Pitched Tent Among Us
A Sermon for Dec. 29, 2013—The First Sunday After Christmas
The Rev. Dr. George Martin
During Advent I prepared for Christmas by focusing on the poem by W. H. Auden’s called For the Time Being. It seems fitting to me to let you hear part of the conclusion to Auden’s telling of the Christmas story.
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.
There’s some truth, maybe a lot of truth, in that reflection which Auden made thinking of the way it is once we get past Christmas. It will seem strange even in this church this morning on the first Sunday after Christmas for we still continue to sing Christmas carols four days later. The Musak music in the malls of America has surely switched back to other tunes, more contemporary, and certainly less religious. The playing of that Christmas music always starts too early for my ears and maybe that’s true for others. And then the music stops all too abruptly and I think inappropriately on the day after Christmas.
Looking around the church, four days later, the are many fewer people gathered. It’s still Christmas. But the Gospel, we hear on this day, tells us a different Christmas story. It tells the story in an Emily Dickinson way. It’s told slant. In John’s gospel there is no Bethlehem. There are no angels or shepherds. No stable. This Logos, this word of God, isn’t even a baby. He just is, and is in this world—indeed was in the beginning of this world.
For John’s Christmas story is a creation story. It’s opening lines hark back to the first book of the Bible which begins “In the beginning when God created the world.” For John it’s all one—one creation—one God—the monotheism you’d expect someone formed in the world of Judaism to affirm—one story, one Word, one light. It is God at work and God’s work now seen in Jesus who will affirm later in the Gospel to be one with his Father. You will hear echoes of John’s gospel throughout our worship today.
These are strange words. Poetry in a way. Philosophical in another way. Threads of God’s salvation story are also always there—beginning with allusions to the first creation and then reminding us of the prophets of the past, and in particular the prophet John the Baptist, who is named in this telling. Only at the end of this prologue to John’s gospel do we hear that the one expected, who has been from the beginning is Jesus Messiah. For the first sixteen verses he is simply, and not so simply, called The Logos, or translated “The Word.”
Perhaps the most respected New Testament scholar with regard to John’s Gospel was Raymond Brown who wrote a magnificent two volume commentary that is almost a required set of books to appear on any pastor’s bookshelf, even if they remain unread. The presupposition is that this dense commentary will ooze its wisdom into a pastor’s brain much as a car can leak oil sometimes. That’s a personal witness by the way. I’ve used these commentaries, but never fully read them.
Thinking about the prologue, the first 18 verses, Raymond Brown noted that “The Prologue is not concerned with with the earthly origins of Jesus but with the heavenly existence of the Word in the beginning.” (p 18, Vol. 1)
But then Brown emphasizes that there is a very strong statement regarding the humanity of Jesus at the end of the Prologue. What’s the significance of emphasizing his humanity?
At the end of the first century, when this Gospel was written, there were many different ideas about Jesus, a number of which the early church eventually considered heretical. One school of thought embraced Docetism. The Other Gnosticism. Do we have any graduates of Education for Ministry here? Please raise your hands. They will tell you what those terms mean, if they got through the third year of that program.
So here we get a little introduction to Education for Ministry. What was Docetism? It was somewhat grounded in the thought of Plato. It declared that Jesus only appeared to be human—that he really was a spiritual being, and was never truly a human being. And the presumption: that what was earthly, was fallen, and could never represent divinity.
Gnosticism, was a related philosophy. It saw the world of the flesh as part of an imperfect world passing away. The world that would last would be found in knowledge or gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Such knowledge was a gift to be sought, preserved, and shared among the very special who possessed it, and therefore knew of their redemption.
John’s Gospel countered both tendencies. It began by declaring, as we heard in the Gospel today that the Word of God became flesh. George Daisa reminded me of a particular translation that gets at the heart of the Greek translated “the word of God became flesh. It’s what we call a paraphrase. It is by the New Testament scholar and biblical translator Eugene Peterson.
His translation includes the key phrase from the Gospel: “The word became flesh and blood….”
and then adds this phrase: “… and moved into the neighborhood.”
Another translation, of the same passage which I’ve heard and also like is:
“The word became flesh and blood, and pitched tent among us.” That’s because the Greek word often translated as Dwelling, and as you just heard translated as “Neighborhood” literally means “Tent.”
Pitched Tent. I’ve always liked that translation. It suggests that Jesus, this word of God made flesh, is not here to live in a fancy palace. He connects with real people.
When you camp and put up a tent you get really much closer to the real world. If the rain falls it’s clearly heard on the thin walls of the tent. The wind blows and those walls move.
Pitched tent: it implies something more temporary. Something that changes. Something moves on. It’s for the Time Being—the phrase used by W. H. Auden.
Auden knew, as we all know, that for a great many people Jesus gets confined to a few special days. Christmas, Easter. Maybe for a funeral. Or a baptism. But the one who pitched tent was really to be known in the ordinary times as well. In the putting away of the Christmas decorations. Found to be with us at the meals we share on a daily basis. Next to the children back in their regular routine who are naturally thinking that the next Christmas seems so far away, not knowing that as the year’s pass each Christmas will come closer and closer together.
Many of us in the shadow of Christmas know of what Auden called an “unpleasant whiff of apprehension” just around the corner. He wrote, “Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now be very far off.”
But at least for this Sunday with the memory of our Christmas—just a few days ago—and the time with our family, or maybe with a few friends. There is also the memory of worship on Christmas eve or Christmas day. Such worship, Auden said, helps us remember the stable—the stable in which Jesus was born—He said it this way: ”the stable where for once in our lives, Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”
Christmas on one level is all about the gifts we share with one another. It’s not a bad thing. It’s good. It forces us to think of what other’s need. Part of growing up and having a Christmas history, as it were, involves that discovery of what we receive when we give to others. To be sure, there’s a little child still in all of us that naturally delights in gifts, but there’s something of God’s spirit that delights in the joy of others.
In each story, of each life, there are waiting gifts, as it were, that are powerful and transformative. In John’s gospel, in the prologue we hear that “The word became flesh and tented among us”. Then it adds, that this was “grace upon grace.” Another translation says that was the gift of an “enduring love.”
An enduring love? That’s the hard kind of love isn’t it. It’s the love that still there when someone disppoints us, or walks away from us. It’s the love that involves those other promises: “For better or worse, for richer or poor, in sickness and health, til death do us part.” That’s enduring love. Made as promise. Never assured in our humanity—always requiring some external spiritual connections—the very source of which John’s Gospel says is the Word made Flesh, Jesus the son of God.
The only assurance of “Enduring Love.” It’s in Jesus.
And if our Gospel of John uses poetry I follow the spirit there in using the poetry of W.H. Auden to close this sermon. For the Time Being ends with Jesus being called the Way, the Truth and the Life. Words clearly rooted in John’s gospel. If you want to open your hymnal to hymn number 463 you’ll be able to see these words in what actually is a very hard hymn to sing. (It is the only hymn in our hymnal that uses his poetry.) As we look the three sections I want to make a brief comment on each part.
He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness:
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
Yes, let us move on from Christmas to see some wonderful things in the year to come, and have some unique adventures. If we take as our clue the way that John’s gospel tells the Christmas story we know it doesn’t spend on the usual Christmas symbols—less about decorations on a tree, or Christmas carols sung while we shop—and more of Christmas as God who tented among us.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to that great city that has expected your return for years.
So in the year to come we will all have some difficult and challenging times when we shall be anxious or experience sadness or loss. These are an unavoidable parts of life. But it may be that those experiences will let us grow and become more and more who God intends us to be.And what ever seems like end, need not be the end. There’s more to life. There’s new creation—destination—indeed a great city waiting.
He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions will dance for joy.
This is our world, This is our time. Don’t try escape it this time—your time, my time, our times. We certainly shouldn’t embrace the parts of this world that deny God and ruin God’s creation. But at the same time we can show our Love of God by deeds and actions that involve us in the lives of others, making some sacrifices, and facing some hard realities. At the end—an enduring love—indeed the love that is with us always. And each time, we accept the gift of this love, it’s a kind of marriage, as it were, where in all it’s occasions there is dancing for joy. What a picture. What a Christmas gift.