Dwelling (a Christmas sermon)

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, we have seen His Glory, the Glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.  [John 1:14]

What is Christmas all about?  A number of years ago, Newsweek magazine [July 6,1986] told of a school textbook used in public schools in the United States which described Christmas as simply “a warm time for special foods.”  How empty that description sounds!  Our first reaction is to say that of course it is far more than that.

And that’s true – it’s a lot, lot, lot more!  For some people caught up in the spiral of gift-buying, decorations, special cooking, guest entertaining, parties, school programs, etc., etc., December becomes such an impossibly filled time.  I wonder how many people end up relieved that it will all be over soon, and even resenting that so much of life has been disturbed by only a one-day celebration.

As you listen to the big pushes for gift-buying and Santa Claus and all the “I wants” of the season, how many people really have any idea of what Christmas is all about?  Even among Christians, has the idea of worshiping become more and more merely a tradition, more and more one more incidental that tugs at your time and energy?

But we do need this time as more than merely an incidental.  The time we spend here is absolutely crucial.  So kids, put away the thoughts on what gifts you are going to get, or if you’ve already got them, put away the thoughts of playing with your gifts.  You parents, put away the thoughts on what you have to do next, and whose coming and if you’ll have enough food, and whatever will you do if old aunt what’s-her-face shows up.  Put all of these things out of your mind.

To really find out what Christmas is all about, you have to go back, back, way back to creation itself and ask one of the most basic questions there is: Why did God create humans? Obviously we don’t have the whole answer, but Bible does gives evidence of a place to start the answer: God wanted creatures that He could walk with and talk with; God wanted creatures that He could care about who also would care about Him; God wanted creatures with whom He could spend eternity and just simply enjoy their companionship forever.

When St Paul, in Ephesians 5[:31-32], tells us that the marriage verse in Genesis 2[:24] (that’s when man and woman were first created which was before sin entered the world) speaks specifically of the relationship between Jesus and His People – then it appears that God already had a beautiful dream in mind with a very special oneness that He and humankind would share.

However rebellion entered the picture.  God knew that it would happen, and yet I wonder how utterly disappointed He was, knowing that His great vision was not shattered, but the road to suffering and death was now begun.  Now would be demanded the greatest cost He could give, His design would be tremendously delayed, and there would be many who would never turn to Him and enter into that dream.

But the plan of a special oneness remained.  You see this particularly as God established a relationship with Abraham to a degree utterly unknown throughout the rest of the Old Testament.  And when He rescued Israel from Egypt, you hear Him commanding Moses, “let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” [Exodus 25:8; See 29:45]; “I will put My dwelling place among you… I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My People” [Leviticus 26:11-12; See Deuteronomy 23:14].

Then again, although He knew it would happen, how disappointed again He must have been when despite His being right there among them, Israel refused to develop any kind of real relationship with Him.  Instead they rebelled throughout the wilderness journey, throughout the settling of the Promised Land, and throughout the reign of the various kings – how often God saw His great dream stomped upon and kicked and garbage thrown on it.

But He held fast to His plan.  Through the prophets again and again the theme came up, “Son of man, this is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the People… forever” [Ezekiel 43:7; See 11:19-20; 37:27; I Kings 6:13]; “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord” [Zechariah 2:10]; “This is My resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it” [Psalm 132:14]

Just like with us, I’m sure the people of the Old Testament thought God was speaking in a metaphor: yes, God is with us, yes, God is around us, but really He’s on His throne in heaven somewhere out there – did they ever really think that God Himself would stand before them on two feet, would eat like them, sleep like them, put His own two hands to work on a trade like them, be thirsty like them, cry real tears like them, and most of all be crucified?  Did they ever think that God was really that serious about dwelling with them?
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Can you imagine the excitement of heaven as God took a bold step in this great dream of His?  He really would live among His People!  Oh, it would never be anything like what it will be when the plan finally comes true on the Last Day, but still there would be a taste of what He so yearned for: He would actually dwell among us and be our God.  He knew it would cost Him, and that the death at the end would be mandatory to save us.  Yet for thirty-three years He would actually dwell in our midst in a visible, real way – HE would actually step into our homes and visit with us.

And so in Bethlehem, a Baby was born: Immanuel, God is with us.  Something was changed in the very nature of God Himself.  No longer was God the Son just God, now forever He would be the God-Man, the bold step of God fulfilling His dream, to “dwell among us.”  This was what He wanted all the way back to the creation of the world – one step closer to a real presence among us every day.

When St John places such emphasis on the Glory of the Father’s only Son, he sets the atmosphere as to why we are excited about God fulfilling His dream.  To really understand what such Glory is we have to go to Mount Sinai.  Moses had just interceded on Israel’s behalf and Almighty God conceded to this human that He would continue going with that rebellious nation who had just so easily bowed to a golden calf.  Then while God indicated His special regard for Moses, this man had a request, “Please show me Your Glory.”

The Lord’s immediate reply blows my mind: “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the [Covenant] Name ‘Jehovah’; I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy …” [Exodus 33:19] – this is God’s definition of His Glory!  Then as God does grant Moses what he asked for in the next chapter, He adds, “Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in Steadfast Love [HESED] and faithfulness, keeping steadfast Love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet Who will by no means clear the guilty…” [vv 6-7].

God Himself defines His Glory as His goodness, His Covenant relationship, grace, mercy, Steadfast Love [HESED], faithfulness, forgiveness, and, justice against the guilty.  I don’t know what Moses saw that day, but as we watch Jesus go about His human Life, His death for us guilty ones, His resurrection to seal our eternal Life, and then Who now sits on the throne of heaven to rule all things for the sake of His Church, we see in this grown up Child of Bethlehem all this same Glory of God in the flesh – the Glory of God dwelling here with us.

It is good that we have this window on God’s heart.  When it is declared to Moses, “yet Who will by no means clear the guilty,” it doesn’t take very long in Holy Scripture to realize that God’s justice is not an incidental nuisance.  Too easily we break relationships with one another, giving way to a pride which strongly hurts others.  Arguments, fights, the sneaky things we do, our rejection of God’s standards, the deliberate omission of any thought of Him, our willingness to bow down before the various golden calves of our culture, and the utter shame we would have if Jesus would say to us as He had to Zacchaeus, “make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house” [Luke 19:5].

But God’s earnest desire to dwell with us still persists.  He wasn’t satisfied with a mere thirty-three years demonstrating His Glory as He walked this earth – that’s why we celebrate Holy Communion on this occasion!  His compelling desire to dwell among us takes shape, not as a vague reminiscing about an event 2000 years ago, but rather as a flesh-and-blood reality right here and now.  He comes to be among His People right now, to be right here as truly as this bread and wine are here.  How eagerly He comes because He is living His dream which He had all the way back from the time of creation.

His plan is to dwell among us – not just to tip the hat and say “hello” in passing.  So here when Holy Communion is on this altar, it is the yearning which stands behind Christmas, the vision of the Lord to truly be involved, to truly be part of our world, to truly dwell among us.  In Holy Communion God Himself has come in a way which will never be matched in any other way in our world. In Holy Communion God concretely demonstrates His commitment, His intent to dwell among us, and in us, and with us.

What satisfaction He must experience when we are here every time He is here – this is His dream!  This is what His Christmas is all about: He really does dwell among us, and He really is our God, and we really are His People!  What more could He do to convince you, but to even die for you – and that He also has done.

That’s Christmas from God’s point of view. This is not merely some “warm time for special foods”; rather it is the fulfillment of His most heart-felt yearning, His dream of dwelling among us.  That’s all God wants for Christmas – a closer step to what He has yearned for: to walk into your world, to work by your side, to sit down at the supper table with you, to cry real tears with you, to suffer with you and for you, and to dance with you at a wedding especially on the Last Day.  No, such a dream of dwelling with us is not as some once-a-year thing, but something which snowballs throughout life into eternity, as before us Holy Communion constantly renews and strengthens our awareness of our Lord’s unbreakable commitment  to actually dwell with us forever.

That’s what Christmas means to God.  The question now remains as to what you want Christmas to be.

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