In the Beginning was the Verb, a sermon for Christmas I

The New York Times “Opionionator” blog ran a piece by the author Karen E. Bender this last week entitled “The Emotional Power of Verbs.”  Bender teaches classes in writing fiction, and her article centers on her pleas to her students to focus on verbs.  Many of her students’ essays involve well described characters and settings, she says.  Their writing is full of strong solid nouns and thoughtfully chosen adjectives.  Problem arise for many of these writers because their beautiful described characters don’t do anything.  Beautiful nouns and adjectives on their own can’t accomplish anything.  There’s no action in the stories.  Bender’s advice: “Think verbs.”

Most sermons on this Gospel passage are occupied with a single noun: Logos, “Word.”  As in, “And the Word became flesh.”  I’ll grant the noun is compelling in the Greek.  “Logos” that undefinable Greek word for mysterious presence of God.  For centuries pastors have parsed the noun “Logos” at Christmas, pulling depth of meaning from this word.  The noun occupies most of the sermons on this Gospel passage.  I want to spend some time with the verbs.  What does the Logos, what does God, do?  Three verbs, three actions of the Logos, of God, have captured my imagination.  I would posit that this passages centers not on the noun, but on these actions of God as Logos.  The Logos generates.  The Logos comes into the world.  The Logos dwells with us.

The Logos Generates.  You may have missed this word in the passage as it was printed in your bulletin, because it is not there.  Our New Revised Standard Bible translates the Greek word “ginomai” the root for our word “to generate” as “came into being.”  I think we are better served by the fullness of the verb “generates.”  In the Beginning, John tells us, the Logos was with God and through the Logos all things were generated, all things are generated.

This verb, generates, I think, discloses something about the life of God.  God is constantly generative.  Bring to your mind another descendant word, generator.  According to John, the ongoing action, the ongoing work of God in our world is generating, giving power, giving life to all life.  All life, note that God does not simply bring human beings into being.  God, the Logos, continues to bring all things into being.  Unlike our power generators which belch out carbon and limit the life of the planet, God generates ongoing life.

This verb, I posit, may be the best guiding light in determining whether a policy, or a position, or an action is Godly, is Christian.  I don’t know if you’ve followed this controversy around Duck Dynasty over the holidays, but many cultural critics have considered what is meant by the label “Christian.”  Here are my two cents, in line with John’s Gospel: If the action (or policy, or position) generates life, it is Godly, in the sense that it participates in the action of God generating life.  The new pope, I think, gets this intuitively.  He has left behind the life-sapping diatribes that have characterized the Roman Church.  Instead he is busy kissing deformed men, washing Muslim girls’ feet, and playing with children.  He’s generating life.  Of course using “generating life” as a guide gets tricky.  There are moments when no decision will generate life, but I think this is a pretty good measuring stick.  If an action generates life for more people, for more creatures, for the planet, that action could be called “Christian” or “Godly” because it participate in God generating life.

The Logos Comes among us.  “The light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  Don’t worry, I don’t anything to say about the Greek for this word.  God comes among us.  This verb captures the mystery of Christmas, the season we continue to celebrate in the Church.  We need all twelve days of Christmas to celebrate, to contemplate, to take in this action of God.  God, Christians believe, came among us.  The Logos, the mystery behind all of creation, the source of life that holds the universe in being, came among us.

This verb should flabbergast us.  The incarnation of God, God taking flesh, should give us pause.  God disregards the order of the universe to be with us.  For many today, and throughout the centuries really, the incarnation is too much to handle.  I’ll grant you that. Athanasius agreed.  The third century theologian, one of the greatest in the history of the Church, thought the incarnation of God defied logic. The only reason Athanasius could see was love.  Out of love God chose to break the rules, to defy the order of the universe.  God loved us so much that God could not bear to be apart from us.

I shared in my sermon last week that my sister and her husband recently announced to our family that they are expecting a baby.  Luckily for all of us, they recently moved back home to Colorado from Texas.  I knew Beth wouldn’t have a baby in Texas for a lot of reasons, but principal among them was my father.  You see my father already loves that grandkid.  My father would have quit his job, sold his house, and broken every traffic law on the book on his way to Texas if my sister was having a baby there.  Thankfully Beth and Corey have kept the universe ordered by having their kid in Colorado where Dad can be a local grandpa.  Following Athanasius, the incarnation works a bit like my imaginary situation where my sister had a child across State lines.  Out of love, God broke the order of the universe.  God breaks the rules to come among us.

The Logos Dwells.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  The verb communicates that God did not come just for a visit.  One of the best translations of this passage I’ve heard goes like this: “The Logos became flesh and set up a tent among us.”  God came to stay.  The Logos dwelled.  God set up God’s tent with us.  I like the translation partly because it is literal.  The greek literally reads “The Logos pitched a tent.”  I also appreciate the verb because we get a sense that God is with us, but the adventure has not come to a conclusion with God’s arrival.  Tents indicate a desire to hang around, but they also mean continual motion.  God’s action was not finished in the Incarnation.  God does not dwell among us in a way that is static.

At the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries the monk St. Jerome sequestered himself in a small cell in Bethlehem, near the site of Jesus’ birth.  He produced the first translation of the Christian Bible into Latin, the common language of the day.  Jerome made a specific choice when he translated this passage about the Logos from John’s Gospel, a decision embossed on the front of this pulpit.  “In Principio Erat Verbum.”  Not, “in the beginning was the ‘“word,’” static, but rather Jerome wrote: “in the beginning was the Verb.”  For Jerome the Word is active.  God is a verb, active and moving among us.  This chapter of John’s Gospel is just the first chapter.  The verbs continue on from there.  God, in Jesus, goes on.  Jesus preaches, teaches and heals.  Jesus eats, and drinks, and celebrates.  Jesus walks, and walks, and walks, sometimes on water.  Jesus laughs and jokes.  Jesus cries.  God with us is not static.  Jesus, the Word incarnate, acts.  God continues to move, to act.

I suppose I’ve been thinking about God in the the action, the verbs, a great deal lately as I contemplate the work that I am about to take up with our denomination as “Missioner for Young Adult and Campus Ministry.”  I like the title because some of my most formational experiences involved taking college students on mission trips to El Salvador when I worked for the Diocese of San Diego.  Those mission trips were very active endeavors.

I hadn’t only brought along college students.  One summer trip I led some members of the bishop’s staff and some of our senior clergy to visit our partners in El Salvador.  On my next trip the next Spring, when I was leading a trip of undergraduates from the University of California, some confusion ensued.  To understand the story you need to know that all but one of the students was female.  We arrived at Bishop Barahona’s office on a humid Friday morning accompanied by my friend Noah the head of the Anglican development agency who would be driving us around El Salvador.  The bishop took one look at our group of college girls and turned to Noah and said, “Noah, no son señoras, son muchachas, pues ADVENTURA!”  Roughly translated this meant, “Noah, these aren’t old ladies, these are young women, so ADVENTURE!”

Former UCSD Campus Ministry Students in El Salvador "Fording the River"
Former UCSD Campus Ministry Students in El Salvador “Fording the River”

Apparently the Bishop had planned a trip that would have involved a lot of riding in cars, sitting in churches talking with leaders, and looking at projects.  Instead, the bishop understood, that young people need to get active.  Young Adults need to get there hands dirty to connect.  We helped build a bridge.  We forded a river in a beat up pickup, as one of my students said, “like on Oregon Trail” the early computer game.  We drank fresh coconut water from fruit straight off the tree and played soccer with people from the village of Canoa.  Our time in El Salvador was dominated by activity, by verbs.  I think a lot of the work our church faces involves inviting more young adults to be active, literally, with the church.

Now, I have to provide a disclaimer.  I don’t agree with the Bishop of El Salvador that it is only muchachas who can have adventura, adventure.  When I went to South Africa with a group from St. John’s this past October a grandfather who is definitely not a member of our young adults’ fellowship, Powell Hutton, schooled me and Pete Tchoukaleff, who are members of the young adults group, at frisbee.  I know people from this church in their 70s who regularly play tennis and at least one person in his 80s who in recent years bungee-jumped off a bridge in New Zealand.  God can be found actively throughout our lives because God’s motion never ceases.

The verbs in today’s Gospel invite us to join God in the adventurous action.  The Logos is not some static mystery simply to be contemplated.  God is not a beautiful noun that doesn’t do anything.  God generates all life, continuously.  God comes to us, at Christmas and throughout the year.  God dwells with us.  God sets up God’s tent with the human race and invites us all on the expedition.  In Principio erat verbum.  “From the beginning was the verb.”

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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