A sermon on John 1:1-18 for Christmas Day/First Sunday of Christmas
Translation can be a tricky business, and if those who are translating are not fluent in both languages the results can be humorous. Here are some examples of some mistranslations to illustrate how translation can be difficult:
A hotel sign from a hotel in Tokyo: “Is forbidden to steal hotel towels please. If you are not person to do such thing is please not to read this.”
In a Bucharest hotel lobby there is this sign: “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”
In a Hong Kong supermarket: “For your convenience, we recommend courteous, efficient self-service.”
Again in Hong Kong, outside a tailor shop: “Ladies may have a fit upstairs.”
And again in Hong Kong, a dentist has this sign: “Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists.”
A laundry in Rome has this advertisement: “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.”
At a Copenhagen airline ticket office there was this sign: “We take your bags and send them in all directions.” That’s not mistranslation; that’s just honesty in advertising.
A doctor in Rome has this advertisement: “Specialist in women and other diseases.”
And, lastly, my favorite. In an Acapulco hotel there is this sign: “The manager has personally passed all the water served here.”
Translating is tricky business. I’m sure that if we went to Italy and spoke Italian they would have all kinds of funny stories about how our fractured attempts at speaking Italian didn’t come off quite right. The same would be true in Mexico or Hong Kong. Translation is a difficult thing from any language to another.
I wonder if one way to look at what we celebrate during Christmas season – the Feast of the Incarnation – is to think of it as God’s translation: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God" (John 1:1) "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God has spoken in human terms in the life of Jesus. Jesus, not just in his teaching, but in his concrete, fleshly life – the things that he did, the things that he taught – every living moment was a translation of the idiom of God in heaven, of the life of the Trinity, into the language of a human life. Jesus is a translation into human, fleshly terms of the life of God. God spoke the language of "Heaven" in the language of “Human”.
Because of our sin, our brokenness, our ignorance, we don’t even speak Human all that well, let alone the language of Heaven. Our Human is broken Human at best, sometimes barely understandable. A heavy accent of sin, of fear, of selfishness, of violence and hatred inflect our Human. Not just our speech, but our attempt to live humanly. But, Jesus as the truly Human One, he is the Human who speaks Human fluently.
In that sense, understanding Jesus as fully God and fully Human is to understand that he is the one fully bilingual person. He speaks the language of the kingdom of God, the language of the life of the Trinity, fluently. But he also speaks Human fluently. And he speaks both simultaneously, not the way we usually think of bilingualism where one might speak Spanish in one context and then English in another. It’s not that sometimes Jesus is speaking Human and sometimes Jesus is speaking Heaven. The miracle of the Incarnation is that he speaks both at the same time. When he is being most human, Jesus is speaking the idiom of the Trinity, the idiom of Heaven, in fleshly terms. And, when Jesus is being most Godlike, he is speaking fluent Human the way we are all created to speak it – to live it. Jesus’ life is the vocabulary of both Heaven and the truly Human. The vocabulary of his life, his faithfulness, his obedience, his love, his joy, his peace is the vocabulary of Heaven lived in the flesh and the vocabulary of the flesh lived in the context of God.
We will never speak more than broken Human this side of the kingdom, let alone speak the language of Heaven with anything like fluency. But we are invited by God’s grace, and through the Holy Spirit speaking in us and through us, to learn to speak true Human and true Heaven. In coming as the true Word, Jesus has made a way for us to be that true word as well – the body of Christ speaking the language of the kingdom in a world that desperately needs to hear it.
When I was in seminary, there was a table in the refectory called the “mesa Espanol” – the Spanish table. There, faculty and students would gather at lunchtime to practice their Spanish with one another so they could become more fluent. The church is like the “mesa Espanol.” We gather week by week (and during the week) to practice the language of the kingdom of God. It is the language we hear spoken in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. As we practice with one another, and as we seek to speak and live that word in the world around us, by God’s grace we become more and more fluent.
Translation from Human to Divine is tricky business. But, the day will come – God has promised – when we will be gathered up into the very life of God and we too will begin to be bilingual – speaking truly Human, speaking truly God. The Incarnation is God translated into Human that we might be translated into the Divine. That is the promise of the Incarnation. It is the promise of Christmas.
Bonus (not part of the sermon):
Here are a couple of interesting passages from the New Testament in the King James (Authorized) Version:
By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.
– Hebrews 11:5
Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.
– Colossians 1:12-14