Some words about words (and about “the Word”)

I read yesterday where the Oxford American Dictionary recently chose its 2012 “Word of the Year.” The winner? “GIF,” a 25 year-old noun (from the world of technology) that morphed this year into a verb meaning “to create a GIF file of (an image or video sequence, especially relating to an event).” “GIF” beat out a number of other finalists, words like “superstorm” and “nomophobia” (i.e., the fear of losing one’s mobile phone–nice to know my condition has a name). “GIF” joined a growing list of winning words that describe life in Cyberspace, words like “unfriend” and “podcast.”

True confession: “GIF” is not a word I use (unless I get in a pinch in Words With Friends), probably because I have never been much of a “GIFFER.”   But “GIF” aside, I am fascinated by most words. I like to read, speak, and hear them. I try to imagine a “word”-less “world.” (It would literally be “l.”)

So many words. So little time. A few are fun to say, words like “whomperjawed” and “conniption.” Others are beautiful and soothing–“hush,” “tranquil,” “lullaby,” and “murmuring” come to mind. A friend likes to say the word “lovely,” which is, in itself, a lovely word. But Julie makes it even more lovely because she always says “lovely” in such a lovely, sophisticated way.

A mere four-letters, “home” is, for my money, a piercing, breathtaking word–either due to the home you came from, or the one you always dreamed of but never had. And then there is “grace.” Philip Yancey nails it when he calls it “the last, best word.” Amazing word, that word “grace.”

I’ve noticed some words so exactly match the ugly images or harsh meanings they are meant to convey, they make me wince. I think of “treachery,” “corpulent,” “gargoyle,” “divorce,” and “gripe.”

I won’t mention naughty words here, or hard-to-say words, but since I am writing words about words, I will say this:

My friend James Skinner will preach at our church Sunday. (In fact, if you are in the Greater Ruston Area this weekend, let me invite you to come hear him at The Bridge. With his words, Skin–as most folks call him–will make you think, and he will make you laugh. When he opens his mouth and shares both from his head and his heart, you will want to be his friend. And if you talk to him for even five minutes afterwards, you will feel like you and he have been friends always.)

Skin is kicking off our three-week Advent sermon series. His words will focus on John 1:1-5.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is how John’s Gospel begins, with these simple yet enigmatic words.

A theologically-minded Jew reading John 1:1 would have thought of G-d’s creative word (i.e., Him making everything from nebulae to gnats by the sheer Word of His power–see Genesis 1). Or maybe about YHWH’s guiding word (i.e. the LORD calling wayward people to Himself through divinely-inspired prophets)…or maybe about His saving and healing word (i.e., hopeful words graciously spoken by  the Creator to his perishing creatures–see Psalm 107:17-20).

A philosophically-minded Greek reading these same words about “the Word” would have viewed them as a reference to the impersonal Reason that permeates and governs the universe. Which is it?

Three paragraphs in, and some other mind-jarring metaphors later, John dispenses with all his obtuseness. He quits dropping symbolic hints and letting his readers form their own assumptions about what he means. In John 1:14, he spills the Bean that can, if you let it, cause your heart to skip a beat. His exact words? “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

“The Word became flesh.” John is talking, of course, about Jesus Christ. And in case there is any doubt, he says this plainly in verse 17.

Then, for the rest of his gospel, John struggles and strains to find (what else?) words to tell of Jesus …this Word who came into the very world He created with words. This ultimate Word whose mission was, in part, to do what every good word does–to express and convey (in this case to explain God and make plain the truth about His heart). John’s task is so impossible, he finally says in the last words of his gospel, that if the whole world were a library of thick books, each one filled with words about “the Word,” it would still not be enough.

The Jews were on the right track. God’s “Word” is instrumental in creating, guiding, and saving. What they needed to see in the end is what John ended up saying: “God’s Word has a name: Jesus.” And the Greeks needed to grasp that the Reason that permeates and orders the universe is anything but impersonal. “He” is Jesus. And He is full of grace and truth.

So this is John’s brief, most unusual version of the Christmas story. No “GIF”s of mangers or stories of shepherds… just a few mind-blowing words about “the Word.” Not Jesus the baby, but Jesus the Word.


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