Bishop Paul delivered his sermon for Christmas at the Midnight Eucharist in Durham Cathedral this year.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”
More literally translated this glorious verse from the astounding prologue of John’s gospel is, “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” or as another modern translator puts it, “moved into our neighbourhood.”
Rosemary and I used to run a camp for children from East London every summer. It came at the end of the summer season and several camps had taken place in the wonderful Longbarn Meadow before us. So we often had to partly re-pitch some of the bell tents in which the children slept. But we also always had to pitch our own tent. The spot was carefully chosen, although basically the same spot every year. We took care with pitching the tent because we knew that if we pitched it properly it would serve as a good home base for us through the week. Pitched correctly it would be watertight. We took care with where and how we pitched our tent.
When God pitched his tent he took care too. He chose his time in history carefully; St Paul put it this way, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law…” (Galatians 4.4) God chose his site carefully; Mary was to be the mother, her womb was to be the first site. A manger in Bethlehem was to be the first resting place for the Word become flesh. This birth and life were long planned in the heart and mind of God, for this was where he would make himself known and bring about the salvation of the whole world, indeed the rescuing of the whole created order.
GOD AMONGST US
For the first listeners to John’s gospel there would have been a quick connection made from the image of God pitching his tent. The Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert under Moses’ leadership had made a great tent, the tabernacle. This tent of meeting was always set up at the heart of their camp. It was the place where God’s presence in the midst was known. The Israelites were permanently reminded that God was amongst them.
Jesus is God pitching his tent with us, amongst us. Jesus is God moving into our neighbourhood.
In his life Jesus was amongst ordinary people. In his birth in Bethlehem he was amongst the family clan. He was amongst a people living under occupation by the great power of the day, Rome. He was amongst people experiencing oppressive rule. Before long he was amongst a people entering deep suffering, though escaping it himself by becoming part of a refugee family. On returning to Nazareth he was amongst a local community for the next nearly thirty years. He went to school in the synagogue; he learned his father’s trade; he had brothers and sisters. He almost certainly experienced the loss of his human father and became the breadwinner of the household. He worked alongside others building, repairing and making. He was amongst us as a working man who probably developed calluses on his hands and feet. Unusually, against normal custom, he did not marry. He was amongst us a single person.
When God pitched his tent amongst us he hallowed once again the life of work. He made holy plain ordinary family life with all its ups and downs. He hallowed being part of a community. He showed us that being fully human is completely possible as a single person.
Too often those of us in the church, and in its leadership, give the impression that God in Jesus is all about church. When the reality is that God in Jesus is all about life, family, homes, work, and community. God is amongst us in our daily lives, in our homes, in our communities, in our aloneness. We need to open our eyes afresh to God amongst us in every day life. God pitches his tent amongst us.
GOD ALONGSIDE US
When Joseph realised that Mary was expecting a baby, which he knew was not his own, he was deeply shaken. It required an angel to appear to him in a dream to assure him that Mary had not been unfaithful. He is clearly told that the baby developing in Mary’s womb truly was God’s own Son. Joseph was told that this child was ‘Emmanuel’, the promised one of the prophets. Emmanuel, God with us. The angel is God coming alongside Joseph to be with him.
Some of you will know that every year between Ascension Day and Pentecost Sunday, so May or June, I undertake a couple of Prayer Walks. Along with Rosemary, Denise and others from the Deanery and parishes we visit the community and pray for it as we walk through it. These began when I was Bishop of Southampton. One of those early walks began in absolutely pouring rain. By the time we had walked through the first parish we were soaked to the skin. The second parish was one where there had been quite a number of difficulties and as bishop I was not necessarily viewed as their favourite person. At the parish boundary I was met by the two churchwardens and the treasurer. For the next three hours we walked through the countryside, visiting, in our dripping state, a number of community places. The rain never let up for a moment. For the whole walking time the wardens and I walked side by side. As we walked we talked; including about the contentious matters that existed. Towards the close one warden said, “Well bishop I think we have resolved everything don’t you?” I was taken aback because we had just effectively agreed the very plan that they had been so vehemently against. “Well if you are sure”, was my tentative reply. “Yes” piped up the second warden and treasurer together, “You see bishop walking alongside one another in discomfort has helped us all see things differently.” It was an important observation.
Resolving disputes, bringing about reconciliation, gathering a fresh view of a contentious situation is very rarely, if ever, discovered by sitting opposite one another in confrontation. We find common ground by walking side by side, preferably in a way which is uncomfortable for us all. In this instance it had been the literal discomfort of constant rain and being soaked to the skin. More seriously it might be in walking side by side through real suffering.
In Jesus God pitches his tent alongside us. He walks with us through the discomforts and pains of life. He lets us talk and tell him our thoughts, our difficulties, our worries, our fears. God alongside us listens but then also always offers us his wisdom, if only we will listen and heed it.
The Christmas story speaks to us again and again of God alongside us; alongside the refugees; alongside the victims of abuse, injustice and violence; alongside the bereaved and the anxious. In Jesus God pitches his tent alongside us, and his tent, like in the wilderness, moves along with us.
GOD FOR US
Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us is amongst us and alongside us. He is also with us as God for us.
The Word becoming human and pitching his tent amongst us tells us that God is for us. Remember what the angel said to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Jesus reveals to us that God is for us. He wants us to have the forgiveness that we all need. He wants us to be set free from fear, especially the fear of death. He wants us to know good news and great joy. In Jesus God shows us that he is for us. The cross shows it even more fully than the birth; “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5.8)
There are many mysteries in life that we cannot explain. Some people and families do seem to go through so much more difficulty and pain than others, for no obvious reason. It certainly does not appear as though human suffering is shared out evenly. This is true within our own society, and even more so when we look across the world with all its pain and trauma. Scenes from Syria remind us of this daily. But suffering is deep in many other places not on our TV screens too, South Sudan, Burundi, and Somalia to name just three nations.
Yet in Jesus the poor, the needy and the outcast all discovered that they were welcomed, valued, loved and set free into a whole new life. They discovered that whilst the religious leaders conveyed a message that God was against them actually God was for them. The lepers, the lame and blind, the prostitutes, the double dealing tax collectors alongside the ordinary everyday hardworking folk like fishermen all discovered that God was for them.
Forgive me as a religious leader for the times when I, along with my fellow leaders, convey the impression that God is only for the religious or the wealthy or the well educated of the powerful for when we do so we do not convey Jesus faithfully.
In Jesus God pitches his tent amongst us and tells us that he is for us. He comes to rescue us, to welcome us home, to give us the kingdom of God. He chose to pitch his tent in a teenage girl from an obscure village. He chose to tell the news of the Saviour’s birth first to a bunch of shepherds stuck up in the hills, men who were looked down on by almost everyone. He chose to pitch his tent amongst the poor and lowly not in the royal palace, and in so doing disturbed the ruling powers profoundly.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God became human and pitched his tent in our neighbourhood.
This is all good news. It is also a deep challenge. For here God has revealed to us how a full human life is lived. He has shown us what all followers of Jesus should be like. If God’s way is the way of being with us then the way for Jesus followers, and for humanity is the way of being with others. We are called to be amongst people, not stand aloof or apart from them. We are to be amongst people from all walks of life, from all nations and peoples. We are to be alongside people in their need. We are to be alongside people in joy and tears; in trials and triumphs. We are to be for people; seeking their best. We are to be for the poor, for the outcast and neglected, for the refugee and asylum seeker, for the frail and weak, for those with disabilities and for the dying. In Jesus God calls us to be with others so that they might be lifted up and enjoy the wonderful relationship with God that he longs we should all enjoy.
This Christmas let us again recall and celebrate that in Jesus God is with us. Let us recognise what this means for how we live. Let us rejoice that He is amongst us in our daily lives and our ordinary families and communities. He is alongside us in our suffering, our journey through life and our differences. He is for us in our need of forgiveness, restoration and hope. And if God be for us who can be against us?