"When Understanding Was Born"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 22, 2002

Psalm 98: John 1:1-14


     Our Gospel lesson this morning is one of those that can deliver new meaning for many people each time they read it.  The writer's words are timeless.  We celebrate today and on Christmas Eve what is found in verse 14, "The Word became flesh and, full of grace and truth, lived among us."  Yet in the first verse of this Gospel, we discover that "the Word" was separate from our Creator, as though it were a thought or an idea that came forth from the mind of God.  

     What is the meaning of "The Word"?  Before we explore this, I want to digress just a moment.  Most of us take words for granted.  We use them to give meaning to our ideas. We say and write them, trusting that people will understand our intent. In more recent years we have had to pay very close attention not only to the words we use but also how they might be understood.  

     This week, the media has once again treated us to another prime example of how a sentence or two spoken by one of our nation's leaders can excite public debate.  In fact, Wednesday and Thursday, the A Section of the Washington Post carried very little news other than various opinions and articles about Senator Trent Lott. The words of others became so consuming that eventually Senator Lott resigned his position as the Senate Majority Leader.

     The idea of how words impact people has been around since humanity began to communicate with verbal symbols.  Listen to how an author framed his thoughts about communication nearly 2,000 years ago.

     We humans are able to tame and have tamed all kinds of creatures -- wild animals and birds, reptiles and fish.  But no one has ever been able to tame the tongue.  It is evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison.  We use it to give thanks to God and also to curse other people who are created in the likeness of God.  Words of thanksgiving and cursing pour out from the same mouth. (James 3:7-10)

     Of course, it is convenient to blame the tongue or our words as though they stand apart from who we are.  Words convey what is within us. Yet there are many other aspects to effective communication that must be considered.  Just as our words reveal who we are, so does what we hear. Those who are very secure with themselves, for example,  are not nearly as offended by the words of others as are those who are not.  In addition, hearing words out of context can cause us to develop an understanding that was never intended.

     For example, my father and I drove to Pennsylvania to buy a type of candy that can only be purchased at the Hershey factory.  On our return trip I stopped at a Ghetty's Gas Station that had the old style pumps.  I went into the mini-mart and asked what the attendant wanted me to do.  He looked at me strangely and said, "Lift the handle, put the nozzle into your gas tank and begin pumping." To make the communication even more awkward I asked, "So, you want me to pay after I fill up my car?"  He just looked at me as though I had just arrived from another planet and said, "Yes, that is what customers do."

     As I walked to the car, I realized that what was missing in that exchange was the context of my questions. When I went to pay the attendant, I explained.  "The reason I spoke to you as I did is because where I live, so many customers fill up their cars and drive off without paying.  As a result very few stations activate their pumps without the customers paying in advance." He smiled with understanding and said, "Well sir, this is Pennsylvania.  I've worked here a long time and not once has anyone driven off without paying."  We were not communicating well because the attendant did not know the context of my questions. 

     Words are not something to be taken lightly.  We do not always understand what people mean, nor are we understood when we try to communicate.  Marriages dissolve, people are fired, feelings are hurt and people radically change their behavior because of how people use and perceive the meaning of words. It is nothing short of miraculous that we communicate as well as we do.

     As we come back to our lesson, what was meant by John's concept, "The Word became  flesh and, full of grace and truth, lived among us."?  We Christians have given meaning to what the Gospel writer wrote.  Basically that understanding is this: God came among us in human form, lived for 30 years as a care-giver to his family, spent three years in ministry before being executed.  Three days later he rose from the dead, and, after giving instructions to his followers, his physical likeness left the earth.

     Words that are given a particular meaning for enturies can freeze ideas; they become orthodox or synonymous with truth itself.  Today the eyes of many Christians are fixed on Jesus.  Entire worship services are built around the praise of Jesus Christ. 

     A number of us have seen televised worship services where thousands of attendees are experiencing and displaying strong emotion.  Their focused attention is on Jesus.  Does such ecstasy translate into behavior and attitudes that reveal God's presence within us?  It might, but, then again, it might not.  Focusing our attention on Jesus so strongly can detach us from putting into motion and giving expression to what he came here to teach us.

     Once again from the Letter of James, we find these words of warning:  

If you listen to the word, but do not put it into practice, you are like people who look in the mirror and see themselves as they are.  They take a good look at themselves and then go away and at once forget what they were looking at.  But if you look closely into the perfect law of love that sets people free, and do not simply listen and then forget it but put it into practice -- you will be blessed by God in all that you do.  (James 1:23-25)

     James was not taking his cues when he wrote his letter from centuries of Christian orthodoxy but from Jesus himself who never taught his followers to worship him.  In fact, he taught his followers to take his message into the world, so that they could be for others what Jesus was for them.  If anyone doubts this, read again Jesus' extensive prayer in John 17.  Sometimes we hear only what we have been taught for hundreds of years. Even words from the Gospels can be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

     The Word that came into the world was much larger than the carpenter, much greater than the disciples, much broader than all the combined churches on both sides of the aisle of denominationalism.  God's Spirit entered human form not just once but millions upon millions of times.  Jesus was only the first to incorporate into his ministry the full meaning of "The Word".

     If this were not so, how did we get here?  If Jesus was teaching us today, no doubt he would tell us to take our eyes off of him and fix them on our neighbors and colleagues, on those who have power over us, on those who drive recklessly on our highways and on those who represent a challenge to our understanding. 

     We must honor him with the quality of our lives, not with praise that is proclaimed within the cloistered walls of a community of faith where it influences no one but those present.  We were taught to give love form, to make God visible.  And Christians do not have a monopoly on being able to do this.  "The Word" is far more universal than many of us believe.

     There is a widow who lives in a 3 bedroom Manhattan apartment surrounded with all the appointments that her wealth affords her.  One night as she went window shopping, Maxine Kaplan came across two adults accompanying a group of girls of various ages and ethnic backgrounds.  Their noses were pressed against the window of a department store as they examined articles on the other side of the glass.   She stopped to watch and listen.  Then she spoke to them.

     She learned that the adults were nuns and the children were wards of the state.  As supervisors, they  had brought them and several other groups of eight into Manhattan from the Bronx to see a show at the Radio City Music Hall. This day trip was to be their Christmas present since 2001 had been a disastrous year financially for their center. 

     Maxine was touched by their story. As she continued her walk, she could not get her encounter with them out of her mind.  Many of the children had been parcelled out to the nuns by the Department of Social Services because of neglect and other deplorable circumstances. Some of them were orphans.  She began to realize how sheltered her wealth had made her. She returned to her apartment and decided to make a few telephone calls. 

     On Christmas morning, Santa and several elves came to the center loaded with gifts for the girls. Behind them came a caterer who supplied a turkey dinner and all the trimmings.  So the ministry of the nuns might continue with less strain, a courier came with a bank check for one hundred thousand dollars. 

     The anonymous check was accompanied by a note that said, "Thank you for what you are doing for children. The individual attention and care you give to them is beyond value.  They are our future.  On behalf of them, thank you!  Please accept this gift to help with your work."

     The nuns were stunned.  Nothing like this had ever happened. The women got busy with their parish network and found a friend who worked in the bank where Maxine had her account.  Through a method that was not revealed in the story, the nuns found where the woman lived. They went to see her bearing a gift of their own.

     A small group of nuns and children could not get past the guarded entrance to her residence but they left an enormous basket of fruit with a note, "The Spirit of Christ touched our hearts through your generosity.  We cannot thank Him enough for inspiring you to become involved in the lives of our children. You have made our Christmas very blessed. Thank you!"   

     Since her cover was blown, she decided to swallow her pride and fear and visit them.  She went to the Roman Catholic center in the Bronx to thank the group for their gift.  She made herself known and was ushered into the facility.  The children surrounded her as they poured over her again with their words of appreciation.  She said, "I may disappoint you, because I know very little about Jesus. I am a Jewish mother who was touched by what I saw you doing for children. I wanted to help with what I can no longer do myself."           

     This is "The Word" that entered our world. This is what it means for "The Word to become flesh and dwell among us." Our differing styles of praise and worship cannot hold a candle to what this Jewish mother did for the girls.  The spirit of God is made visible in our giving, our caring, and our doing for others.  This is the spirit that will continue to spread throughout the world.    

     What we do during Christmas is celebrate the birth of this understanding. Yes, we can worship our King, but we must also continue to give "The Word" a presence through what we do. As we give away our gifts and abilities, God's spirit continues to become flesh over and over again.  Because we and others like us are doing this, the truth of Bethlehem will continue spreading. It is the most exciting work anyone can do.  Be a part of it!

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Loving God, we thank you for creating us with the ability to both give and receive love.  Heal our expectations of others when they prevent us from being kind.  Open our minds and hearts to the truth of Bethlehem.  May our understanding reach beyond the birth in a manger, the shepherds and the wise men.  Lead us to receive the light that has come into our world, that we might be blessed by it.  Cleanse our hearts of resentments so that we might become pure instruments through which your music plays.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Our days have passed far too quickly, O God, and we find ourselves entering the beauty of our sanctuary for the final Sunday of Advent.   We count every moment a blessing if our walk through these four weeks has helped us create more thoughtful responses toward others.  We thank you for all the angels in the flesh who have incorporated into their busy schedules time for our many mission projects.  Together we have given the spirit of love form by allowing it to touch people we will never meet.

     We thank you, God, for your faithfulness to us.  Thank you for giving us Bethlehem, a memory that helps us to remember our focus in a world where nothing is permanent.   Your spirit came to us in a form that very few recognized.  Your spirit entered a world very similar to our own where people defined themselves by their circumstances.  You brought us a new awareness about life, a way of defining ourselves as your sons and daughters who have much to give.  

     Still the troubled waters of our minds and hearts with the touch that heals and brings peace.  Awaken us from perceptions that prevent us from seeing miracles and from preoccupations that have made task masters out of hurt and disappointment.  You came to set all prisoners free, and we gladly accept your coming to us with great joy.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .