Covering some ground.
I suspect that for a lot us, that sums up how many of us feel, one way or the other, about a change in the calendar. Some of look back on 2015 and think: I covered some ground that year. Others may look into the future, into the new year that is already upon us and we’ve resolved to cover some ground. There’s something very satisfying about covering ground, going the distance, “bringing things home.”
|Jewish captives returning from exile|
God who likes to cover some ground. That’s one of the things we learn over and over about God through God’s history with the people of ancient Israel. God likes to cover ground, go the distance. The prophet Jeremiah, who is normally a doom and gloom kind of guy, explains this in one of his prophecies to God’s people. He says that their time exile would eventually end, that the great distance they feel from God would one day be over. God would accomplish this by helping them cover some ground…and I mean literal ground. After years of being dispersed on account of their faithlessness to what felt like the far reaches of creation God was going to bring them back to the place they belonged. This was the hope of a shattered and scattered Israel: that no matter where they had been flung to by the invading armies, no matter how distant God had let them get through their punishment of exile, God would, in fact, remember who and whose they were and gather them back together.
And so the word goes out, as Jeremiah says, from coast to coast. It covers ground! The word is declared in distant islands, to the edges of the known world. From the farthest parts of the earth God would gather them, and not just the young and healthy, either. The most vulnerable among them—the lame and the blind, the pregnant and those even in labor—would all make this journey, walking together. And upon their return there would be great rejoicing. The young women will dance and the old men and young will throw huge parties. The land will be like a watered garden. Grain, oil and wine everywhere. The future was going to be great. It would be a time of grace upon grace…all because God likes to cover some ground.
This also is the God we come to see in Jesus, the Word made flesh, as John’s gospel calls him. God wants his word to go to the distant islands and coastlands, except this time it will not just be announced there and declared there to bring people back to God. This time the Word itself will go there. This time the Word will become human and, out of God’s great love for us, cover some serious ground. That is the miracle of what people of Christian faith call the incarnation, a heavy-duty theological word that intimidates us, really just means to be embodied in the flesh. It is God is going to be covering some ground for us, but not really in terms of geography, traipsing off to the lands of the north and the distant islands in order to perform a rescue. It means God is going to travel the length of the human experience, as broken and lost as it can get.
This is a fundamental understanding of Christian faith: that the very essence of God, the very substance of whatever God is, chooses to descend into our midst and live as one of us. And that one person, Jesus of Nazareth, will come to God’s own people and, in a sense, bring them back to where they belong. Those who receive him by faith he will give the power to become children of God.
And this is how this incarnate Word will cover ground: He will go from appearing at his birth, which other gospel writers will tell us about, and living among God’s people, showing his glory through some pretty terrific signs. He will call some followers to assist in this ministry of rescue, of bringing the word to the people. Eventually, however, he will travel the same route that all human flesh must travel: the path to death. However, in his case it will be a death of great humility, one where he goes as far away from God’s presence as one might imagine: hung on a cross as a common criminal. This is what the real “distant islands” and the farthest reaches of humankind looks like: the darkness of sin and death, the despair of hopelessness and abandonment. Just as ancient Israel was redeemed and brought home, so to will this Word made flesh redeem the children of the earth by suffering and dying and then, miraculously, rising again.
One of the things that the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus teaches us is that no distance is greater than the length it takes to humble oneself to learn what another is experiencing. There are fewer paths in life for us longer than the path it takes to empty ourselves, like the Word did, and somehow take on the experience of another, to learn what another’s life might be like, to meet them where they are, to understand them as another human for whom Jesus has covered this ground. In an opinion piece that ran in the New York Times on Christmas Day, Peter Wehner wrote that “The incarnation…reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are created in the divine image.” Wehner goes on to quote a secular humanist (someone who isn’t even a person of faith) who credits Christianity with introducing the notion for the first time in history that “humanity was fundamentally identical.”
When people who follow Christ cover ground in Jesus’ name, it does not matter how far we travel geographically to spread his word. Sometimes the greatest ground we must cover is sharing the experience of the person who is sitting right next to us, the family living down the street from us, the neighbor we are at odds with, the friend who is going through a rough time. And it can be difficult and involve suffering on our part. We end up having to empty ourselves, or lower ourselves, like Jesus did, in order to make that connection. Covering that ground—choosing to meet us in our experience—is how God interacts with the world. It should be the way those who have become children of God choose to interact with the world.
One of the most vivid lessons I received on this was on a Foursquare court. It was with the Epiphany Youth group three summers ago when we travelled to the farthest reaches of Appalachia, to one of the little towns that are still struggling with the aftermath of a played-out coal industry. One of our group’s tasks was to work with the youth in the town of Logan through a summer enrichment program. Without going into detail, we could say these kids were growing up in very, very different circumstances than our youth. Those differences made forming meaningful relationships very challenging.
Thankfully, there was a Foursquare court in the middle of the camp area and whenever there was some down time action drifted pretty quickly to some games of Foursquare. One of the local kids would pick up a ball and start playing. Now, anyone can play Foursquare. It draws people together. It’s played in P.E. classes across the country and its rules are pretty much the same everywhere. The Epiphany kids would line up and join in to play too, except they never got to win. No matter what, the local kids, whose court we were on, would find a way to get the Epiphany kids out every time. We were pretty sure they were just making up rules as they went in order to ensure that our youth would never advance in the game. And our youth took a beating. It was demoralizing and frustrating for them. It felt like the Logan youth were just taunting us. I couldn’t believe our youth wanted to keep playing, but the Epiphany youth realized that’s how they were going to get to know these local kids. They were going to have to stick with it. Our kids were playing on their court and they realized the point wasn’t winning the game, but winning those friendships. They had to cover some ground that week, humble themselves, and they succeeded.
Learning to play our crazed game…covering some ground…humbling himself from manger to cross…from life to death and back again. In each and every year. It was what God is all about, God’s very essence. It is the nonstop motion of the Word made flesh. When God’s people, those who have received him and been made children of the Father, learn to cover ground like this, there will be no stopping the gospel. When those who have been gathered by a gracious God become people of the incarnation, fed at the table and washed in the Word, travelling the great distance between another person’s story and their own, still more will be gathered from all kinds of distant coastlines.
Declaring the Word. Indeed, living the Word…the Word made flesh that has lived among us. We will see God’s glory. From this fullness—this great distance— we will all receive grace upon grace. No matter what ground you've resolved to cover for the new year that is already upon us, may it be grounded in the promise that God, in the Word made flesh, has already brought you home.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.