Sunday, January 4, 2009

Just Say the Word

Just Say the Word1

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Second Sunday of Christmas: January 4, 2009

Psalm 147:12-20
John 1:1-18

He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.

Up until the modern era, with the advent of two-way radios, when generals needed to communicate with their commanders in the field, the most reliable method was to dispatch a runner. This was true in peacetime as well as wartime. Kings who wanted to communicate with important people in their far-flung empires made use of runners. And it worked in reverse as well. Those in the field, those who were overseeing some project at a distance from their king or general, would reply by sending runners back with messages in response.

As I read the words of verse 15 of the psalm I recalled scenes from the movie Gallipoli, a film about the tragic involvement of athletic Australian troops in the failed British assault on the west coast of Turkey, in which World War I era generals had to communicate along the thin front lines by means of runners dispatched with hand-written messages.

For all the centuries prior to the last one, this was considered the fastest means of communication. And it was communication meant to be like a modern long-distance conversation. Generals sent runners with messages to ask questions as often as to issue orders. It is from the experience of centuries of hand-delivered communication by runners that we get the image of the word of God in Psalm 147: “He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.” We are meant not to think of one-way communication from God to people, but rather the two-way sort in which runners earned their keep carrying messages back and forth, the swifter the runner, the better the communication. God’s word comes to us as if by the swiftest runner, as if by the miracle of a heavenly internet, God desires to touch us with his Word, and to do so right away.

This whole image of God’s Word is filled with power. “He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down hail like crumbs — who can stand before his cold?” While these words were written in an unknown season by the psalmist in ancient Israel, they have a powerful impact on North American Christians as we sit in the middle of the winter season with short days, and great heaps of snow and ice just a few short miles up the road in the mountains. A slight change of the Hebrew letters changes the meaning even more powerfully, from “Who can stand before his cold?” to “Before his cold the waters stand still,” that is, frozen. While the God of creation can make liquid water freeze and be hard as concrete, it is the power of the Word of God that strikes the imagination of the psalmist, and ours as well: “He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.” The Word of God turns the concrete of ice to the flow of water. “As the warm spring winds blow to melt the ice and snow of winter, so the Spirit of God melts all that is frozen in human life.”2 The Word of God thaws the hardness of human life and brings warmth.

This is the Word that was spoken and worlds were created, the Word that moved over the face of the waters and the world began to take shape at his command.

In the beginning was the Word. John’s gospel begins with this same recognition that the psalmist observed, the Word of God is a powerful, creating Word. God’s desire to claim us existed in the beginning, before any of us knew our own existence, indeed, before we existed at all. That’s the way it was in the beginning, and in the end, that is the good news of the season we are just now finishing. It is good news because of the end, because of Easter, because the agony through which the Word went for us led to resurrection and hope. Good news never arrives without some cost, without some struggle against that which would stifle it, snuff it out, some Herod seeking to kill it off, some crucifixion hoping to stamp it out. Without Easter, there would be no Christmas. It would have been just another baby born to another peasant woman in an another out-of-the-way place, ignored by the world and of no significance to us. But because of Easter, we look back to the birth and see good news, see the “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing,” as the old Christmas carol reminds us.

Because of Easter, John looked back before the birth in Bethlehem to the very birth of the world and saw good news running toward us on the swiftest feet even there. It is as though Easter is a balance, and everything in creation depends upon it, everything that went before and everything that comes after. Easter is the event that holds the world together. Without it there is no gospel, no good news, no particular rhyme or reason for creation, no swiftly running Word, just the same old agonies the world has always known.

You may also recall a funny reference I once heard from a Jewish comedian which was said to be the summary of all Jewish festivals. He said Jewish holidays are made up of three parts: “(1) They tried to kill us; (2) they failed because God saved us; (3) let’s eat.” Recently I read of a rabbi who complained that the celebration of Hanukkah in the winter time of year was really a sorry thing for the Jewish community. Hanukkah spent most of its 2,000 year history as a rather minor celebration, commemorating the Maccabee family of Israel, who, before the time of Jesus, managed to lead a popular rebellion to throw off domination by corrupt Greek overlords. This hard-won freedom lasted only for a short time, until Roman armies came through, and Israel was, once again, a vassal state. The major feast of Judaism, the rabbi correctly pointed out, is Passover, not Hanukkah. But we’d never know it from the relative amounts of attention these two festivals receive in our culture. It pained him that the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas, to our culture’s major annual celebration, had turned it into such a major celebration for modern Jews. Passover, the Springtime celebration of God’s salvation of the people from Egypt, that is the formative holy day for Jews.

The ironic thing is that Christian believers suffer from a similar problem. Asked to name their favorite holy day, most Christians would be likely to answer “Christmas.” But “when Christmas is seen as the primary celebration of the Christian faith, we have lost the essential source of our identity,”3 the sacrificial mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. We may have Christmas only because we first had Easter. The Word did not just arrive, but “became flesh [was born] and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

In the same passage in which he sums up the Christmas story with the words, “the Word became flesh and lived among us...” John reminds us that Jesus came to us and “yet the world did not know him ... his own people did not accept him.” The rejection of Christ, his suffering and death, were not for nothing, a tragic misunderstanding which should have turned out better. They accomplished our salvation. For that we have become thankful that at one time there was Mary, a willing mother for Jesus; there was Joseph, who took Mary as his wife in spite of the unusual circumstances; there was a little town named Bethlehem, where kings were born.

The good news of Christmas is good because Christ has made it so, with his own flesh and blood. In one person he is both the messenger and the Word of salvation itself. In the end, he is the one about whom the psalmist wrote when he said, “He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.”

One more observation about our psalm before we finish looking today at the swift-running Word of God. “It is significant that in this poem God intervenes to restore the helpless even though we read it over and can find no actual plea for help. The warm winds of spring do not thaw the frozen water because of human intercession, but simply because it is God’s nature to restore and redeem. The same God who rebukes ice and snow also rebukes sin and evil. People may cry for help, but it is God’s nature to help whether or not people cry. It is this reality of the benevolent nature of God that brings forth praise in response on both ends of the psalm, the hallelujahs of verses 12 and 20 (“Praise the Lord!” in our English Bibles is simply a translation of the familiar Hebrew word hallelujah). The God of Israel is the Lord of both freezing and thawing, of both death and life, of both alienation and fellowship. And because this God is always at work moving life from the one to the other, the community of faith sings in joyful response: Hallelujah!”4

It is why we sing in praise to God today, and every Lord’s day. His saving, creating, redeeming word comes running to us on angel feet, with the swiftness of lightning. No wonder the psalmist says “Hallelujah!”

No wonder we do.

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 This sermon, along with others of my sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, appears in the recently published book: Sermons on the Gospel Readings: Series III - Cycle B, Css Publishing Company, 517 South Main Street, Lima Ohio, 45804,, © 2008.
Texts for Preaching,:Year B, Westminster/John Knox, 1993, pp. 71-73.
3 Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Advent/Christmas, Year C, Soards, et. al., Abingdon: 1993, p. 74.
4 Texts for Preaching,:Year B, Westminster/John Knox, 1993, pp. 71-73.