"Word Becomes Flesh"
Scripture – John 1:10-18
Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson
Sunday, January 3, 2021

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Like Dr. Jones, I recently watched the most recent season of The Crown on Netflix. (For those keeping track, yes — Greg and I will be writing the show's creator, Peter Morgan, a thank you note for giving us so much sermon-writing material.)

The last episode of The Crown transports viewers to the days of another public health crisis — the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. Princess Diana is touring a pediatric AIDS unit in Harlem. The hospital room is full of children — many of them young enough to require cribs rather than hospital beds. Some of the patients are crying; others are looking frightened.

"Many of the children have been abandoned or have parents who are addicts or sick with the virus," the doctor explains. "They desperately need foster parents, but people are too afraid to take them."

"Why?" asks Diana, her face registering the tragedy of the situation.

The doctor replies matter-of-factly. "Because of the stigma — the fear of the disease."

There are no words that can adequately speak to the pain pulsing through that hospital room. But, in that moment, Princess Diana responds in a way that speaks louder than words, with a gesture far more powerful than any condolence she might utter. She looks into the eyes of the little boy in the bed beside her, and leans down to draw him into her arms.1

In the dramatized account — as, it seems, in real life — Princess Diana understood the transformative power of touch, especially for children who had been robbed of basic human connection.

This, of course, is one of the tragedies of an epidemic. Or a pandemic. It robs us not just of life, but of so much that makes life abundant. It strips us of connection — of face-to-face communication, of physical contact, of authentic ways of being with one another. With the AIDS epidemic, the loss of human connection was an unnecessary casualty — the tragic result of fear, of ignorance, of homophobia. This pandemic is different. Social Distancing is the result of good science – of the knowledge that the best things we can do to preserve life are to wear masks that, unfortunately, hide our emotions, and to keep six feet of space between us. But this knowledge does not make social distancing easy to bear. The loss of human connection we are all experiencing is hard, especially at this time of year. And, for those who live alone, it's even tougher, it's heartbreaking.

The Coronavirus has changed how we relate to one another. Fear of the disease has made us wary not just of strangers, but of friends. It has taught us to view bodies with suspicion — as carriers of the virus, as threats to our own wellbeing. And, so, we choose isolation over intimacy and sacrifice familiar ways of being together — like breaking bread with one another, or reaching for each other with signs of peace— sacred rituals that once enriched life, but now ... now carry the threat of death. Yes, the Coronavirus has robbed us of so much that makes life abundant.

It is against this backdrop that we hear again the radical claim of Christmas – that God chose a body. God chose face-to-face communication and physical contact. God chose to be present among us in familiar rituals of human life – like joining in table fellowship or greeting another with a sign of peace. John sums up the mystery of the incarnation more succinctly than any other Gospel writer: "The Word became flesh and lived among us." Or, to borrow Eugene Peterson's language from The Message: "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood."2

John's words are familiar to many of us. We hear them often enough during Christmastide — in liturgy and prayers, perhaps printed on Christmas cards or emblazoned on a banner strung across a church yard. Some of us have even committed this verse to memory. And yet, in this season of social distancing, the claim that the divine Word became flesh and blood may sound as shocking to us as it did to the first hearers of John's Gospel.

You see, the incarnation changed everything. God dwelling among us in human form changed everything. It altered the very manner in which we humans relate to God.

Before Jesus of Nazareth, no one had ever seen God. They had only heard God ... At the dawn of time, Genesis tells us that the divine Word called across the watery chaos: "Let there be light." The Word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision, and to Moses from a burning bush, and to Samuel in the quiet of night. The wandering tribes of Israel heard the voice of God thundering from Mount Sinai. And the settled tribes of Israel heard holy utterances through the voices of prophets crying out at the city gate. Yes, the faithful had heard God.

But, as John tells us, no one had laid eyes on God: "No one has ever seen God," he writes. "It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh, makes God known — not just in a form eyes could behold, but in flesh and blood that God's people could reach out and touch ... A teacher who sits beside a woman of Samaria and talks theology over freshly-drawn well water. A miracle worker who moves through a hungry multitude, placing bread into outstretched hands. A healer who spits into dirt, then spreads the mud on the eyes of a man-born-blind. A Risen Lord who tells his disciple to reach out and touch the wounds on his resurrected body.

This Jesus — the Word-Made-Flesh — comes among us as a man who eats and drinks with his friends, who celebrates with guests at a wedding and weeps with mourners at a tomb, who experiences rejection and betrayal and — ultimately — bleeds and suffers and dies. A man who, before he grew in wisdom and years, was a child like any other — a babe who woke every few hours demanding to be fed, who slept most soundly when curled up in a parent's arms.

Yes, the incarnation changed everything. No longer was God an offstage voice that began creation, but an eight-day old baby whom an elderly man looking for the restoration of Israel could scoop up in his arms. No longer was God a disembodied voice thundering from the clouds, but a little boy who likely toddled out from behind Mary's skirts when the glint of gold from the Magi's treasure chests caught his eye. The Word became flesh and lived among us. And this unimaginable truth radically altered the very manner in which we relate to God.

This is what we celebrate at Christmas — that God was not satisfied to call to us across the chasm, but chose to come among us ... To live among us. To move into the neighborhood. When creation craved God's comfort, when even divine words had failed to reconcile this weary world, God chose a gesture far more powerful: God sent the Word-Made-Flesh to draw humankind into the divine embrace. God chose to be present among us — listening, laughing, loving, speaking, touching ... sharing human life in all its fullness — in its sorrow and its joy.

This is what we celebrate at Christmas ...

But during this Christmastide, during this season of social distancing, the closeness of the incarnation seems shocking. Goodness — we would consider it positively unsafe. Imagine this: If God were to be born among us during this historical moment, what would the manger scene look like? I expect the midwife would permit Joseph to attend the birth only if he was symptom free and registering a temperature less than 100.4 degrees. The shepherds would be stopped at the door and directed around the building, where they could gather outside the window holding up signs summarizing what the angels had said. Since travel is discouraged, the Magi would settle for a Zoom call and, reluctantly, stick their gifts in the mail, knowing they'd never arrive in time for Epiphany. And Simeon — elderly Simeon, who'd waited his whole life for the Messiah — would have to wait to receive the vaccine before holding baby Jesus in his arms. So much for authentic connection — for face-to-face communication and physical contact, for God reaching out to draw us into the divine embrace.

And yet — even in this moment — the promise of incarnation remains. For the divine Word who, long ago, became flesh and lived among us still enters into our weary world. The promise of incarnation is that God continues to reach across the chasm — to draw near to us in ways our hearts can perceive, even when hands cannot touch. It's true, God's presence looks different than when Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh, walked the earth. But God continues to reach into daily life to enfold humanity in a divine embrace.

I see God drawing near to us whenever, however we draw near to one another. These days, face-to-face communication is limited. Physical contact is restricted to others within our family pods. And, yet, we find ways of being together, of nurturing the connection we share as siblings in Christ. It was abundantly clear in our Christmas celebrations ...

... It was clear in the response to our Christmas Box project. Though the pandemic prevented us from dropping off presents and canned goods, from gathering to decorate cards and fill boxes to the brim, our community rose to the challenge with an outpouring of generosity. Together, we baked 150 dozen cookies. We decorated cards to accompany each of the 75 Christmas bags. We donated enough money to exceed our gift card goal, meaning each family had a larger sum to purchase food and gifts for Christmas. Through generosity that exceeded expectation, our congregation drew near to neighbors who needed reassurance of God's love this season. And, as we did so, the Spirit drew us closer into God's embrace.

... It was clear in our virtual caroling project, which brought together multiple voices recorded from the safety of separate homes. Through hard work and the wonders of technology and — no doubt — the grace of God, some thirty voices miraculously joined in harmony to proclaim the good news of great joy. And, as on that first Christmas, the glad tidings reached people in need of comfort, in need of hope, in need of joy.

... For me, it was clear on Christmas Eve as our community gathered on Zoom to watch the Service of Story and Song. To close our time together, Tony and Alexis led us in Silent Night, Holy Night. As we sang, some participants held up candles or glow sticks, some shifted cameras to capture the twinkling lights from their Christmas trees, some turned on the flashlights on their smartphones. It was, perhaps, an imperfect effort to recreate a precious moment from past services. And, true, it did not recapture the wonder of singing Silent Night in a sanctuary aglow with candlelight. But, much to my surprise, I found my eyes filling with tears. More than any other year, in all its picture-perfect splendor, our community was bearing witness to the light of Christ. Even though we are scattered, even though this pandemic has robbed us of so much that makes life abundant, the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.

Yes, even today when so much about life has changed in dramatic ways, God enters into our weary world in tender moments and touching gestures. We may experience God's presence across new dimensions and in altered circumstances. But whenever, however we draw near to one another, God draws close and enfolds us within a divine embrace. Even as we stand separated by masks and distance, God's face is revealed in our midst. For the One who — long ago — became flesh and lived among us continues to draw near to bring good news of great joy in ways hearts can perceive, even when hands cannot touch.


  1. The Crown, Season 4, Episode 10 (2020).
  2. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.


Prayers of the People ~ Gregory Knox Jones

Gracious God, as we begin your gift of a long-awaited new year, we pray that we may make the coming months the best that is possible with you by our side. We do not ask for an easy life, but for the courage to face whatever comes. We do not expect our path to always be smooth, but for the will to overcome every crisis we encounter. We do not expect every day to be happy, but for the determination not to allow hardships to make us hard. Grant us the strength to persevere when challenges come our way, and when dark clouds hang heavy, never to lose sight of the sun.

In the year to come, may our hearts and minds be open to epiphanies large and small that provide opportunities to draw closer to you and the life you dream for us to live. With our families, with our friends and neighbors, and with strangers, may we respond to pain with compassion, to frustration with encouragement, to betrayal with forgiveness, and to cruel words with kindness.

Eternal God, from the time of Moses through the days of the prophets to the time of Jesus, the Scriptures teach the gravity of sharing with those in need. In the days of Moses, you instructed the people not to reap their harvest from the edges of their fields or to gather the remnants of their crops, but to leave them for the poor and the foreigner. (Leviticus 23:22) In the time of Isaiah, you called on your people to share their bread with the hungry, to provide shelter for the homeless and to provide clothing for those dressed in rags. (Isaiah 58:7) John the Baptist counseled, "Anyone with two coats should share with the person who has none." And Jesus taught us that when we feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the ill, and welcome the stranger, we are caring for Christ himself.

God, we know that no one should go hungry while others throw away excess; no one should go without clothing while others build larger closets; and no one should be homeless while others live in mansions. As we march through the days of the coming year, we pray that we may nurture a generous spirit. Remind us to share our abundance with those in need, because we who are blessed can be a blessing to others. And when we are a blessing, joy and meaning and satisfaction have a way of showing up on our doorstep.

Jesus taught many lessons and one of the most important was the prayer we say together;

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.