Christmas Eve 2015
Does God dwell with his people?
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:3 ESV)
Today’s declaration – that the dwelling place of God is with humanity – comes from the last book of the bible, Revelation. It is a fascinating book with lots in it but it occurred to me that one way of looking at it was to see it as a rewinding of time where the last chapters have taken us to judgement and then to a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem, a new river of life with a tree of life that gives fruit each month of the year and all things are being made new so that after the hot days of sweat and labour here, there is the free cool water of life – and it is all rather garden-esque! The theme throughout these final images is that God is not remote but close, gloriously close, not shielded or guarded to protect us, but there in the midst dwelling with his people. It is a powerful image of being around God; of God being close to us. And many religions have versions of it for it is not uncommon to claim that gods dwell with people or are in their midst.
Delve into the Greek and Roman mythologies and you will find gods of all kinds interacting with people and I think it fair to say that these gods are just bigger versions of us – more powerful, more beautiful, perhaps more loving, definitely more nasty and with a range of questionable achievements – yep, much like humanity. Go south to Egypt and the gods were more removed from this world but their actions and power affected it and life here and so they could be contacted for help but often direct channels or points of contact with the deities were usually mediated by the priests and at the temples. Go east and enter the Hindu pantheon and you find the deities themselves have avatars so it can be said that a deity has descendants thus Krishna is an avatar of the god Vishnu. These deities have interacted with people over long periods of time and can be seen as definitely more than human, more spectacular, more wonderful. In fact that it is the point – why have a god who is not bigger than you?! Sort of defeats the purpose of a deity!
Christianity isn’t different in the idea of God and people being together but there is never any sense that people are God’s pets, his playthings to use and abuse, the toys of a spoilt deity, an experiment. What there is is a mystery that God desires – not because he is lonely or unfulfilled – to dwell and relate and live with humanity so that we can be blessed and live such an abundant life of love and laughter and joy and work and relationships – to the full. We can’t even imagine it now – not really – they’re only approximations of what is better now or they’re just versions where we have power and control (and the picture of those other gods is not too far away!).
God seeks to dwell with his people but our rebellion and sin created a new situation for our sin and rebellion are destroyed and consumed by God’s holiness – his righteousness and justice are not just meaningless concepts – but he, in all his being is real, and so God now has a problem for his presence destroys sin. Thus it is necessary to send out of the garden to save them; to establish ways and means where God sacrifices his own creation to rescue humanity and restore earth and heaven.
Christmas is the account of God’s final phase – the most personal, the most dangerous – where he comes himself. That’s what Christmas is about. It is only understood – it can only be seen – not when it was happening – by angel glory or star light – who really would believe those accounts days later? No one was following Jesus throughout his life with his own You Tube channel updates. No, he was a scandal back then. He lived up to his birth by his crucifixion – scandalous.
But there is an empty tomb that history and humanity have never been able to disprove and by the light of it we suddenly do a double take – Wha-? – what is going on? That’s a story for Easter.
But now we acknowledge what God has done to live with us. The baby, Jesus, is called Immanuel and he will live, die, and live up to his name – God with us. He always is unexpected and humble and ordinary – still using words, water, bread and wine – all so that you can live with him, now and always.
Christmas Day 2015
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:14-18 ESV)
Last night I hope I made the point that in Christianity God breaks the stereotype we create of divine beings and enters our world almost incognito. We get blinded almost by the story of angels and miracles but forget that people would not have believed the last night’s cast – about any of it. If your daughter came home with Mary’s story … if your workmates told you what they saw one night shift …? If anything, Herod is the only one who takes things seriously just at the mere report and his response is bureaucratic, impersonal and violent if you’re the wrong age and gender. No one believes apart from the parents – Mary ponders – Joseph obeys – earlier Elizabeth proclaimed and John the Baptist in utero jumped for joy. Everyone else? Nah!
We’re here because of the light of any empty tomb, not because we’re enlightened in ourselves. And by the light of day when the initial shock and excitement of the birth is over, when the gurgling of a baby may move us to contemplation we are confronted by paradox and mystery. This baby does our head in!
The Gospel writer, John, writes from a perspective of a follower. He’s not interested in the nativity but in the person and he does want to tell Jesus’ story and so he starts at the beginning – before time itself – in the mystery of God, there is the Word.
Then the Word became flesh – think about that – it’s akin to Paul’s description to the Christians at Colossae ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15) – but John doesn’t just want us to see Jesus but to understand that in seeing Jesus we are seeing God’s grace and truth. We then have the reference to John the Baptist and an almost Doctor Whoish timey wimey comment ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me’. Then Jesus is compared to Moses who brings the Torah – the law – which is not just about rules and regulations but also involves news about God’s rescue – the basis for the covenant relationship but now we have the basis itself – not a contract or a treaty or an arrangement with rewards and punishments – no, grace and truth are not something we negotiate and determine but someone we encounter. Grace and truth meet us! And then – as if our heads aren’t hurting enough – John says that no one has ever seen God and that we understand – and we think of messengers maybe angels or prophets or teachers but then John does it again when he concludes ‘the only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known’! Other manuscripts have ‘Son’ so that the Son makes the Father known. Whichever manuscript you read John’s culminating point is the mystery that God makes the Father known!
What is the Christmas message? The world via politicians and, I think, Christian churches which are embedded in countries have a tendency to talk about fixing up deficiencies and injustices in society – making the world a better place. We can expect that from the world – and, to be fair, faithful discipleship does seek the betterment of the people around the disciples and it is a message worth hearing – but any idea that we can make heaven on earth, that we can make the world a garden paradise is challenged by Christmas not enhanced by it! The point of God coming in flesh in the mystery of the Incarnation is that we are lost without him – and our condition is so serious that we don’t appreciate it or see it or understand it – so God uses the opposite of any expectations and comes as one of us. Christians say mysteriously ‘Jesus is true man and true God’ – not to suggest he’s a superman but to ‘reach’ us, communicate with us, declare to us that he is just as we are – that’s why he’s born and doesn’t ‘beam down’. Later because of the resurrection we will learn that mysteriously he doesn’t sin and remains one with God but for now as we gaze in at the manger what we see behind an infant wrapped in swaddling cloths is God for us; for us personally, individually, no matter what we’re going through, Jesus knows about it and understands it.
Whatever other messages might be said at Christmas, if we don’t contemplate the absolute mystery that God is here – that Jesus is Immanuel (God with us) – that in him we discover grace and truth – and this is love, like no other – yes, it’s still a paradox and mystery but it is the foundational Christmas message that leaves us looking at no one else but Jesus. Tomorrow we’ll look away and roll up our sleeves and get back to work.