We don’t often think of these opening verses of John’s Gospel as a nativity story, but it is, in it’s own way. It may not have the narrative flair of Matthew or Luke’s version, but it makes up for that with its theological heft.
Despite their differences, the Gospel nativity stories all 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 where God tells him: “Have [the people make a sanctuary for me 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. 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. They carry it 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.
Imagine an on-line 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 phone calls and poorly proofread text messages, suddenly becomes ill and moves into your spare bedroom.
Do we like having those we love—those who love us—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.
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 or a human body, but a presence that is astonishingly loose in the world.
This post is adapted from a sermon on John 1:1-18, preached at Peace Mennonite Church on January 4, 2009.
See this page for a call to worship and prayer of confession based on Isaiah 61.