Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: I Like You As You Are

Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17; Psalm 139

[Begin with the theme song to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood][1]

How many of you here have some sort of connection to Mister Rogers? Either you watched him as a kid, or your kids watched him? (Or maybe you watched him not as a kid; not judging.) I know not all of you here grew up in this country, and so our levels of familiarity may vary: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a children’s public television program that ran from 1968 to 2001, and you’ve just seen its theme song.  It’s likely that even if you didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers you’ve been introduced to him in the past couple of years through the massive comeback he has been enjoying in popular culture, including the movie that just came out this fall starring Tom Hanks.

I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood growing up.  And then a couple years ago, when Mister Rogers was first starting to become cool again, I went back to watch a couple old episodes, and the first thing that struck me was just how slow they were.  There was nothing loud or flashy or really funny, just a guy sitting there and talking to the camera as if he were talking to the kids on the other side of it in real life.  He changes his shoes and feeds his fish and plays with puppets.  And to be honest, I was a little bit bored.  But I also kind of got it.  Because we live in this world where anxiety is high, news is fake, and everyone is always trying to sell us something; and there’s something in us that longs for something that’s not gimmicky, and someone we can actually trust to be honest with us in a gentle sort of way.

Basically, Mister Rogers is cool by virtue of being profoundly uncool.

One of his big draws is that, watching Mister Rogers, you get the impression that there on the other side of the camera is someone who cares about you as a person.  In fact that’s one of Mister Rogers’ most consistent messages to the kids, and others, who watched his show: I like you as you are.

Let’s listen to the song.  [Song: I Like You As You Are][2]

The messages of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were never overtly religious, but they were often deeply theological.  Many of you probably know that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, called to a ministry of media.  When he says he likes us as we are, we may hear echoes of Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth and all that is in them and calls them good, and then God creates humankind in God’s own image, and looks on everything God has made and calls it very good.

We hear this assertion of goodness echoed again in Psalm 139, which we read together.  Here the Psalmist is reflecting on the impossibility of being able to escape from God’s presence  – God knows them completely, all their comings and goings, every word on the tip of their tongue. And in fact, we learn, God has known the Psalmist from long ago: For it was you who formed by inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, the Psalmist writes, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

How many of us can affirm that: that we are God’s own good creation, that God created each of us just as we are and looked at the finished product and called us good?  Is it hard to believe, sometimes, that God actually made you as God meant to?  Not to be thinner or stronger or funnier or smarter or more put together – but just as you are?

My guess is that this isn’t a hard thing to believe in general, that God knew what God was doing when God made us.  But it’s the kind of thing that can be hard to believe in particular.  God created me just as God intended.  You (yes, you) are fearfully and wonderfully made.

It’s one of those things we need to be reminded of, because we spend a lot of our lives hearing the opposite: Lose weight.  Get clearer skin.  Marie Kondo your house. Get the A.  Be a perfect parent.  Grow your church.  Don’t forget to save for retirement.

Maybe if you do all those things you’ll be good enough.

But God says you are good, and you are loved.

It’s likely that Fred knew this is something kids needed to hear because he needed to hear it as a kid himself.  As a boy he was shy, overweight, and frequently sick, and he was bullied.  One particular day school was dismissed early and he decided to walk home, and not far into his walk he heard footsteps behind him and then a cry of “Hey, Fat Freddy! We’re going to get you!”  He started to run, and they ran too, and finally he sought shelter at the house of a family friend that was on his route home, and the bullies gave up and left him alone.[3]

Even at the height of his popularity, Fred Rogers never forgot that day when he narrowly escaped the school bullies.  I think the experience of being bullied as a kid is one you never really do forget.  I know as I read that story, I was transported back to my fifth grade bus stop, where a sixth-grade boy in my neighborhood made sure to make every morning as terrible as he possibly could for me by making fun of my weight, which wasn’t actually that much above average, and my acne, which certainly was.  I tried to laugh it off, which is what they always taught you to do in elementary school so as not to give the bullies more ammunition, but that never seemed to go like it was supposed to.  It got to the point where my mom had to start driving me to another bus stop a mile away just so I wouldn’t have to wait there anymore.

I only remember a handful of the things that bully actually said to me, but I do remember very clearly how it felt to walk to the bus stop each morning wondering what D__ F_____ was going to say today, and even worse, the worry that lingered far beyond that year, that maybe he was right.

Like Fred Rogers, I was lucky to be surrounded not only by a loving family and friends who legitimately liked me, but also by a supportive church community, where I always felt like I was valued and my gifts were honored and celebrated, even from a young age.  I think I picked up implicitly what Fred Rogers said once in an interview: “Christianity to me is a matter of being accepted as we are.  Jesus certainly wasn’t concerned about people’s stations in life or what they looked like or whether they were perfect in behavior or feeling.  How often in the New Testament we read of Jesus’ empathy for those people who felt their own lives to be imperfect, and the marvelous surprise and joy when they felt his great acceptance.”[4]

There might be some of you who are shaking your head at the idea that all Christianity is about is acceptance as we are.  And actually, I agree.  Christianity is about acknowledging our brokenness, and God’s grace and mercy that are greater than our brokenness.  Christianity is about confession and repentance, letting go of the old in order to live into something new.  Christianity is about recognizing the one who saves us when we can’t save ourselves, and, for Methodists in particular, accepting and responding to the grace God offers us to grow in holiness over the course of our lives.  Yes, God loves and accepts us even in our brokenness, but if I were able to bring Fred Rogers back from the dead and have a conversation with him today, I think I might ask him about his theology of sin.

Even the Psalmist back in Psalm 139 doesn’t stop at “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  They move on to ask God to search them and know them.  “Test me and know my thoughts,” they write.  “See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  We can choose to read this as an earnest prayer or a challenge, but for now, at least, I choose earnest prayer.  “Fearfully and wonderfully made” is the truth, but not the whole truth – it is still possible for there to be “wicked ways” in us. “I like you just as you are” is a nice and necessary message, but it is not, on its own, deep theology.

But I don’t actually think that Mister Rogers – shall I say Reverend Rogers – was a shallow theologian, or that he was naive about the “wicked ways” that exist in us as humans.  There is a difference between the goodness of how we are made – what we look like, our loves and hopes, our strengths and weaknesses – and the ways we reject God’s love and goodness – our prejudices, the ways we look out for Number One.

But what if the two are connected?

Fred Rogers remembered a favorite seminary professor saying this: “Evil will do anything to make you feel as bad as you possibly can about yourself, because if you feel the worst about who you are, you will undoubtedly look with evil eyes on your neighbor and you will get to believe the worst about him or her.”

“Jesus,” Fred added once in an interview, “would want us to see the best of who we are, so we would have that behind our eyes as we looked at our neighbor, and we would see the best in him or her.  You can be an accuser or an advocate.  Evil would have you be an accuser in in this life.  Jesus would have you be an advocate for your neighbor.  That statement undergirds all of what I do through the Neighborhood and everything I try to do in living.”[5]

In my own words, as I try to put all of this together, knowing that we are created good, that we are both loved and loveable, is the starting point for being reconciled to God and to our neighbor.  Everything else – confession, forgiveness, sanctification – begins from there.

We opened worship today by reading Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which was itself a starting point: the beginning of his ministry. Maybe it’s no coincidence that that ministry begins with an affirmation: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”

Baptism is a starting point for us, too.  It’s the official beginning of our faith journey, the taking on of a new identity, one that says we are God’s children first and foremost, before anything else, and no matter what the world may tell us.  And while we are not Jesus, and the words perhaps mean something different for him, I believe those words are meant for each one of us too: You are God’s beloved, and God delights in who you are.

From there, the journey begins: a journey of repenting, over and over, of everything that prevents us from believing that about ourselves, and everything that prevents us from believing that about our neighbor.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. But God’s grace is abundant along the way that Jesus shows us.

In a moment, after we sing, I’m going to invite you forward to remember your baptism, or if you have never been baptized, then to consider accepting God’s invitation to live as God’s beloved child.  And as you do maybe you will think of these words:

I like you as you are
Exactly and precisely
I think you turned out nicely
And I like you as you are

I like you as you are
Without a doubt or question

Or even a suggestion
‘Cause I like you as you are

I like your disposition
Your facial composition
And with your kind permission
I’ll shout it to a star

I like you as you are
I wouldn’t want to change you
Or even rearrange you
Not by far

I like you
I-L-I-K-E-Y-O-U
I like you, yes I do
I like you, Y-O-U
I like you, like you as you are[6]

 

You are fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves you just as you are.

Your job is to go out there and live like it.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eInUUfyqa5o

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uww5Izgfack&t=6s

[3] Shea Tuttle, Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, p. 10

[4] Exactly As You Are, p. 24

[5] Exactly As You Are, p. 58-59

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uww5Izgfack

Holy Strangers

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

When I was growing up, I thought my grandmother was the most faithful Christian I knew.  I thought this primarily because of her piety.  She was a devout Catholic who was old enough that she had a hard time getting out of the house, increasingly so as I grew up, but she made sure to watch mass on television each week. I would often watch her sitting on her chair praying the rosary, beads in hand.  And when we talked she would add “God willing” onto the end of any future plans, no matter how simple.  It may have been mostly force of habit, but it was also an acknowledgment of the truth I so rarely thought about as a child, that the future isn’t entirely up to us.

When I was in college, my campus minister, David, became my mentor and model of a faithful Christian.  Among many reasons, one was his knowledge.  I admired the way he could quote C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer just like that, not just as a matter of trivia, but always bringing something new into the conversation.  David opened up new and richer ways for me to think about my faith, bringing in the wisdom of people who had traveled this path before, always inviting reflection and conversation in a way that helped me to experience the call to follow Jesus in an entirely new way.

When I was in seminary I once heard a sermon preached by a United Methodist deacon named Nancy, who had served as a missionary overseas and was then working at a church in Atlanta.  Part of her job at the church was receiving people who showed up asking for help, and in the sermon she talked about a time a young woman showed up at the church in tears.  This young woman was an immigrant from Pakistan who had found herself here in a bad situation with no place to go, and so Nancy brought her home, and she ended up living with Nancy and her husband for six months.  One of my favorite Bible passages even then was Isaiah 58: Isn’t this the fast I choose: …to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house? And as I listened to Nancy tell this story, I thought, wow, that’s not just rhetorical – people really do that.  In just one sermon, she challenged me to practice my faith more boldly and more literally – and I thought she must be the epitome of a faithful Christian.

Do you know people like that?

The truth is that no one of these people was probably a perfect model of faith in all its aspects, but my own faith was blessed by each of them in turn, and by their commitment to prayer, to thoughtful theological reflection, and to boldly living out the Gospel.  And of course, my faith has been formed and defined and deepened and challenged by many other faithful Christians along the way, all of whom have blessed me with the particular gifts they had to impart.

Today is Epiphany, the Sunday of the church year when we read the story and sing songs of some people who ride into the Christmas story bearing gifts of their own.  It is the end of the Christmas season and a time to celebrate God’s unfolding self-revelation in Jesus.

The three wise men, or magi, or sometimes kings (and actually Matthew doesn’t even say there were three of them) who come from afar are familiar faces in most of our nativity scenes.  They roll into Jerusalem asking the Roman-Empire-sanctioned puppet king Herod for information on the whereabouts of this new king whose star they have seen at its rising.  They find him in Bethlehem, where they kneel in front of the manger and worship. They return home by another route, careful to avoid giving the current king any information on where to find the new one.

The story doesn’t end there, because when Herod realizes they’re not coming back, he gets angry, and vows to kill all the children in Bethlehem who are under two, just to cover his bases; and the Holy Family flees to Egypt, leaving home to seek safety across borders and risking their lives on the welcome they will receive in a foreign land until Herod dies. That’s our obligatory reminder that the charming and rustic Christmas story is actually shrouded in violence, which probably makes it more relevant to today’s world than we usually care to remember.

But before they go and set all that in motion, the wise men impart gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (possibly the strangest baby shower ever.) Whether or not Matthew intended it, tradition has given these gifts meaning, as we sang about in the song: gold for a king; frankincense for a god; myrrh, the embalming spice, foreshadowing death.  Their gifts give us new information about who this baby is.  Somehow, it seems, from their reading of the stars, they knew something others did not.

That’s all the more interesting for the fact that these wise men are not Jewish.  We don’t know where they are from except that it’s somewhere in the east, beyond the borders of Israel and Judah. The hope for a Messiah born among the Jewish people is not their hope.  The Scriptures that are said to foretell his coming are not their Scriptures.  The kingdom over which he will be king is, as far as they know, not the kingdom or empire or land in which they live.

In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Holy Envy, “their appearance in Bethlehem is as surprising as a delegation of Methodist bishops arriving in Dharamsala to recognize the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama.”

I imagine the wise men were blessed by this encounter, their epiphany.  How could they not have been?  Whether they knew all the details or not, they got to look in the face of God.  Their appearance at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel immediately opens up the significance of this child’s birth, taking it from local to global – the blessings of Emmanuel, God With Us, extend beyond our cultural identities and borders.

But the wise men bring their own blessings to the story, too.  Not just precious metal or incense or spices, but new insight into who this child is and how to honor him that potentially even goes beyond that of those closest to him.

And yet, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Once they deliver their gifts to the starlit baby boy, they go back to where they came from, presumably to resume their vocations as Zoroastrian priests.”  They come into the story as outsiders, and as far as we know, that’s how they leave it, too.  They “enter stage left,” Taylor says, “deliver their blessing on the Christian gospel, and exit stage right, leaving their mark on a tradition that is not their own.”

I opened today by telling you three stories of faithful Christians who gave me gifts that shaped and transformed my faith.  But now let me tell you about three other people who have done the same.

When I was in high school, I knew a girl named Alisa, who was Muslim.  I never knew Alisa very well, to be honest; I’d be surprised if she remembered me now.  But we were in Model UN together, and one day we stayed after school to set up for a Model UN conference together.  As we set up, the time came for her to pray, as Muslims are instructed to do five times a day, and I watched her find an empty corner of the room, kneel facing Mecca, and bow as she said the prayers.  In the years since I have traveled to majority-Muslim countries on multiple occasions and heard the call to prayer sounding from mosques at the appointed times throughout the day, and I have always thought it was beautiful to be reminded to stop and remember God in the chaos and busyness of one’s day.  But I also remember Alisa, who did it on her own, who made that time when no one around her was reminding her or making time, and I wished that my Christian commitment could be as great as her Muslim one.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took my first class in the Religious Studies department, called History and Religion of Ancient Israel.  It was basically an overview of the Hebrew Bible and its historical context, taught by Julie Galambush, an American Baptist pastor turned Reform Jew.  I had always considered the Old Testament to be a little on the dry side, to be honest, but the way Professor Galambush told its stories and filled in the gaps made it come alive for me.  I can still hear her voice telling us about the debate we can read in the pages of 1 Samuel about whether or not the people of Israel should be ruled by a king: We want a king! We want a king! the people said, to the prophet Samuel’s chagrin.  Despite having learned all the top Bible stories in Sunday School as a kid, I honestly don’t know if I would be here in front of you today if I hadn’t fallen in love with the Bible for the first time in Professor Galambush’s class.

When I moved here to Arlington, I met a local imam named Mehmet.  Maybe some of you have met him, too, at the dinners we were sometimes invited to at his mosque during Ramadan.  Mehmet’s job has since changed, but his calling has remained the same, and that is to work for friendship and understanding among people of all faiths and to work together for peace and justice in our world.  Mehmet, as far as I can tell, lives his faith with such consistency and integrity that nearly everything he does, even everything he posts on Facebook, points toward this purpose, and I have found myself challenged and inspired to be that committed to these things I also believe in.

My Christian faith has been deeply shaped by other Christians who have showed me in different ways what it looks like to love and follow Jesus.  But it has also been blessed by the gifts of these Jews and Muslims, among other people of other faiths, and sometimes people who profess no faith as well.

None of that is to say that our differences don’t matter, or that we’re really all the same when you get down to it anyway.  These are people who told a somewhat different story than I do, who believed some different things, and practiced their faiths and lived out their core values in ways that I do not, and yet they had gifts to give to me that have made my own faith richer, just like my grandmother and my campus minister and a Christian preacher did.

It seems to me that as the world stands on the brink of war, as our denomination stands on the brink of schism, as all the cultural forces around us demand that we see ourselves as “us” and “them,” creating enemies out of people who don’t have to be, that it couldn’t hurt to move through this world with our eyes a little more open to the gifts of holy strangers.

And maybe along the way I’ll part of someone else’s story, too – someone who will perhaps never quite tell the story the same way I do, but who will know a little more of God’s love and mercy and welcome through me; who will be richer for the gifts I have to offer, from my Scriptures and my beliefs and my spiritual practice and my faith.  I at least hope that that might be the case.

I know the story I have to tell.  It’s the story of a God who became one of us, who embodied love and broke barriers and invited us into bold, sacrificial, abundant life.  And it’s a story that’s big enough for all of us – faithful friends and holy strangers alike.

Prologue: The Word Became Flesh

Scripture: John 1:1-14

I heard a Christmas Eve sermon once that was only about three minutes long.  The pastor told a story of a scared little boy hiding under the bed.  His father tried and tried to coax him out; he did everything he could, but nothing could bring this little boy out from under the bed.  So the father got down and crawled under the bed with him.

That was all.

I’ve heard a lot of Christmas Eve sermons in my life, but that is the one I remember best.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and this is what we’re waiting for: for God to get down here with us, here – in our fear; here – in our pain; here – in our brokenness.

It’s almost Christmas, and God is about to do it.

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of Advent, we began reading through the first chapter or prologue of John’s Gospel together, and we’ve been reading cumulatively since then. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  Those are the words John opened with, setting his story even before creation. Later the Word, in John’s imagery, became the Light: the true light that shines on all people, coming into the world, rejected by many, welcomed by a few.  Today, as we come to the verse that has been called not only the climax of this poem, but of John’s whole Gospel, and even of the New Testament,[1] Jesus is once again Word.  The Word became flesh, and made his home among us.

There’s a word we use sometimes in this season: incarnationIn carne, becoming flesh.  Specifically God becoming flesh, God becoming human.  What happens at Christmas, the event we’ve been waiting for and expecting these past four weeks of Advent, isn’t just the birth of a baby, not even a special baby, who makes angels sing from heaven and shepherds leave their flocks and wise men follow a star.

What happens at Christmas is God becoming one of us.

It’s possible those words don’t really pack that much of a punch today.  We know them; we expect them.  But can we really wrap our minds around them? The Word, who was with God and was God in the beginning, becomes flesh, becomes bone and fat and muscle and blood, becomes all the things that make up these frail human bodies of ours.  It’s a paradox because the eternal can’t be limited like this; these mortal bodies can’t contain the very Logos of God.  It’s unbelievable enough that some have called it the “scandal” of incarnation – enough to drive people away from faith by the very impossibility of it.

Early Christian leaders and theologians fought a lot about this thing called incarnation and how it really worked.  Some of them said Jesus was a regular human being who attained special divine status along the way. Some said Jesus was a god who only took on the appearance of a human being, kind of like a ghost; he only seemed to die and rise again.  Some said he was kind of half and half, part human and part divine, two natures swirled together like a candy cane.  Today we call these people heretics, but I think it’s good to remember that they were all faithful people trying to figure out how all of this worked at a time when that really hadn’t been agreed upon.  We may still have some differences of opinion today.  But in time the church agreed that none of these things were what incarnation meant: it was, instead, one thing truly and fully becoming another, without at all ceasing to be the first.  The Word became flesh.

The Word became flesh and made his home among us.

If you remember back to our series on Exodus this fall, you may remember that Exodus ends with God’s presence filling the tabernacle, the tent-like mobile divine dwelling place and proto-Temple that God instructed the Israelites to build in the wilderness.  The tabernacle was the sign that God went with the Israelites as they marched toward the Promised Land.  The word that John uses here for “made his home among us” is in, Greek, “pitched a tent,” and it’s the same word the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible uses for tabernacle.  In one translation (NLT), the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.

That tells us, I think, that dwelling among us is the kind of thing that God has been trying to do for a long time, now.

God’s desire to be with us and walk with us and know us and help us from our level isn’t just a decision God makes somewhere around the year 0 or nine months before.  It’s part of who God is, in and from the beginning.

Hebrew Bible scholar Ellen Davis brings a similar understanding to the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush, from earlier in Exodus.  When God tells Moses to take off his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground, Davis writes: “not only a place where God is heard speaking, but the place where God comes down, all the way to the ground….The essence of the gospel is heard already from the burning bush: God has come down to holy ground to deliver us and to bring us up to a land of promise.”  It’s inevitable, she writes, “that the early Greek theologians…would see the link between the burning bush and incarnation,” and in fact if you go to St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, you will see an icon of Mary as the burning bush: she who held the holiness of God in her own body, but was not consumed.[2]

I think it’s easy for Christians sometimes to look at God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament and think we are getting some kind of upgraded version: that God shrugged God’s shoulders along the way and decided to try be loving instead of wrathful, or decided to give grace instead of law a shot; but really in Jesus we are meeting, in the flesh, God as God always has been.

And yet in Jesus God is also doing something wholly new.  Never before has the Word become flesh.  Never before have we experienced, fully, the scandal of incarnation.  Each time before, there was something mediating God’s voice and presence to us: a burning bush, a dark cloud, a divinely-attuned prophetic intermediary.  In fact, in Exodus we are told that no one was allowed to see God’s glory – except for Moses, once, in passing.  But in Jesus, John says, we have seen God’s glory.

The Bible paraphrase The Message translates this part about making his home among us a little differently.  The Word became flesh and blood, it goes, and moved into the neighborhood.

I love that for its concreteness and specificity.  God isn’t just eternal mystery wrapped in a dense cloud in the middle of an ancient wilderness.  God is the guy down the street with the U-Haul, wiping his brow as he figures out the best angle to get the sofa in the door.  God is the woman with the yappy dog who’s new in the apartment down the hall.  God is the person who just staked out their sleeping place in the woods by the river.  A God in our neighborhood is a God we can know.

Have you ever moved into a new neighborhood?  Most of us probably have, at some point.

Maybe you bought a house and stayed there for most of your adult life; maybe you went away to college and your dormmates became your new neighbors; maybe you had a two-year stint somewhere with the Foreign Service; maybe you’re the type who wanders from place to place as opportunity or necessity calls.  Maybe someone brought you muffins; maybe someone helped you find your way; maybe someone did something to let you know you were not welcome there.  No matter what experience you’ve had, moving in means to invest yourself in a place, in some way, to some degree.  You will see the same people day after day, walking their dog or in the elevator.  Maybe you’ll feed someone’s cat or get their mail while they are away.  You’ll have your spots, the place you stop for coffee and the place you can almost always find parking.  You’ll notice the way the light hits a tree across the way just so in the morning.  You may or may not love it – few of us probably love every place we live equally – but it will become yours, even if only for a short time.  It will be part of your story, and you will be part of its story.

When the Word became flesh, the Word didn’t do so in general.  He did so concretely, specifically.  In Bethlehem, the year of the census.  In Nazareth, the Galilean backwater that people said nothing good would ever come from.  In Capernaum, by the lake, where fishermen hauled in their catch of the day.  In Bethany, where Mary and Martha cooked dinner.  In Jerusalem, the Temple, his places, his people, he part of their stories and they part of his.

The idea that one specific person living one specific life can be present with us today and offer salvation to us today is called  – and here’s the word scandal again – the scandal of particularity.  And yet Christ is universal exactly because he is particular, or specific.

It strikes me that here in verse 14, where John writes that the Word became flesh and made his home among us, it is the first time he has used that first-person pronoun, us.

Till now the prologue has been in third person: the Light came to his own, and they did not welcome him.  Those who welcomed him were made children of God.  But this isn’t just a story about them, it’s not just a story that takes place there; because the one who moves into the neighborhood is the one who was with God and was God in the beginning, it’s also a story of us and here, Jesus present in the specifics of our lives.

Let’s think for a moment about our own neighborhood, Rosslyn.  Some of you live here; you at least go to church here; or, you are at least here today.  Tell me about Rosslyn.  What words would you use to describe it?  What kinds of people do you meet?  What are your places here?

Incarnation means that Jesus can be found here too: in the business people, the State Department types, the recent college grads beginning their first jobs, the people who sleep at the Metro and panhandle on Lynn Street during the day; at the Gold’s Gym and the Compass Coffee and Chipotle and Gateway Park and the Safeway everyone used to love to hate but is now actually reasonably nice; in the new apartment buildings going up and the office buildings still trying to rent space and in the church on top of the gas station, bearing witness in the middle of it all.

Incarnation means this is where God is; this is where God’s story unfolds.  This, right here under us and around us, this is holy ground.

I do wonder sometimes why God chose to do it this way.  In some ways it would have been a lot easier to believe in a clockwork universe kind of God – one who sets things in motion and then just sits back, untouched and unaffected and uninvolved with what happens after.  The mystery of what must have happened back in the Big Bang may intrigue some of us, but it doesn’t scandalize most of us.  God could easily have left things at that.

The reason God didn’t, I think, is that that’s not who God is.

God is love, and that means God isn’t just content to sit back and leave us to our own devices.  If we are here in our pain and our brokenness, our fears and self-centeredness, if we aren’t capable of loving and welcoming others on our own, if we haven’t yet managed to find abundant life in the Reign of God on our own –

Then God is going to come down.

For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son…

Who became one of us and moved into the neighborhood.

And through him, we have seen God, in all God’s messy, mundane, and dazzling glory.

 

 

[1] Feasting on the Word, Vol. 1, p. 143 (Exegetical Perspective)

[2]Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 45-46.

Prologue: His Own Didn’t Welcome Him

Scripture: John 1:1-13

The Christmas season is a time we may be thinking about welcome.  Some of us may be preparing to welcome family or other guests for the holidays.  The house will need to be clean, fresh sheets on the guest bed, holiday menu prepared and groceries shopped for, the obligatory day trip to the Smithsonians planned.  Others of us may be planning to be guests ourselves.  We may be in the awkward place of joining new friends or neighbors for the first time, meeting the families of significant others, or wondering even how welcome we will be among our own families.  Some of us may wish we had a place to go.

I’d like you to take a minute just to think about your experience with the word welcome.  When is a time when you found yourself welcomed?  (It doesn’t necessarily have to be at the holidays.)  How did you know you were welcome? How did you feel, before the experience and after?

As the year 2011 drew to a close, I happened to find myself with no place to go for Christmas.  Christmas was on a Sunday that year, and I had to be in Williamsburg for our Christmas morning worship service.  My parents and brother were headed up to visit my dad’s extended family in Philadelphia, as we always did.  There was no way to make it home in time to join them.  The previous year I had spent Christmas Day with my then-boyfriend’s family but, being recently single again, that was no longer an option.

I ended up spending that Christmas Day with my friend Jenny’s family – another pastor in the same situation, whose family came to her that year. I was nervous at first about intruding on someone else’s family Christmas.  I had only met Jenny that summer when she moved to a church close-ish to mine.  I’d met her twin sister a couple times since then, but I had never met her parents before.  I was glad to have somewhere to go, but I didn’t just want to be someone they included because they felt sorry for me.

But I didn’t end up feeling like that at all.  Our friend Jessie came too – yet another Christmas orphan pastor.  There were places set for us around the table.  We were included in the conversation – they wanted to get to know us, and for us to get to know them.  Nothing made me feel like I was an interloper or an afterthought.  I’d been worried about Christmas being lonely that year, but in the end, I left feeling like my circle of people had grown.

Maybe you’ve had an experience like that.  Of course, maybe you’ve had the opposite one, too: of holidays or other visits where you just never quite felt at home, or worse, were outright rejected for who you are, or what you believe, or choices that you made.  There’s plenty of that this time of year, too.

As we continue on in the prologue to John’s Gospel today, we come to this theme of welcome and rejection.  So far we have met Jesus as the Logos, the Word of God, and the Light that shines in the darkness.  Last week we read that the true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.  Today we move to what the world did with that.  The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light.  This is especially sad considering the light is its source and origin.  There is a tragic disconnect there, a sense of amnesia.

The Light came to his own people, John writes – or just his ownand his own didn’t welcome him.  This is not the awkwardness of trying to fit in with strangers. It is the estrangement of family.

I talked a lot last week about the imagery of darkness and light and how that language can be tricky, and perhaps problematic, and a similar caveat applies here.  When John talks about the Light’s own people, that on one level probably means the Jewish people, of whom Jesus was one.  In the rest of John’s Gospel, those who oppose Jesus are often simply labeled “the Jews.”  There is not a lot of good, historically, that has come from painting Jewish people with a broad brush as Jesus haters.  It also doesn’t even make sense, because almost every character in John’s Gospel, whether positively or negatively portrayed, is, in fact, a Jew.  For this reason many recent translations use “Jewish leaders” where context demands it, or sometimes the more literal “Judeans,” which has less contemporary significance to us.  So let’s be clear.  Though through Jesus and his first followers the idea of what it means to be God’s people will be expanded beyond an ethnic group, this is not a story of “the Jews” rejecting Jesus.

Who are Jesus’ “own”? Well, if the whole world came into being through the Light, then, that’s all of us.  This is a story about all of us, and our response to the Light as it (he) comes into the world, and whether we will welcome him.

We also talk a lot about welcoming Jesus a lot this time of year.  We talk about opening our hearts for the Christ child and making room for him to be born in us at Christmas, but in my experience, if we’re not careful, that kind of talk can be vague and sentimental.  Have I welcomed Jesus into my heart if I feel all warm and fuzzy singing Silent Night?  What does it really mean to welcome him?

For John, those who welcomed Jesus are the ones who believed in him, who put their faith in him.  They recognized the Light for who he was.  I said last week that John’s Gospel is all about seeing as a metaphor for faith, and throughout the Gospel there are people who see and people who don’t.  And those who don’t, don’t for different reasons: he doesn’t meet their needs in the way that they demand.  He’s a threat to the institutions they’ve invested everything in.  They’re scared of what believing might mean – a very reversal of the world order as they know it (resurrection, anyone?) And, sometimes, it’s all simply too unbelievable.  The claims he makes are just too much.  They do not see, they do not recognize him, they do not have faith, they do not welcome.

But we would have, though, right?

A church member came to me the other day with a question.  She said, I hear of people making claims that certain politicians are sent by God.  This seems dangerous to me.  But if Jesus is supposed to come again one day, how will we know for sure?

The more I thought about that question the more I thought it was not only a good question but specifically a good Advent question, because Advent is, traditionally, a time to talk not just about the first coming of Jesus, but the next one, too.  Would we welcome Jesus if he came into the world today?  How would we know?

I told this church member how Jesus himself answers the question.  In John, when people demand he prove himself, he says “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me” (10:25).  In Matthew and Luke, when disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus if he’s really the one they’ve been waiting for, he says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22).  In other words, we know a tree by its fruit; we’ll know it’s him (or perhaps next time, her or them) because we see and know and understand God through him.

I said in the meantime it’s probably good to be skeptical.

But then maybe I thought that instead of being skeptical, we should open that door wide.  What if, instead, we welcomed everyone as if they were sent by God?  Not in the sense that every thing they do and decision they make is God-ordained.  But in the sense that they bear God’s image, and because of that, they reflect God’s light, and we can know something of God through them.

The word the CEB translates “welcome” in John’s prologue is sometimes translated “receive” instead.  And I like “welcome” because it sounds active, on our part – but I like “receive,” because it sounds like a gift is being given.

Jesus said that whoever welcomes a stranger – whether they know it or not – has welcomed him (Matthew 25.)  Or – have you ever stopped and read the Rune of Hospitality that hangs outside our prayer room?  I like how that puts it: Often, often, often, goes Christ in the stranger’s guise. Our response to Christ as we meet him now will tell us a lot about what our response might have been the first time, and what it might be the next.

I asked you at the outset here to reflect on a time when you were welcomed.  Take a minute again, now, and think about a time when you were the one who welcomed.  Did you do so willingly, or reluctantly?  How did you feel, before and after?

Three years ago when Jon and I were preparing for Evelyn to be born, we may not have been ready mentally, but we were ready logistically.  The nursery was set up and decorated, the necessary equipment acquired, the clothes folded and put away. I spent the week before she came, when I was already on maternity leave, cleaning the house. It’s possible that I’m idealizing things in retrospect, but we checked everything off the list that we were supposed to do to welcome her.

This summer when we were preparing for Lydia to be born, we had nothing ready.  We already had a toddler, for one thing.  My dad was in the hospital for most of my third trimester.  We still had all the necessary equipment, but a lot of it was stuffed away in the attic or in the back of closets somewhere – we still don’t know where some of it is.  Rooms had to be reconfigured.  As Lydia’s due date grew closer, I had this growing desperate, helpless feeling of being completely unprepared to welcome her.

It was during that time that friends reminded me that all we really needed was a carseat, a safe place for her to sleep, and to love her.

Welcoming someone is, in some ways, easier than we imagine.

Your house doesn’t need to be spotless. You don’t need to have your life together. What people need is to be loved.  It’s easier than we imagine.

But it’s harder, too.  Welcoming can be a scary thing, because to welcome is to be vulnerable.  To welcome – to really welcome – is not just about hosting somebody in your house or pulling up a chair at your table – but about opening up your life to someone new, and all of the ways that might change everything.

John says that Jesus’ own people didn’t welcome him.  But then he says that some of them did.  Some of them saw something in him that they had never seen before.  And they believed that what they saw was God.  And they welcomed the Light among them in the world.

And those, John tells us, he made children of God.

In other words, their reward was that through their welcome of this divine stranger in their midst, they got to know and be in relationship with God in a new way.

And that’s what Advent, and Christmas, are all about.

So this season, open your hearts to that little baby born in Bethlehem.  And even better, open your lives to the strangers who bear his image today.

 

 

 

Prologue: The Light Was in the World

Scripture: John 1:6-10

It is 1995.  I am twelve years old.  All the sixth-grade classes are on a camping trip.  We hike and go on the ropes course and the zip line and roast marshmallows around the campfire.  At night we split up into cabins filled with wolf spiders.  Sometime that first night, I wake up to use the bathroom.  The latrine is a short walk through the woods.  Someone has hung a flashlight from the door, so I can find it.

On the way back, I set off in the direction leading back to my cabin, but no light guides my way this time.  I tell myself if I can just stay straight on the path, I will be OK.  It’s not long before I realize I am no longer on the path.  There are trees on all sides of me, but I have no idea which direction my cabin is in, or where the latrine is either.

I do finally make it back to my cabin that night, but I don’t remember how.  What I remember is the darkness.

We are told that darkness is bad – that it is evil, ignorance, brokenness, depravity.  When we are lost in the woods, trying to find our way, it may indeed feel like that.  We are told that things lurk in the darkness.  Yet if Christmas is a season of lights, we might say that Advent is a season of darkness. The days are already short this time of year the nights are about as long as they ever get, making us feel like it’s past our bedtime at 6:30 pm.  While multicolored light displays flash outside, Clark Griswold-style, here for Advent we light candles, not to fight the darkness, but to remind ourselves in it that light is on the way.

In the past few years I’ve come to see the darkness of this time of year a little differently than I used to – rather, I’ve been challenged to understand it differently by scholars and preachers, especially people of color, who point out the ways our language of light and darkness aren’t always helpful.  You’ve heard me talk about this before.  Light and darkness do not have to be enemies.  Maybe, instead of danger and depravity, Advent darkness is the darkness of the womb, preparing for the light to be born.

When the Christmas lights outside are a little too much, a little too festive, a little too gaudy, Advent darkness is soft and restful.  You may have heard that darkness is ignorance, brokenness, depravity, but from the darkness of creation to the darkness of the cloud where God dwelled among God’s people – remember that from Exodus – to the darkness of the tomb, darkness is where something new prepares to spring forth.[1]

It’s the darkness that allows us to see clearly the true light coming into the world.

Last week, as we began reading the prologue to John’s Gospel together, Jesus was the Word of God, who was with God and was God in the beginning.  This week he is light, the true light coming into the world.  Already last week we read: What came into the world was life, and the life was light for all people.  It’s a poem, so John can do that, mix his metaphors and images like that.  These are the very images that will guide the rest of the story John tells.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. 

The hardest part for me as I have tried to challenge my own assumptions about light and darkness is that the biblical writers do often – not always – picture darkness as bad and light as good.  And we read a lot of those texts at this time of year: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” as the prophet Isaiah writes.  If Jesus is the Light, in whom “there is no darkness at all,” then everything Jesus is – hope and truth and goodness – the dark must not be.  The truth is that the imagery of light shining in the darkness speaks powerfully to us, however we might conceptualize what those words mean.  So this week I found myself thinking in images, bringing together the knowledge and memories that light evokes in me, in ways that might open up new meanings in this season of light and darkness.  I feel like I am trying these images on, not quite having settled on them, but I also feel like that is maybe appropriate for Advent, for pausing and reflecting.

I learned back in middle school, I think, that light is two things: both particle and wave.  In some experiments and mathematical models it acts like one; sometimes it acts like the other.  In recent years, I even read that scientists have been able to capture it acting as both at once.  My knowledge of physics is not such that I should try to take this metaphor too far, but it is interesting to contemplate that in a season where what we are waiting for is incarnation, for the one who is fully God and fully human, for one form to become another without giving up the first.

John, however, writing in 90 CE, wouldn’t have known all that about light.

Neither, I think, does John necessarily see darkness in these verses as evil or despair.  In fact, as much as he talks about light in these few verses, he only mentions darkness once.  It is the necessary backdrop to the light that is coming into the world.  Even when we read that the darkness did not extinguish the light – leading us to believe that it would if it could, if it were powerful enough, we could read that Greek word in another way: The darkness did not grasp it.  In fact, some of you may be familiar with the old words from the King James: The darkness comprehended it not.

John chooses light, I believe, because he knows what all of us know about light in its most literal sense: it enables us to see.

Throughout John’s Gospel, faith is likened to being able to see.  Later in the Gospel we will meet a man born blind who receives sight physically at the same time he is able to realize who Jesus is, while meanwhile the religious leaders who complain and accuse are, we learn, the ones who are really blind.

This is what the Light does as it comes into the world: it allows us to see – ourselves, our neighbors, creation, all as it really is, and as we really are.  It’s not that the darkness is bad in itself, simply that in it we are not able to see.

We see ourselves as the center around which all things rotate; or perhaps as irreparably broken and unworthy, when what the Light does is show us the truth: that we are good, beloved, broken, redeemed.  We see our neighbors as burdens, or as people to compete with, when the Light shows us that they are in fact just as loved and just as broken as us.  We see creation as something at our disposal, that will always be there to use and use up, but the Light shows us that the world around us is a gift to receive and to live in balance, as part of.

These may or may not feel like things we want to know; but as the Light illumines them, we see that they are true.

As we wait for the light, what things might we need to be prepared to see differently this Advent?

The poem of John’s prologue is momentarily interrupted to introduce another man named John.  He’s not the author or namesake of the Gospel.  He is also, we are clearly told, not the light.  Instead you might know him as John the Baptist, and his job is to witness to the light.

As I thought about it that sounded a little bit strange to me, because why does light need anyone to witness to it?  It’s light, so we should be able to just see it.  Then I thought I wasn’t so sure.

Have you ever looked up in the night sky at the group of stars called the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters?    It’s a group of bright blueish stars just past Orion, and they are visible from nearly every place on earth, from the North Pole to the tip of South America.[2]  But the Pleiades are hard to see by just looking straight at them.  You have to look a little to the side, out of the corner of your eye.  I didn’t discover this by myself, I had to be told – namely by my high school astronomy teacher.  The light was there, I just had to be told where to look.

I thought about how the moon doesn’t make its own light.  And yet we can see it bright in the night sky.  Where does it get its light?  The sun.  It reflects the sun’s light, and the shape of the moon we see has to do with what position the earth and moon are in in relation to the sun.

It is not the light, but it testifies to the light – because we can see the light reflected in it.

I think how so much of what I know of and about Jesus, I know indirectly.  I know because someone wrote these words down in a Gospel thousands of years ago.  I know because someone taught me those stories in Sunday School, and because the words of the hymns we sang in church became engraved in my mind, little by little over time.  I know because I have met people who shared God’s grace and mercy and generosity with me even when I didn’t deserve it.  No, I’m not just relying on what other people have said.  I have experienced the beauty of the Kingdom of God for myself.  What I know is that I never would have seen that light if it weren’t for others who reflected it to me, and that I never would have known what I was looking at if I didn’t have people who pointed me in that direction.

And I know that’s my job, too: to reflect that same light to others.

How have others pointed or reflected the light of God to you?  How are you doing that for others, even as you wait for the light to come into the world more fully?

John writes that the true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.  There’s another phrase that rang a little strange to me – true light.  I suppose he meant as opposed to John the Baptist, who testified to the light but was not the light.  But then I also thought about how there are other lights, and just like not all darkness is bad, not all light is true.

Maybe these are the bright lights that bid us come follow, the harsh light that serves to only heighten every perceived flaw, the light of our screens that are the object of our addiction, the headlights that blind you while presumably helping someone else see.  There are other lights, but Jesus is the Light.

This is, outside, the season of lights. I admit that I do love some wonderfully tacky Christmas lights.  My favorite was one our neighbor always did – it wasn’t just lights, but a whole choreographed display.  You pulled up in front of their house and turned the radio to a certain channel and the lights synced with the songs that played, everything from Carol of the Bells to theme from a Charlie Brown Christmas.  In fact, sometimes you’d have to fight for a space to park and watch.  All the neighbors were disappointed when they decided not to do that this year.

Jon finally put some lights up on our roof yesterday.  We may not be that fancy, but we wanted to be part of making our neighborhood festive and beautiful for Christmas too.

So I’m definitely not knocking Christmas lights, but since I’m thinking in images here, I wonder if it’s easy to focus on the bright lights of this season, by which I mean all the things that are here to distract us from what is true: the hopes, the promises, the attractions and temptations of a world whose flashy lights drown out the true light that can only be seen against the backdrop of darkness.

John tells us that the world didn’t recognize the light.  Maybe it wasn’t the darkness that was the problem.  Maybe it was all the other light, promising us truth and distraction and glory while really stealing our gaze away from the true light.

The good news is that even as we wait, God continues to be at work in the darkness; even as we wait, the light comes into the world again and again.

This season, may we open our hearts and adjust our eyes.

This season, may we not just see, but reflect what we have seen.

 

 

Resources drawn upon include

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-11/redeeming-darkness

and the Facebook feed of Hebrew Bible scholar Wil Gafney, whose blog is also linked below.

[1] https://www.wilgafney.com/2015/12/27/embracing-the-light-the-darkness-in-the-age-of-black-lives-matter/

[2] https://earthsky.org/favorite-star-patterns/pleiades-star-cluster-enjoys-worldwide-renown

Prologue: In the Beginning Was the Word

Scripture: John 1:1-15

Most of us are familiar with the story of Christmas.  There is the virgin who gets a surprise visit from an angel with a job for her to do.  There is her unsuspecting fiancé, who nonetheless decides to stick around.  There is the journey to Bethlehem at 40 weeks pregnant, no room in the inn, a baby born in a stable and swaddled and placed in a manger.  Sprinkle in some cows and sheep and shepherds and wise men and maybe some more angels to complete the scene.

This is the Christmas story as told mostly by Luke and a little bit by Matthew, and it’s the story that pageants are made of.

John, however, has a different story to tell.  For John there is no inn with no room, no manger, no virgin.  There are no shepherds or wise men or cows or sheep.  This story doesn’t take place in the Roman province of Judea – at least not at first.  This story doesn’t begin with the birth of a baby, or a trip to Bethlehem, or an angelic announcement, or even prophetic promises made long ago.

Instead it takes place in heaven, in creation, before creation, at the beginning of time.

This is the story John tells in the first chapter of his Gospel, the prologue, the poem that sets the tone for the whole Gospel to follow.

In the beginning, it goes, and we are instantly transported back to Genesis, to the very first words of the Bible.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.  In the beginning, God said “Let there be light.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  In the beginning, there was not just God the Father, the Creator, but the Word who was with God and who was also God.

There’s a reason we don’t make a pageant out of this story.  It’s hard to even preach on John without starting to sound all philosophical and ephemeral and otherworldly, which is exactly how John sounds – much less try to act it out.

In the beginning was the Word, in Greek, the LogosLogos means word but it’s more than just a word on a page.  It is reason, ordering principle, the “blueprint or Primordial Pattern for reality,”[1] (Rohr), the “creative plan of God that governs the world.”[2]  It is the source of our suffix –ology: theology, theo-logos.  It is, in a sense, wisdom, though there is a different Greek word for that; but in fact, in Proverbs we meet a character, Wisdom, who was “formed in ancient times, at the beginning, before the earth was.”  “I was there,” she says, “when he established the heavens, when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea, when he thickened the clouds above” (Proverbs 8:23-28).  Logos is all of these things.

But in its simplest form, Logos means word.  God’s Word is present with God in the beginning.

We’re used to thinking of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  I suspect we’re less used to thinking of him as God’s Word.

Once, at a church bazaar, I picked up a book of Children’s Letters to God.  You can probably imagine the kinds of letters they collected: some cute, some funny, some poignant, many of them questions, things like “Dear God, how did you know that you were God?” and “Are you really invisible, or is that a trick?”  I have no idea where all these letters came from and have some suspicions as to whether they are all actually real, but they are worth thinking about, because I imagine we might have some letters of our own to write if we got the chance.  Some questions to ask.  Dear God, did this thing in my life really have a higher purpose, or was it just random?  Dear God, what do I do next?

It also made me wonder what God might say if God wrote a letter to us.

What kind of letter do you think God would write?

I think that maybe it would be a love letter, with words full of care and comfort or even passion for us, assuring us that we are beautiful, and that God loves us exactly as we are.  Or maybe it would be more like a letter of introduction, meant to tell us just a little bit about who God really is.  Maybe it would be a letter full of advice and instructions about how to live a meaningful life, or how to gain eternal life.  Maybe it would express some disappointment about the ways we haven’t followed those instructions. Or maybe it would be an invitation to God’s Kingdom banquet.

You can see why this might be a hard letter to write, even for God.  There’s a lot to be said, and words can only say so much.  You might of course say that the Bible itself is the letter God writes to us, and it’s true that the Bible contains pretty much all of the material I just said and more.  John, though, would tell us that rather than the whole of Scripture, Jesus is that letter God writes to us.

There’s the famous saying often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words if necessary.” It’s a saying beloved by all of us who don’t actually like to the preach the Gospel in words, especially outside of church. But maybe that’s what God did, because God used human life itself to preach the Gospel.  Jesus’ very life, his whole life, from birth to ministry to crucifixion to resurrection, is what God wants to tell us.  It is hope and joy and welcome and conviction and mercy and justice and peace.  Jesus is God’s love letter, God’s letter of introduction, God’s instruction, God’s invitation.

And that is true precisely because those two stories I mentioned at the beginning – the Christmas story we all know, with the manger and shepherds and angels, and the one John tells that takes place from the beginning of time – are actually the same story.  This baby in a manger, surrounded by cows and sheep and shepherds and wise men, is in fact, God the eternal, God the creator, in whom and through whom all things were brought into being.  This child wrapped in swaddling clothes is none other than the God who gives us life, the one the theologian Paul Tillich calls “the ground of being.”  He’s not a messenger, not a representative, not an earthly Messiah.  Instead, in this small, human, vulnerable, finite baby we meet the second person of the Trinity, the one who has existed, loved, created, shined light, breathed life, for all time.  He is the very revelation of God.

In this baby, and the person he grows up to be, God says to us, “It’s me.”

And so each earthy detail of that scene at the manger becomes something more, something that points us to God’s eternity.

In Jesus, we have life, because he is the very source of life.  And that life is light for all people.

In Advent, the prologue to the church year and prologue to our Christian story, our work is to open ourselves to that life that is coming into the world. The ongoing work of faith is nothing less than to join our lives with his life, which he opens to us by becoming one of us.

And when we do, we, too, become light for the world.

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ

[2] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 519

Becoming God’s People: The God Who Goes Before Us

Scripture: Exodus 40:33-38

Today we come to the end of the book of Exodus.  We’ve been journeying with the Israelites for a while now, from slavery to liberation to wilderness wandering.  As I’ve been saying from the beginning, Exodus is the story of how people who were no people became God’s people.  But becoming God’s people isn’t just an automatic thing that happens.  Yes, being loved and chosen and remembered by God is pretty much up to God – that’s what we call grace – but understanding what that means for our lives and our journey is at least somewhat up to us.

When we first met the Israelites at the beginning of Exodus, they weren’t even slaves yet.  They’re a flourishing minority in a country that is not their native land where the majority is beginning to fear what their growing numbers mean.  It is that fear, along with a leader all too willing to exploit it, that leads to slavery.  But God hears the Israelites’ cries, and God remembers the promises that God made to their ancestors, that they would become a great nation.  So one day God shows up in a burning bush in the desert to an ethnically Hebrew fugitive from the law who just so happened to grow up Egyptian, and God tells him to go back home and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelite people go.  (That fugitive from the law’s name? Moses.)

Pharaoh does not, of course, let the people go, and his hardness of heart leads to a series of plagues that God sends against him and the Egyptian people: Water to blood. Frogs. Gnats. Flies. Diseased livestock.  Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Over and over, Pharaoh relents and then un-relents, until God decides to show him once and for all who’s in charge here.  That night each Israelite family slaughters a lamb and smears the blood on their doorposts, and at the stroke of midnight, every firstborn child in the land of Egypt dies.  Every one, that is, except for in the houses of the Israelites.  They have been passed over.

That night the Israelites set out in the direction of the Red Sea, with God going before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  When they reach the sea they can hear the Egyptian army catching up to them in the distance, but Moses spreads his staff over the water and they split in half, and the Israelites walk across the sea on dry land.  When the Egyptians catch up, of course, they are not so lucky; on the far shore, the Israelites are free.

And that, in a sense, is where the real story of Exodus begins. Because there the Israelites are in the wilderness, following a God who they don’t really know yet.  Yes, this God has led them out of slavery and into freedom, but what happens next?  Now that they are chosen, now that they are safe, what does it mean to be God’s people for the long haul?

It turns out that maybe you don’t learn that in one big, cataclysmic event like a sea crossing.  You learn it in the wilderness, when you’re worrying about where your next meal and your next cup of water is coming from.  You learn it when you wake up one morning and there’s bread on the ground, and when you see water start gushing out of rocks.  You learn it when you commit to living in a certain way, by certain rules, that give you identity as a community and show the people around you who you are.  You learn it when you mess up and worship things that aren’t God and you fear that you’ve ruined everything and the journey is over, but it’s not over, God is still there offering you a second chance.

These are the lessons the Israelites have to learn in the wilderness as they are shaped and formed into a community of God’s people.

A few weeks ago, back in chapter 17, when the Israelites were thirsty and there was no water to be found, they asked a question that made Moses accuse them of testing God: “Is the Lord really among us, or not?”

And of course that question has already been answered time and time again.  It’s been answered in the hail and the darkness and the splitting of the sea, it’s been answered in the manna that covers the ground and the bitter water made sweet, and yet it’s still a question the wandering people have to ask.  Apparently part of being God’s people is sometimes still having to ask.

It’s the end of Exodus, this very last part, when that question gets answered once and for all.

Last week we heard God giving Moses the instructions for building the tabernacle, the mobile proto-Temple that will be God’s dwelling in the midst of the people and travel with them from camp to camp in the wilderness and into the Promised Land.  Moses invites the people to bring their gifts to be used for building, and they do; they bring their gold and silver and yarn and leather and oil and wood until the workers complain and they have to be told to stop.  Then the tabernacle is built, exactly according to God’s instructions – the authors are very careful to let us know that it is built “just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

As I said last week, this whole part about building the tabernacle is neither the most famous nor the most enthralling part of Exodus.  But it comprises almost half of the book.  It’s not an appendix to the story of crossing the Red Sea; it’s what the Israelites are crossing the Red Sea for, to be a community centered around God’s presence on earth. And in today’s text, finally, the cloud descends over the tabernacle and the Lord’s glorious presence fills it.  And with that, the curtains close on the book of Exodus.

And yet this is not the end of the story; it’s not even the end of the wilderness years.  The Israelites will continue to wander.  They will wander through Leviticus, through Numbers, through Deuteronomy.  They will wander for years, before they finally cross into the Promised Land.  They will go backward and forward and sideways and around in circles.

Rarely, I think, do we travel in a straight line through the wilderness, whatever our “wilderness” may be.

In a way it strikes me as kind of strange that Exodus ends right here, with so much wandering still to go.  Nothing is settled, nothing has come to a conclusion, promises remain unfulfilled.  But the story – this part of it – ends with this: God is with the people of Israel.

And it’s almost as if whatever happens after that is secondary, because if God is wandering with them, then that’s all God’s people need to know.

When I think about what I’m thankful for in the past year, there are plenty of things: the safe birth my daughter Lydia.  Two kids who are healthy, as far as we know.  A job I was glad to come back to after maternity leave.  But to tell the truth it’s been a pretty hard year, with my dad’s illness and death on the one hand, and this whole figuring out being the parents of two kids at one time thing on the other.  It’s been in many ways a wilderness-y kind of year.  Nothing feels like it’s hit equilibrium just yet.  And I know I’m not alone in that; we all have our own wilderness we have to wander.  But I admit that a lot of the time God has seemed distant.  Not angry, not unjust – just distant.  There have been times when that question the Israelites asked has come to mind: “Is the Lord really among us, or not?”

And yet I continue to believe that even when I haven’t felt it, God has been there anyway.  I say that thinking of all the people who reminded me of that over these months – friends who have prayed for me when I didn’t have the words, people who brought meals, who stepped in to help when I had to step back.  These people, these moments, have helped me remember what was actually true no matter what: that God has still been there in the wilderness, and that God is leading me still.

That was always the promise to be fulfilled.  Not the Promised Land, but God with us.  Because God is with us, I can be thankful in the wilderness too.

There’s this tension at this time of year, I think, as we close out the Christian year worshiping Jesus as king of all creation, looking forward to the day when all that is wrong is made right, when the kingdom of God is fully come on earth.  And then we go ahead and begin all over again in Advent, with promises yet to be fulfilled, asking Jesus to come into a world that is still in the wilderness, and there is grief, and there is pain, and there is hate, and injustice, and brokenness, and if we’re honest none of us really knows what to do about it all.  And Jesus does – in Jesus we know that God is with us in all of it.  Jesus is our tabernacle.

There’s a lot that seems uncertain about our world right now.  We don’t know how our country’s going to come out of the next election.  We don’t know how our church is going to come out of our next General Conference.  We don’t know what climate change is going to mean for our future.  We don’t know what building a new church and being out of our church building for three years is going to be like for our community of faith right here.  In each of these cases we get to figure out anew what it means to be God’s people: loving our least loveable neighbors, standing up for the vulnerable, witnessing to a vision that is bigger than our own.

But the good news is that being God’s people means we may wander as we figure it all out – but we will never wander alone.

And because of that, we can put one foot in front of the other, moving forward in faith.

When it is time for the Israelites to set out, the story goes, the cloud that symbolizes God’s presence rises up from the tabernacle.  The people pack up their camp and they gather their things and they hoist the covenant chest onto their shoulders with long poles, and following where the cloud takes them, they march.

And they are thankful, in the wilderness, because God is with them and goes before them.  And in the end, that’s all God’s people need to know.