The summer after my first year in seminary (minister’s school), I had the opportunity to preach at several small churches during the summer while their regular ministers were away on vacation. I pity the churches that had to hear those first sermons. It was kind of scary to do, but it was good practice. And lots of fun.
I remember leading worship at one church in South Surrey for a full month. It was the most multicultural, multiracial United Church I had ever seen. They were not impressed with my suit and tie. I remember after one sermon, this very large Jamaican fellow approached me in the line-up following the service. He was about six-foot-six and must have weighed at least three-hundred pounds. He shook my hand, and squeezed it hard. “Good morning, Pastor!” he said. “Do you believe that Jesus is God?”
I wasn’t quite sure what, if anything I had said, occasioned this question. So I smiled and said some of the words from our passage today (or something close to them) “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
My answer seemed to satisfy him. I got the sense that this was a question that he asked every preacher. As a litmus test of faith. Is Jesus God? Yes or no?
Now I don’t have much trouble answering questions like that—yes or no. On the other hand, the identity, the nature, the character of the creator of the universe might be a bit more complex than that. And yet, we are constantly reducing questions like this all the time. And so we are stuck on the surface of things. Kind of like with the question “do you believe in God?” A yes or no answer doesn’t tell us much about the God we believe in. In the same way that yes or no to “do you believe Jesus is God?” really says nothing about what that even means. Or why anyone should care in the first place.
Our reading for this morning from the Good News According to John is one of the central texts. What does it mean when Christians refer to Jesus like this. And if you’ve noticed, it offers us words that go deeper than a simple “yes or no.” Christmas, the Way of Jesus Christ, the mystery of God cannot be confined to a simple “yes or no.”
Though the Christian church has argued about many things over the past few millennia, one thing is clear. God is not a bearded old man in the sky, or simply a bigger, louder version of us. God is infinite, beyond our understanding. And yet, this incredible mystery has become known to us, has come in to focus. This mystery does not come to us as an idea, a theory, a proposition, or a yes/no question. But this mystery comes to us as a human being. Flesh and blood. “No one has seen God,” says John elsewhere in his gospel. Yet, in Jesus, the veil on the mystery has been pulled back. If even just for a brief moment in time. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
In the face of Jesus, we stare directly in to the heart of all things, the heart of the universe. And in looking to it we do not see an angry, vengeful wrath ready to throw us in the fire if we do not measure up. We do not see cold indifference that will set us up for a life time of animalistic competition and meaninglessness. No. When we look into it we see sick bodies healed and broken hearts mended. We see hungry bellies filled and love poured out on the weak and the loveless. When we look into it we see the most unforgivable forgiven and the whole creation given new life. Forever. When we look in to the face of Jesus Christ, and into his hands stretched out on the cross, we see the purest form of self-giving love. And we see nothing less than who God is. And what God is up to in the world. “We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” On full display. So much more than a yes or no answer.
For the original hearers, this was the best news that they had heard in their lives. They believed that they were staring the mystery at the heart of the universe in the face. And it meant that they were never alone in the anguish, the rejection, and the pain they had experienced in their lives. It meant that the way things are in the world—it’s violence, its greed, its injustice and oppression not only didn’t have to be that way but ultimately wouldn’t be that way. That even they in their poverty, their imperfection and their smallness, they were loved and valued beyond anything they could imagine. And that if God could make a life that ended in so ugly a way so beautiful, theirs could be beautiful, too. That in Jesus they looked the mystery at the heart of the universe in the face. It was crazy. But it was beautiful.
And it’s no less crazy for you or for me. Nor is it any less beautiful. That in gathering today you—we have gathered to celebrate this incredible mystery. Not a yes or no question, but an incredible mystery that reaches the depths of the furthest galaxies and reaches in to the depths of our souls. The veil has been pulled back. It means that we will never again be alone in our pain, anguish or rejection. It means that the way things are in the world—violence, greed, ecological catastrophe—are not how things have to be or are going to be. It means that we in our brokenness, our poverty, and imperfection, we are loved and valued more than we could ever imagine. And that with God even the ugliness in our own lives can be made in to something incredible. Something beautiful.
“Do you believe that Jesus is God?” he asked. “Yes or no?” I believe that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
I won’t lie. It’s crazy, incredible. A miracle. But it’s also beautiful. And it’s true. And thank God for that. AMEN.