"A God with Skin"Dr. Stephen Clyborne John 1: (1-9), 10-18 Second Sunday after Christmas Day
A four-year-old girl was having trouble going to sleep. So, she called to her mother who was trying to go to sleep across the hall, “Mom, I need some apple juice.” “Okay honey,” the mom replied, “but after I bring you this juice, you need to go to sleep.”
The mom made her way into the kitchen, poured the juice, took it to her little girl, and got back in bed. “Mom, just one more thing,” the little girl said. “I need somebody in here to read me one more story.” The mother had already read four bedtime stories to the little girl and was beginning to get a little agitated.
“Darling, you don’t need anybody in there with you. There’s no reason to be scared. Besides, God is in there with you.” The girl replied, “Yeah, but I need somebody with skin!”
In many ways, this little girl was expressing a universal longing – – a need for a God with skin – – a God we can see – – a God we can reach out and touch. Whether we recognize it or not, whether we think about it in this way or not, we were all created with a longing to know what our Creator is like.
Made in the image of God, enlivened by God’s own breath within us, we all are born with a deep yearning to know the One who made us.
We who are mortal are always longing for the immortal.
We who are finite are searching for the infinite.
We who are immanent are yearning for the transcendent.
We who are visible are looking for the invisible.
Those of us who are earthly are longing for the heavenly. We who are human are always longing for the divine. It is the way we were made. The fundamental human longing is to know God.
It is the sentiment expressed by Philip in chapter fourteen of John’s Gospel, when he said, “Show us the Father, and it will satisfy us” (14:8). And why would this satisfy? The answer comes in the prayer of Jesus in chapter seventeen: “This is life eternal, that they may knowYou, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (17:3).
Deep within every heart, if you probe around long enough, you will find a longing for God, a void that only God can fill.
And yet how can we know a God we cannot see with our eyes or hear with our ears or touch with our hands? If God is infinitely beyond us in every way, infinitely higher than our highest thoughts, then how can we ever hope to know God? The truth is that we cannot – – at least not by our own effort, ingenuity, or capacities.
If we come to know God, it will not be because we somehow figure God out – – from the bottom up. It will be because God chooses to be revealed – – from the top down.
All this talk about the longing for the divine reminds me of the story in Genesis 11 about the people who had the clever idea that they would build a tower that would reach all the way to the heavens. And when they had built the highest tower they could build, when they had exhausted all of their resources and energies, in a rare moment of humor, the biblical narrator wrote, “And (so) the LORD came down to see . . . what they had built” (Genesis 11:5).
That is the way it always has been. If we ever come to know God, it will not be because we become capable and intelligent enough to work our way up to God. It will be because God comes to down to our level, not the other way around.
So, it was that, in the beginning, something of God’s nature and character was revealed in creation. More of God’s nature was revealed in the calling of a covenant people. God was revealed in the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. God spoke through the prophets and the writings of Hebrew Scripture. Many of God’s self-disclosures were through God’s word – – spoken or written.
There is something about God’s mysterious nature that requires expression and communication and articulation.
By God’s word, God spoke light out of darkness and order out of chaos.
By God’s word, God called Abram and Sarai and their descendants into a covenant relationship.
By God’s word, God spoke through the law, the prophets, and the writings of Scripture.
To know God was to take God at God’s word.
But on that first Christmas long ago, something dramatic happened. God’s word became flesh. The God who was beyond us came to be with us. The word that God spoke in creation, through the covenant people, and on the pages of Scripture came alive in human form on that holy night long ago.
John begins his account of the Gospel by making a radical claim that, in Jesus Christ, God has become flesh. In the thought world of John’s day, the tendency was to reduce reality to a series of “either-or” propositions.
Either Jesus was something less than God, or something more than human.
Either Jesus was spirit or flesh. But John makes the stunning claim that,
as the Word, Jesus was both God and flesh – – a God with skin.
To use John’s own words, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (1:18). And the God whom Jesus has made known to us is full of grace and truth.
In the Old Testament era, the law was given through Moses. But the Law of Moses could never reveal the fullness of God’s grace and truth in the same way that a living person could. It is not that the nature and character of God changed from the Old Testament to the New. It was that a living person is a more complete medium of revelation than commandments written on tablets of stone.
Still there were so many people who did not get it. The Word through whom the world was spoken into existence – – the Word which was in the beginning with God, the Word who was God – – became a historical person who arrived on the human scene at a particular point in time.
This eternal Word became a flesh-and-blood human being, a God with skin, introduced by John the Baptizer and rejected by His own people. This is what makes the opening verses so tragic: “He was in the world,” said John, “and the world was made by Him, but the world did not know Him” (1:10).
In so many ways, He looked so ordinary that the world did not recognize Him for who He was. But along the way, as He began to punch holes in a world filled with darkness, there were those whose eyes were opened. Many did notreceive Him. Many could not make themselves believe that He was who He claimed to be. But those who didreceive Jesus received power to become children of God (1:12).
It is only in John’s Gospel that Jesus said of Himself, “I and the Father are one . . . Those who have seen me have seen the Father” (10:30; 14:9). But exactly what is it that we see about God’s nature and character when we turn our eyes upon Jesus? Who is this God Jesus came to reveal? John says that, when the Word became flesh, the Word was full of grace and truth.
Note the balance achieved by these two attributes. Grace is the compulsion to give people more than they deserve. It springs from the boundless generosity of God who is willing to make concessions for our sinfulness. According to John, there is an inexhaustible supply of grace. “From His fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16), or “grace in exchange for grace,” or “grace replaced by more grace.”
Truth, on the other hand, is rooted in God’s determination to be consistent, righteous, and trustworthy in dealing with people. God means what God says, and God says what God means. Grace without truth can come across as fluffy, sentimental permissiveness; and truth without grace can degenerate into an inflexible, lifeless legalism. More fully than the law ever could, Jesus revealed the nature and character of God by blending a tenderness toward the sinner with an uncompromising loyalty to the truth.
Some of us picture God as a pushover, one who winks at sin, a softie who is always willing to make exceptions. But these assumptions can give us the license to do as we please. Others of us picture God as being a harsh slave driver who punishes us when we cross the lines God has drawn.
But these assumptions about God can either cause us to develop a false sense of security, or self-righteousness, when we obey the rules, or cause us to be paralyzed by guilt when we do not measure up to God’s standards. Jesus came to reveal to us the God who is full of both grace and truth – – not half and half, but full of both.
A little boy was drawing a picture in Sunday School, when the teacher asked, “What are you drawing?” He said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher said, “Well, Johnny, we really don’t know what God looks like.” And Johnny replied, “You will in a minute.”
During this season of the year, it is as if the church is saying to the world what Johnny said to the teacher, “If you don’t know what God is like, you will before this season is over.” God has always been like Jesus. Through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see the fullness of God’s grace and truth in a human being. We see all the grace we will ever need, and all the truth we could ever take.
The fundamental human longing to know God is satisfied in Jesus Christ, who gave a face to the mystery of God. And now we are able to see for ourselves the glory that Moses longed for, but never saw: the glory as of the only Son from the Father – – a God with skin – – full of both grace and truth.
About the writer:
Dr. Stephen Clyborne was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and has served churches in the Greenville area for thirty-five years. After having served on staff in six churches, he is now in
his tenth year as senior pastor of Earle Street Baptist Church in Greenville, after first serving Earle Street as associate pastor for seven years. Upon graduation from Furman University, Stephen earned the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees at Erskine Theological Seminary, where he served as an adjunct professor for seventeen years.
He is married to the former Sylvia Davis, who is recently retired after having served two churches as a ministry assistant for twenty-seven years (combined). They have two daughters: Rachel (a supervisor in adoptions with the Department of Social Services) and Rebekah (a third-grade teacher at Robert Cashion Elementary School). Also, Stephen and Sylvia have two stepsons: Patrick Swift and his wife, Jennifer, who have two daughters and two sons (Hannah, Sarah Grace, Sam and Ben); Micah Swift and his wife, Suzanne, who have three daughters (Emma Kate, Addie and Ella).
Scripture and Music:
John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
O Word of God Incarnate
Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne
Go, Tell It On the Mountain
It is Well with My Soul
Savior of the Nations, Come
Jesu, Joy of Our Desiring (Bach)
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing (Wilberg)
Morning Has Broken
Every Valley (J.N. Beck)
I Sing the Mighty Power of God (Milburn Price)
Arise, Shine, Your Light Has Come (Mary McDonald)
Love Came Down at Christmas
I Am His, and He Is Mine
Jesus, Name Above All Names