God Moved In
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
There is an episode in season 2 of the TV the show The Crown, it is a fictionalized story but based off a real perception of the queen. In the episode a young Queen Elizabeth visits a car plant. She gives an awful speech that is completely out of touch with the workers, she comes across as extremely wooden and condescending. For the first time in her life she faces a backlash. As a result, Elizabeth begins to change the ways she does things. She starts by giving her Christmas message on television. She then begins to invite ordinary people to visit the Palace and even meet with them. She is deeply changed by the criticism she receives. What we see in this episode is a Queen who lowers herself to be with her people, a Queen who grants her people access, a Queen who loves her people and seeks to deepen her connection with them. While, this analogy isn’t a perfect analogy, it is helpful to think about when considering the idea of Incarnation; God coming to be with God’s people. Unlike the characters in The Crown, God isn’t making snobbish comments about God’s creation. But according to the Gospel of John, God lowers Godself to be with us.
The lectionary this week has us visit a section of the prologue to the gospel of John. For some of us the placement of this prologue might seem like a strange fit during the season of Christmas; we are probably wondering where are the Angels, Shepherds, and Wiseguys. Isn’t there supposed to be a little drummer who shows up? John’s prologue is every bit as Christmas as those stories but like all things in John it is a bit different. The author is pulling together images and words from across scripture to create this prologue and share the themes of this gospel.
The world came into being through Jesus, yet the world did not know him, and his own people did not accept him. But what does it even mean to not accept the Word? Or to reject the Word? Certainly, in its context it is a claim about Jesus’ own people. But what does this even mean for contemporary Christians? Some might equate rejecting Jesus with rejecting the church, but is it really? What do we do when then the church’s teachings or actions do not align with Jesus’, who is really being rejected? We have seen a generation of young people walk away from the church mostly not because they didn’t love Jesus or don’t believe in God but they struggled to see how his church connects to his teachings. According to Scott Cormode, author of The Innovative Church, the strategy of the church for thousands of years has been to wait until something massive happens in society and then wait for a pioneering figure to come along and makes changes to the church. After the industrial revolution the pace of change began to speed up happening once a century, then once a generation, and now scholars are pointing to massive societal changes every 7 to 8 years.  If you think about it this way, it is likely that the culture has shifted at numerous points in your own lifetime. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the church to keep up with these societal shifts. Before we point to unchanging nature of our faith I think it is important to reflect on how hard it can be to understand what is cultural Christianity and what is true faith.
Think for a moment about your time in the in the pew, what has changed over the years? What are traditions that you miss? What are traditions that you might be glad they are gone? I think often we think of Christianity as fixed, but the reality is there has been an ongoing undercurrent of cultural change, because the goal for our faith is to speak into the culture. For example, I think many of us would probably assume that as Presbyterians we have always celebrated Christmas in a similar way for centuries. The reality is the holiday was very controversial mostly for its connections to Catholicism and the 12 days of Christmas feasting and drinking that were associated with it. John Calvin was actually pretty mixed on the practice. He strongly disliked the feasting and discouraged people from participating in that exuberance. But he was profoundly attached to reflecting on the nativity. He would set aside his regular preaching practice to hold sermons on the nativity. Many reformed congregations did not celebrate the holiday and if they did it was often moved to the closest Sunday. Calvin felt that it was a matter of Christian liberty and while in the city of Geneva he encouraged people to observe the holy day in the morning and then allow the shops to be open in the afternoon. However, after Calvin’s death other reformers were not as hospitable to the practice, and it was banned in Geneva and in 1640 Scottish Presbyterians abolished in Scotland.  In the Massachusetts Bay Colony you could be charged with disturbing the peace for celebrating it. Presbyterians in Philadelphia only began to adopt the holiday again when pastors started to see members of their own congregations attending Anglican Churches on Christmas day. I don’t tell you this to dampen your spirits or lessen the impact of celebrating the birth of Christ. I tell you this because I think at times the church has gotten confused on its role, confused about what is important and it has led to people moving away from the church. I also believe what the Gospel of John is telling this day is the most important.
The gospel tells us that the Word has become flesh and lives among us. Another way to understand this is God pitched a tent and moved, purposeful imagery remind us of when God’s people were traveling through the desert, or as The Message translation says, “God moved into the neighborhood”. God did not stay distant , remote and isolated; in Jesus, God chose human weakness, confusion, and pain. God also chose to know joy, happiness, loss, love, grief, and to experience death.
Lauren Winner in her commentary on this text says it this way: “The Incarnation is like a chef, who so loves the meal he is creating that he actually becomes a dish of mashed potatoes. Or the Incarnation is like a master gardener that loves her roses so much that gradually converts, her limbs and torso turn a deep green and her head turns into a thousand silky petals; the love the gardener experiences pulls her into the soil with all the roses that she has tended for years”.
That is the message of our faith that God loves us all, that God loves so much that God could not be contained. God’s love pulled him down to be with us and that is an idea to truly celebrate.