1-18

Most people feel that words are easy to use; words can never be used up (there are so many of them); therefore words are largely useless. No wonder words are flung about frivolously. The microphone is stuck in front of the celebrity and she is asked to say something. She uses many words to say nothing, and no one expected her to do anything else. The politician is questioned in the legislature. He starts talking. Fifteen minutes later he hasn’t answered the question; in fact, his words are a smokescreen behind which the question is lost in “bafflegab.” And preachers? No doubt you have listened to preachers, many of them, who were no different. Words are easy to use; words can never be used up; words are largely useless — so why not fling them about?

But it was different for our Hebrew foreparents. For those people a word was an event. In fact the Hebrew word for “word” (DABAR) means both word and event. For our Israelite ancestors a word was a concentrated, compressed unit of energy. As the word was spoken, this concentrated, compressed unit of energy was released. Thereafter it could never be brought back, never re-compressed just as an event can never be undone. Once the word had been uttered this unit of energy surged throughout the world, changing this, altering that, creating here and destroying there.

The closest we modern types come to the understanding of our Hebrew foreparents is in our grasp of how language functions psychologically. We recognize that inflammatory speech can excite people emotionally; we recognize that sad stories can depress people. We’ll admit that words may alter how people feel, but we still maintain that words don’t alter anything in reality.

The Hebrew conviction is different. The psalmist writes, “By the Word of God the heavens were made.” God speaks and the galaxies occur. So weighty were Hebrew words that they were always to be used sparingly, carefully, thoughtfully. It won’t surprise you, then, to learn that at the time of the first Christmas the Hebrew language contained only 10,000 words (very few, in fact) while the Greek language contained 200,000. A word is an event, said our Hebrew foreparents. A word has vastly more than mere psychological force. Once spoken, a word is an event which sets off another event which in turn sets off another, the reality of it all extending farther than the mind can imagine.

When the apostle John sat down to write his gospel he was living in the city of Ephesus. John was Jewish; his readers, however, were chiefly Gentile, like you and me. In speaking about Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of the Word of God, John looked for a word which Gentiles would understand, yet a word to which he could also marry the full force of the Hebrew understanding of “word”. The word John chose was LOGOS. LOGOS is the Greek word which means “word”. But it also means reason or rationality or intelligibility. It means the inner principle of a thing, how a thing works. The logos of an automobile engine is how a cupful of liquid gasoline can be exploded to propel a two-ton car, how the engine works. The logos of a refrigerator is how electricity (hot enough to burn you) can keep food cold; how it works, its inner principle, the rationality of it all.

John brought the Hebrew and Greek concepts together when he stated that Jesus Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, is the word or logos of God. When the Hebrew mind hears that Jesus Christ is the word of God it knows that Jesus is the power of God, the event of God, the effectiveness of God; an effectiveness, moreover, which can never be overturned or undone, a reality permeating the world forever. When the Greek mind, on the other hand, the Gentile mind, hears that Jesus Christ is the word of God it knows that Jesus is the outer expression of the inner principle of God himself; Jesus embodies the rationality of God; Jesus discloses how God “works.” John brings together both Hebrew and Greek senses of “word”. John’s Christmas message is as patently simple as it is fathomlessly profound: the word of God has become flesh, our flesh, and now dwells among us. This is the great good news of Christmas.

Great as the good news is, however, we must still ask how far-reaching it might be. Is it good news, but only for a few people? Is it good news, but only for the religious dimension of human existence? Or is it good news of cosmic scope so vast as finally to be imponderable? In short, how big is the baby?

I: — Think first of science. Two or three generations ago it was feared that new scientific discoveries were taking people farther and farther from God. The advances of science added up to atheism for intelligent people. Some people reacted by speaking ill of science: “It doesn’t have all the answers, you know.” (No scientist ever said it did.) “There’s lots more to be discovered”. (Of course there is; this is what keeps science humble.) Nonetheless, the bottom line was clearly stated: “If your sons and daughters are going to study science, don’t expect them to be Christians.”

The apostle John disagrees entirely. John insists that the realm of nature which science investigates has been made through the word, made through the logos. This means that the inner principle of God’s own mind and being, the rationality in God himself, has been imprinted on the creation, imprinted on nature, and imprinted indelibly. There is imprinted indelibly upon the creation a rationality, an intelligibility, which reflects the rationality of the Creator’s own mind. What’s more, the inner principle of God himself which has been imprinted on that creation which science investigates; this inner principle is the word which has been made flesh in Jesus Christ. All of which means that however much we may come to know of science our scientific knowledge will never contradict the truth and reality of Jesus Christ; our scientific knowledge can never take us farther from God.

Science is possible at all only because there is a correlation between patterns intrinsic to the scientist’s mind and intelligible patterns embodied in the physical world. If this correlation didn’t exist then there would be no match-up between the scientist’s mind and the realm of nature that the scientist investigates. To say the same thing differently: science is possible only because there is a correlation between the structure of human thought and the structure of the physical world. If this correlation didn’t exist then no one could think truthfully about the physical world. Then what is the origin of this correlation, this match-up? The origin is the word, the logos, through which the realm of nature and scientists themselves have alike been created. John Polkinghorne, a mathematical physicist and a Christian writes, “The Word is God’s agent in creation, impressing his rationality upon the world. That same Word is also the light of men, giving us thereby access to the rationality that is in the world.”

Speaking of mathematics and physics; mathematicians don’t make scientific investigations. Mathematicians arrange symbols, the symbols representing relations within human thinking. Physicists, on the other hand, physicists do investigate the world of nature. Recently it was found that when mathematicians and physicists have compared notes they have seen that the relations purely within human thinking reflect the patterns and structures in nature which scientists uncover. In short, there is a correlation between the rationality of human thinking and the rationality imprinted indelibly in nature. How? Why? Because all things have been made through the word of God: all things in the creation, including the mind of the scientist herself.

Everyone knows that science is based on observation. But to observe nature scientifically is not to stare at it. If I were merely to stare at the stars for the next twenty years I still shouldn’t learn anything about stars. The kind of observing that science does is an observing that is guided by theoretical insights. These insights uncover the deep regularities undergirding what can be observed. Where do these theoretical insights come from, ultimately? They are produced by the word, the logos, the rationality of God, the word that became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth; for through this word both nature itself and the human mind were fashioned.

How big is the baby? Very big. He who was born in Bethlehem is the Word of God incarnate. All things were made through him. He is the outer expression of God’s “innerness”. And by him God’s “innerness” has been imprinted on the “outerness” of nature. Scientific discovery never distances us from God, never contradicts the truth of God, never points people toward atheism. On the contrary, to uncover scientifically the rationality imprinted indelibly on the creation is ultimately to ask for the ground of nature’s intelligibility. The one, sufficient ground of nature’s intelligibility can only be the intelligibility or word or logos of God himself.

II: — How big is the baby? Big enough to embrace not just someone here and someone over there; big enough, rather, to embrace all men and women everywhere. All humankind, without exception, is summoned and invited to become sons and daughters of God. To receive the Word made flesh; to receive Jesus Christ in faith, says John, to embrace the one who has already embraced us is to find ourselves rendered children of God.

A minute ago we spoke of the rationality or order in creation. Without such rationality scientific investigation would be impossible; more to the point, without such rationality or order life would be impossible. No one could survive in a world where bread nourished us one day but poisoned us the next; where water doused fire one day but fuelled fire the next. Without elemental order to the universe human existence would be impossible. And yet while this elemental order perdures in a fallen world, the fact that the world is fallen means that the dimension of disorder is always with us. Disease, for instance, is a manifestation of disorder.

Yet the disorder in the natural realm is slight compared to the disorder in the human mind and heart. We men and women are fallen creatures. We are alienated from God in mind and heart. Because we are alienated from God in mind and heart we are disordered in ourselves; in addition, we are an infectious source of disorder in nature. The environmentalists never weary of reminding us of this fact: we human beings are an infectious source of a huge disorder in nature. The environmentalists don’t understand, however, that we are such inasmuch as we are disordered in ourselves and unable to restore order in ourselves.

It is as we embrace the word incarnate who has already made us and embraced us; it is as we become children of God through faith in the Son of God that alienation from God gives way to reconciliation. Mind and heart, disordered to this point, begin to be re-ordered. We are on the road to recovery, and we are guaranteed utmost restoration.

How big is the baby? The word made flesh is big enough to embrace every last man and woman. The word made flesh, our Hebrew foreparents would remind us, is also strong enough, effective enough, to render us all children of God and keep us such until that day when nothing will even threaten to separate us from him.

III: — Lastly, John tells us that out of the fullness of the Word-become-flesh you and I have received, and will always receive, grace upon grace. To say that the Word has become flesh is to say that Jesus Christ has taken on our humanity in its totality; he has taken on our humanity in its exhilaration, its weakness, its frustration, its sin and its mortality. And this humanity, yours and mine, is so surrounded by the goodness and kindness and mercy and wisdom and undeflectable purpose of God, so steeped in the grace of God, says John, that we are always receiving “grace upon grace”. To say that we are set behind and before by the grace of God isn’t to say that God is indulgent or tolerant or blind in one eye. But it is to say that there is a gracious persistence in God as he pardons us, assists us, and takes up whatever is done to us and whatever we do to ourselves and uses it all as only he can as he moves us toward a restoration so complete as to bring glory to him and adoration out of us.

How big is the baby? So very big that out of the fullness of Jesus Christ we shall always receive grace upon grace and nothing but grace. The Lord who knows my profoundest needs better than I know them myself will always supply what I need most. It would be a very small Lord who gave me what I wanted, or gave me what I thought I needed. If I were given what I wanted or thought I needed I should only be confirmed in my superficiality and cemented into my immaturity. Yet so big is the incarnate one that he gives me not what confirms me in my disorder, but precisely what moves me a step closer to my recovery and restoration in him.

When I was ordained and appointed to a seacoast village I spent hours at the beach watching the Atlantic. Hundreds of metres out to sea a wave emerged from the ocean’s immensity. It broke on the beach, flooding the sand. Before the wave wholly receded, however, another wave broke on the beach and flooded the sand. Now the sand was flooded both by the incoming wave and the outgoing wave; that is, the sand was always flooded. And then a third waved surged onto the beach before the second one (even the first) had had time to recede. Wave upon wave. One day as I stood on the beach before the Atlantic and watched wave upon wave I understood what John meant when he wrote, “Out of God’s fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”

It all adds up to this. God’s immensity is always flooding us with grace. However much we blunder, our blunder cannot ungrace us. When our faith flickers and we feel like a half-believer at best, our flickering faith won’t expel us from the sphere and realm of grace. When we are proud and need humbling; when we are dispirited and need encouraging; when we are bruised and need comforting; when our resilience is shaken and we need reassurance; whatever our profoundest need the immensity of grace will always prove sufficient. The Word made flesh is this big.

At the beginning of the sermon I said that for our Hebrew foreparents a word is charged with power. It is an event that, unleashed, alters reality in a way that can never be undone. For our Gentile foreparents a word is the inner principle of a thing, its rationality, how it works. John brought these two senses together when he spoke of Jesus Christ as the Word of God made flesh.

The rationality of the incarnate word is mirrored in the structure of creation and in the structure of human thinking, thus facilitating scientific investigation. The recreative power of the incarnate word is able to render us children of God, thus remedying our disorder. The grace of the incarnate word is fathomless, thus proving daily that Jesus Christ is deeper than our deepest need.
Then John’s cry must elicit an identical exclamation from us; namely, that to behold the Word made flesh is to behold glory, glory without rival and without end.

Victor Shepherd
Advent 2009