The opening verses of John’s Gospel may not have the narrative flair of Matthew’s or Luke’s nativity stories, but it moves toward an answer to the same core theological question: What is the nature of God’s presence with humanity? And all three nativity stories 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.
It is important to understand that, for the Jewish people, the tabernacle represented the presence of Yahweh among the Israelites. During the wilderness wanderings, Moses went up onto Mount Sinai where God told 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—the number of gold clasps, the length of the curtains. Once the tent is complete, the glory of the Lord dwells there, and no one—not even Moses—can enter.
Eventually, the tabernacle is incorporated into the Temple. 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 lose the illusion that they control 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.
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.
What is the nature of God’s presence with us? Frustratingly unpredictable and, frankly, inconvenient.
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.