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.”
This tabernacle is a guide for the Israelites in the wilderness. They carry it around throughout their time of Exodus and into the land of Canaan. Eventually, the tabernacle is incorporated into the Temple. It is the inner sanctum. The holy of holies. The tabernacle is the location of the presence of God with the Israelite 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—to be “nailed / to [our] poor planet,” as Luci Shaw says. 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 cannot pretend to be in control of God’s presence. They can’t cart it around from place to place. They can’t hide it deep inside the temple courts and say who does and does not have access to it.
Now the religious leaders could not confine their encounters with God to the times they chose 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 who lives in our neighborhood? Who we run into while we’re shopping? Who 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.
This post is excerpted and adapted from a previous sermon.