Do you know? I’ve always been fascinated by words.
I used to delight in reading a thesaurus, looking at words and trying to get a sense of how they were similar, yet different. This interest is something I share with a number of my friends, and I am frequently found asking a friend or my husband for another word that is like the only word that came to my mind. I like to find the right meaning with the words I am using.
Because words are important.
We have spoken words, written words, sung words, and painted words. We memorize words, we have word pictures, and we play on words. We quote people’s words and place words into memorable sayings, parables, fables, stories, and poems. Words have evolved, and words have developed different meanings from generation to generation. There are new words being created every day.
Our primary way of communicating with one another is with words: which is why words are so important. We are often asked to watch our words, to weigh them carefully, to mark them attentively, and to choose what we use them for wisely.
When being trained in the art of homiletics, or preaching, words are both a joy and a curse. Pastors and seminarians pour over the words in the Bible, in English, German, Hebrew, Greek, and many other languages in order to understand what is meant in this particular sentence by the use of this particular word. Sometimes the intended meaning is lost in translation; sometimes we no longer know what was meant by a word at all; sometimes a word was transcribed wrongly and the meaning is changed forever; and sometimes authors have added more words to aid in a better understanding. We study the words at their foundation and still look to other scholars for their interpretations of the words written so very long ago. It can take hours, days, weeks, months, years before a preacher might say that they know what certain words are saying. Sometimes it’s never clear and no one knows. And some very smart, and wise, preachers would never say that they knew anything about the words of the Bible, not really.
A preacher takes their learning and gleanings to then create a sermon with words that are intended to be understood by the listeners. Granted, not every sermon is successfully understood. I don’t imagine that you remember every word a pastor speaks from the pulpit, or from this general area. I can tell you honestly that I don’t remember every word that I speak, and I have it written down!
There are okay sermons, and bad, oh so bad, sermons and really, really good sermons that stand the test of time. There is a hope that every word is placed with care and thought. Every time I sit down to write a sermon, I weigh my words carefully, pausing to think and rearrange, typing in fits and starts, bursts of this rhythmic and mesmerizing dance of fingers across the keyboard, carefully creating a word picture that I hope will convey a message that relates somehow to the lessons for the day.
More than that, and I think most importantly: I pray that God would speak through my limited creative endeavours of interpreting what I have studied so that The Word is proclaimed and heard by the congregation that I have come to care deeply for. Because God’s Word is what I strive to point to. As have many preachers throughout time who are keen to share the Gospel.
Martin Luther is known by many for his sermon writing abilities. Luther was a teacher and a lecturer; and he wrote lengthy sermons. Reading a Luther sermon is a bit like attending a presentation for some topic that you only had an inkling of interest in. I find these sermons to be fascinating, but honestly, they take me an incredible amount of concentration because they are often ultimately dry and hard to follow at points. Over the years I have learned that Luther would preach from a pulpit, and it really was a lot like a university lecture, and parishioners would stand the entire time! Try falling asleep that way!
Because the Bible was produced in the common language during Luther’s time, many of his sermons were systematically and specifically addressing the words that were used to translate ancient texts into something readable by the world.
The Christmas sermon that Luther wrote for today’s gospel text spends almost the entire length concerned with breaking down the segments of text and explaining the author’s intent, as well as the history for the content. I think that the reason he did this was because this particular text is arguably the most important piece of scripture concerned with telling us who Jesus Christ is. It creatively ties the all the bible stories, through time, together. It also relates directly to our creeds, their history, and the controversy surrounding the divinity of Christ.
In the early church, the person of Jesus was hotly debated. Discovering the true meaning of words used to tell about Christ were scrutinized and placed under metaphorical microscopes. Was Christ divine or human? How can God be born of a human? Did Christ exist before all of creation or was he created?
The writer of the gospel of John makes a clear statement: In the beginning. The writer is tying directly into the root of everything through the opening words in the book of Genesis, and creating a proclamation of faith: this incredible assertion that Jesus Christ, the light of the world; the Word of God existed before all of creation. Yet, is distinct from God because God the speaker cannot be the Word itself. Yet, is also God. “The threefold claim, ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ reveals the origin of Jesus, his relationship with God, and his identity as God.”[i]
Then we are told that this light of God shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it: this Word of God, Jesus Christ, brings and is this eternal promise of grace and truth in creation. It can never be overcome by sin, suffering, pain, hurt – ever – because Christ has given his entire being to a promise of forgiveness and life everlasting. So, the Word of God comes to dwell with us out of love for us. This dwelling – or presence in the community – of God is a deeply intimate and personal thing. The really cool thing about the Christ as the Word made flesh and dwelling among us is that now God not only goes where God’s people go, but is who they are. Throughout the history of the relationship of God to humanity – God is now with us by becoming what we are. God is not only with us, but is us.
From the Word of God, we learn the heart of God. There is this German proverb that Luther shares in his Christmas Day sermon: “Of what the heart is full, overfloweth out of the mouth.”[ii] From there he goes on to say that: “all the world knows that nothing represents the condition of the heart so perfectly and so positively as the words of the mouth, just as though the heart were in the word.”[iii]
So it is with the Word of God. The Triune God is a heart of Love, so God speaks words of love into our midst. The Word of God becoming flesh and being with us is showing the world what love is.
Imagine if you will, the absolute biggest and the absolute smallest manifestations of life energy that you can: all that God created.
Now, imagine all of that contained within the mystery of a vulnerable human life. That beginning and end, the immensity of all creation, is the Word of God, this Christ-child who was born to two faithful and devoted children of God.
It’s interesting to me that all of the controversies of who Jesus Christ is seem to be complications of understanding words that were written by the hand of humankind.
Our professions of faith, through the words of the creeds, is our attempt to find the best words to describe our belief in God. Our actions through partaking of the wine and bread proclaim that the Word was there before all things began. Christ was there before anything was created, before any sin was committed, beside God in all things and through all time.
He became human so that by his actions we might better understand the Word of God.
Christ is the Word. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is resurrection and everlasting.
All of those words, and their meanings as we understand them, are given through the resurrection, the death, and life of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate this day.
Thanks be to God that this precious and incredible life, the light to all people, the true light, the love of God, has come into the world! Amen.
[ii] Martin Luther. “Sermon for the Principal Christmas Service; John 1:1-14. Christ’s Titles of Honor; His Coming: His Incarnation; and the Revelation of His Glory.” A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil, 1521-1522, (15).
Karoline Lewis. “Commentary on John 1:(1-9), 10-18.” Preach this Week, Working Preacher.
David Lose. “An Unsentimental Christmas Sermon.” Dear Working Preacher, December 30, 2013.
Martin Luther. “Sermon for the Principal Christmas Service; John 1:1-14. Christ’s Titles of Honor; His Coming: His Incarnation; and the Revelation of His Glory.” A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil, 1521-1522, (15).
Peter Woods. “I Think to Myself, ‘What a Wonderful Word’, Christmas Eve/Day.” The Listening Hermit. December 19, 2009.