Thursday, December 24, 2009

Into the Neighborhood - John 1:1-5,14 Candlelight Christmas Eve

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The issue of who is moving into the neighborhood stirs up a lot of interest, doesn’t it? A crew from Andrew Roby begins construction on a new home or renovation on an existing home, or a SOLD sign goes across the realtor’s sign in the yard across the street from you. What happens? One of the first questions you hear (or ask) is, “I wonder . . .” I wonder who is moving in? I wonder what they’re like? Do they have children? Pets? Teenagers? I wonder if they’re going to change the front of the house. I wonder if they’re going to be good neighbors. I wonder how much they paid for that house.

I moved in June. I looked at condos all over Charlotte – South Park, NoDa, South End, Dilworth, Monroe Road, Eastover. I wasn’t only looking at the condo, I was also assessing the neighborhood. Is it a good neighborhood? Will I like it? Does it have a pool? Who lives here? Upon arriving at each property, I surveyed the cars in the parking lot. Seeing a bunch of white Buicks and burgundy Cadillacs, I was far too young to buy in some communities.

Since I have moved, I have to confess that I have been almost obsessed with real estate transactions in my community. This may surprise some of you, but I have a teensy little competitive streak in me, and I want to know that no one who has closed on their condo with the same floorplan as mine got it for less than I did. So far, so good.

John’s Gospel speaks of God moving into our neighborhood. Perhaps you have never thought of it in these terms, but listen again to these words: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In the most profound way, we can say God has moved into our neighborhood, and this is an amazing, unique thing. It is an event so powerful that it has the potential to bring new life, hope, and joy to all who embrace it. May we pray.

When you love someone, you try to find ways to make that love known. You may find out about their favorite things and give those things to them. You may spend quality time with them doing things you both enjoy. You may enjoy the closeness of each other’s presence and a warm embrace. You may find joy in doing things for them, or in giving them compliments. These things all describe our love languages, ways that we show and receive love.

The entire Old Testament is a story about a relationship. It is the story about a relationship between a people and their God, and the ways they try to show love to each other.

One realizes several things in reading the story about this relationship. One, it would seem that God and the people of earth do not always speak the same love language. Two, it would seem that a great gulf exists between their worlds. Three, it would seem that nothing ever stops God from trying to cross that gulf and reveal God’s self to humanity in ways our feeble minds can understand.

My grandparents own a farm in Western Pennsylvania, exactly halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie. Growing up, we would always explore all over the farm, and I can remember finding some of the biggest anthills you’ve ever seen. There must have been thousands of little creatures swarming all over that hill, busy with their tasks doing whatever it is that ants do. Some years later, I got to thinking about what those ants must think of me. If they were aware of my presence lurking over their complex little world, they didn’t show it. If I wanted to interact with these ants, I would have to figure out a way to get down to their level. If I had the power to somehow become an ant and yet take with me all the experiences and knowledge I possess as a human, something like what Rick Moranis did in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, I could cross the separation between our worlds from my side. In other words, perhaps the ant would be able to understand the human in ways they never could before.

But then, the great void that exists between the world of the human and the world of the ant is nothing to compare to the separation that exists between a human being and a wonderful, gracious, mysterious reality who gives us life. As difficult as it must, on its own, for an ant to figure out what we humans are like, how much greater it must be for us humans to figure out what God is like. If we are ever to figure out what God is like, then God would have to cross that divide from God’s side. God would have to move into our neighborhood.

And God did, on that first Christmas.

God, for us humans and our salvation, in order that we might have a relationship with God, chose to put God’s self into an image we could understand. God took on visibility, God took on humanness, God translated God’s very self into something – someone – who is accessible to our human ways of knowing. This means that we are now given a glimpse into the mystery of God, not because of our own powers, but because of the gift that God chooses to reveal God’s self to us in a child who is born in Bethlehem.

The birth of Jesus, the incarnation, this act of God buying real estate in our neighborhood did not come as many would predict. People in Jesus’ day were not surprised that God would show up, but they did not expect God to show up in this way – a child of peasant parentage, without royal credentials, without power as they understood power and with a human face. A speaking God would fit comfortably within their tradition, but the idea of God in decisive human form would not. The proclamation that God became flesh and blood, with the feelings and features of any other human was to them beyond strange. So we find ourselves face to face with the God whose face even Moses was not allowed to see.

The story is told of a 50-year-old woman who had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. She had a near-death experience in which she came face-to-face with God. She asked, “Is this it?” God consulted the calendar and said, “No, you’ve got another 36 years.” She recovered, but before she even left the hospital, she walked down to plastic surgery and said “I want the works.” She figured if she had another 36 years, she was going to look as good as possible. She had a tummy tuck, facelift, liposuction, bust enhancement, and even had her hair color changed. She walked out of the hospital and was flattened by a speeding ambulance. Back in heaven, she said to God, “I thought you said I had another 36 years!” God said, “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you.”

That first Christmas, God moved in all right, and the people of Jesus’ day were watching and waiting, but they failed to recognize God. How many of us would have missed it because God did not look the way we expected?

The very event was wrapped in scandal and intrigue. Imagine the conditions under which the child who was also God was born. Born to an unwed teenage mother engaged to a blue collar laborer. Born in the cold barn out back, with an ox and ass as nursemaids. Born during great civil unrest, in the most backwater territory in the entire empire, in the town that no Methodist pastor ever wanted to be appointed to. And as soon as he was born, his family became political refugees, forced to flee the country for their very lives, and the mysterious visitors from the East – whether we call them wise men, astrologers, or magicians – wouldn’t even find him for another two years. Perhaps God needs to hire a publicist, for this is no way for God – the creator of all that ever was and ever will be – to make an entrance on the stage in our short little play, but this is precisely how God enters, and it means something to each of us.

It means that God cares not only for the wealthy but the poor and the downtrodden, the cold, and the hungry. God cares for those who find themselves outcasts in polite society. God is friend to the friendless, refuge to those who find themselves strangers in a strange land. God welcomes people whose lifestyles and beliefs and practices seem just a little strange to us. God is glad to see even those we think are late to the party. Thanks be to God, for perhaps this God might even care for the likes of people like you, and people like me.

God moved into our neighborhood. God became what we are in order that we might know God. If we can know and see Jesus, we can know and see God.

Jesus gives us tangible, visible ways of experiencing a God who is intangible and invisible. God became what we are so we could have a better glimpse, even through our own dim eyesight, into what God is. And thus, the question that has haunted humanity from the very beginning, namely, “What is God like?” is answered. The Christmas story reminds us, “God is like Jesus, because miracle of miracles, wonder of wonders, the man who walks the pages of the New Testament, that man is God, God come to us, God in a form we can understand, God accessible to our limited ways of knowing and experiencing and believing.” Therefore, to believe that at Christmas this really did happen is a way of coming to see that we have been given a vision of God that we could never have earned, could never have come to on our own. It is a gift. It is the very essence of grace.

John’s Gospel is different from the others. John offers no details of how and where. There is no manger scene, no adoring shepherds, no wise men from the East, just the incredible announcement that God has become like us in Christ so that that we can become like God. In this transaction we come to an understanding of the nature of God that exceeds any previous understanding. In Jesus, we are able to see all of God we need to see. It is very important for us to keep our eyes on Jesus when we want to know what God is like.

In Christ there is opened to us a whole new enlightened understanding of God. Imagine the incredibly joyful surprise it must have been for those first disciples to hear Jesus say, “Those who have seen me have seen God.” No longer is God a disembodied voice from some distant place, but God has entered into our humanity with the fullness of divinity. All that we know and experience and feel, God knows and experiences and feels with us. See now, the dwelling of God is with men and women. God has made God’s dwelling with us, God lives among us as one of us, and this is the great mystery of Christmas.

The Incarnation gives us the wonderful insight that not only is Jesus like God, but God is like Jesus, and always been. We need not try to get into heaven, for in Jesus, heaven has come to us.

Friends, hear the good news this Christmas Eve: In the birth of Jesus, heaven has come to us. In the birth of Jesus, we have come face to face with the holy. In the birth of Jesus, God has become like us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. In the birth of Jesus, God has moved into our neighborhood, and our world has been changed forever.

Joy to the world! The Lord has come. O come, let us adore him!

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