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The Word Became Flesh

Creation-Friendly Worship in Advent and Christmas

For centuries, John 1 has offered the church perhaps its favorite Advent text outside of the birth narratives of Luke. But have we ever stopped to think about what was going through the mind of the author when he chose the word logos (word) to describe Jesus? Perhaps we are so used to the strange choice that we don’t realize how inscrutable it sounded the first time Western ears heard it. But make no mistake: it was utterly clear and eminently meaningful to John’s original audience.

The socio-cultural world of the New Testament was shaped by the convergence of two cultural worldviews: Hebrew and Greco-Roman. Though the New Testament is written in Greek (the lingua franca of the day), almost every author that contributed to the canon was indelibly shaped by the Hebrew culture that infused the life of the early church. So to understand how the first readers of John’s gospel understood the word logos, we have to look at both cultures.

In Greco-Roman cosmology, the logos was understood to be the animating force that infuses the world with being and life. The logos was the ever-present energy—variously described by the competing philosophical schools as wisdom, logic, rationality, and beauty—that both created the world in the beginning and sustained it from one moment to the next.

God lavishly displays his love in the world around us and is always using the stuff of the world—be it flesh, water, bread, or wine—to reveal himself.

Hebrew cosmology was similarly shaped by a unique understanding of words. In the Hebrew imagination, words were not simply linguistic tools of communication, they were the building blocks of reality. It is no mistake that the Hebrew phrase vayo’mer (“and he said”) is found 11 times in Genesis 1. The idea that God created the world with words was not simply understood by the Hebrew mind as a flashy metaphor or a creative anthropomorphism—it reflected a fundamental understanding of how the world works. God created the world with words, and God’s words of love and covenant faithfulness continue to create the world from one moment to the next. In fact, the Hebrew word davar can be translated as both “word” and “action”/”good deed”—so closely tied is the Hebrew understanding of speaking and doing.

To the Hebrew mind, words literally created worlds. While this may sound strange to us, it makes abundant sense. Think about a time when you were encouraged by a dear friend in a period of vulnerability or self-doubt. Or remember a moment of frustration when you spat out words of hurt toward another. Words can create a world of trust and support or a world of pain and hurt.

It’s clear that John is going for something specific by framing the incarnation of Jesus in this way. He could have articulated the mind-bending paradox of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God in myriad ways, but he chooses to tap deep into the Greco-Roman and Hebrew worldview, to the very nature of reality and creation. Why would John find it so important to tie creation and the incarnation together so tightly?

Perhaps it is because in the incarnation we see God’s ultimate affirmation of the physical earth. That God would assume physical existence—that he would wrap himself in flesh and bone, tendon and cartilage—was an insurmountable obstacle for many early Christians. In fact, the early Church’s most formidable heresy was Christian Gnosticism, a system of dualism that separated evil bodily existence from the spiritual realm of purity and truth. Christian Gnostics simply could not circle the paradoxical square of a perfect God assuming fallen flesh. It’s a stumbling block that has continued to dog the church and lives on in various forms today.

But the incarnation should come as no surprise to those who pay close attention to God’s actions in the world. The gospel writer has been paying attention, and signals as much in that favorite Advent verse: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14a).

The Greek word translated as “made his dwelling” is actually more specific than that. It literally means “tabernacled,” and its significance is impossible to miss.

Creative Worship Ideas

Green Advent Activities

  • Gather soil from your property and place it at the front of the sanctuary throughout Advent to remind yourselves that in the incarnation God forever joined the stuff of earth to his divine self.
  • Take a prayer walk around your property, praying for specific parts of creation that are found there. Remind yourselves that God takes delight in these and that Jesus came to reconcile these parts of creation back to God too.
  • Take special note of any sort of pollution or degradation on your church’s property. Offer a lament, remembering that Advent is a time of waiting for Christ to come again and finally make all things new.
  • Invite a local expert (botanist, historian, master gardener) to offer a brief history of your church’s natural place during the worship service. Discuss how God’s deep concern and respect for creation, as evidenced in the incarnation, lead you to care about the history and current state of your created place as well.
  • If you will be performing any baptisms during Advent, use water from a local source, or invite the parents or the adult catechumen to provide water from a place of significance to them. Invite them to share why they chose the water they did, and give thanks to God for the goodness of creation and for God’s desire to renew all things.
  • Consider taking an offering for a Christian creation care organization that is working to live out the implications of the incarnation by caring for God’s beloved creation. You can find a list of such organizations at crcna.org/ministries/nondenominational-agencies.

Planning Around Advent Themes

Light / Darkness
Have a lights-off portion of your worship service. In many places, Advent is a naturally dark time (less sunlight). Living in the rhythm of this part of the created world can be spiritually instructive.

All Things New
Using materials that had a former life in a new way (recycling!) is a great way to illustrate this concept.

Have the children use last week’s worship bulletins to make this week’s Christmas ornaments.

Trinity RCA in Grand Rapids purchased a communion table cover that is woven from thrifted/donated men’s neck-ties—a colorful worship decoration that was also created by a local homeless artist through a ministry the church supports. All things new!

Waiting / Accepting / Journeying /Birthing
Just as we await the coming of Jesus during Advent, so too is creation eagerly anticipating its Redeemer. Take time in your liturgy to remember that we are not alone in our waiting by including intercessory prayer for all of creation in your liturgy.

Research which local birds from your community migrate south for the winter. Pray in anticipation of their return to your area in the spring as you pray for the return of Christ, thanking God for the beauty and mystery of his creation.

Greening the Sanctuary

As you think about decorating your space for Advent, consider some of these creation-conscious ideas:

Instead of buying plastic wreaths and foliage, make your own! Gather branches from your church property or ask members to each cut a bough of their Christmas tree or a bough from an evergreen tree on their property. Put out a call in the bulletin for people to gather on a Saturday to collect the greenery and create the wreaths and other decorations.

  • If you use Advent candles, try to find candles made of beeswax instead of oil-based paraffin wax. Or better: research local candle makers or identify sources of local wax from which to make a candle.
  • Instead of poinsettias, which are highly water-intensive to grow and are shipped long distances, consider local plants or flowers. Since this may be difficult in some climates, consider not using any flowers as a symbol of our Advent waiting and longing for new life. On Christmas morning, display recycled paper flowers made by children or a similar festive and recycled display to draw attention to the theme of God “making all things new.”
  • Use potted flowers or plants on the altar that can later be planted outside. Use a live Christmas tree that can be planted on church grounds or donated to a local school or park.
  • During Advent consider reusing worship bulletins for multiple services if the order of worship will largely remain the same, varying only an insert with announcements. Place attractive baskets near the sanctuary exits for recycling worship materials.
  • On Pinterest? Check out the Office of Social Justice’s Advent board for creative ideas for recycled and low-impact crafts and decorations, and pin your own ideas.

Suggested Songs

“Toda la tierra/All Earth Is Waiting” LUYH 57
“Creator of the Stars of Night” and optional prayer LUYH 71
“God Reigns! Earth Rejoices” LUYH 91, PsH 97
“Joy to the World” LUYH 92, PH 40, PsH 337, SWM 94, TH 195, WR 179
“Lift Up the Gates Eternal” LUYH 144

For the Hebrews wandering around the desert, the tabernacle was God’s manifest presence among them. When it was erected, God was literally inside it. And if you wade through all the meticulous instructions that God gives the Israelites for constructing the tabernacle, you might be stunned by what you find in Exodus 26:14: “You shall make for the tent a covering of tanned rams’ skins and an outer covering of fine leather.” That’s right—God instructed the Israelites to put a layer of skin on the outside of the tabernacle. The Hebrew readers of John 1:14 wouldn’t bat an eye at hearing that the “Word became flesh,” because ever since the tabernacle, God has been putting skin on to be near his people.

Matter has always mattered to God. God creates the world—sun, rocks, birds, bacteria—and rejoices in its goodness. God creates humans, both male and female, and calls us to be caretakers of God’s beloved world. God shows us his power in water, delivers his healing in leaves, promises grace through rainbows, sustains life through soil. God is praised by the trees, and worship breaks forth in the mountains. God lavishly displays his love in the world around us and is always using the stuff of the world—be it flesh, water, bread, or wine—to reveal himself. Nowhere is this more powerfully on display than in the incarnation, when the Word that created matter assumes it in order to redeem it.

God is so concerned with the created world that God freely chose to enter into it and die on its behalf rather than see it succumb to the consequences of sin and death. But do we share that concern? Do our lives display a similar love and appreciation for the created world? Do we allow the power and magnitude of the incarnation to transform our relationship with the creation? Or do we evacuate the physicality and earthliness of the paradoxical God-man and reduce him to a spiritualized religious dogma?

If God views the stuff of earth as worthy of participating in the work of redemption, what keeps us from celebrating creation and engaging in the sacred work of “serving and protecting” it (Gen. 2:15)?

Bible Passages to study

  • Genesis 2:15: How might the fact that God has taken on the stuff of earth in the incarnation change the way that we think about our command to “serve and protect” it?
  • Exodus 26:14: In what ways does the command to cover the tabernacle with rams’ skin foreshadow the incarnation? What does it say about God’s character and what God thinks of the stuff of earth?
  • John 1:1-18: How does the incarnation serve as the ultimate affirmation of creation? What implications does this have for how we think about and treat creation?
  • Colossians 1:15-20: What does it mean that the incarnate Word—through whom and for whom all things were made—has come to reconcile all things to himself? What do Advent and the incarnation have to teach us about God’s cosmic vision of reconciliation?
  • Revelation 21:5: The passage says that God is making “all things new,” not “all new things.” How does this echo the incarnation’s affirmation of creation?