"God With Us In the Flesh" – John 1:10-18
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 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.
(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.' ") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.
Maybe you've heard this story about a pastor who was called to serve a new congregation in a town and in a place far from where he’d ever lived or served before. And on his first Sunday on the job, he dressed up – or dressed down, I guess you’d say – to look and smell like a homeless person, and then set up camp outside the church’s front door. (Or maybe it was out in the parking lot by the dumpster, or inside the warm vestibule, between the double doors, depending on the version of the story you heard.) Maybe he had a sign asking for money. Maybe he jingled a paper cup, looking for handouts. I don’t remember.
The point was that on that particular Sunday morning, parishioner after parishioner got out of their car (I imagine them to have showed up in mini-vans and SUVs and Cadillacs, just like you and I) and one by one, family by family, they walked by or stepped over or rushed passed the homeless beggar who had taken up residence on their church’s property. Some avoided him altogether. Others stared at him sideways. None of them dropped a coin in his cup or offered him help or invited him inside for worship or coffee or to use the bathroom. You get the idea.
So, as worship began, imagine the congregation’s surprise when they watched that same homeless vagrant stroll down the aisle during the Prelude or pre-service music or whatever, climb up to the altar, take the microphone, and introduce himself as their new pastor. And, if I remember correctly, because of their lack of attention to the needs of the needy, I think the point of his message and introduction that day was something like, “Boy do we have some work to do, people!”
And it made me think of John’s gospel for today: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
That’s the bit of the Gospel – John’s version of the Christmas story – that got my attention this time around, and that made me think of this modern day church story/fable/myth/legend or whatever it is.
“He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.”
See, the Pastor in that story did, on a smaller scale, something like what God does, in Jesus, on a cosmic scale at Christmas. God showed up, in the flesh – humble and lowly and weak and needy – on the world’s doorstep; in the parking lot of the planet; out by the dumpster, in Bethlehem, if you will. And the message was the same – without all the guilt and shame that likely came upon everyone at church in that new pastor’s congregation that day. The message was – the message is – “Boy do we have some work to do, people.”
So why is it that we have such a hard time recognizing – or responding to – the God we see in the world around us? We may not step over or around Jesus in the church parking lot, but it happens in other ways all of the time. Sometimes it is the beggar on Washington Street. Sometimes it’s the colleague or the classmate or the neighbor or the in-law we don’t have time for, or patience with, or sympathy toward, for a whole host of really good reasons. Sometimes it’s the bigger-picture, too… the nameless, faceless, “hypothetical” refugee we only have to hear about on the news or imagine as a political issue, rather than act on as a person of faith.
The holy challenge of the Christmas story is the same as it’s always been, according to John’s Gospel. Jesus is in the world, he comes to what is his own and we miss it, we don’t accept it, we avoid, deny, dodge and dismiss him, because deep down, apparently, we can’t believe or conceive of a God who would look like that or behave like that or be like that – that humble or that lowly or that weak or that needy, or that different from ourselves.
Because showing up in the flesh is cute and cuddly and fun when it looks like a baby in the manger on Christmas day. But humble and lowly and weak and needy isn’t so cute or all that fun, when it comes in the form of a homeless guy in the church parking lot; or an addict on the corner; or a foreigner at the border; or the last person we would choose to spend time with, let alone spend our energy or our resources on, or risk our safety caring for.
But as hard as this is to admit – as embarrassing as this can be to acknowledge – there is hope. There is always hope, where there is Jesus, after all. Because John’s gospel goes on to remind us that, “for those who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the power to become children of God.” “Children of God!”
Do you see what he does there? “He gives the power to become children of God.”
God becomes like us, in Jesus. And we are invited to become – and to see others – as God’s own children, too. We are all, then, born … of … God.
By showing up in the flesh, himself, Jesus confers worth and value and love and purpose upon every human being. Every. Human. Being. And God invites us, then, to see and to respond to that worth and to that value and to that love and to that purpose for the sake of every human being. Every. Human. Being.
It means the guy in the parking lot, by the dumpster matters. It means the woman working the street matters. It means black lives matter, Syrian lives matter, refugee and immigrant and our own veterans’ lives matter. And please hear me say this: white, middle-class, Christian lives matter, too, I get that. But what Christmas – and that new pastor’s stunt on his first day on the job – remind us, is that you and I aren’t the ones – as a rule – getting overlooked in the parking lot, or shot at the park for carrying toy guns, or driven from our homeland, or persecuted for our faith.
When Jesus – the Word – became flesh and lived among us, he did so so the world would see God in new ways and in different places and in extraordinary circumstances. The Word became flesh – the flesh of a poor, outcast, homeless, refugee, born to suspicious, disreputable parents – to show once and for all that God becomes weak in order that all might be made strong; to show that God becomes lowly so that all might be raised up; to show that what is perishable might become imperishable; what is sick might be healed; what is lost can be found again; what dies will be raised to new life, even.
And vice versa, too, to be fair. God, in Jesus, became flesh and lived among us to show that the powerful (God) could become vulnerable; the mighty (the creator o f the universe) could become humble; the rich could do with less; the winners could share their victory; the privileged could do with being a little less so…and so on.
So, if we’re to really embrace Christmas this time around – the gift of Jesus alive and well among us – we’re being called to stop stepping over him in the parking lot; to stop pretending he’s not on the corner or at the border; to look for him in people and places where we least expect to find him – so that we can welcome and care for and love him, well. And that may just be the easy part, if you ask me.
Because we’re also called to look for this Jesus in the mirror, too: to humble ourselves when we want to be proud; to be generous ourselves when we’re tempted to keep more than our share; to lower ourselves when we want to be powerful; to risk our own safety or comfort or privilege, so that someone else might experience their fair share; to become less, so that someone else might become more; so that the loser can win for a change; so that the lost can be found; so that the glory of God’s grace and truth will be made known – through each of us, for the sake of the world.