In the name of God, source of all being, eternal Word and Holy Spirit Amen
We got 2 real corkers of Bible readings set for today. One of my favourite bits of St Paul’s writings which starts with Christ as the image of the invisible God. Paul being his most mystical, but also trying to put into words for people who Jesus was. No doubt at some point I will wax lyrical on this passage but not today, because the other passage was the unforgettable beginning to John’s gospel.
In the beginning was the word – really grabbed my attention. For us this passage is really associated with Christmas, but once every 3 years it pops up in this time between the end of Epiphany and the start of Lent. Not having to wrap up what I say about it into a message for Christmas means, in this instance, I can talk about the strength and the wonder of the description of Jesus as the Word. I am going to start off with 3 different illustrations of how reliant we are on words and what words bring to us, and then looking at how Jesus as the Word makes sense and what a powerful illustration this is. So first let’s think about how reliant we are on words and what words bring to us.
Firstly, if I were to attempt to preach this sermon without using the spoken or written word, we would be in for a very long video or piece of writing. If I were doing it in person – we might end up having to play something like a very long and painful game of charades – where I acted out the various things I wanted to convey. Clearly this would take ages, be ineffective as it would be subject to significant and inevitable misinterpretation!!!
Secondly – when thinking about the importance of words and what words bring to us. When I was 11, I went on holiday to Tenerife with my family. I took Alfred here with me. Now none of my family speak Spanish (I am actually a very poor linguist in fact!) with some schoolgirl French and some holiday Italian. Anyway, Alfred got swept up in the laundry when the bedding was changed. He is only a small bear after all. I searched high and low for him for a couple of days and in the end we worked out what must have happened. But that was when the problems really started. We realised we needed to speak to the chambermaid to find out if Alfred had been found in the laundry. In the end because we didn’t have the words to say to her and be understood, I drew a picture of Alfred and we did our best signs and symbols with the chambermaid to be understood. This included speaking slowly in English (which was very silly as she did not understand a word!). Thankfully after about 10 minutes of this rather strange way of communicating with one another, she went into the laundry store and Alfred was liberated!!! And the lost bear was found.
On another occasion in my time as an IT professional, I went on a business trip to Holland. When I arrived at the Hotel where I was staying one of my hosts had left an envelope in reception. I took the envelope upstairs with me to my room. After a comfort break, I turned my attention to the envelope. I rapidly headed back downstairs as I couldn’t read it. As the instructions for when I would be picked up for dinner and all the other information in the letter were written in Dutch. And I needed a translater! It is very difficult when we cannot share words with each other that are the basis of communication. In both these instances it took a long time to really understand each other and we needed help from a picture or an interpreter to guide the communication.
The third way into these thoughts about how reliant we are on words and what words bring to us is pretty challenging. A while back now I did a placement with a chaplain at a Specialist school and further education college for severely disabled children and young people. It was a terrific but extremely challenging experience. Not only did one third of the young people have conditions that meant their lives would be limited, another third were unable to speak. They used a variety of ways of making themselves understood again of course all based on words. Some used electronic devices after significant effort the device spoke the sentences they wanted to say. It meant conversation was very slow. Lots of very long pauses. I struggled to tune in to the electronic voices. It was difficult as the voice didn’t match the person often (and they often were very American). I had to be really careful not to feel I needed to fill the spaces in the conversation or ask the young person multiple questions in the time it took to construct each sentence they wanted to say to fill the very long pauses.
Another alternative, even more difficult than the talking devices was the use of books full of symbols to convey what someone wanted to say. This method was used when the youngster did not have the dexterity to operate the talking machines. There was a painstaking process of helping the young person to find the symbols for the words in their books to string a sentence together. Frustrating – and really difficult to be understood. Young people often had to be encouraged to keep trying to communicate – it was easier to give up and live shut off from those around them. When I was with the chaplain, one of the teenagers who could only communicate with one of these books came to talk to him. I have rarely been so aware that someone was very upset and distressed about something, but also that we completely failed to work out from trying to use the communication book what was upsetting him. In those circumstances there were real questions about life and death for these young people and what life is all about? And all we were was really lost for words and unable to get to grips with his problems. I have rarely felt so powerless and so distressed over someone who wanted to be heard and understood and just wasn’t. We can tell a lot from how someone is physically, but unless we can share meaning through words, it can be very difficult to get a sense of what is really going on. We can’t really get a full understanding. There are other circumstances – strokes and so forth that leave people locked in themselves like this too. Just very, very difficult.
After those 3 illustrations – we can see that our words are immensely powerful. They bring meaning and understanding. Sharing that meaning and understanding is as John’s gospel puts it – the life that is the light of all people. By saying Jesus is the Word – it is saying that Jesus is at the heart of all meaning and understanding and the essence of our communication with one another and our lives. This is such a very very powerful statement indeed. For me one of the critical points of understanding in the Christian faith is the recognition of Jesus occupying the central part of our life. The recognition that when we share with those around us and gain meaning, understanding and love from those we communicate with. All of that is a demonstration or reflection of God’s love for us. This is in all our experiences of human communication, care and love.
In all our interactions God is really present with us. The God who was with the word Jesus from the beginning and the God we know, also breathes and dwells with us through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus left with us. This passage brings together the aspects of the Trinity. The word (Jesus) was with God and the word Jesus gave power us to become children of God – which is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Jesus as word gives meaning and purpose to life, is also the light that shines in darkness. And the darkness cannot and will not ever overcome that. This is something we need to be extremely thankful for. There is also the sense that we have that God is with us in the good times and the bad, and there is nothing no matter how bleak or painful that can separate us from God’s love for us. And you don’t need me to tell you that it is rough going at the moment. Yet there is nothing that God cannot love us through and gently guide us through and bring meaning and purpose to and the strength we need for the journey. God will be with us forever loving us in this world and the next. That love is something that no darkness can take away. Our experiences today of all this are just a foretaste of the intimacy and joy that dwelling in and with God for eternity will be like.
To finish, I began this sermon with the words – In the name of God, source of all being, eternal Word and Holy Spirit. This brings to the fore Jesus as the Word – The Word as all our experiences of love, meaning and understanding. The Word for yesterday, the word for today and the word for all our tomorrows in this world and the next. Thank you God for Jesus our eternal word, our meaning and our light. Amen
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995