The seminary professor, Emilie Townes, taught her seminary students that being in ministry means being more than just a tourist. Tourists come to a place and visit, while maintaining their own unique traditions and customs. They buy trinkets and take snapshots. She taught that pastors and preachers need to be pilgrims and “pitch a tent” with the people. Pilgrim pastors learn the “language” of the people they are sent to pastor. Pilgrims pitching tents take up their people’s traditions and customs, but they can also, like Jesus, transform the world in which they live through their ministry to and with the people. Pitching a tent means coming to be fully part of the world in which you live and minister. The Word in this text is doing just that — coming to “pitch a tent” with humanity. The Word made flesh comes to be in the world and to change the world. Townes wrote, “This text is the simple and dramatic telling of the mystery of the Word made flesh, dwelling among us, and empowering us to become children of God.” End quote. If we remember back to the Israelites leaving Egypt we will remember that they carried and pitched a very special tent. That tent was called the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle, according to the Hebrew Bible, was the portable dwelling place for the divine presence from the time of the Exodus from Egypt into Canaan. Built of gold, silver, brass, furs, jewels, and other valuable materials taken out of Egypt, at God’s orders, and according to specifications revealed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, it was transported by the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The First Temple in Jerusalem superseded it as the dwelling-place of God some three hundred years later….. There was a time, in the beginning, when God was present and walked in the Garden and God’s voice was clearly heard and there was an open relationship with humanity, however, we desired God’s place in the relationship and our sin created a divide. At the time of Moses, God chose to be present in the Tabernacle, then the Temple, and then a new plan. Emmanuel, God with us. God pitched a new tent among his people in their own flesh. The second verse is John 18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” No one has ever seen God. No kidding. We may want to, desire to, crave to, but we can’t. And this seems never more apparent than during the times of our greatest need. Whether caused by illness, death, job loss, depression, loneliness, a sense of disconnection, or any of the many other challenges of this life. In times of great struggle we seem keenly, aware that we are simply not able to see God. We long for the personal connection, for that tangible connection, for that fleshy connection. The Christmas story in Luke shows us the shepherds and the baby Jesus but the story in John is very theological and not sentimental. Here is why John’s unsentimental Christmas message is so important. Because in the face of all these messages — many of which are rooted in something that is descriptively true (we have made mistakes, disappointed ourselves and others, and all the rest) — John asserts that what is definitively true about each and everyone of us is that Jesus gives each one of us the “power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” And nothing can change that. To fully appreciate the significance of what John is saying, I think we need to distinguish briefly between those things that describe us and those that define us. All too often, I believe, we allow certain elements of our life to dominate and define us. Things like our upbringing or interests, our good experiences and our bad ones, our current marital state or our sexuality, our past triumphs or tragedies. These things do matter and are what I would call descriptively true, but all too often we allow them not just to describe parts of our life but to define us completely. In these verses, John invites us to hold all of the ordinary things that describe us as important but insufficient, as valuable but partial, as meaningful but not definitive. What is definitive — and therefore more important than all the good or bad things we carry with us — is that God has called us God’s own children, individuals who hold infinite worth in God’s eyes, deserve love and respect, and will be used by God to care for God’s beloved world. Can we imagine that? That Jesus came and was born, lived, died, and was raised again not simply to pay a “penalty for sin” but rather to remind us and even convince us that God loves us more than anything? More than that, can we practice it? Perhaps the opportunity before us, on this second – and last – Sunday of Christmas, is to treat it as the first Sunday of a year where we emulate and actualize God’s activity to come among us in grace, mercy and love that the light might continue shining on in even the darkest of places. If so, then Howard Thurman’s poem “The Work of Christmas” goes well with John’s Prologue: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.” I’d like you to invite your people to begin on this day and continue for the rest of January a simple but profound exercise. Once every day — and it will be easier if it’s the same time each day — look in the mirror and say the following: “I am God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But, these words are rather hard to say and even harder to believe. Which is why we need to do it every day for the rest of the month. Because the first few times you say it, you’re likely not to believe it; that is, all those descriptive things about you — especially those that are difficult or that you don’t like — will begin to creep in and voice doubts about what you are confessing. It will sound different for each person, of course, but many of these negative messages will likely run something like this: “You, a child of God? But what about your failed job or marriage? What about when you disappointed your parents or children? And don’t forget about all the missteps and mistakes you’ve made. Yeah, maybe God loves you, but you don’t really deserve that love, and you’re certainly not in a position to change yourself, let alone the world.” We must realize that this is the voice of the world, this is the voice of the serpent in the Garden where we began. We must listen instead to the voice of hope, love, and peace, the voice of Jesus who became flesh and suffered and died as one of us to show us what we mean to God, our Father. John says that Jesus is “full of grace and truth.” He did not come to tell us about grace, but actually to bring us grace. He is not full of the news of grace and truth, but of grace and truth themselves. Jesus is not merely a teacher, an exhorter, a worker of grace and truth; but these heavenly things are in Him: He is full of them. He is the fountain and source. He has grace to communicate to us, grace without measure, grace essential and abiding. We are washed in our baptism in that water and by that water we can rest assured that we are made right and are ready to change the world.
John begins his gospel with this prologue: a hymn to the Word through whom all things were created. This Word became flesh and brought grace and truth to the world. John1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.