The Jews knew how the world worked: God was up there, and we’re down here, and that’s the end of it. He was certainly involved in the world he made—he was at work within it to accomplish his purposes—but the fundamental separation between him and his creation was always there. The pagans around them might believe in gods and goddesses who were part of the natural world and lived within it, but the Jews were too wise for that; they understood that the distance between God and the created world was simply too vast to bridge. The physical world could never contain him—he was far too great, too bright, too glorious, for that. Whatever else might change, that truth never could.
And then in one staggering moment, it did. The eternal Word by whom God created the world, the one who kept the universe from dissolving back into chaos, became flesh. Eternity took on the limitations of time; spirit put on skin and bone; the one who held all creation in the palm of his hand accepted the confinement of the womb; the one who sat on the throne of heaven took a feed trough for his bed; and so Mary’s creator became her son. The unlimited, all-encompassing, holy reality of the life of God took shape in all the messiness and limitations of human flesh, the God who could not be seen became very visible indeed, and we could never think of him in the same way again.
What’s more, if we really understand what he did, we can never look at our world in quite the same way again. If something like this could happen, if the God of the universe could break into our reality in that way, then what else could happen? If that isn’t impossible, how dare we say anything else is?
The unfortunate thing about Christmas as a cultural holiday is that our culture tries to make it safe, when it’s anything but. Christmas is not just about being loving and caring, nor is Christmas faith about seeing the best in people and trying to make the world a better place. Those things are good and noble, but they are far, far smaller than Christmas—they are, I think, efforts to reduce Christmas to something safe and comprehensible and controllable. Christmas is more like wading out into a river and seeing a log floating toward you, and then suddenly realizing that the log is an alligator—look out, it’s alive! Christmas faith is the faith that God can and will do the utterly inconceivable, that nothing is truly impossible.
It’s also the faith that this is true because of his deep love for us, for all people, and for all that he has made. God made us to love us; he made us to know him and to return his love. He created us in relationship with him, but our rebellion alienated us from him, blinding our eyes and darkening our minds; his purpose in opposing our rebellion has always been to repair what we broke, to reconcile us to himself, and thus to everyone and everything else. He doesn’t just want us to know about him, or what he wants us to do; he wants us to know him, and for that we needed more than just to hear about him. It wasn’t enough for us to be told the truth of God, it wasn’t enough to be told about his grace; we needed to see it—ultimately in the cross, but also through all the rest of Jesus’ life. We needed to see it so that we could understand his purpose: that we might know God, not just that he exists, but that we might actually know him personally, and not just as acquaintances or servants, but as his children.
And so, in order that this might be, the Word became flesh, and he pitched his tent among us. Our English translations read so generically here, as we saw a few minutes ago, that we miss the punch of this. This doesn’t just mean he lived among us—the word here really does mean to pitch a tent. Which might seem odd, until you combine it with the line “We have seen his glory,” and then you get the key: John is talking about the tabernacle, the tent sanctuary where the people of Israel worshiped God during the years they were wandering around in the desert. The tabernacle was the center of Israel’s worship from that time all the way through the time of King David, until Solomon succeeded his father David on the throne and built the first temple in Jerusalem; it was the place on earth where God lived and where his glory dwelled, where his people came to worship him and offer sacrifices.
Now, if you were here when we went through the book of Hebrews, you’ll remember the strong emphasis we found there that Jesus has replaced the temple and the old sacrificial system. John is saying much the same here, but he’s taking it a step further: the Word who was God became flesh and tabernacled among us. He offered the final, once-for-all sacrifice for our sin, he replaced the temple as the place where God is present and may be worshiped—but he didn’t replace it with another temple, someplace high above us; instead, he pitched his tent among us, right down in our midst.
This might seem like a minor distinction—the tabernacle moved, the temple stayed in one place—but it really isn’t. The tabernacle went with the people of God as the physical location of his presence with them on the journey—wherever they were, it was, and there was God. The temple, by contrast, meant that God’s presence was located permanently at one particular location, and his people had to go to him. As a consequence, the people of Israel came to regard that particular location as holy in and of itself, and to consider that the farther away places were from the temple, the less holy they were. That’s why Nathanael heard about Jesus and immediately asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”—because Nazareth was about as far from Jerusalem as it was possible to be and still be in Israel. Clearly Messiah would come from someplace much closer to the temple than that.
With the coming of Jesus, however, the idea that one could only worship God at one particular place, through one particular set of rituals, was no more. Now, the presence of God was once more out among his people, walking and talking with them, right in the middle of their daily life. We see this most clearly in John 4, in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well; when the woman brought up the old disagreement between Samaritans and Jews—where was the proper place to worship God, Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim?—Jesus dismissed the question: soon, it would be irrelevant. “The time is coming—in fact, it has arrived—when that won’t matter anymore; the only thing that will distinguish true worship from false worship is whether people are worshiping God in spirit and truth, because that’s all God really cares about.”
The key here for us this morning is that the Word didn’t become flesh and then hole up in one place, where he could avoid all but the most worthy; he went out into the world, seeking out all those who would admit their need of him. The religious leaders of his day had erected all sorts of barriers; he could have used them to avoid people like that Samaritan woman, who had been through almost as many husbands as Elizabeth Taylor. Instead, he went out on the road and sought them out. He would accept anyone who would pay the price to follow him, because he loved everyone, not for what they could do for him, but for what he could do for them; and despite the rejection he suffered, he kept at it. To quote a Christmas card I received some years ago, “The miracle is that God dwelt among us and would not leave”; the leaders of his people did everything they possibly could to make him go, but even when they killed him, he came back. And why? Because he loved them. Because he loves us. Because of his grace and mercy, who will not stop loving us no matter what we do. This is the good news of Christmas.