Sermon Briefs : John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Using earthy and irreverent language for which he had a well deserved reputation, Martin Luther's sermon on John 1:14 reflects the gospel writer's emphasis in this passage on the humanity of Jesus Christ.1 Breaking his sermon into two parts— "The Word became flesh" and "And dwelt among us"—Luther jumps right into his argument with an explanation of the word "flesh" as denoting both body and soul. He delights in embracing the full expression of the word, including not only "wisdom, glory, power and whatever may be great and glorious in the world," but also "a physical being of flesh and blood."
Though he uses the words incarnation, human and man in his sermon, Luther returns to the words "flesh and blood" over and over, as if the very sound of them incarnates his point, that the Son of God took on "flesh and blood like that of any other human," so "that our flesh and blood, skin and hair, hands and feet, stomach and back might reside in heaven as God does." This well illustrates the importance of our choice of language to create a feeling as well as convey an idea.
According to Luther, the fact that the evangelist John chose the word flesh, rather than saying that the Word became man, indicates the humiliation, weakness and mortality suffered by Christ. Luther says we can not ignore this emphasis on the weakness of human nature nor the degree to which Christ suffered the wrath of God on our behalf.
In the second half of his sermon on the words, "And dwelt among us," Luther continues to employ descriptive language to reflect Christ's humanity. He speaks of Jesus nursing at Mary's breast, and of his very human life spent doing the things that we all do—eating, drinking, sleeping, laughing, crying and, finally, suffering God's will, dying on the cross "at the hands of his own people."
Luther pulls no punches in refuting heretical movements that have challenged this understanding of Christ's humanity (he calls the Arians and Apollinarists stupid asses). Though that debate may have little relevance for hearers today, Luther's sermon, with its vivid imagery of human life assumed by the Son of God, reminds us not only of the centrality of the incarnation to the gospel story, but how that story can be enfleshed in the sermon itself by the preacher's use of some well-chosen words.
Ronald Allen and Linda McKiernan-Allen, like Luther, concentrate on the fourteenth verse for their sermon on this passage from John.2 Both are ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Their sermon consists of a series of vignettes that present images of the word enfleshed anew in our times.
A child comes in from playing in the snow, crying because a bigger kid has pushed her off her sled. Her father kneels beside her and comforts her, and the word became flesh and dwelt among us. A student receives an "F" on a paper because of obvious plagiarism. Walking out of the professor's office humiliated, he hears the professor call him back to say that the overall idea of the paper was very good, like the rest of his work this semester. If he re-writes it, the professor says, she will give him a passing grade and a good recommendation. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.
A man sits down on the edge of the bed, devastated at the news that his wife has died in a car accident. He dissolves in tears, overcome by his grief. His thirteen year old daughter comes over to him, puts her arm around him and comforts him. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Over and over again, like a mantra, Allen and Mckiernan-Allen repeat the phrase, "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us," connecting it to familiar experiences from our own world and emphasizing the role we play in being Christ to one another. So often the gospel story is told without that connection. While this sermon treats the text metaphorically, without mention of Christ being the original word made flesh, it paints a fresh picture of the ways in which the word continues to be made flesh through Christ's body on earth.
Barbara Brown Taylor takes this text in a different direction in her sermon, Waiting in the Dark.3 Her focus is not on the fourteenth verse, but on verses 6-8, not on Jesus, but on John. John's life was "one long Advent" according to Taylor. As a witness sent by God to testify to the light that was to come, he spent his life waiting for whatever it was that was coming after, even though he did not know exactly what that was. In a sense, Taylor says, we are like John. We spend our lives waiting for those things whose coming we can not control, and often we do not know what exactly it is we are waiting for.
Taylor's sermon puts us in the place of John, waiting as he did for the coming of the Messiah. Her treatment of the text skillfully interweaves the reality of John's circumstances, waiting for Christ, with those of our own, waiting for healing, transformation and the chance to be "more nearly the people God created us to be." In the meantime, she assures us, though we may wait in the dark for the coming light, we know that it is God's good hands that surround us while we wait.
Old Bridge, New Jersey
1. Martin Luther, "And the Word Became Flesh," The Christian Year: Sermons of the Fathers, vol 1, George Forell, ed. (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964), pp. 89-92.
2. Ronald Allen and Linda McKiernan-Allen, "Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas," March 4, 1987, Seasons for Preaching: 160 Best Sermons from the Preaching Resource Word and Witness, John Michael Rottman and Paul Scott Wilson, eds. (New Berlin, WI.: Liturgical Publications. Inc., 1996), pp. 51-52.
3. Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston, Mass: Cowley Publications, 1995), pp. 138-141.