Sunday, December 10, 2017
2nd Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Psalm 119:105-112 & John 1:1-13
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
One of the great joys of raising kids is watching them begin to describe their world. Kids have a way of putting things that is creative – true, but not quite the way adults would do it.
We don’t drink much pop in our family, so our kids haven’t had much exposure to it. When they finally tried it, they didn’t like it. “It’s too spicy,” they said, which of course is true but not really. Pop isn’t spicy at all. It’s fizzy. It’s carbonated. But it’s not actually spicy – although the effervescence of a Vernors might actually be spicy, as we Michiganders know.
When we were still in seminary, Annika used to ask me to play by saying, “Hey dad, want to meet with me?” How could I ever say no to that! Of course, she meant “play.” I knew it, but who was I to correct her? Even now I’ll sometimes say to her, “Hey Annika, want to meet with me?”
Or poor Elliot. Sam was only 19 months old when Elliot arrived, and he couldn’t say Elliot’s name. He called him “Holly,” and sometimes so do we.
Words create worlds. They have from the beginning of time, and they continue to do so today. Our children shape their worlds with words. Adults do the same. Words matter because there is creative force in them, so today, we’re going to dwell on words, beginning with the one whom John calls “the Word.”
The first eighteen verses of John’s gospel are poetic and philosophical. They use metaphor to capture truth about who Jesus is in a way that straightforward language couldn’t. John calls Jesus “the Word” and attributes to him some pretty remarkable things – that he existed before there was time, that all things came into being through him, that he brings life, gives life, and restores life, and that this man is God-in-flesh. John’s words are powerful, creating worlds in our minds as we try to grasp this Jesus, who creates worlds with his words.
It’s the second Sunday of Advent, so our focus as a church is on preparing our lives for the coming of the Word into the world. We know that this is an act of extreme humility – that the God who created everything would become powerless and limited as a baby, born under the humblest of circumstances in backwater Bethlehem. It struck me that the one John calls the Word became a baby. Babies aren’t just powerless and dependent. They’re unable to speak. The communicate through crying and screaming. After a few months they can muster up a smile, but for those first few months poor parents are left to interpret the cry. Is this the “I need to sleep cry” or the “I’m hungry cry?” Is this the “I need a diaper change cry” or “I’m gassy cry?”
The Word became flesh, but could not use words. Talk about laying aside all glory, the Word was wordless for a couple of years. But as he grew, he gained language. I wonder if he called his parents’ wine “spicy” when he was young. I wonder if he ever asked Joseph if he wanted to meet with him, and Joseph just knew that Jesus really wanted to play catch in the yard.
Yet Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge. He learned. He observed. His words became more precise. Writing about twelve-year-old Jesus at the Temple, Luke conveys, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). When he went into public ministry a couple of decades into his life, his words were staggeringly true and beautiful. Even today we hang on those words. We listen to his parables and are stunned by their truth and depth. We hear how he speaks to the lowly, and we want to imitate him in our lives. We hear how he challenges the proud and wonder what he would say to us today. We memorize his words. We seek to be obedient to them. We stake our lives on them.
The words of the Word are why we are here today. The words of the Word matter. Jesus’ words have created the world and shape the way we live today.
Words have power. I remember being a junior in high school. A friend of mine, who happened to be the daughter of a Methodist pastor, asked me what I thought I would do with my life. I said, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be a pastor.” She stopped dead in her tracks, looked me in the eye, and said, “Don’t do that to your children!”
I have lived with those powerful words for a couple of decades, and I can tell you they haunt me now that I am a pastor and have kids. I live hoping that my kids are glad for the calling, but it makes me careful about what I do and why.
Words are weighty. In Hebrew this is the word davar. It means word. It means speaking. It gets used around 1400 times in the Bible. God speaks. God davars and something happens. “The word for word is also the word for thing and power – something written, spoken, heard, seen, and experienced. A creative act that brings something new into existence.”
Our psalm today weighs in on this. It’s an eight verse section of the longest chapter in the Bible. Psalm 119 is 176 verses long, but they are a purposeful 176 verses. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. If you divide 176 by 8, you get 22. This whole psalm – carefully considered words, if you will – is an acrostic poem. What is an acrostic poem? In the Bible, the poem begins each line with the letters of the alphabet in order. It starts with aleph, goes to bet, and ends with taw, the final letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 119 goes further, however. It begins eight successive lines with the same letter before moving on. Eight alephs. Eight bets. Eight gimels, and so on.
The entire psalm is about the enthralling topic of God’s law. I know what you’re thinking – if I were writing poetry, I’d surely write about rules! Or maybe not. But perhaps you should want to because God’s law, or Torah, is beautiful. It is a pointer to the way to life. It is worthy of such poetry. The eight verses we’re focusing on today are from the fourteenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet, nun. As you can see on the screen, each line begins with the same letter. Sadly, there’s no good way to do this well in English, so we lose much of the poetry of the psalms in our translations.
So, why go through such effort? It shows that there is depth and completion to be found in listening to the words of God. God’s revelation is truly a reliable guide to life.
Walter Brueggemann observes that “The torah is no burden, but a mode of joyous existence.” This psalm does not see limitation in the Word, as so many in our world do. Rather, it sees freedom in not having the anxiety of ambiguity in moral decision-making. God’s Word is a light to our path and a lamp to our feet, the psalm says. It asks God to keep teaching his law to his people because it is life-giving. We don’t think much in terms of joy and life when it comes to laws, but that’s how the psalms think of them because the world they create brings us to the One who gives us eternal life.
The tongue is a fire
“Words make and shape space for things to happen,” writes Marc Nelesen. “Words can open up cathedrals of space that invite awe and wonder. Words can also be narrow and pointed; some words – depending on their deployment strategy – can even sting with laser-guided precision.”
I fear that we have lost our respect for words. The ability to write and reproduce writing used to be so costly and laborsome that only things that were truly thoughtful and consequential found their way into print. Now we can write and distribute our thoughts without ever putting a pen to paper. We can communicate with the world with a few clicks on our phones. It’s so easy to write and so quick to disseminate that we don’t give much deep thought to what we say, how we say it, or the impact of our words on others. As a people who believe that Jesus is the supreme Word, we must learn to respect and appreciate the power of our words once again. I am convinced that one of the biggest contributions Christians can make in the world is learning how to speak the truth in love once again. We can be on the forefront of respectful, patient dialogue with those different than us. We can quietly and gently remind the world that words matter to us because they matter to God.
The book of James hits on this theme, offering strong correction to some of the earliest Christians. “You must understand this, my beloved,” writes James, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). I might add here, “Let everyone be slow to tweet, slow to comment on Facebook posts, and think twice before responding to an email that bothered you.” James continues, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3:3-5).
The tongue is a fire.
There is so much discontent and unrest nationally. We are on edge, wondering about where the next disaster will emerge from. There is a lot that troubles me about these times, but one thing that is truly disturbing is that our politics are morally bankrupt – particularly with the contempt of politicians for truth. Words have become a means to an end, regardless of whether they are true or not. They care about spin, not truth. When we have robbed words of their meaning, we not only are on a destructive path but we have moved ourselves out of alignment with the God who created using words.
For words create worlds, and I truly wonder what world we are creating in our country with our words, for we abuse words.
How we speak and how we write matters. They are a reflection of our hearts. How we call to account those that spin and lie for their own ends matters. Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). John also begins his gospel by telling us that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17).
In the incarnation God shows the world how much God cares about the everyday details of life. God is invested in what we do with the creation. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. Let us be prudent in how we handle our words, for they create worlds – for good or for ill. This Advent, let us grow in how we value the way we use words. Part of the light shining in the darkness rests in how we let our light shine in how we speak to others. May our words create worlds of God’s love and goodness this Advent.
 Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, 40.