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December 29, 2019

Reason Became Meat

Preacher:
Passage: John 1:1-18
Service Type:

I usually stress how essential good translation is to understand the Bible rightly. Today is the rare exception. The opening chapter of John’s[1] gospel is too familiar, so beloved and time-worn that we forget its scandal. So in this instance, I believe we may benefit from a bad translation of the Greek into English. Because John’s first chapter is a scandalous, seemingly blasphemous thing… and you need to appreciate that fact if you want to fully appreciate the Christmas holiday we just celebrated. So hear again a few verses from John’s gospel…

In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God. It was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being… And Reason became meat and pitched its tabernacle tent among us, and we have seen its glory, the glory of a father’s offspring, full of grace and truth.” Again, the NRSV translation Carol read, which you’ll find in your pew Bibles, is better than this one. But my awful reading is helpful… because the words John uses here have more meaning than our English language permits. And holiday sentimentality often causes us to overlook just how scandalous these words are. John quite literally says that reason, that primal wisdom… became meat; adopted not only our human nature but our blood, bones, squishy organs and waste matter. And if that doesn’t make sense, if it offends… well, there’s a reason many of our neighbors of other religions are shocked by the Christian doctrine of Christ’s incarnation. Because while we may overlook John’s real meaning, they do not overlook the scandal of reason becoming meat.

So let’s talk about that first word, which most Bibles correctly translate “The Word” and which I incorrectly rendered as “Reason”. The Greek word is Logos. When John the disciple wrote his gospel, already Logos was a word with definitional baggage. Logos is ancient Greek literally meaning word, speech, reason or discussion. But early Greek philosophers used Logos in their writings to point to something more cosmic they couldn’t explain, saying that logosor reasoned discussion—linked individual human thought and self-discipline… to the wider wisdom and order of the universe. Centuries later, other ancient philosophers like the Stoics saw Logos as the animating force of the cosmos, like the Tao in Chinese Taoism or the Force in Star Wars. To them, Logos was a connecting yet impersonal force that—if you attune to and follow it—can guide you wisely and well. In John’s day, Jewish rabbis knew Greek philosophy, and they saw connections between the Greek Logos and what the Old Testament usually calls Wisdom, especially in books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Those rabbis similarly understood Wisdom or Logos as an impersonal force of the universe, like gravity or time. Wisdom was something God might give the faithful but not a being you could talk to. Yet it was also believed—since God was holy and all-knowing—Wisdom was integral to God’s being and had a role in creation and the rest of God’s mighty deeds. After the resurrection of Jesus, Christians like John the gospel writer adopted that pre-existing term of Logos… and said Jesus was the physical manifestation of Logos to help non-Christian readers understand that Jesus was deeply linked to God the Father yet a distinct person, that in Jesus it’s as if the mind of God walked among us. In those early days Logos was seen as a holy and helpful force… but impersonal, abstract, arcane and hard-to-get, and so John is saying this cosmic wisdom walked among us.

Sometimes… God seems only like the Logos of old philosophy to us. Sometimes we see God only as an abstract, vague idea, more of a belief box to check than a person you can have a relationship with. Sometimes our religion becomes only about the abstract and un-seeable… and we neglect living, breathing sisters and brothers, neighbors, world God has placed around us. Many modern Christians fall into this trap, arguing that the world we live in doesn’t matter because God is above and beyond the mortal plane, so let the place burn and go to ruin for all it matters. Others say that because God is an unknowable force, it’s okay for our own faith to be vague and uncertain, writing off big questions of God and faith as impossible to answer and thus pointless. Conversely, other Christians pridefully claim that—because the Lord is so far above us—only the intelligent can truly know God, and so only the Christian who is smart enough may be saved. In many cases, when God is left an abstract intellectual concept like ancient Greek’s Logos… we pour all our energy into escaping this imperfect life on earth and fail to appreciate all the good things of life, forget that our promised eternity isn’t an escape from but a restoration of this world when God brings about a new heaven and a new earth, ignore the fact that God had a purpose and point to creating this world we’re living on right now and we are not an accident.

And then there’s the other word: what our pew Bibles call “flesh,” my intentionally-bad translation calls “meat,” and what the original Greek terms sarx. Sarx literally means flesh, as in the muscles attached to the bones of a creature, and it can also be used to refer to the creature’s entire body or the creature itself. Think of how hunters use “venison” to speak of both the meat they bring home and the thing they hunted all week. Over time Greek philosophers infused extra meaning into sarx, and so when the word is used in contrast to spiritual or abstract ideas, it means human or earthly nature. But fleshly nature was usually seen as weaker and more corrupt than the spiritual or ideal nature You might say, “The ideal dog has four legs, a long waggly tail, and protects the house. But the dog I have in the flesh has four legs, a short docked tail, and would sleep through any robbery.” Ancient Judaism likewise had a firm division between the things of God and the things of earth. John’s gospel says today, “No one has ever seen God,” and that’s true. Until the New Testament, getting close to the Lord is like playing with fire. In Exodus, Moses asks to see the Lord directly, but God explains “No one can see me and live. In 2 Samuel, when one of King David’s men accidentally bumps up against the ark of the covenant, the man is instantly struck dead. The things of this world are unable to draw close to God in the Old Testament, because the flesh—though created good by the Lord at the dawn of creation—still is so impure, so profane and imperfect… that for it to get close to God is to court disaster.

Of course, the dangers of living for the flesh, for this life and its pleasure alone, are more readily apparent. If we focus on these bodies, this life, and this world of ours alone—to the exclusion of all things spiritual or philosophical—we might fall into wanton hedonism that puts our own pleasure above everything else. Worse yet, when tragedy strikes—whether failure and frustration or death and disease—a person who only focuses on this life alone has no recourse or hope, for they have no faith or larger philosophy to fall back on to make sense of a world gone mad. There can be an earthy wisdom to the flesh: knowing how to use your hands, finding pleasure in your work, taking joy in the small things of life. That is a blessing. But without a spiritual side to connect the dots, all you’re left with are brief moments of joy that have no larger meaning, purpose, or plan. There is much good to say about these bodies, this world, and these lives of ours. But if that’s all we ever care about—no faith, no philosophy, nothing beyond the immediate here and now—then we find ourselves struggling to find meaning, hope, and eternity.

Hold those two ideas in mind—Logos, the animating, primal wisdom of the cosmos for the Greeks… and the fleshy, meaty bodies of our daily living and our human nature—and hear once again John’s words: “And the Word became flesh.” “Reason became meat.” It’s this high, abstract and arcane, ideal thing… descending down into the gritty, sweaty, dirty, imperfect world we live in. It is the timeless truths of reality, deity in full grace and wisdom… donning this sack of blood, guts, and bone. Or as John says right after: “And the Word dwelt among us.” Literally John says that Logostented” among us. That’s a reference to the tabernacle used by Moses and the Israelites in Exodus, a sacred tent around which the glory of the Lord constantly shone. John uses “tented among us” to signal that—just as God was near his people through a sacred tabernacle tent long ago—now the Lord is present to us again as a living, breathing human just as you and me. For the Word—which is the Almighty in the Person of God the Son—has taken on our human nature and human body… and has brought his glory among us. It’s a baffling thing, no? It’s as if I’m saying gravity was once a person, that time walked around on this planet.

It’s easy to get lost talking in abstract terms like I’ve done thus far in my sermon. And I think the Lord knows that. And that’s why God did not send an instruction book or philosophical treatise down to earth to show us his truth. When God desired for us to fully know and have a relationship with him, the Lord came in the flesh as a person named Jesus to whom we could talk to directly, know as a friend, see as an example. When Christians discuss the nature God, we needn’t get into abstract debates about how God can be both human and deity, because we can simply look to Jesus in John’s gospel weeping over his friend’s grave as we mortals weep… and then raising that man to life through divine power. We can bypass many debates on the limits of God’s love by finding Jesus as the holy God… who befriends tax collectors and sinners. We need not get know with academic precision how God can logically show full justice and full mercy, because we see Jesus on the cross. Because when you see Jesus, John’s gospel says, you have the fullness of God revealed to you. And because we have this timeless, eternal Word of God revealed in the human known as Jesus of Nazareth… if we rely on Jesus the Logos-made-flesh for understanding God, we find we dodge all the dangers of a faith of Logos or flesh alone.

This is not a new thing I’m telling you. It is merely an old, beautiful thing that American Christianity often forgets. In the 1960s, Karl Barth wrote, “If we think God [adopting our human nature and body] is impossible, it is because our concept of God is too narrow, too arbitrary, too human. Who God is—and what it means to be divine—are things we must learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature… [And God] has revealed himself in Jesus Christ as the God who [becomes a human like us.]” In similar fashion, John Calvin in the 1500s compared the revelation of God to a parent speaking baby-talk to a child: revelation is a deity far beyond our understanding revealing itself to us in simple terms we can understand. And the best way for us to know God… is for God to become a human like us, for the Word to become flesh. Or as Gregory Nazianus in the 4th century aptly summed it up: “Those parts of human nature which Jesus did not take onto himself… are not redeemed by him.” Or put positively, we know that Jesus has saved us human creatures, and so we know that Jesus adopted our full humanity—nature and body both—so that our entire selves might be freed from sin in his rise in glory.

So what is the point of all this? What good does all this do you? First, remembering the truth of the incarnation—that in Jesus, born on Christmas all those years ago—the eternal God in all his mystery, wisdom, grace and power… took on humanity just like you and me… reminds us that our bodies and minds may be imperfect or flawed at times, but they are nothing in and of themselves to be ashamed of. I once led a high school youth retreat up in the mountains. On our final evening, we had this beautiful time singing, hearing testimonies, and marveling at the beauty of creation. During this intensely spiritual closing prayer, one of my students—Mitch—loudly farted. Immediately the spiritual mood broke up into laughter, and Mitch turned bright red. Without missing a beat, I continued my prayer, “And thank you, Lord, for making farts funny, for giving us bodies that have good digestion, and for giving us good and healthy food that makes us gassy sometimes.” So in the food-demanding, restroom-needing, sleepy or gassy moments of life… do not be ashamed of the practical needs or reality of your body. Walking this earth as Jesus, God certainly wasn’t ashamed of our bodily needs. When fancy preachers or life’s troubles pose questions you cannot answer on your own, remember that the fullness of God is not revealed in a chart or slideshow presentation… but in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, a person whom anyone can know, believe in and love. And when we have those big, abstract questions about God, we can find courage and guidance by looking most of all to Jesus and how his life reflects those answers, for Jesus fully reveals the nature, power and love of God to us. Finally, we can embrace the central point of John 1, the words at the very heart of this chapter and thus the reason for all this: the Word of God became human in Jesus so that we humans could become the children of God. Praise be to God for this great news. Amen.

 


[1] There is common confusion in this gospel over the two main Johns whom Jesus knew. The author of this gospel according to tradition was John the disciple, who together with James was a son of Zebedee. Out of humility, the tradition goes, John never mentions himself by name. Instead, he says “the disciple Jesus loved” whenever he as a role in his own gospel. In contrast, John the Baptist is directly named in this gospel, since he is a separate person. So whenever John’s gospel calls someone John by name, it is talking about John the Baptist. Whenever it wants to talk about the disciple John after whom the gospel is named, it instead says “the disciple Jesus loved.”

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