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