January 4, 2009
This morning we celebrate together the last Sunday of the Christmas season. We have read and heard and seen various depictions of the nativity story over the past month.
It’s probably fair to say that, in terms of the biblical narratives, Luke’s story is our favorite. Jesus is born in a stable because there is simply no decent room available for the holy family. The angels make the joyful proclamation to the shepherds—you know, the ones abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
This is the tableaux that dominates our Christmas decorations. Maybe you have a nativity scene on your coffee table or mantle at home. We have one here on the front table. Large nativities in yards. Even living nativities. I have a great picture of the Crossing—a bar that used to be by ECM—at Christmas time a few years ago. On the roof of the bar is a big blow up Santa Claus and a smaller lit up nativity scene.
Most everyone loves Luke’s story. Of course, some of the nativity scenes you see have the wise men thrown in for good measure. But they aren’t actually from Luke’s story. We meet them in Matthew.
And we love their story too, odd as it is. These mysterious strangers from the east. That celestial wonder of a star. The problem, of course, is what comes after. We didn’t read that part this morning, because it’s not very pleasant. Herod is so furious that he orders the death of all males under the age of two. The slaughter of the innocents.
And then, of course, there is John. He gets left out a lot, but he does have his own version of the nativity story. It doesn’t begin at a particular point in time, but before time, echoing the first creation story in Genesis: in the beginning.
Not the messy birth in a filthy barn beginning. Not the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary beginning. Not even the “Abraham was the father of Isaac” beginning. The beginning. In the beginning was the Word . . . all things came into being through him.
Now, we don’t like to talk too much theology around the holidays—it gets tiresome, I know. But within their compelling narratives and poetic brilliance, these nativity stories address a core theological question. A core human question: What is the nature of God’s presence among us?
How is the Divine related to the human? How does the omnipotent deal with the vulnerable? What is the relationship of the Creator with the the created? How does the infinite interact with the finite?
The Gospel birth narratives—all three of them–give a startling answer. Here’s how John puts it: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
“Dwelt,” of course, is the King James word. More modern translations say that the Word “made his dwelling,” or “lived,” or “made his home” among us. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message says: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”
Most literally translated, the term is the verb form of “tabernacle.” The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.
This may be somewhat confusing to modern Christians, but it is an important term to understand when we are asking about the nature of God’s presence among us. It is important because, for the Jewish people, the tabernacle represented the presence of Yahweh among the Israelites.
During the wilderness wanderings, Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai and has a direct encounter with God. This is when God gives Moses the instructions concerning the tent—or tabernacle—that is to be built. “Have them make a sanctuary for me,” says God, “and I will dwell among them.”
There are chapters in Exodus—the ones we generally skip over—dedicated to explaining the specific construction of this tabernacle. How many gold clasps, how long the curtains are. And once the tent is complete, the glory of the Lord dwells there, and no one—not even Moses—can enter.
This tabernacle is a guide for the Israelites in the wilderness. When the cloud remains over the tabernacle, the people stay put. When the cloud lifts, the people move out—taking their portable dwelling place of God with them.
The Israelites carry this tent around throughout their time of Exodus and into the land of Canaan. Eventually, the tabernacle is incorporated into the Temple. The tabernacle is the location of the presence of God with the Jewish people.
Then, according to John, an interesting thing happens. God chooses to “tabernacle among us” in a new way. To become flesh.
On the one hand, it is an astonishing relinquishment of power for the omnipotent to choose to be confined in human flesh. Humanity can rejoice that God is willing to do this for us.
On the other hand, when the tabernacle is a living, breathing, human being, humans are no longer in control of God’s presence. They can’t cart it around from place to place. They can’t decide who does and does not have access to it.
What is the nature of God’s presence with us? Frustratingly unpredictable and, frankly, inconvenient.
Relationships in a box are so much easier than having to deal with flesh and blood people in the middle of your life. Imagine a cyber friend suddenly moves into the house next door and shows up for real chats rather than typed chats. Imagine your parent, who you mostly communicate with via the telephone and mailbox, suddenly becomes ill and moves into your spare bedroom.
Do you like having those you love—those who love you—close? Yes, of course . . . but . . .
The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.
Now the religious leaders cannot confine their encounters with God to the times they choose to enter the temple. Because Jesus might just show up—at their daughter’s wedding, their friend’s dinner party, their synagogue. The Word became flesh—indeed.
Do we really want a God that personal? A God that lives in our neighborhood? That we run into while we’re shopping? That stops by unannounced? A God whose lips we can watch moving as the holy words form? A God we can smell? A God we can catch the stomach flu from?
Most people don’t, you know. The Word made flesh is at once too vulnerable and too invasive to be acceptable as God.
Yet there he was. Present before creation. Wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Giggling with glee over the wise men’s gifts.
The Word made flesh.
What is the nature of God’s presence with us?
Jesus, of course, only walked this earth for a brief time. Because the Word was flesh, he was crucified. Because the Word was God, there was resurrection and ascension.
So what is the nature of God’s presence with us now? No tabernacle. No flesh and blood Christ.
The presence Jesus leaves for his followers—at least according to John—is the Holy Spirit. A presence that is not contained in a tabernacle, but loose in the world. Unpredictable and, sometimes, inconvenient.
What is the nature of God’s presence with us today? The Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us that we—you and I together—are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the tabernacle. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Amen.