This is an excerpt of a sermon by Craig Williams, pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Thousand Oaks, CA. To hear the sermon in its entirety, please click here.
“And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Other people have translated it differently. “And the word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood”–that’s Eugene Peterson. Lesslie Newbigin puts it this way: “God pitched his tent among us.” So many ways of thinking about it, but the bottom line is that God has made his home with human beings.
When you think about that, it is a paradox. A paradox is when two things are true that seem to be contrary, or mutually exclusive. As in, ‘The more you learn, the less you feel like you know.’ That kind of thing. In this scripture, we come to this place, and we that the Word, the very essence of God became flesh—that’s the ultimate paradox. How could that be? How could that happen?
Lesslie Newbigin was a British theologian, and he wrote a little book called A Walk Through the Bible. He had a lot of other works that were deep and profound, and difficult, but this is the most accessible work he wrote. In it, he retells the story of the Bible, and he starts off with a conversation between him and a friend who is an Indian, who said to him, “I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of the universal history, the history of the whole of creation, the history of the human race, and therefore a unique interpretation of the human person, as responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious world to put alongside it.”
Newbigin goes on: “He was right. It’s not a book that encourages us to turn away from the world of our newspapers toward some spiritual state. Rather, the book interprets the whole of history, from its creation to its end. And that’s the story I want to tell.”
It’s the story of the whole human race through one people.
Like every good story, this story has a a hero. In this story, the hero is God. And in this story, God shows us the narrative through a specific group, a chosen people.
This people is the people of Israel. God tells us the story of all human existence through the narrative of his relationship with the Israelite people. And furthermore, the story is resized again, in the person of Jesus Christ. That is, God is going to tell the story of all human existence through the his chosen people, Israel, and then more specifically in the chosen one, Jesus.
It’s not the story of any one nation, not America or China or Mexico—It’s the story of all nations, in the background of this one nation, Israel. The story is told from the point of view from the people God chose to bear witness to his love for us. He did that because he didn’t want our only experience of him to be what we feel in our souls. This is not an individualistic faith, where it’s just me and God. It’s not like that at all. The Bible says it’s us and God. It’s the people of yesterday and today and the future.
God makes himself known to us in the context of our shared lives as human beings. We therefore come to know God through people, specifically through those whom he chose to be the bearers of his light.
We need the physical presence of people.
So here we are, at “the word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” This is why it can’t just be like a phone call between individual us and God. We need people. Why? Because that’s the easiest way for us to know that we are loved. It helps to get a card, or a phone call, or an email—but email doesn’t convey love very well. So we need to be in person. There’s something about being in person.
Someone told me the other day, “I just got a dog, and it’s so nice to have someone else home when I get there.” Think about it. We even feel less alone in the presence of a pet. Now think about how we show God’s love to one another. What’s the best way to do that? You can’t imagine the impact it has when you decide to just show up and be physically present.
That’s what God has done. Do you see it? The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and he’s showing us the model for loving one another, to be among the people, to be present in people’s lives.
It’s the greatest of paradoxes. Why would God want to take on this body? I just had my appendix removed. Why would he want that? Why would he want our runny noses, our seasonal colds? How ignoble those things would be to him. We’re talking about the infinity, ever-present, absolutely unfathomable creator of the universe, and he wants to get stuck—literally stuck—in these bodies.
Here’s why: He wanted to show us we were loved, and he wanted to show us the way. Now we follow that way by being present with other people.
Craig has worked in the arena of fresh expressions of church for over 25 years. He was the organizing pastor of Trabuco Presbyterian Church of the PCUSA and pastored that congregation in Southern California for 19 years. Since, Craig has served the PCUSA both regionally (in the Pacific Northwest) and nationally (as Catalyst for 1001 New Worshiping Communities in the Western States). Craig developed a process for assessing potential church planting leadership, Discerning Missional Leadership and has assessed hundreds of individuals who have expressed interest in new expressions of church. He also helped develop the PCUSA’s national coaches network and was one of the authors of “Starting New Worshiping Communities: A Discernment Process”. Craig continues to coach and mentor those engaged in starting new work. Craig has recently accepted a new call as Pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Thousand Oaks, CA. He says it’s time to assist an inherited congregation with embracing a mixed economy of Church for a changing context. Craig has his Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Columbia Theological Seminary.