Word of Grace and Truth
A sermon on John 1:1-18
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash.]
There is something about the closing of one year and the beginning of another that calls many people to identify a single, focusing word as a summary, or mantra for the year.
Of course, we have such a practice here at Abiding Peace with our Epiphany star words. We draw a star from the basket, trusting that – just as God has worked in partnership with humanity through the centuries – God’s Spirit can work through the medium of hand-written words on paper stars to offer each of us guidance for the coming year.
I have heard from many of you, over the past 4 years that we have shared this practice, about how your word for a given year truly did offer you meaning, inspiration, or a sense of God’s calling on your life.
A single word can be powerful enough to carry us through an entire year, and to change the way we experience that year.
So, perhaps, it is not surprising that such “word of the year” practices extend beyond the context of faith. If you google “word of the year generator” you will find numerous websites that will help you to identify your WORD for 2022. Some will simply generate a word at the click of a button. Some will ask you questions, to find a word targeted to your needs and outlook. Some will encourage you to scroll through different word options until you find the one that feels right for you.
Or, you can dispense with the word-generators entirely and be deliberative about your word choice.
I have a friend who decided to use the word “and” as her focus for the year in 2021, because of the way that it encouraged her to see more than one side of things, and to open herself up to different possibilities. It’s not the kind of word that you would get from a word-generator, but it was a powerful guide.
And, of course, picking a word can also be a way of looking back on the past year to understand its lessons. Various on-line dictionaries publish their “word of the year” toward the end of each year, based on search patterns that reveal the topics people have most focused on. For 2021, Merriam-Webster unsurprisingly announced “vaccine” as its word of the year, with Oxford Dictionary selecting all things “vax.” Cambridge Dictionary continued the pandemic-related theme with “perseverance,” whereas Dictionary.com focused instead on social issues with its word “allyship.”
Whatever the word selected, and whether it is used retrospectively or as a future guide, each of these practices uses a word as a focus, a sort of lens through which life can be experienced and understood.
And all of these practices, with this one, connecting theme, have me contemplating in a new way what it means for Jesus to be “The Word.”
To be honest, the prologue to John’s gospel, with its cosmic description of Jesus as the Word that has existed from the beginning as both God’s companion and God’s self, the source of all life which is also light… it has always been a little hard for me to get my brain around. (Maybe it’s just me.) I can sort of understand the role of Creator (I mean, as well as a finite creature can understand an infinite originator), and I have long accepted the fact that the mystery of the Trinity is beyond me, so I can just celebrate the companionship that exists within God’s self without trying to understand how that works …
But what’s the point of calling Jesus “The Word”?
Why define Jesus’s essence as an element of human language? That seems backwards, somehow… confining the fullness of God’s creative and redemptive work down to a tool that we use for communication amongst ourselves. I suppose it’s comforting to think of God’s essence as reaching out to us in a form we can interact with. But, then again, we human beings can do such damage with words, even with God’s Word. We have used it to justify all kinds of violence and oppression and wielded it as a weapon of shame and exclusion and control.
So, what does it mean to say that Jesus is “The Word”?
Perhaps it can help us to think of Jesus less as a “word in the abstract” and more in the vein of a “word of the year” (except, in his case, he would be a “word of all time”). We choose a word of the year as an anchor-point, a way of helping ourselves to find the meaning and lessons of our wildly divergent experiences. It gives us a focus, but not in the sense of narrowing our view. Rather, it allows us to engage the complexity of our lives in a way that provides coherence.
In that sense, Jesus as The Word is both creator and redeemer: The source of meaning, where on our own we see chaos…The one who saves us from confusion and reunites us with God and others. But in order to do that, Jesus cannot just be some disembodied concept, some idea of “The Word”… he has to be the Living Word, who takes on flesh and lives among us.
At first, it seems like a contradiction. How can a word be alive? Aren’t words static vehicles for defining an unchanging idea?
Well, actually, no! Not according to a Great Courses lecture series on “The Story of Human Language” that I have been listening to over the last year. Linguist and professor John McWhorter, devotes more than 18 hours to teaching the many ways in which language is constantly evolving, to address the shifting needs of the people who use it. Just as an example, most of the 2021 “words of the year” from the various dictionaries did not even exist when Jesus walked the earth, not in any language.
The word vaccine could not exist until vaccines did, and the concept of “allyship” did not develop until the mid-1800s, and did not gain prominence until much more recently. So, yes, words can live. They can respond to an ever-changing world and offer us new tools for understanding our role in it.
But there is an even more fundamental truth in the description of Jesus as the Living Word.
By taking on flesh, and living among us, Jesus offers us a way of finding meaning and coherence not by escaping the complexity of our lives, but by truly living… by experiencing the fullness of what we were created for: grace & truth.
I know it feels a little like cheating to describe Jesus as “The Word” and then talk about two words, but let’s just treat these words like we treat the first two persons of the Trinity – they are distinct and also united in the same truth. We don’t have to understand how that works.
As grace, the Living Word calls us into a life free of fear and shame. We don’t have to hide anything about ourselves, or guard against the chaos of an uncaring world, because we can have absolute confidence in the love of God. As Elisabeth Johnson writes: “God has not left us in fear and confusion. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ In order that we might know beyond a doubt that God’s love and compassion for us will have the final word, the Word took on our flesh. The Word came to us in the form of a fragile and vulnerable infant to dwell among us and to show us firsthand the depths of God’s love for us.”
This is lived Grace.
And this is also lived Truth, because this grace allows us to engage with the world as it really is.
It’s not a call to escapism, nor to some kind of “anything goes” moral relativism. It’s the ability to truly live within the chaos of a broken, confusing, morally complicated world… because we have an anchor.
Jesus is our Living Word of grace and truth. He walks each moment of our lives with us, able to respond to each new challenge with grace and truth because he is not static and remote. He is WITH us in this crazy journey of life. And he’s teaching us to live in grace and truth too. He is giving us grace upon grace. He is revealing God to us in our real lives.
So, whatever word you pulled out of the basket, or clicked on the computer screen, or chose for yourself, may that word also be a Living word. Not just an idea, and not just a tool to help you find meaning for yourself, but a word that calls you to follow The Word, in grace and truth. To live your life this year in a way that reveals the love of God. That is my prayer for each of us today.
Thanks be to God.
 Prof. John McWhorter, “The Story of Human Language,” The Great Courses, 2013.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-3/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-9.