Sermon text: John 1: 10-18
Back in Somerset I had a woman who would often say, “Show me, don’t tell me.” Very often she was referring to people living out their lives of faith, as in don’t tell me how much of a Christ you are. Show me through your actions. She was leery of pious self-promoters. In other words, “Talk is cheap.” She embodied that Missouri ethos of the Show Me State. Show me, don’t tell me.”
More and more we are a visual society. At one point in time humans were better auditory learners—we listened and retained what we heard better. But now we rely more on reading and viewing to gain information. We constantly have images in front of our faces with the prevalence of our screens and devices. And while I could listen to instructions, or read a manual on how to fix or do something, I’m much more likely to look up a YouTube video on how to fix a leaky faucet, or play a new board game, or play a new song on my mandolin than just listen or read instructions. Show me, don’t tell me.
I remember a night, years ago, when my buddies and I went to an ax throwing place. You know, where you throw hatchets at giant wooden bullseyes on the wall. It’s like darts for Vikings. This place had an employee working that night who clearly knew what he was doing. He was throwing hatchets, long handled axes, GI Shovels, two axes at the same time. He was impressive.
That business could have given us an information card to teach us the basics. They could have recorded an audio file for us to listen to. They could have just given us the axes after we signed our waivers and had us learn by trial and error.
Instead, the employee gave us a step-by-step breakdown of the mechanics of throwing an ax. He worked with us individually to show us the basics. And when I was slightly off on my initial results, he tweaked my stance to fix it. In this case it was show me, tell me, instruct me…and it produced a ton of entertainment that night.
Show me, don’t tell me.
How does all of this work with our relationship with God? Certainly we have scripture, and tradition, and parents and pastors and prophets who teach us lessons, but how does God show us?
Building that connection and relationship has been an issue from the very beginning. God came to the patriarchs in various ways: dreams, visions, burning bushes, clouds of smoke and fire. God came to the people through appointed mouthpieces like Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the other prophets. The word of God, while powerful and the source of the whole creation, is still just that—a word. And it is hard to build connection and relationship wit ha word, even if it is coming from heaven.
Because of this God remained an incomprehensible, indescribable mystery. If you give someone a canvas and paint brush and ask them to paint a picture of God you’ll get a lot of dumb looks and blank canvases. It’s an impossible task.
In this season of Christmas we celebrate when the Word became flesh and lived among us. In Christmas we celebrate when God became human and we can behold him. In Christmas we celebrate God becoming tangible, real, relatable. Jesus makes God known. And while we don’t have any physical descriptions of what Jesus looked like, we can certainly paint those canvases with some brand of accuracy knowing that Jesus was in fact human.
In recent years, valid criticism has been leveled against the church for how the Word that became flesh is portrayed in art and stained glass. Specifically, we’re talking about skin color and race. It’s no secret that the churches descended from European immigrants predominately depict Jesus with European features. The Word became flesh with white skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair. We’re no stranger to that in the Lutheran Church, as we are the whitest denomination in North America. We laugh when we hear the term “surfer Jesus,” but when we hear that term the specific caricature of Jesus pops into our minds’ eye. Our stained-glass windows are a prime example of this motif.
It should go without saying that Jesus wasn’t a white European. He was a Jew from Palestine. He most certainly had a darker complexion and dark features. He probably had shorter length hair too, in the common style of that period and region. Those visual assumptions should be obvious, but the way we depict God matters, and some people have associated the common white Jesus of European and American art to be an affirmation of white power, privilege, and culture by God. We reject these sinful notions of racism, and while these connections between art and racism might seem like a leap, the whitewashing of Jesus Christ is something we need to be mindful of. We need to be aware that we don’t put God in a box to advocate for sinful agendas. That’s the downside of being able to depict the Word in flesh.
However, there’s also a positive side. As you look at artwork of Jesus you will see white Jesus, and Black Jesus, and Asian Jesus, and Latin American Jesus, and Pacific Islander Jesus, and Middle Eastern Jesus. Jesus has been depicted in as many ways as there are cultures, and that is a gift—a true gift. Did Jesus look white or black or Asian or Latin American? Of course not! But the beauty of the Word becoming flesh and living among us is that we can picture Jesus looking like us, and relating to us, no matter what we look like or where we come from.
Those artistic depictions help us to better relate to God. They draw us into a better connection. They may even help break our false assumptions of Jesus by challenging our imaginations. But the gift is the ability to see Jesus as your sibling, as your friend, as your neighbor, and artists will take those interpretive decisions as they craft their image.
At Christmas, God not only tells us how to live, but then shows us the way. God not only tells us words of grace and forgiveness, but actively lives them out by restoring all things through the Word made flesh. God shows us the way. For us, this is incredibly good news, because all of a sudden, the Word becomes real. The Word becomes relatable. The Word shows us the way. In Christ, God uses every tool in the toolbox to reach us, in order that we might become children of God.
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close the Father’s heart, who has made him known. This is our gift at Christmas. AMEN