Our reading from the Gospel of John may seem like an odd one for Christmas Day. It’s not one of the birth narratives, in fact, it’s more a theological treatise on the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Personally, as a Church nerd, I get all kinds of excited about readings like this—especially from the Gospel of John. This is because the purpose of this particular Gospel is to explain how amazing it is that Jesus was ever here on earth. His point, as we can see in the reading, is that God came to make a home with us.
In fact, the word that he uses to describe the way that God dwelt among us is the word “tabernacle.” This is probably not a word that means much out of a particular context. But a tabernacle is a tent used to house holy things. We read about Peter asking to build tents on the mountain when Jesus is transfigured, and Elijah and Moses appear with him. We call the box where the reserve sacrament is kept a tabernacle. More importantly, the tabernacle was a tent that was used to house the Ark of the Covenant—the ornate box which was a representation of God’s presence with God’s people.
Obviously the Ark itself wasn’t God—and certainly didn’t contain God. It was a sign of God’s Presence. It was a thing through which God chose to participate in the lives of the people. As such, the Ark was dangerous.
We read in the Old Testament that the Ark was kept hidden away from most people, and only the high priests ever saw it. When the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the Ark was kept in a space called the holy of holies—and from many stories in the Old Testament, we know that no one would dare touch it for fear of death or plague.
And while the Ark may have been a sign of the immanence of God, it did very little to really make God any closer to humanity. This is not to say that God was not intimately in love with Creation. There is a whole wealth of stories about God calling humanity and all of Creation back to relationship—that’s the whole point of all of the 66 books that make up the Bible. Sure, there are stories of punishment and exile—but there is always the overarching promise of love and homecoming with God. In fact, there was always such love there that inevitably, God knew that sending letters by prophet, and making covenants were not really the best way for us to get to know him, or for him to get to know us…
So, in an action which was very uncharacteristic of any god—the Holy One, Almighty God, poured God’s Self out in the most profound self-giving act imaginable. God became man. God took the gamble to be born into an unfriendly world of danger, disease and high infant mortality. All of it just to make a home with us. All of it to prove, just by his showing up, that we are loved and worthwhile enough live with God.
On the feast of Christmas, then we celebrate this strange mystery of God breaking into our world in such a quiet and unassuming way. Sure there was a star, and a sky full of angels—but the birth of a child is not the biggest thing. But of course, it’s really an amazing thing at the same time. And in the case of Jesus’ birth, it marks God’s willingness to be with us in a deeply personal way. I’m not just talking about living with Jesus in our hearts—unfortunately the power of that terminology has lost some of its punch. What I’m talking about is a God who not only seeks relationship with us, but a God who comes to be one of us in Jesus Christ.
What’s more, when Jesus returned to the Father, he took with him all that it is to be human—to have a life, friends, a family and a name… All of the things that we consider normal to the human condition; and probably all of the things we sometimes take for granted. But in Jesus these things are all made extraordinary and holy; and in this way he makes a way for us to make a home with him. This is the reason for our Gospel text today…
It may seem strange that our Gospel reading isn’t a narrative about the birth of Jesus. But the significance of the reading reminds us what this season is about—that not only are we loved by God, but we are known by God.
I think it’s this “being known” by God which is the real clincher. Because to be known by God is to be known beyond our knowing ourselves. So, all of the little precious things that are important to us, God knows them intimately. The reason for our quiet moments, our frustrations, our deeper passions...they’re known and cherished. And while these may seem like simple things to anyone outside of ourselves—to God they’re angelic. Divine, even.
In Jesus Christ, God makes his home with us in the weirdness of this life, and by his presence sanctifies all of it—because in the birth that we celebrate today, we see that God longs to be ever closer to us, and will stop at nothing to make it happen.