It would be appropriate on the first Sunday, after the first day of the New Year, to begin by wishing you a ‘happy new year’ and to encourage you to reflect on the year that has been and to think about the year that lies ahead.
However, time is an abstract and we could at this point consider whether what Noah Yuval Harari points out in his book Homo Deus is true. He says everything we do as human beings is based on stories. Stories we've made up for ourselves to help us understand our lives and make them work better. This would include how we understand time. In this case we would be asking ourselves the question is it really a new year after all? After all doing a quick scan of the internet I found at least 11 cultures that do not celebrate New Year’s day on January 1st.
Alternatively, we might think about the problem of time philosophically buying into the ancient debates of Parmenides and Heraclitus around how time operates. Or we could contemplate the fact that in the 16th century we changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Yet, I digress, and as we gather on this day we gather as Christians who have just heard read the astounding claim that the Word became flesh and lived among us.
This somewhat perplexing claim is the claim of the church that in Jesus God became, becomes, and is becoming flesh. It is the doctrine of the incarnation, which the great theologian Thomas Torrance called “utterly staggering.” Torrance notes in his book Space, Time and Resurrection, “that after the incarnation He [Jesus] is at work within space and time in a way that He never was before.” Noting the work of the Early Church theologian Origen, Torrance goes on to say, “as soon as we talk like this, however… or even say about the Son that ‘there never was a time when he did not exist’, we are using terms ‘always’, ‘has been’, ‘when’, ‘never’ etc., which have a temporal significance, whereas statements about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, must be understood to refer to what transcends all time and all ages, and all eternity, since even our concept of eternity contains a temporal ingredient.” As a Christian one may say somewhat sceptically “New Year’s, indeed.”
In my understanding of the Christian faith this is the defining point and distinctiveness of what it means to be Christian, to believe that in Jesus God became one of us. All else is secondary. The virgin birth, the ministry, the miracles, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension are all aspects of Jesus’ life as God with us. All point to this utterly astounding claim of our faith, the incarnation.
So, on this first Sunday after what we call the new year, we wade into the deep waters of our faith to contemplate the mystery of God with us and consider what God is doing in our midst. As I contemplated the question of the Word becoming flesh it caused me to ask whether our attendance in church is about us using Jesus to drag God down to earth, to domesticate the divine, if you will. To try to make Jesus and God more relevant to us. Or, in coming to church, do we come to encounter the mystery of God in Jesus dragging us up into the heavenly realm, to share in God’s divine existence.
The complexity of this question is reflected by the complexity of the writing of John's gospel which occurred at least 60 years after the ascension of Jesus. Far more than Matthew, Mark, or Luke, it is John who leads his readers into a deeper contemplation of the implications of Jesus’ identity as God among us. In the passage from John 1 John challenges us with these words. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” And more confronting, “No one has ever seen God.”
I have wondered what John’s readers may have made of this statement almost 200 years ago and what we make of it in our time as we consider the ways in which people claim to encounter and experience God. Thus, as part of today’s message I want to share a poem with you, entitled “Eyes to See”.
Eyes to See
No one has ever seen God, yet
Abraham greeted three strangers in the heat of the day.
Jacob wrestled with a man until the break of day.
Moses stood before a burning bush as he worked through the day.
Elijah met God, after a storm, in the silence of the day.
But no one has ever seen God.
No one has even seen God, yet
I have looked into the eyes of a lover.
I have beheld the birth of a child.
I have seen the joy and laughter of my children.
I have watched for wisdom in the eyes of my elders.
But no one has ever seen God.
No one has ever seen God, yet
I have contemplated as the waves roll crashing against the shore.
I have wandered in the bush and seen the desert bloom with life.
I have stared up at the mountains reaching towards the sky.
I have gazed at the stars wheel through space putting on their nightly show.
But no one has ever seen God.
No one has ever seen God,
This is what John teaches us
This is his controversy with his people
But, this is his conviction: Jesus came to make God known
This is his hope for a world gone blind
No one has ever seen God, but Jesus.
Jesus has seen God, the Word made flesh.
Jesus sees God, at the moment of creation.
Jesus sees God, when God chose a people for himself.
Jesus sees God, as he walked through his life.
Jesus sees God, in his death and in his resurrection.
And Jesus sees God now and evermore.
Jesus has made known to us what he has seen.
Have we seen God?
Have we beheld Jesus?
Have we sensed the Spirit?
Have we understood God’s love?
God’s invitation to see glory is the incarnation.
No one has ever seen God.
This day, God, we implore you send your Spirit
Give us eyes to see
Give us ears to listen
Give us minds to know
Give us hearts to hope
For we who see the Son, see God.
For we who have already seen the Son I wonder what it is you see when you hear Jesus’ name mentioned. In Chapter 14 of John Jesus says to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” I do wonder at Jesus tone of voice at this point. Is there a bit of exasperation and frustration at Phillip? “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Or is it more encouraging and formational? “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Whichever the case we might well ask how our glimpses of Jesus are glimpses of the divine? How do you see Jesus?
Do you see Jesus in the manager and pray to ‘baby’ Jesus like Ricky Bobby in Talladega nights?
Do you see Jesus on the beach calling his first disciples? A leader of men and women.
Do you see Jesus’ healing and performing miracles? The wonder worker full of compassion.
Do you see Jesus’ teaching his disciples or arguing with the Pharisees? An earnest teacher.
Do you see Jesus turning over the tables in the temple? A prophet full of righteous anger.
Do you see Jesus washing his disciples’ feet? A servant leader.
Do you see Jesus before Pilate? A man standing before the unjust powers of the world.
Do you see Jesus hanging on the cross? Our wounded healer.
Do you see Jesus cold and lying in his tomb? Sharing our descent into the undiscovered country.
Do w you e see Jesus coming to Thomas who was full of doubt? A comforter and encourager of faith.
Maybe there is an image, an event, a concept that comes to mind when you think abut Jesus. Glimpses of who he was. Ironically, when I asked one of my students what first came to mind when I mention Jesus, she said the toy Jesus that I have. It is still in its packaging, in my office.
We all play with our ideas of Jesus. Sometimes like Phillip we don’t see past the man to the divine. Sometimes like Peter, we deny our relationships with him. Sometimes like Thomas, we doubt the stories. Sometimes we simplify Jesus’ existence so much that we avoid the concept that Jesus is the Word made living among us. He becomes a teacher to follow, a wise sage, a friend but not the one that we sung of at Christmas in the great carol of the Church, Hark the Herald Angels sing.
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Notwithstanding the anachronistic language of the hymn the carol asserts John’s claim afresh for us and reminds us that “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” – Jesus. God’s purpose in sending Jesus undoubtedly affirms our created existence but in Jesus, the Word made flesh, we also see a human living God-wards. In preparing today I read a fascinating article about the translation of very first phrase of John’s gospel, “and the Word was with God.” Christopher Atkins connects John’s writing to the thought of Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish philosopher, who brought the thinking of the Greek philosophers into conversation with the Jewish theology of the time.
Atkins argues that the phrase might be better translated “and the Word was God-wards”, suggesting that the eternal existence of the Word, in Greek the logos, existed towards God. Through Jesus becoming flesh and the sending of the Holy Spirit our lives are drawn Godwards into the mystery of the divine. It is as Paul wrote to the first Christians in Ephesus, With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s plan in Jesus is to gather all things into him, to share in God’s divinity. It is the ancient notion of theosis. In his prayer of John 17 he says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Knowing Jesus, or maybe better put being known by Jesus, and by God is eternal life. Again, a better translation might be read as eternity life. Although, returning to where I started with Torrance and Origin, knowing Jesus means that at some spiritual level we transcend the abstract concept of time and might I dare to suggest space as well. God in Jesus and through the Spirit lift us beyond our mundane mortal existence to encounter and experience the promise of the gathering of all things into him.
Today we will celebrate the communion. It is a time we look back into the past and remember what Jesus did in dying for us, so that we might see the risen Jesus, who is our host, coming from the future, to meet us in the present. We declare the mystery of our faith as we share communion “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!” He is the alpha and the Omega, the beginning and ending of all things, he is our origin and our destination, because our lives are hidden in his.
It would be appropriate on the first Sunday, after the first day of the New Year, to begin by wishing you a ‘happy new year’ and to encourage you to reflect on the year that has been and to think about the year that lies ahead. So, I do say to you Happy New Year but let me conclude with these words and this reality that because the Word became flesh we should now and always remember until time passes into irrelevance “God’s mercies are New Every morning” and we who seen the Son have seen the face of God.