Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Second Sunday of Christmas - January 4, 2015 (John 1:[1-9] 10-18)

I had it made this Christmas.

Normally I get all tied up with gift-giving, especially when it comes to my beloved Melinda. Either things don’t get shipped in time or I can’t figure out what she wants, or I can’t find the time to shop, but this year she just went ahead and bought the gift for me to give to her. It was a winter coat, an item which she needed. When the package came in the mail, she even opened it, tried the coat on in front of me, and said, “Why don’t you just get me this for Christmas?”

And I said, “Merry Christmas, honey!”

I tell you, I had it made this year. All the hard work done for me. Do you think I had the decency to wrap the gift, or even just put a bow on it?

That would be a ‘no.’ It sat there on a chair in our bedroom for about three weeks in the same brown box it arrived in.

Wrapping paper seems like such a meaningless, wasteful thing until the moment of the unwrapping. That’s the thing. The gift itself is nice—even when someone does all the hard work of getting it on your behalf—but how the gift is presented is important, too.

What the people of God have long understood and attempted with their lives to explain is that when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, the wrapping is as important as the gift itself. Indeed, the wrapping, the presentation, is an indispensable part of the gift. What I mean is that the idea that God would descend to give himself to his own creation is monumental on its own. It’s a bit crazy down here, after all. We’ve got waterboarding and influenza and internet article comments. That God would choose to wrap himself up as a human being is the real miracle, the bold new step of love no one saw coming.

orthodox icon of Jesus, Christos
This is how John, the gospel-writer, wants to explain what we call the mystery of the incarnation. Luke tells us about the baby in the manger. John talks about the Word becoming flesh. Luke gives us a story to hear, with characters and music, so that we can paint a picture. John gives us poetry, with words and concepts, so that we can start making sense of who Jesus, theologically-speaking. And theologically-speaking, John says, Jesus is God wrapped up as a human being.

Granted, John is not so succinct as that. He begins by referring to Jesus as the Word of God. This Word that God uses to create everything was with God at the very beginning. We can go back and read Genesis and, regardless of where we each stand on our interpretation of the creation stories, we can all agree that God uses the power of speech—utterance—to bring things into existence. Even light, the first thing God makes, which eventually brings life to everything, was brought into existence by this Word of God.

People of faith have long been amazed and perplexed by all of that, but they at least have always understood that words that come from God are part of God just as your words, when they’re at their most honest, are part of you. Yet John wants to explain this a little more. He says that this divine speech—this moving power of God with all its wisdom and efficacy—is so near to whatever God is that when one talks about that Word of God, one is talking about God, too.

That’s why John says, “In the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Whatever path the philosophers and scholars and you and me conceive this Word of God to be, the the point that John is really driving at here is that that Word, that very stuff of God that was responsible for all this great creation—that became flesh and dwelt among us.

And I think we tend to forget this, or overlook the magnitude of it. As Lillian Daniel observes, we are all so prone to talk about God’s presence or God’s beauty in other aspects of creation—sunsets (that’s a favorite), or the ocean…nature…animals…even the interstellar cosmos…yet rarely we do find ourselves waxing eloquent about how other humans embody the divine. The church’s celebration of Christmas, the mystery of the incarnation, is that God has looked past the sunsets, past the serenity of the oceans, past the star-studded wondrous heavens, and has picked up the gift off the chair in the bedroom that is God’s very self and wrapped the Divine Self in brownish skin. Brown, human skin. That was probably dirty most of the time. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Theological and poetic, for sure, but it starts to sound just as beautiful and real as the story about the baby in the manger.

I don’t think I can put it any better than Denise Levertov, a British-born American award-winning poet who did not convert to Christianity until the age of 60. In one of her short poems “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”, she phrases John’s thoughts like this:

It's when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

Entrusted. Given. The Word, wrapped up a very specific way just for our sake. And just as Bible translators have struggle with how to explain “Word” over the years, that part about the wrapping has produced some interesting interpretations, too. A few versions say, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” One version I found says, “The Word became flesh and took shelter among us.” That one echoes my favorite translation of John’s original Greek, one which gives me a vivid mental picture: “He pitched his tent among us.” The root verbs for “pitching one’s tent” and “living among us” are the same in Greek. Tents, after all, used to be made out of hide, so the connection is there. In Jesus, God pitches his tent right here in our camp, right here with all the pain and joy of being wrapped in skin in a crazy world that has waterboarding and influenza and internet article comments.

I once met a young woman who worked as a counselor with troubled teens at a camp in a rural part of this state. This camp is actually better described as a wilderness school that serves as a last-ditch effort for troubled youth in order to get their lives back on track. Many of the teens who come there have been convicted of minor drug violations or petty crimes, and many are struggling with addictions and issues resulting from abuse or neglect. They stay there at this wilderness school, learning survival techniques, how to care for animals and themselves, learning how to live in harmony with nature, until they are clean enough to leave and re-enter life as responsible young adults. Here’s the thing: they sleep out in tents all year round. The ruggedness of the environment and their education helps put their lives in perspective, I suppose, and helps flesh out some of those issues they need to deal with.

image: source unknown
The part that struck me was that this young woman I met, who worked there as one of the “teachers,” helping the students lay out their curriculum, was required to live in a tent, too. Quite literally she pitched her own tent right in there with the kids, through all kinds of weather and all kinds of temperatures. If they slept in it, so did she. If they didn’t get much sleep because it was too cold or two loud, neither did she. The idea was that whatever issues they were facing, whatever inner demons they would confront, whatever tests they would endure, their teacher—their leader—would also. By pitching her tent in there among with the youth, she was not only learning to identify with their struggles, but she was also more accessible. If the night got scary and lonely, and the way to sobriety too twisted, their support was right next to them, not in some distant heated cabin or apartment, out of the woods. Not exactly a job I could do, but I’m glad there are people willing to pitch those tents with the youth, thankful there are people willing to wrap themselves in the dangerous circumstances of others in order to lead a way to redemption.

The step that God takes toward his creation by sending his Son to pitch his tent among us, to be wrapped in flesh like we are, is rough and dangerous. Jesus will be abused and beat up. He will be rejected even by the people he is sent to save. Yet God wraps him up and sends him anyway to take shelter with us. And he shows us the way to redemption. In the life and ministry of Jesus, the heart of God is revealed, and we can see God’s glory through him.

Our principle task, then, as people of this Word, is to let ourselves be present in and among the people of this community, this city, this planet. We, too, are to be wrapped up just as we are, residing with those who feel the strain of life with skin, reminding them in our words and our actions that though the night is often dark, the light has been overcome. It is to be people who explain through our ministries and our worship that the great gift has not been left lying on the chair in some back room—hey, Merry Christmas, go find it yourselves—but that someone has taken the great care to present the very essence of God’s love to us so that we may see it.

Our task is, in short, to let that “awe crack our mind’s shell” and tell the world that this Christmas…and every Christmas…and every day we breathe…and the day we cease to breathe: because of Jesus Christ, we have it made.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.                  

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