A hundred years ago, a woman died in New England. She had lived her fifty-odd years in the same house, rarely going out, always gaining her view of the world from the windows in her home. She was a poet, but it wasn't until her death that any of her work was published. Her name was Emily Dickinson, and she is undoubtedly one of the finest writers and theologians this country has ever produced. I would say this about her if only this one poem of hers were published. This is my favorite Dickinson poem: "A word is dead when it is said, some say. But I say it just begins to live that day."
Dickinson is right: Words are living, breathing creatures; they have life. Words are born aloft on waves of sound from one vibrating vocal cord to those little satellite dishes called eardrums that God has so wisely placed in us. Words are lifted from the page on particles of light dancing into our eyes, the tiny openings into the widest possible arenas of life - our imagination and our faith. Words are not just dull, utilitarian things. They make things happen. They describe. They identify. They have the power to create whole worlds out of ink and paper or out of flesh and air. Words are gifts that give us a glimpse of the unseen power of God: creating, calling, and sustaining out of love.
Remember the words from many of our lifetimes: "I have a dream...Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last." "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Are the pictures there for you of Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial? Of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface? Do these words have life for you? Do they have the power to evoke an image?
Think of the words that capture a whole era of your life, that evoke events of great significance. Do the words "I do" take you back to an altar, and a couple of rings exchanged? When you hear the words, "You're fired," can you just feel the bottom drop out from under you again? Do the words "It's cancer" or the phrase, "I'm sorry, he's dead," raise up the sorrow all over again? Do the words "It's a girl!" cart you off to a hospital and a moment of elation? Can "I love you" from your beloved's lips raise a sigh of delight, a flush of passion, or a twitter of the heart inside you? Does it seem that not a day has passed since such words were spoken? Does it also seem like the words have had a life since the dawn of time? Emily Dickinson was right in her poem: "A word is dead when it is said, some say. But I say it just begins to live that day."
It's a remarkable thing what words do, but it's even more remarkable that this rare and beautiful recipe of sounds and air and light can be taken out of its proper realm and used to feed the violent and destructive. Can it be possible that this great gift could ever be used to cheapen our lives? Can the power of the word itself be humiliated? We live in an era when words are flung without thought to fall where they may. We get a barrage of noise stuffed into our ears saying, "Buy this, choose that, get these, want those." Words used as a shill in a clever marketing ploy used to gain power or to degrade. This world can take words and twist them inside out to use as weapons to eliminate uplift or beauty.
God's Word is the final word on you, and his claim on you as his people, his children, is the ultimate claim.
The world, the devil, and sinful beings have the power to speak words about us, to name us, with their own silent language of law. Even the smallest events of life can press the idiot name tag onto your front: standing in the checkout line and discovering you left your check card at home, standing in front of a crowd and finding you've forgotten to zip your fly, tripping on a crack in the sidewalk and turning to check if anyone has seen. These are events that say fool, idiot, and worthless for the rest of the world to hear. But even worse, what does it say about you when the world presses in on you when you are bent low? The world says you're weak, and the weak have no value. What does it say about you when your daughter can't stop drinking until she passes out in her own body fluids? The world hangs these words on you: bad parent. And you know that bad parents have no value. What does the world say about you when you lose your job? It says you are incapable and unworthy.
Beyond all these words, another Word has come into our midst. It is a Word that comes into the darkness of our dim, dull, tawdry existence in this world in order to bring light and life. It is a Word that takes away the legalistic power of the world's name-calling, degrading ability and puts in its place the power of forgiveness, grace, and salvation that can only come from God. A Word has come into our lives, able to raise up children of the light, empowered by its sweet, sweet sound. This is a Word we celebrate at Christmas who has taken on flesh, a Word that God himself is speaking. This is no temporal earthly word whose power ends where death comes marching in. This is an eternal Word that stretches across the chasm between heaven and earth and comes crashing into our ears with the proclamation of divine Good News.
Isaiah speaks a promise when he says, "I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love" (Isa 63:7). This promise is a word that bestows a new future, even as it recreates us anew: God shows you favor and treats a sinner like you with mercy.
The one who makes this promise is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, knit into flesh and bone in Mary's womb: torn apart, battered and bloody on the cross, and wrenched right out of death's skeletal grip to live and rule with God in eternity. Jesus himself is the presence that saves you. He is a word of hope, the hope that comes ringing into your ears and your hearts from God's humble enfleshment as a human creature, from his painful human death, and from the life he now lives for you.
The Word of God, Jesus himself, comes to you to lay a gag order on every slanderous voice in this world. It comes with power and might to command silence from every shrill demand that's been punched into your ears. Jesus, God's Word afoot in your life, comes into the din and stops the din, saying, "That's it. I'm speaking now! All ye powers and voices, be silent, for I am in control here!" And it works! For where the Word of God speaks, things happen, God's own will is obeyed. God's Word is the final word on you, and his claim on you as his people, his children, is the ultimate claim.
When the whole world is attaching Velcro epithets to your front, and kick-me signs to your back, God's Word comes in to rip them away and tell the truth about who you are and what your identity is. In his Son's cross, God sees you and calls you what you truly are: the beloved child whom he values even to his death. This is the Word speaking to you grace upon grace. This is Jesus living and dying for sinners throughout the ages. This is Jesus living and dying for you now, today.
What God's Word does for you is to give you salvation, forgiveness and a promise fulfilled. Listen to the prophet Isaiah: "The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be the crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, the royal diadem in the hand of your God" (Isa 62:2-3). The Lord gives you a new and final identity that comes straight from the divine horse's mouth. It's a new name that supplants anything the world can attach to you.
Paul says that in Christ himself, God makes you his own, choosing, and blessing you. He has willed from beyond time that you should exist. He has commanded you to be knit in your mother's womb. As Isaiah says, "Surely they are my people." Take a look at your navel in the shower tomorrow; it's a sign of your connectedness both to one before you and ultimately to God, for he would have you know him as Father and Jesus as brother. There is a significant intimacy here as God takes you on as his own, as God radically adopts you through Jesus Christ crucified and risen. Your name is on his papers, and the dotted line is signed with his own blood.
Listen to Emily Dickinson once more: "A word is dead when it is said, some say. But I say it just begins to live that day." God's Word to you is such a living word: "The world may declare you dead and meaningless, and void, but I declare to you the forgiveness of all your sins. I set you free from your past. My will is to give you a future of grace and hope, free from bondage to the world and all its hideous noise. I died for you that you might live." The Word from God is in, my friends, and the word on you is "yes!"