A Christmas Text
How much information can you put in one text message? Not that much. At this time of year, with all the kids home, I'm party to many a text message. At midnight on New Year's Eve, it's a cacophony of trills, tones, vibrations and gyrations. And what is the profundity being conveyed? "Happy New Year." Yeah that was worth standard text messaging rates. But can you blame the senders? The standard text message is limited to 152 characters, spaces included. Well that stripped down Gospel reading I just read is 153. Leave out the commas and it's 150. In one Christmas text, the Holy Spirit takes us to eternity, deity, and then to a fantastic voyage.
"In the beginning was the Word," the text begins. The Church fathers spend pages on the importance of the verb "was." Go to any height, limit, time, or space and John says the Word, God the Son, was there already. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," says Genesis 1 and our text message says the Word was there before that. Go as far back in time, as far distant in space as you want and the Word was already there. It's like the U.S. making it to Mars and finding a North Korean flag there.
Our Christmas text message telling us the Word was already there in the beginning is not only surprising, it's also comforting. God from eternity is the Word. He wants to communicate, to reveal Himself, to share Himself. And the only surefire way of doing that is with words. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you can put the wrong words with a picture, can't you? If something I do bothers you or you don't understand it, the only way for you to be certain of what I am doing or mean is if I use words to explain myself. From before the beginning, God reveals that He wants to talk because He reveals Himself as the Word.
When science fiction wants to depict the horror of being lost in deep space how do they usually do that? They show an astronaut breaking free from a tether and floating off into limitless space; they have him saying on the radio, "Is anyone there? Anyone at all?" That much space, that much time, and nothing but silence. Hundreds of radio telescopes around the world are pointed to space listening for signs of intelligent life. Since 1961 there has been a project called SETI going on which stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. They've gotten nothing. In our text message sent from the 90s A.D. God tells He has spoken from before the very beginning.
"In the beginning was the Word," the text begins and goes on to say, "And the Word was with God, and the Word was God." When you're dealing with God the Word you're not dealing with a second rate deity. There's no bigger, more powerful God behind, aside, or in addition to the Word. The Word was God in the fullest and completest sense. When dealing with the Word you're dealing with the highest authority there is. You can't ask for a supervisor, a manger, or the Word's boss.
But don't think by texting us "the Word was God," the Holy Spirit means the Word and God are the same Person. No, our text clears that up by saying, "The Word was with God." If the Holy Spirit had texted us, "The Word was in God," we could understand that to mean there's no distinction between God and the Word. There's identity or sameness. Yes, the Word was God, but since He is with God He is not identical in person to Him.
Don't start singing "Joy to the World." This isn't a Christmas text yet. It is a "Charlie Brown Christmas." In that how do adults sound? You hear noise but no words. WAW, WAW, WAW the teacher says. And that's how God the Word sounds. The Bible says He sounds like many waters. Go to the coast when the surf is high. The pounding is deafening. In Revelation John hears God talking to him sounding like a trumpet. Talk about WAW, WAW, WAW. Psalm 29 says the voice of the Lord breaks cedars and shakes the wilderness. What do you make of that?
Does a sound so powerful that you not only hear it in your ears but feel it in your gut comfort you? Does it tell you to do anything else but be afraid? What about even an ordinary voice that you can't understand? I once worked with a Mexican maintenance crew cleaning boilers. A forklift was lowering a core into a liquid. They were all chattering in Spanish. The foreman came up and asked if I knew what they were saying. I said I didn't. He said, "They're telling you stand back; that's acid." Their rapid, earnest, emphatic speech was lost on me. I knew they were saying something, but I couldn't figure out what.
And this is where our Christmas text message has left us. It's taken us to before eternity to the Word who was God and with God, but at this point we're out to sea. That's what church father Chrysostom says about this text. John "'takes us with him in his flight above the created world leaving the eye to gaze upon emptiness and unlimited expanse'" that exceeds what we can even imagine. The mind is left with no place on which to focus its thought. Chrysostom compares it to sailing along the seashore seeing the villages, trees, and mountains go by and then turning out into the vast sea where you cannot see land. The mind reels. (Ancient Christian Commentary, IVa, 7). The Word of God that was from the beginning speaks with trumpet sounds and the roar of the surf which leaves us adrift, dizzy, and seasick.
Chrysostom goes on to say that being unable to fix our gaze on things above we becomes wearied and have to turn back to things below (Ibid, 7). And that's good because Chesterton said that the beauty of heights can only be appreciated from below. If you look from on high you only make yourself dizzy. The devil is the one who takes us to the top of a high mountain and makes us dizzy; God lets us look at the mountain [from below] (Collected Works, XX, 637). Both Chrysostom and Chesterton warn us about trying to understand God from the heights and redirect us to things below. And into a flesh and blood Body is where the Spirit's Christmas text message takes us: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us."
The 1966 film called "Fantastic Voyage" was about people and a space craft shrunk so small they could be injected into the bloodstream of a body. From the dizzying heights of before eternity and sounds so loud they deafen us and so strange they perplex us, our text injects the Word that was in the beginning into a Body just like ours. Hear Chesterton again, "The theme of the Greek tragedy is the division between God and man; the theme of the Gospelis the union of God and man; and its immediate effects are more tragic" (Collected Works, 543 emphases added).
Yes, while it is comforting to us that the Eternal Word took on flesh and blood in the body of the Virgin Mary; its immediate effects were tragic for the Word. And this was so even before His Passion, crucifixion and death. There was tragedy for the Word not because He became flesh but in the way He did. C. S. Lewis described it this way, "The Eternal being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman's body. If you want to get the hang of it, think of how you would like to become a slug" (Mere Christianity, 155).
I'm reminded of a Twilight Zone episode where a man is imprisoned with 3 others and awakes to find 3 slime trails leaving the room. He's told that he too has been injected with a serum that will dissolve his bones and turn him into a slug. Rather than face that he kills himself. Picturing us becoming a boneless slug gives us some appreciation for the distance God the Word travelled to reach us.
But the Word didn't become a disgusting slug. No He became a Man full of grace and truth. All of the things you know you should be and do, and aren't and don't, Jesus was and did. At Christmas we are easily reminded of all the ways we let people down. Not Jesus. He never let His parents, His siblings, others, or even God down. He always thought, spoke and did the right thing. Hold up the 10 Commandments that so completely convict us to Jesus' life and you see did, did, did.
He was the best of Men. The perfect Man. His stepfather and Mother were so happy with Him. His heavenly Father too couldn't help but boom from heaven how pleased He was with Him. But what does David tell us Jesus declared from the cross? "I am a worm and no man." Because even just our sinfulness warranted that we be judged as slugs; because we've left slime on everything we've touched or tried; because the holiness of God melted us like a slug; because the light God shinned on us could only wither us as slugs under a magnifying glass: Perfect, holy Jesus became a worm, a slug on the cross.
The One full of grace and truth took responsibility for our sins and was punished in our place. Don't think you're pious if you turn away from this. Don't think your thinking "I'm not worthy" pleases God. No what pleases Him is your using the gift of His Son He gives you today. And what does John say He gives in Jesus "grace upon grace?" Your works can't cover your sins; God's grace in Jesus does. Your promise to do better can't cover your sins; God's grace in Jesus does. Your excuses can't cover your sins; God's grace in Jesus does. The highest thanks, the highest praise you give to God this Christmas is to put on the gift of Jesus' blood and righteousness and say, "It fits just fine."
What a text for Christmas! This 150 character Christmas text message forgives us, redeems us, liberates us. Follow the One who sends it not on Twitter, not on Facebook, but in the Book He leaves you and the tweets He sends you. In your Baptism and in the Absolution He instant messages you that you are a new creature, forgiven, and holy. And in Holy Communion, He does what no digital illustration can convey. He enters your body to take you on a fantastic voyage from here in space and time to His Father in eternity. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Christmas Day (20101225); John 1: 1, 14