The Word Jeff Jarvis / 2001
I have to confess that I never completely got the profound and magical opening to the book of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory…”
It’s beautiful. But it seemed like so much divine haiku to me, obtuse, subtle, circular logic, starting one place and ending up back at that same place again: “In the beginning was the Word…” “…And the word was with God, and the Word was God…” “And the Word became flesh….”
At young age, I gave up on fully comprehending that verse, figuring it was beyond me; I was missing something; it was one of those unfathomable mysteries of faith. I just closed the door on that room, left it dark, walked away.
But having to come up with a sermon once a year (thank goodness for me – and for you – it’s once a year at most)… having to come up with a sermon is a good excuse for going back and tackling just such a mystery.
When Ken Wildrick warned me last year that I wouldn’t get out of vacation sermon duty again this summer, I started thinking about a topic: our relationship to the written word, to the Bible. I wondered what our faith would be like if we had lost one of the books of the Bible: What would Jesus mean to us if we did not see him through the eyes and voice of Luke or John? And what if there were still faith-altering books of the Bible we had not uncovered? I then began reading a novel about the discovery of a lost book of Judas, but it was such a bad book I put it down after one plane flight. All of this was fairly meaningless, just hypothetical speculation.
At the same time, I kept returning to John’s profound opening, mulling it over as I drove to work and ran at dawn. And finally, a first, dim light bulb went on for me as I realized something quite basic about the word, “word.”
What separates us from the rest of God’s creation is not our thumbs or our unique ability to get sunburned or invent traffic jams. What separates us is God’s gift of words. Oh, yes, other animals can communicate: Dolphins squeak; apes can be taught sign language; ants lead each other to picnic goodies with chemical signals. But only we have the ability to use words as the tools of thought. Only we communicate, think, and create in words. If we are created in God’s image, I come to believe that means that we, like God, are fluent with words. It is how we communicate with Him and He with us.
Words lead us to our greatest accomplishments: novels, poems, songs, history, humor, philosophy, cures for disease, professions of love.
But words also get us in trouble, becoming our weapons for fights, ego, office politics, and hate.
I just read the autobiography of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the leading literary critic in Germany, a renowned and popular star who has his own TV show and appears on the covers of magazines to talk about books. He’s a remarkable man: born of German parents in 1920, he fell in love with German literature at an early age and it became his life’s passion. He moved to Berlin to study. Then the Nazis came to power. Reich-Ranicki is Jewish and so he was deported to Poland, where he soon ended up imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, watching the rest of his family marched to their murders. He and his wife survived to the end of the war hiding in a Pole’s basement, nearly starving. After the war, Reich-Ranicki became a successful writer and critic in Poland but he gave all that up and risked everything to leave with his wife and child and escape over the Iron Curtain to return to, of all places, Germany – simply because he so loved the German language and its literature. He understands the irony well. “Should I be asked to give two names to represent what I understand Germanism to mean in our century,” he writes, “I would answer without hesitation: Germany in my view is Adolf Hitler and Thomas Mann. These two names symbolize the two sides, the two possibilities of Germanism. And it would have dire consequences for Germany to forget or repress either possibility.” In Reich-Ranicki’s view, the profound power of Thomas Mann’s writing balances and compensates even for the evil of Hitler’s hate.
Words do lead us to our best and our worst. Words represent not just communication and thought but the freedom and choice that are the essence of the human soul – the freedom and choice that are God’s gifts to us. Words are the fruit of that tree in Eden that we cannot help but pluck, and that give us a tremendous possibilities, tremendous powers, and tremendous responsibilities.
Mankind did well with words for many eons – but eventually we needed help with them. In fact, Moses had to ask for help. After he led his people out of Egypt, Moses was acting as judge and counsel for his people, and his father-in-law, Jethro, told him that he should instead teach his people “the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do.” In other words: Make them depend on the words of God instead of on you, Moses. Words will live on; you cannot. And so Moses went to Mount Sinai and received God’s words.
God laid down the law.
And there came the second lightbulb going on for me, another step around John’s circle. “In the beginning was the Word…” … “and the Word was with God.” God gave us the power of words and then He gave us His words, his Ten Commandments, his law that became the foundation of Jewish and Christian tradition.
Of course, God gave Moses far more than just Ten Commandments. Keep reading in Exodus and you’ll find that God gave Moses scores more rules and regulations, about compensation for oxen that trip in your fire pit, and perjury, and the building of altars, and murder.
Jewish legend has it that God also whispered in Moses’ ear the beginnings of the Talmud, the amazing Jewish document in which learn-ed rabbis argue with each other over the fine points of God’s law, speaking centuries apart, yet on the same pages; their discussions are the basis of study in synagogues everywhere; it is said that even God studies the Talmud three hours a day. This never-ending discussion in and about the Talmud demonstrates that God’s word and law are not dead sentences to be taken at face value, simply and literally. No, God’s word is meant to be interpreted and thought-through and even argued over using the power God gave us to think and choose – to learn and discern. That is our very tradition as Congregationalists, as Ginny Scott taught us last year in her class on our denomination: It is our responsibility to take the word of God and learn, learn, learn, and through that to discern the will of God and what we are to do. I am delighted when I see moments like that, that bring together our Jewish heritage with our Christian teaching.
I just read a short and wonderful book called “The Talmud and the Internet” by Jonathan Rosen, in which he explores the similarities of the dialogues that occur in the Talmud with those that occur on the Internet – the efforts of a community to learn and discern together, over time.
Rosen begins his story with the death of his grandmother and his efforts to search the Internet for lines by the 17th-century writer and preacher John Donne, words Rosen can’t remember but seeks for comfort. He finally finds them and they are a wonderful picture of our relationship to words. Donne writes: “All mankind is of one author and is one volume. When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.” What a wonderful piece of writing that is, part of a brief meditation in which Donne also pens the immortal lines, “no man is an island, entire of itself” and also, “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
From those special words about words, Rosen launches into his explanation of the very special Jewish relationship to words through the Talmud. “The Talmud was produced by the moral imperative of Jewish law,” he writes, “the free play of great minds, the pressures of exile, the self-conscious need to keep a civilization together, and a driving desire to identify and follow the unfolding word of God.” That word, again, is alive and electric, not dead and static. It is history that becomes tradition that becomes learning that becomes life.
And so Rosen gives us the history of the Talmud and that unfolding word of God. He begins with the first destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the creation of the Bible itself. He tells us that the exile and return that followed the destruction of the Temple “transformed Judaism from a local religion into one that could cross borders, that was preparing to live without a land. During the resettlement of the land of Israel, the Temple was rebuilt but – far more important – Ezra the Scribe began to transcribe the fragments that were gathered into what became the Bible. The realization that only words were durable had dawned on the Jewish people.” Words allowed God’s laws and intent to live without dependence on any person or place or thing; words are stronger than that. God gave us the power of words and then His own powerful words – words that become a part of the fabric of our lives, meant to be stretched and sewn and torn and worn and lived with.
Those are great gifts, but they are not the greatest gift. The circle of John’s words is not yet complete. There is one more step, one more light bulb to turn on, one more gift, the greatest gift of all. And that, of course, is the gift of God’s son.
This final piece dawned on me in a new way thanks to Rosen, this Jewish writer looking for his relationship to God’s word. As he glories in that relationship to the ancient but living words of his religion and our God, Rosen still expresses some dissatisfaction, some longing. He laments “the limitation of stories, for all their power. It is only a virtual world they conjure, after all. And there is some doubting piece of me that wonders what good words are if you cannot touch the speaker.” I think I hear his yearning for a Messiah.
Rosen goes on to confess: “That is, in some sense, a heretical admission because, in my tradition, God revealed Himself in words and lives in stories and, no, you cannot touch or even see Him. The word, in Judaism, was never made flesh.”
Ah-ha. But in Christianity, the word was made flesh.
Again, Rosen illuminates this for me: “In my primitive, nontheological understanding of Christianity,” he writes, “I always feel a certain tension between the utterance of John – ‘In the beginning was the word’ – and the declaration John then makes that Jesus is the Word made flesh. It’s a tension between embodiment and disembodiment that I recognize from Judaism, but in Judaism things move in the opposite direction. In Christianity, the word became flesh – God became a man, literally embodying Himself and coming down to Earth. In Judaism, I’m faced with the equally challenging notion that the flesh became words.”
And so there it is, I think: the complete circular path of John’s poetic opening: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.The word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory…”
From words … to The Word ... to the living Word in Jesus Christ.
The word lives. It lives past Moses. It lives past the Temples. It lives past borders. It lives past the Cross.
The word comes to live in Jesus… and in this church… and, if we try, in our lives. And we have something better than words on a tablet or a page. We have the very life of Jesus – the word become flesh – to see as our example, as the embodiment of God and God’s word.
And the light finally dawns on me.
“In him was life,” John writes, “and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it ….”
n Jeff Jarvis / 2001