Message from January 2, Second Sunday of Christmas

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

My wife and I moved to Bettendorf many years ago from Des Plaines, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Before that we lived in downtown state Illinois where we grew up and attended college.

One lesson we immediately learned is that Iowa and Illinois are very different states, even though they neighbor each other along the Mississippi River. Illinois has a diverse character strongly influenced by the Chicago-St. Louis axis running through the state, while Iowa has a more rural character. There are other differences. Too often it seems the only commonality the two states share is an aversion to snow, ice and subzero temperatures in winter.

Nowhere is the difference between Iowa and Illinois become more apparent than in the area of politics. Illinois manages political processes largely through closely knit organizations often derisively referred to as machines. Candidates for office may be named and issues settled in closed door meetings between strong party leaders. Iowa, on the other hand, has no machines and often, it seems, every candidate is on his or her own. Iowa candidates stand more on their merits or political ideologies, rather than representing one political organization or the other.

I learned about Iowa/ Illinois political differences the first year we lived here. The presidential caucus process was well underway.  I read in the newspaper George McGovern, the U. S. Senator and former presidential candidate would meet with interested individuals at a home in Davenport. I went to the meeting and found McGovern sitting on a chair in front of a fireplace, speaking with anyone who stopped to talk. I couldn’t believe it. That sort of thing didn’t happen in Illinois. We never saw candidates for high office in the flesh, discussing issues with ordinary voters. Illinois candidates appeared at large rallies or on television. They never sat leisurely in the living room of a home in Decatur, or Quincy or Belleville or Peoria. It just didn’t happen.

I will tell you, seeing someone in the flesh changes your perception of that person. Watching a candidate drive by in a motorcade or deliver a speech to hundreds or thousands of people reveals little or nothing about that individual’s values, character or thought processes. Person to person contact reveals an individual as nothing else does. In the flesh counts.

Let’s tie this insight into our gospel for this Sunday. A line in the text deserves attention and reads like this: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John says God’s Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. He adds we see God’s glory in Jesus. Though fully human, God reveals his Word and glory in the person, in the flesh, of Jesus. What does in the flesh imply?

The Gospel concludes: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” God discloses himself and purpose in Christ.

Reading this passage from the Gospel of John, we notice a difference from the other three Gospel. Mark, for example, says nothing about the birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke have much to say about Jesus’s birth in two stories heavy on narrative description. We learn about Wise men and shepherds, a manger and barn in Bethlehem. It’s the stuff Christmas cards are made of. A very colorful, visual, appealing, emotional account of how of Jesus being born.

The Gospel of John, however, sets aside that description of the birth of Jesus, in favor of a dramatic, overarching statement of God’s intention to act through Jesus Christ. The gospel begins with these words; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This opening line soars, reaches back to the very beginning of creation. The trumpet fanfare from the movie 2001: Space Odyssey ought to be played, as the words are read.

You may recall the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: Space Odyssey told the story of American space travelers drawn toward a new understanding, not only of the universe, but of humankind. The late film critic, Roger Ebert summarized the film’s plot this way. “What Kubrick is saying, apparently, is that man will eventually outgrow his machines, or be drawn beyond by some cosmic awareness. He will then become a child again, but a child of an infinitely more advanced race, just as apes once became, to their dismay, the infant stage of man.” Kubrick, like the nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, believes humanity will progress or evolve to a newer and higher state of being, leaving the need for God behind in the process.

The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offers a different assessment of human potential. He wrote: “We have, or ought to have learned, particularly from the tragedies of contemporary history, that each new development of life, whether individual or social terms, presents us with new possibilities of realizing the good in history; but that we also face new hazards on each level and that the new level of historic achievement offers us no emancipation from contradictions and ambiguities to which all life in history is subject.” Niebuhr argues we never outgrow our humanness and imperfections. The capacity for good and evil grow with each other.  We build better weapons and medicines simultaneously. We remain both creative and destructive, redeemed, and sinful. We forever require the redemption of God.

 Luther once said we are sinful and justified. For this reason, we gladly hear God’s word and purpose are made flesh in Jesus. Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher, and Stanley Kubrick, film maker, and the others like them, pin their hopes for humanity evolving to a higher state. As Christians, we recognize our need for God, his grace and redemption, here and now in the flesh.

God enters our world through Christ. He takes flesh because he understands the need for redemption in a real and tangible way. The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians: “With all wisdom and insight God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time together up all things in heaven and things on earth.” In the flesh proclaims God takes seriously our redemption in the present. He does so in a direct, clear, and unambiguous statement in the person of Jesus Christ. There is nothing abstract, theoretical, or impossible about what is expected of us. He reveals through Jesus Christ in the flesh what it means to be a child of God. We see it with our eyes.

As we begin a new year, we offer thanks God reveals his grace and truth in Jesus Christ and destines us to be his children through this revelation. We cannot see God. We cannot receive salvation without God. But by believing God makes himself known in the flesh of Jesus Christ, we have been marked by the Holy Spirit and destined to receive our redemption. Amen

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.