John 1:1-18: Word of the Year

Each year the Oxford English Dictionary issues its “word of the year,” the word or phrase that best encapsulates the mood or concerns of the world. They base their choice on word usage in newspaper articles, radio programs, public discourse, books . . . any place where folks are talking and writing about the things that are on their minds. Recent choices for word of the year have included Sudoku, carbon footprint, unfriend, selfie, vape, and post-truth. One year the word of the year was actually an emoji! The 2019 word of the year is “climate emergency . . . a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”[1] On their website, they explain this choice this way:

This year, heightened public awareness of climate science and the myriad implications for communities around the world has generated enormous discussion of what the UN Secretary-General has called ‘the defining issue of our time’. But it is not just this upsurge in conversation that has caught our attention. Our research reveals a demonstrable escalation in the language people are using to articulate information and ideas concerning the climate. This is most clearly encapsulated by the rise of climate emergency in 2019.

So, while we started out talking about “global warming,” our language has escalated through words and phrases like “climate change,” “eco-anxiety,” “climate crisis,” and ultimately to “climate emergency,” to describe how we are feeling and talking and writing about the state of our environment.

Words can be a powerful force for good or for evil. In his letter to the church, James, the brother of Jesus writes: “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:5-10). The words that issue forth from our mouths can do great harm or great good, they can tear down or build up, they can inspire or demoralize. But they cannot create something out of nothing. Only God’s word can do that.

1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let [light be]”; and [light was]. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. –Genesis 1:1-5

In Hebrew, those first words of creation—let light be—are pronounced yə·hî ’ō·wr. And light was: vay·hî ’ō·wr. “Let it be,” God said. And it was. The prophet Isaiah describes the power of God’s word to create when he writes:

as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall [God’s] word be that goes out from [God’s] mouth; it shall not return . . . empty, but it shall accomplish that which [God] purpose[s], and succeed in the thing for which [God] sent it.

So often our words do things that we never intended. Has this ever happened to you? Once while planning a special worship service to raise awareness of Stephen Ministry at the Kirk, a Stephen Minister volunteered, “I’ll do the conversation with the children! I can tell them ‘I’m a Stephen Minister, and you can be a Stephen Minister too!’” But Stephen Ministry is an adult caregiving ministry for adults, and her words triggered one of my pet peeves: using children to communicate with adults. Before I knew it, the word “abusive” came out of my mouth, and the hurt on her face was immediate and devastating. “I would never abuse a child!” she said. I did not intend to hurt her, but that is exactly what I did. My words did something I never intended to them to do. It is in the nature of being human that our words so often fail us.

But God’s word is different from our words. God’s word accomplishes exactly what God intends, and it succeeds in the thing God sends it to do: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Jesus Christ was the Word that God sent into the world to accomplish what God intended and to succeed in the thing for which God sent it.” And that word, just like the first word of creation, was “Light.”

What has come into being in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

In his book, The Universal Christ, the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr describes what he thinks resurrection—the miracle by which God’s Word succeeded in the thing God sent it to do—looked like:

What happened at the resurrection is that Jesus was fully revealed as the eternal and deathless Christ in embodied form. Basically, one [limited] body of Jesus [was changed] into ubiquitous Light. . . . If a video camera had been placed in front of the tomb of Jesus, it wouldn’t have filmed a lone man emerging from a grave (which would be resuscitation more than resurrection). More likely, . . . it would’ve captured something like beams of light extending in all directions. In the resurrection, the single physical body of Jesus moved beyond all limits of space and time into a new notion of physicality and light—which includes all of us in its embodiment. Christians usually call this the “glorified body.”[2]

I love this description of resurrection as light because in it Jesus returns to what he was from before the beginning of time: the light of God, the light of the world, the Word “yə·hî ’ō·wr: vay·hî ’ō·wr” that brings light and life to the world.

January 1, 2017, I was worshipping at the Kirk when the Reverend Amanda Golbeck, one of the Kirk’s Associate Pastors, passed a basket around the congregation. She instructed us to take a slip of paper from the basket. On it would be a word—a different word for each person—and her invitation to us was to let that be our “word of the year,” to spend time meditating on it every day, to let it guide our thoughts and actions, to pray with and about it, and to be in continual conversation with God about how this word might shape our lives over the coming year.

The word I drew was “release.” As the congregation left the sanctuary that day, we were all comparing words. Hal Jordan looked at mine and said, “Oh, that’s a hard one!” I carried it around in my pocket. It became my prayer word. It became my mantra during meditation. I was constantly on the lookout for how that word was showing up in my life and how I might respond to it. A little more than a month earlier, I had begun to think about going back under care of New Hope Presbytery to pursue ordination again. By January I had gotten endorsement from the Kirk’s Session, by March I had completed the required psychological assessment, by May I had been accepted by the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, by June I was preaching in small churches all around the presbytery, by October, I had become a regular pulpit supply preacher here . . . and the rest you know.

What you don’t know is all of the things that I had to let go of along the way: fear, anxiety, unworthiness, commitments and friendships at the Kirk, Saturdays with my husband so that I could write sermons, self-understandings and self-consciousness. That one little word—release—had become the fulcrum on which my whole life pivoted.

I have in this basket slips of paper containing words and some Bible passages in which they, or words like them, are used. I invite you to take a slip of paper and to let the word on it be your word of the year. Live with it. Pray with it, Study it. Carry it with you, both on your person and in your heart. Ask God to use it to create something new in you. Be open to the new thing God is creating in you. If the word feels like just the thing you wanted or needed most, good for you! If it is the very thing you have feared the most, even better! Let your word help you confront that fear. But more than anything else, let God be with you in that word. No one but God knows how it will bear fruit in your life. So trust God to let it be a source of light and life. After all, that it exactly what God intends the Word to do.

Let us pray: God of light and life, help us to trust in your Word to lead us into the abundant life that you intend for us. When our path seems dark before us, send your light to guide us. When we are weary and frightened, send your life to revive us. From your fullness may we all receive grace upon grace, through Christ our Lord, who makes you known to us. Amen.

[1] https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2019/

[2] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, pp. 176-178.