I am a language nerd.
I love learning languages and love learning about language. I love learning about human speech. Most of the non-fiction books I have read in my life are about language or linguistics.
I love learning about phonetics—the sounds of a language; phonology—how those sounds interact; about morphology—how the bits of meaning are put together to make words; about syntax—how the words are put together to make sentences; semantics—what those words mean; socio-linguistics—how the words we say and the way we pronounce them are influenced by social factors; historical linguistics—how languages evolved from a common ancestor to the modern tongues we speak today; and etymology—where our words came from.
That last one is particularly interesting and my students will often make fun of me behind my back about it. The phrase “a Mark Schaefer sermon” means one in which there are appeals to the original Greek or Hebrew of a Biblical passage.
But I do love learning about the origins of words. I love learning, for example, that the word lord comes from the Old English hlafweard, which means “loaf ward” or “keeper of the bread.” I love learning that church comes to us from German by way of the Greek kiriakon meaning “(house of) the lord”. I love learning that bishop comes from the Greek episkopos “overseer” and that priest is the worn down form of prebyteros, which means “elder.” (As an aside, after I was ordained elder, whenever someone would ask me if I were a priest I’d say, “Linguistically, yes; theologically, no.”)
I love learning that apocalypse means “uncovering” (the way that Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso meant “discovery”). I love learning that Paul means “shorty.” That Andrew means “manly” and Philip means “horse-lover.” I love learning that Jesus’ name Yeshua is short for Yehoshua which means “Yahweh saves.” I mean, really, how cool is that?
I love words.
It’s probably no coincidence that my favorite comedian was George Carlin who made a career out of pointing out words and their supposed and real meanings. Who talked about the seven words that were so powerful you couldn’t say them on television for some reason (and then proceeded to say them). I won’t say them here—you can look them up later. Just turn your “safe search” off before you go looking.
I love the wonder that is language. The sound, shape, feel, structure, relationships, history, meaning, use, and origin of words.
So, I cannot help but wonder: when we say that Jesus is the “Word of God made flesh”—what on earth do we mean by that?
II. THE TEXT
In the Gospel lesson this morning, we heard read from John’s enigmatic Prologue:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. … The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The Incarnation of the Word. A beautiful and powerful hymn full of mystery and wonder.
The Divine Word of God through which all things came into being, became flesh and dwelled among us. Jesus is the Word made Flesh. Behind all the beautiful nativity stories lies this profound theological truth. Behind every Away in a Manger is a Verbum Caro Factum Est “The word is made flesh.” Behind every “The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” lies a “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing…”
It’s interesting to note that this understanding of Jesus is not limited to Christians. In the Qur’an, Jesus is identified as:
Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, a prophet of God and his Word, delivered to Mary, and a Spirit from him.
So, there are some 3.7 billion people on earth who belong to faiths that proclaim Jesus as the Word of God. It’s beautiful, but what on earth could that possibly mean? What does it mean to talk about a word becoming flesh?
III. THE WORD IN THE SCRIPTURES
Well, as a language nerd, my first recourse is to reference works. Maybe it’s just a function of translation after all. The Bible wasn’t written in English, so maybe it’s just an odd concept that we inherited and something is lost in translation.
Sure enough, in Greek, the word logos, translated as “word” has a number of different meanings. In consulting my expository dictionaries and Biblical concordances, I came across the following:
logos: word, saying, speech, announcement, account, discourse, subject-matter, reckoning, plea, motive, reason.
I will confess, that didn’t necessarily clear anything up. Think of Jesus as the Discourse of God made Flesh, doesn’t give us any additional clarity. Well, so maybe it’s not a problem with the Greek after all. Maybe it’s the Hebrew. Maybe John is just translating a term from the Hebrew into the Koine Greek of the New Testament.
So, I looked up the Hebrew word dabar to see what it might have to offer.
dabar: speech, word, message, report, advice, counsel, request, promise, decision, theme, story, saying, title, name, matter, affair, business, occupation, act, deed, event, thing, cause, case, something, anything, way, manner, reason.
Okay, so that didn’t help. It turns out that the use of the concept of the “Word of God” is a far more complex phenomenon than we might have at first realized.
It is most frequently noted that the term logos that appears in John’s gospel is a term borrowed from Greek Stoicism. In Stoicism, the logos is the rational principle of the universe. It is the divine mind that lies behind all things. The Stoics were counseled to adapt to the divine logos that governed all things. They did not believe that the world was ruled by chance, but by reason. Happiness lay within conforming to this reason.
That’s clearly not what John is talking about. If that is the meaning of logos for John, then that Logos doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Gospel. John’s Jesus does not talk about conforming to divine reason, he talks about placing your trust in God and in God’s love and mercy. In the Epistles of John we read that “God is love”—not “God is reason.”
B. First Century Judaism
But, it’s possible that John is using the term not in a strictly Hellenistic way, but in a Jewish-flavored way. Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish writer, used logos as well. But he used it to mean the “creative plan of God that governs the world.” It’s a Jewish take on the Greek idea, but it’s still not really that close to the person of Jesus for us. No, looking at the contemporary Judeo-Hellenistic understandings of the word “word” are only going to take us so far. We need to go Old School. By which, of course, I mean Old Testament.
C. The Hebrew Bible
It is clear in any event that the prologue to John’s gospel draws on the imagery of the Old Testament, particularly the creation account of the first chapter of Genesis.
“In the beginning…”
begins John’s prologue, which harkens back to the Genesis account, which begins in precisely the same way.
“… was the Word and the Word was with God … “
This continuation draws not from the Creation narrative per se but from elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures in what is known as the “Wisdom Literature.” In this body of writings in the Hebrew Bible, we encounter Wisdom (influenced by the Greek Sophia)—a personal being standing beside God “over and against, but not unconcerned with, the created world.” The major difference here is that sophia and its Hebrew equivalent hochmah are grammatically feminine while logos is grammatically masculine. So, while it looks like John has retooled the concept a little bit so as to align with the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s close. And while Jesus is certainly representative of a creative power, his signs and wonders create wine from water and raise the dead, Jesus is far more than simply a “creative principle” for us. If that’s what “Word of God” is supposed to mean for us, even that falls short.
“…and the Word was God…”
But the word of God isn’t done after the Creation. It continues throughout the entire salvation history of the people. That same word comes through the revelation of the Covenant at Sinai and written down on the Tablets of the Law. That word comes to the prophets throughout history, impelling them to speak that same word to the people and to the powers and principalities of the world, as with Jeremiah:
Then the LORD stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me, “I’m putting my words in your mouth. This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.”
That word comes to the people in exile and offers them a word of comfort and a call to turn back and be healed.
The Word becomes synonymous with both God’s speech and God’s deeds. What God says and what God does are the same thing. In fact, sometimes quite literally: when God creates, God creates by speaking. God declares Godself to be the people’s God. God pronounces forgiveness and mercy. God declares a new covenant. God provides a vision. All of these things through speech, which means that God’s words are God’s deeds. Unlike us, who say one thing and do another, God’s speaking is God’s doing.
But even more to the point; God’s self-revelation is who God truly is. God’s communication, God’s Word is God. “..and the Word was God…”
This is probably the hardest for us to understand because we don’t have the same alignment between our self-revelation and our reality. Just looking at our Facebook profiles will tell us that much. And so often our words are used not to reveal our true selves, but to conceal who we are. We speak the reality about ourselves that we wish were true, whether it’s about how together we all are, how popular and busy we are, or what work is keeping us occupied. “I’m a free lance journalist.” (Read: I post on my blog about current events.) “I am an apparel specialist.” (Read: I fold clothes at Old Navy.) “I am a wildlife enthusiast.” (Read: I like watching the birds in my backyard.)
But not so with God: God’s word is as God does is as God is. “…and the Word was God…”
IV. THE WORD MADE FLESH
And this gets to the heart of the matter for us.
If Jesus is the Word made Flesh than Jesus is as God is. Now, when most people talk about Jesus being God they frequently do so to either defend our creedal orthodoxy or to give to Jesus the power and authority of God (and thus lord that same power over those whom they dislike). But if we really think about what it means to say Jesus is the Word of God, we encounter a truly powerful message.
For if there is an equivalency for God in saying, doing, and being, then we learn some important things about God. Jesus extends mercy to those who have wronged him and speaks to us that we should do likewise. Jesus speaks truth to power and commands us to place our loyalties not in the things of the world. Jesus heals the sick, feeds the hungry, casts out our afflictions, eats meals with the disreputable. Jesus lives out a way of living that models an alternative to the self-interested, power and mammon seeking lives that we are inclined to live. And most of all, Jesus comes to us where we are: “…and the Word became flesh and made a home among us…”
All of these things reveal the reality of God: the loving, merciful, forgiving, just, righteous, healing, caring, and present. As Jesus says and does, God is, because Jesus is God’s word made flesh.
A. The Metaphor in the Flesh
Nowhere in the scriptures, do we ever encounter God’s word in its original. God’s Word never comes to us in the original God-ese. It comes in Hebrew, or Aramaic, or Greek. It comes to us in our idiom, limited though it may be. As a result, God uses a lot of metaphors when speaking in human language. Because our language can only approximate the divine reality. But God makes do with the tools at hand.
And so in a way, Jesus is a metaphor in the flesh. To the extent a human being is capable of revealing the heart of God, that is what Jesus is. We can describe God in human words and human metaphors: love, Lord, King, Savior, Father, Mother, Spirit, Wisdom, Mercy, Grace, Shepherd, Bakerwoman, Vintner…, or we can look at Jesus and encounter those metaphors in the flesh. The Word of God made Flesh. Jesus is God’s self-revelation in Human-ese.
V. THE WORD HAPPENS
There is one last point to be made.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, whenever the Word of God comes to a prophet the scriptures usually say something like, “The LORD’s word came to me…” as it does in this morning’s lesson from Jeremiah.
Only, that’s what it says in English. In Hebrew the Word doesn’t come, it doesn’t arrive, it happens. A literal translation would be “The Lord’s word happened to me….”
That means that the Word of God is not a linguistic curiosity to explore. It is not to be parsed down to its phonetic detail, and have its morphology and syntax analyzed. It is meant to be experienced. And that experience for us is the experience of Jesus.
But it is also a reminder that if we are to share that word with a broken and hurting world, we have to do so through experience as well. It is not enough for someone to hear about the love of God from us, they have to experience it through us. It is one thing to talk about justice; it is another thing to embody that justice so that it might be experienced by others. It is one thing to talk about the Kingdom of God, it is another thing to help someone to experience the love, grace, and communion of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
In the end, understanding Jesus as the Word of God is a reminder to us that the Word of God is not known in words alone, but in us. The word may be comprehensible in speech, but it takes on power in the flesh.
We are, after all, the church, the Body of Christ (to use another metaphor), the continuing and ongoing incarnation of the Word in the World. We are called to be the vessels through whom Christ continues to be known and God is experienced in the world.
And if Christ is to be made known, it will not be in our words alone but in our deeds and in our very being. When we are capable not only of talking about the love of God, but of doing it and being it, then we truly testify to the Word of God who became flesh and dwelled among us.
Jeremiah 1:1–10 • These are the words of Jeremiah, Hilkiah’s son, who was one of the priests from Anathoth in the land of Benjamin. The Lord’s word came to Jeremiah in the thirteenth year of Judah’s King Josiah, Amon’s son, and throughout the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son, until the fifth month of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah, Josiah’s son, when the people of Jerusalem were taken into exile.
The Lord’s word came to me:
“Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations.” “Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child.” The Lord responded, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’ Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say. Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you,” declares the Lord. Then the Lord stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me, “I’m putting my words in your mouth. This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.”
John 1:1–14 • In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light.
The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God. The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
 Anchor Bible Dictionary, citing Barret, The Gospel According to St. John, 153.