Receive: Tent Canvas
December 8, 2013
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print.
If I said, “Your Christmas is too small,” how long would it take for you to start contemplating violence in my direction? How long before you reach for the nearest blunt object—a hymnal, say—and calculate the altitude, trajectory and velocity with which you would need to hurl it in order to make contact with soft tissue? “Your Christmas is too small.” What would you offer as rebuttal? Would you show me your lengthy Christmas card list? Your lengthy shopping list? Your external home decoration? Your internal home decorations? Your recipes for Christmas-themed deserts and dishes? Your calendar of Christmas related activities? “Your Christmas is too small.” Why you . . . I oughta . . . I’ll show you a small Christmas . . . I got your small Christmas right here. You’re a preacher, aren’t preachers always telling us that Christmas has gotten out of hand with all the shopping and the eating and the commercialism and the starting way too early? Aren’t you preachers always advocating for a small Christmas?
What if I took it one step further and claimed that in fact I wasn’t the one saying, “Your Christmas is too small” that in fact John was saying “Your Christmas is too small?” We have four Gospels and in none of them do we hear the word Christmas. Nowhere in the New Testament do we hear of a congregation participating in an annual observance of the Lord’s Birth. The early church did not celebrate the nativity until much later. A good century or more before the Church started celebrating the birth of Christ it celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Gospels say nothing about Christmas but they each do try to put a finger on where it begins—where this event of Jesus—God’s Son, the one anointed to bring about the salvation of the world—where it all began. The Gospels show a progression not of the celebrations around Jesus but of their understanding of Jesus’s beginning. And so Christmas also wrestles with this same question. At its best Christmas is our attempt to put a finger on where the Christ even begins.
The earliest gospel written was Mark. Mark said, “See, it began with his Baptism. John the Baptist baptized him and the Holy Spirit descended on him and God said to Jesus, ‘You are my son in whom I am well pleased’.” Then came Luke who said, “Mark, your Christmas is too small. It all started when he was conceived. There were announcements by angels to Mary and Zechariah. That John who baptized him, yeah, well, well his mother Elizabeth knew what was happening and even John the Baptist knew en utero that Jesus was the Messiah. And when he was born Angels proclaimed his birth in the surrounding countryside and the people of Palestine acknowledged him. Then Matthew came along to say, “Luke, your Christmas is too small.” Mary wasn’t the only one to receive the Angel announcement, Joseph received one also. And when Jesus was born, the whole night sky was filled with a bright light so that people in other countries acknowledged Jesus’s birth. They came from outside Palestine to honor Jesus with lavish gifts. And Herod was so threatened by Jesus’s coming that he did terrible, terrible things. Mark: it begins with the proclamation to Jesus himself; Luke: It begins with the proclamation to Palestine; Matthew: It begins with the proclamation to the World. Then finally there came John. John the latest of the four Gospels. Written after the Jewish revolt against Rome, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after the expulsion of Christian Jews from synagogues and after the initial persecutions of Christians by the Roman government, John declared, “Mark, Luke, Matthew, Your Christmas is too small.”
It begins with the beginning. “In the beginning . . .” was the Word. The word is a reference to the word of God a phrase that has become synonymous with the Bible but should not be limited to the Bible. When the Bible itself uses the phrase, “The word of God” it means it in terms of God’s will, God’s intention, God’s revealing God’s self to humanity. The word of God is God God’s self. “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” All things came into being through the Word. I believe that when John wrote this about the word—the logos—the Logic or mind of God—he was drawing on imagery we find in the book of Proverbs about Wisdom. In the eighth chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified and she speaks to humanity—her children. Wisdom declares, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, before his deeds of old; I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. When there were no oceans, I was given birth, when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills I was given birth, before he made the earth or its fields or any of the dust of the world. I was there when he set the heavens in place when he marked out the horizon on face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in humanity.” This is “fullness of God” that is pleased to dwell in Christ Jesus.
It is this fullness that comes in the Flesh.
John gathering all this fullness of God together makes this bold and controversial statement.
He said, “’And the word of God became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory the glory as of God’s own son.”
Again, I think John here is reaching back into the Old Testament and gathering together narrative from the Old Testament to make his claim.
This time, I think he’s pulling from Exodus.
When the people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt and they journeyed for forty years in the Wilderness.
While they were in the wilderness, the Glory of God was embodied in the Ark of the Covenant.
Whenever they moved they would take the Tabernacle with them.
The Tabernacle was the tent dwelling that housed the Ark.
It was also called the Tent of Meeting.
As the Israelites journeyed across the wilderness, they did so as a confederation of 12 Tribes.
When they needed a place to consolidate power and organize themselves, they would have representatives come to the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting.
It was the place where Moses would address the people.
The glory of God’s presence dwelt with them.
It was also the place where Moses spoke with God. Exodus 33:11
explains, “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.”
Maybe you already know this but, Jesus’s name was not unique.
Jesus is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Joshua.
He was named for Moses’s assistant Joshua.
See then all that John has woven together here in his pinpointing of the beginning of Jesus’s work—creation, the Wisdom, Will and Word of God, the Exodus, the giving of the law.
When we started to think of this theme, “Cloth for the Cradle.” This was the cloth that made the most sense to me—Tent cloth.
It is as if the canvas of the Tabernacle and all it represented was used as bedding for the Manger.
I think that’s what John means when he makes the claim, “Your Christmas is too small.”
Small Christmases are like small babies—they are cute, irresistibly adorable, they are lovable, and vulnerable. They draw up water from the deepest wells of our emotions. Nothing angers us as much as the mistreatment of a baby. Nothing thrills us as much as the smile on a baby’s face. And our small Christmas hovers over the baby bed of Jesus. Baby Jesus captures our imagination. To be honored with the privilege to be the Baby Jesus in a Christmas pageant is a greater christening than a thousand baptisms. Nothing angers us as much as the idea that Baby Jesus shouldn’t be the center of attention. Nothing thrills us as much as the glimpse of that manger. Which is probably, at the heart of it, why the accusation “Your Christmas is too small” is so offensive. It feels like an assault on the Baby Jesus.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar, writer and retreat leader wrote in Preparing for Christmas, “The celebration of Christmas is not a sentimental waiting for a baby to be born, but much more an asking for history to be born! We do the Gospel no favor when we make Jesus, the Eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, a baby able to ask little or no adult response from us” (“Tuesday of the First Week of Advent). His assertions push hard against us. What, after all, is wrong with the cuing and cuddling and the veneration of the babe in a manger. What could be more Christian than “Silent Night” and the soft glow of candlelight? John’s response is that the Silence of the Silent Night is broken with sound of God’s Word becoming flesh. There is no soft glow for John. There is real darkness and there is a light which the darkness cannot overtake—the light of Christ.
Jesus did not come as a baby so that we could nurture him. Jesus came as the Word of God so that we might listen to him. Jesus came as the Christ that we might believe in him. Jesus came as Lord that we might follow him. If we let the Word of God now in Flesh appearing crush our sentimentality and expose our fluffy notions hope, peace, joy and faith, we are not left vulnerable and alone. Oh no, John explains, John admits first that this Word of God made Flesh who comes with the Glory as of God’s only son, this Christ is not easy for people to accept. Indeed, he came to his own and his own wanted nothing to do with him. But, to those who believed and to those who received him, to them he gave the right to be children of God. You see, it’s not just the Baby Jesus who is meant to occupy that manger. It is the cradle of our new birth. Through the word of God made flesh we experience a birth not of flesh nor of a parent’s will but born of God. And it is in being reborn in God that we can be remade in Christ’s image. That remaking will expand our Christmas. It will demand us to recraft our hopes so that we hope for the Kingdom of God to reign in our lives. It will cause us to redefine peace so that it matches the peace envisioned by God. So that it cannot be the isolated and personalized peace that we enjoy in the comforting rocking chair of nursery but is the peace, justice, reconciliation and protection of all creation. This Son of God, the Word brings Joy—not the painted on smiles of seasonal mirth—but the deep, core level joy that comes from knowing that your God has power and your life in God has purpose. This new birth, this reorientation of our whole lives, the expansion of Christmas from baptism, to Bethlehem, from cross country journeys to cosmos, where God reigns and God’s vision of how we are to care for one another that is the very definition of faith. And until we grow up into the fullness of all that Christ really is then our Christmases are too small.