St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Pitched his tent

Pitched his tent among us

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Christ­mas Day 2017

Read­ing: John 1. 1–14. 

For a sig­ni­fic­ant peri­od of my life Christ­mas was always asso­ci­ated with camp­ing. Between the years 1964 and 1971, every Christ­mas even­ing would be spent pack­ing my bags to go camp­ing at Ger­roa beach on the South Coast. I went camp­ing with a group of oth­er young people as part of what was then called C.S.S.M. (Children’s Spe­cial Ser­vice Mis­sion) and for ten days we took church to the campers run­ning games, activ­it­ies and talks telling the Chris­ti­an story as best we could. It was great fun and we got to know some of the reg­u­lar campers well. Camp­ing then was much more basic than it appears to be now when campers have very soph­ist­ic­ated tents, camp­ing equip­ment, stoves, TV sets and much bet­ter showers. We showered in cold bore water which did won­ders for your hair and our tents were very old fash­ioned, without floors. The first job after set­ting up the tents was to dig trenches to keep the water out dur­ing the inev­it­able sum­mer storms. We learnt nev­er to touch the roof of the tent when it was rain­ing and when get­ting undressed at night to make sure the hur­ricane lamp was turned out. Liv­ing in a tent was OK but com­ing home to a hot shower and a clean dry bed was even bet­ter.

For us a tent rep­res­ents a tem­por­ary form of accom­mod­a­tion, by its nature it is imper­man­ent. We for­get that not just in Bib­lic­al times but also in our own time in some parts of the world, tents rep­res­ent the only home some people know. We are aware that in coun­tries like Jordan and Leban­on we now have per­man­ent refugee camps where thou­sands of chil­dren have been born nev­er know­ing what a prop­er house is. What is tem­por­ary and a nov­el change for us is the only kind of home known to mil­lions in our world. Christ­mas is an appro­pri­ate time to reflect on the bounty we enjoy and to determ­ine to be advoc­ates for those who lack the things we eas­ily take for gran­ted.

At this point you might well ask: ‘What on earth have tents got to do with Christ­mas?’ Allow me to explain. We have read this morn­ing from John’s won­der­fully poet­ic account of the incarn­a­tion- the com­ing of Jesus Christ, the baby of Beth­le­hem into our world. John gives us no angels, shep­herds, stable, Wise men or any of the oth­er famil­i­ar trap­pings of Christ­mas. Instead he gives us a theo­lo­gic­al reflec­tion on what that birth was all about and he does so using words and ter­min­o­logy that made sense to his first cen­tury read­ers. Lack­ing their philo­soph­ic­al and cul­tur­al back­ground, we have to work a bit harder to under­stand some of his ideas. The heart of his mes­sage is summed up in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory.”

We could spend a long time talk­ing about John’s use of this cap­it­al ‘W’ Word. For Jew­ish read­ers it called to mind the voice of God. The voice first described in Gen­es­is chapter 1 which spoke the world into being. And God said: “Let there be light and there was light.” They also thought about their proph­ets who through the cen­tur­ies had spoken God’s word. The Old Test­a­ment car­ries the famil­i­ar refrain: ‘Now the word of the Lord came’ to Samuel, Eli­jah, Elisha, Isai­ah, Amos, Jeremiah,…and then John the Baptist. Each of these proph­ets heard a mes­sage from God and then delivered it to the people. Often they were ignored, some were per­se­cuted but after they had gone they were recog­nised as hav­ing spoken words from God. The dif­fer­ence with Jesus was that he didn’t say, ‘Thus says the Lord’, Jesus said ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the bread of Life’, ‘I am the good shep­herd’. Jesus didn’t just bring God’s word to his people, John wants us to know that Jesus him­self was the Word, for he was in the begin­ning with God and he was God.

So the open­ing verse of John’s Gos­pel explain the great truth that in the baby of Beth­le­hem God him­self was com­ing among us, tak­ing human form in a quiet unob­trus­ive way, born of a young teen­age girl in a bor­rowed stable in an obscure part of the great Roman empire. ‘The word became flesh’, John says ‘.and lived among us.’ Now sur­pris­ingly the word John uses that we usu­ally trans­late ‘as lived among us’ is a verb that lit­er­ally means, ‘He pitched his tent among us’. Pitch­ing his tent among us is a good descrip­tion of the life of Jesus. From his humble birth in Beth­le­hem, to the flight into Egypt as refugees, escap­ing Herod’s wicked edict, to the jour­ney back home to Naz­areth in Galilee, Jesus’ infancy was spent on the move. Fur­ther­more, dur­ing the years of his min­istry as an itin­er­ant teach­er and heal­er, Jesus was a per­son of no fixed address. Once a young man wanted to join his group of dis­ciples and Jesus warned him that although foxes have holes and birds have nests, ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Only fol­low me, Jesus was say­ing, if you are will­ing to leave the com­forts of home and nor­mal earthly secur­ity. At the end of his life Jesus’ body was bur­ied in a bor­rowed tomb and even that was a short stay only. Jesus left this earth with no last­ing monu­ment to his pres­ence, no books writ­ten, no temple con­struc­ted in his hon­our just a band of rather ordin­ary men and women who said he is alive and he has changed our lives.

John says we have seen his glory. There’s not much glory in the life of Jesus in the way we under­stand glory. He nev­er made the A list and didn’t mix with the rich and fam­ous. But John is using a sort of code word here that his Jew­ish read­ers would have under­stood. If you put the words, ‘tent’ and ‘glory’ in the same sen­tence, Jew­ish read­ers would have imme­di­ately thought of a spe­cial tent that was an import­ant part of their his­tory. Long before they had a temple in Jer­u­s­alem, the people of Israel had anoth­er place of wor­ship-it was a tent that moved whenev­er they moved, (which was pretty often) and it was called the tab­er­nacle or the tent of meet­ing. All through their wan­der­ings in the desert on the jour­ney to the Prom­ised Land, and later in Canaan the tab­er­nacle trav­elled with them and every time it was set up for wor­ship after a jour­ney some­thing spe­cial would hap­pen in that tab­er­nacle; it would be filled with light and it would appear to glow. The people watch­ing would sud­denly become aware that this tent was not just a place for wor­ship but a sym­bol of God’s pres­ence among them. They had a name for this event, they called it shek­i­nah glory.

John is telling us that when we look at the life and min­istry of Jesus, while he pitched his tent among us, we too can see God’s glory. There were plenty of people who missed the cues and those who just didn’t want to see them-the Herods, the Pil­ates, the polit­ic­al and reli­gious estab­lish­ment. To them Jesus was a trouble maker, a threat to the status quo, a man to be silenced. But there were oth­ers who saw things dif­fer­ently and real­ized that in the pres­ence of Jesus they were brought near to God him­self. People like the aged Simeon in the temple who watched Mary and Joseph bring Jesus for his ded­ic­a­tion and declared: “Mas­ter you are dis­miss­ing your ser­vant in peace accord­ing to your word; for my eyes have seen your sal­va­tion which you have pre­pared in the sight of all people.” Then at the end of Jesus’ life when he was hanging on a cross,  there was the watch­ing cen­tur­i­on sol­dier who exclaimed: “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

On this Christ­mas morn­ing may we all dis­cov­er afresh who the child in the manger really is and through him may we come to know with cer­tainty that God is with us. For John tells us that: “to all who received him, who believed in his name he gave power to become chil­dren of God.”

Philip Brad­ford, Christ­mas 2017