It’s the first day of 2017, and we have spent the last week overwhelmed with summaries and video montages – best sports plays, top ten lists, the extraordinary number of celebrities who died last year. I generally breeze past most of this stuff, yet a colleague, right before Christmas mentioned to me that Oxford Dictionaries chooses a word of the year. I looked it up, and the article began: “Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year, reflecting what it called a “highly-charged” political 12 months. It is defined as an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.” Post-truth.1
From as early as people were making claims about what was real, people have also been asking, how do you know? Kids play in the neighborhood and one claims that they can throw a rock so far, or their mom or dad is very important at work or knows someone famous. “Prove it.” From Galileo’s claims about the earth rotating around the sun. From papers in high school and college where we must have footnotes and sources checked. I was getting my dear three year-old son out of the bath this week and was attempting to scrub behind his ears. He didn’t like it. “But your ears are dirty,” I said. “No they aren’t,” he replied. “Yes they are.” “No they aren’t.” Psychologists call it confirmation bias: we think what we think – that is our truth – and we take in whatever evidence we find and somehow it magically confirms what we already think. We do it in our relationships, political lives.2 It’s tough to know sometimes what is true, what matters.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “The Word is first,” Lamar Williamson writes, “and God has come to us.”3 He was God, John tells us, from the beginning. This God participated in creation, in the covenant, was with the people from Exodus to exile, from manna in the wilderness to the glory of the monarchy. He was, John says, wherever life was. Wherever wholeness was, before or since. God was there.
The Word to which John refers, in greek logos, is a concept that had a long and storied history before it appeared in the fourth gospel. It was a term used by the Stoics to refer to the principle of reason that governs the universe. The rabbis associated logos to Torah, to the law, and it grew to be associated with wisdom, Sophia, a powerful concept in the Hebrew Scriptures.4 This is not something new you’ve never heard of, John is saying. This is the truth at the heart of the universe, the truth of which the ancients have spoken. He needs people nodding, leaning in, yes, I know what you are talking about. What has come into being is life, life that was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, the darkness did NOT overcome it.
In verse six we shift from the high and philosophical to the concrete. God sent a particular man, John, to testify to this light. This One – we still haven’t been told who HE is, mind you – this One was in the world but not of it, not recognized by his own. BUT, John levels his gaze, to all who received him, who believed in his name, his love, his truth, he gave power to become children of God. The Word, the truth at the heart of the universe since its inception, became flesh and lived among us. Emmanuel, as Isaiah, as Matthew, writes, God WITH us. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase, The Message, renders the beginning of verse 14: “The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood…” God has taken up residence among us, putting down roots.5 Again, John says, this is something we know, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
There’s that word again. Truth. This God, who created all and in some mysterious way upholds the universe, John claims, is what truth is. And the good news of the incarnation is that God is not some disembodied spirit, floating around, intervening when convenient. This God came to earth in a particular time and place so we might know this truth in person. How do we know what is true? As Christians, we look to Jesus. We look to his love, his interactions, his miracles, flesh and blood, grace and truth walking around. This truth is grounded in the love we know, John says, as of a father’s only son, in the relationships we have. But it is not simply our feelings, which come as gifts but can also be tricky, but is the love of God underneath it all, animating life and joy and hope in all relationships. Jesus’ life and ministry is the truth that undergirds it all, and our call to live into his way means his life is a measuring stick for ours, we look to him to see if we are thinking or acting in ways that are true, that are of God. I’d love for us to ponder this together in 2017, in a world of so much beauty and conflict and competing narratives. How do we discern what is true? When we follow Jesus’ model of extending his hand to everyone. When we follow Jesus’ example by thinking long and hard about the perils of consumerism, of buying and gathering and possessing. When we serve and get to know the poor. When we do not gather stuff or things or power to ourselves, but reach out, give, to and for others, again and again and again. When we follow Jesus’ model of not demonizing and dismissing, but tending to people we enjoy and people who make us furious, to each other SO carefully. When the love planted in each of us by this God connects with the love planted within someone else. As we risk, as we give up the things of this world as we seek to follow Jesus.
I read an article last week in the Washington Post where I saw this kind of love, about Eloise and George Morris. “For 73 years [the article begins], through wars in Europe and Asia and civil rights battles at home, through the assassination of a president and the rise of rock-and-roll — they shared a bed. He’d be gone sometimes, flying missions during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, but he always came back. So now, as he lies in a hospital bed unable to say or do much, she lies beside him.” Like many hospitals, Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, where retired Army Col. George Morris, 94, is receiving end-of-life care, allows family members to sleep in a patient’s room on a foldout couch. But for George’s wife, Eloise, 91, a cancer survivor who has suffered two broken hips and a broken shoulder, that would be hard. So the hospital made an exception when they admitted him this month: They admitted her as a patient, too – a “compassionate admission,” their doctor calls it. Eloise’s hospital bed was rolled in and pushed up against George’s – a final marriage bed for a husband and wife who met as teenagers in rural Kentucky in the late 1930s. The article chronicles their love, from high school – not simple, not without pain, but deep and faithful and powerful. Both of their sons have died, grandchildren far away. George can now barely speak or eat. But there they lie – there is a stunning picture in the article with them reaching across the sides of their hospital beds, over those plastic rails with the up and down buttons, holding hands. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as they both shall live.6
And we have seen his glory, John says, and it’s as real as it gets. As a son reaching out for his daddy when he falls, as a 73-year marriage as death approaches. As bread and wine shared. As real as the ways we are all called as 2017 begins, to embody flesh and blood walking around, as we discern, together, what is real and true, in a world in which so much is changing, in whom might we place our trust? God come to earth, calling us to follow. Betty closed worship on Christmas Day with a poem by Howard Thurman that was wonderful, that I want to share again:
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with the flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
All praise be to God.
1. “‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries”, BBC News. With thanks to the Rev. Ingram “Hedge” Hedgepeth.
2. Here’s a start: “What Is Confirmation Bias?”, Psychology Today.
3. Lamar Williamson, “Preaching the Gospel of John,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 1.
4. “Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary,” Year B, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), p 191.
5. I am grateful to Frank A. Thomas, who made we aware of Peterson’s phrasing in Feasting, Year A, Volume 1, Pastoral Perspective, p 188.
6. “‘We were lonely, lonely when we were apart, and when he’d come home it was just heaven’”, MSN.