John 1: 1-5, 14
The “For Sale” sign appeared rather unceremoniously in the front yard one day. It has been awhile since anyone lived there. Those in the neighborhood had grown accustomed to its empty state, the lack of a car parked in the driveway or children running on the front lawn. Everyone had gotten used to the absence. But that, as the “For Sale” sign indicated, was about to change. Something new was coming. They just didn’t know who or when.
And then one day, everyone came home from their busy jobs and busy school and busy lives in the world outside the neighborhood to find the “For Sale” sign replaced with one that said “Under Contract.” Someone, it appeared, had decided to make this their new home. And so in the weeks that followed, the house saw more activity than it had in quite a while. The lawn, prone to overgrowth in the spring and fall, was now cut with regularity. A landscaping crew trimmed bushes, spread mulch, planted a dogwood tree. A roofer repaired a few loose shingles. A new water heater was installed. All to get the house ready for its new owner.
Which naturally led everyone in the neighborhood to wonder: who? Who was moving in? Was it a family with young kids? A newly-married couple? A retiree? Would they have dogs running around in the backyard, would they serve on the HOA board the first time they were asked, were they the kind of neighbor who’d collect you mail for you when you were on vacation? Who? No one knew for sure, not even the self-appointed “neighborhood mayor” who always made it a point to know these things. All they could do was wait.
And wait they did. Days, weeks went by, still no one. Some surmised that the financing had fallen through; others gravely wondered if something had happened to the buyer. Still, the “Under Contract” sign hung in the front yard, so they assumed the best. But everyone kept wondering – how long? How long?
And then one day, on a December evening, a moving truck backed into the driveway. Two movers hopped out of the cab and made their way to the back, and rolled up the door. They climbed in and began carrying items out of the truck and into the house: a sofa, a bed, a kitchen table, a TV. The two worked well into the night, long after curious neighbors had shut their curtains and gone to bed.
And when they woke the next morning, they saw a car parked in the driveway, and a thin trace of smoke trickling out of the fireplace chimney, and a new doormat placed at the foot of the front door that said: Welcome. This Home Is Full Of Love.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
Friends, it is on this holiest of nights, this Christmas Eve, when these words from the writer of the gospel John hit home for us. And the Word became flesh and lived among us. These are special, sacred words; words that go deeper than we may realize. That’s because the Greek word we translate “lived among us” literally means “to pitch a tent.” Like we did back on family camping excursions – driving into the wilderness, choosing a campsite, clearing out all the rocks and sticks, and pitching a tent to call home for the weekend.
Like the Hebrews did thousands of years before Jesus in their forty-year wilderness wandering. A fairly lengthy camping excursion, one that would lead them to the land God promised – because while God is always leading God’s people to that which God promises, the journey to get there is rarely a short and simple one. It wasn’t a direct route – winding around in the desert for well over a generation. Everything had to be ready to move on a moment’s notice. So their places of living, all their supplies and livestock, portable.
Including their house of worship. They called it the tabernacle. God was worshipped in what amounted to a large tent. Within that tent lay the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments, always reminding the people of the presence of God that went with them and stayed with them wherever they were. Generations later, King Solomon would build a permanent house of worship. A glorious structure; the architectural marvel of its time. But for those forty wandering years – forty incredibly formative years – the people worshipped God in a pitched tent.
And the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us.
You know, ever since John penned those words, scholars have been trying to find just the right rendering to capture the essence of it – more than “living among us,” even more than “pitching a tent.” “Took up residence” is how one phrases it. “Did tabernacle among us” is another – a little clumsy, if you ask me. No, I find myself most drawn over and over again to the translation that comes from The Message. And it simply says this:
And the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.
Moved into the neighborhood.
All the anticipation and expectation, all that we know and more importantly all we do not know, all of that moves into this neighborhood on this night.
And it is, first and foremost, light that moves in. Light that shines ever-so brightly in the darkness – and, as John tells it, light that is not overcome by the darkness. The creeping, encroaching darkness that latches onto us – innocently at first. The kind of darkness we might even welcome, because light can be so bright sometimes, revealing that which we wish not to be seen. It is true that sometimes we prefer hiding in the shadows over being illuminated by the light.
But the darkness will not – cannot – overpower the light of this night. Never. God moves into the neighborhood, and the darkness will not overcome it, will not overpower it, will not put it out. Or, as one translation interestingly renders, will not understand it. The darkness cannot understand the light. Because the light of this night has at its very illuminating center one thing the darkness simply cannot comprehend:
And that is hope. Hope.
Sometimes hope is a radical act, Anne Lamott writes, sometimes a quietly merciful response, sometimes a second wind, or just an increased awareness of goodness and beauty. You hope to wake up in time to see the dawn, the first light, a Technicolor sunrise, but the early morning instead is cloudy with mist. Still, as you linger, the ridge stands majestically black against a milky sky. And if you pay attention, you’ll see the setting of the moon that illumined us all as we slept. And then you see a new day dawn.
That is how Anne Lamott describes hope – interestingly, as part of an essay for National Geographic on the subject of climate change. She titles her article, “Show Up With Hope.”
And the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood, and showed up with hope.
Now that last part isn’t in the original Greek – but it might as well be, don’t you think? The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not understand it. What is that, if not hope?
My friends, there is hope in this night, and it is enough hope to last us the whole year long and then some. If there is one thing this night proclaims loud and clear through a baby’s birth, it is hope. And we need this hope, brothers and sisters; we need it more than ever. Dried up like dry bones in the dry and dusty desert of Ezekiel’s vision – we are thirsting for the hope of this night. Wandering around in the endless wilderness that purportedly leads to some Promised land – we are banking everything on the hope of this night. Sinking deeper and deeper into the watery chaos of our own doubts and reservations, the consuming darkness building up in the world around us – we are holding on for our dear life to the hope of this night.
Hope in a God who has not given up on this world, who has not given up on us; even as we have time and time again given up on ourselves.
Hope in a God whose divine love becomes enfleshed in human form; even as we struggle to share that same love with other humans, with creatures and creation, with ourselves.
Hope in a God who keeps showing up, keeps pitching a tent with us, right with us! A God who long told us he was moving into our neighborhood, right next door where there was once only absence. All the signs telling us he was coming, telling us he was almost here. And we waited. We waited in hope.
So that one night – this night – the wait is over. God moves into our neighborhood, fills that emptiness next door with a holy human presence; so that tomorrow morning when we look out the window we see that car in the driveway, that thin trace of smoke trickling out of the fireplace chimney, that welcome mat placed at the foot of the front door, saying to the world: Welcome. This Home Is Full Of Love.
Show up with hope, people of God. Because God has moved into our neighborhood. The wait is over. The light – the light is finally here!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.