God Moved Into the Neighborhood: A Christmas Sermon on John 1
May I speak in the Name of the one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is a joy and a delight to be here with you this morning! Thank you for having me here at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church :)
As some of you may know, I was not raised in a Christian household. My grandparents had me baptized as a sort of, quote “fire insurance”, but neither of my parents believed the Church had anything to offer. I grew up with the assumption that Church was full of a bunch of hypocrites trying to prove that they’re good people.
So we never went to church
and we were content to criticize the Christians from afar.
Except on Christmas.
My grandmother usually decided on Christmas Eve that we needed to go, so we, awkwardly, went to the local Presbyterian church.
While we stood in the pews, I fumed:
“What did these strangers care about what I believed and how I dressed?”
As they passed around the offering plates, I thought, “Why were they asking us for money?”
As the pastor preached and prayed up front I wondered, “Why were they asking us to immediately ‘give our lives’ to Jesus or else? Why would I ever do that? What does that even mean?
These Christians don’t demonstrate that they’re anything special or different, why on earth would they make such weird claims and do weird things?
Like, why are we down on our knees in front of an invisible God who wants to throw us into hell?
Who cares about a middle eastern baby born 2000+ years ago?”
As an act of defiance, I dripped candle wax on the floor during Silent Night. ;)
Fast forward to my first year of college.
By this time, I was very content to criticize Christians from afar.
But I was angry because a Christian classmate named Mike at music school had been asking me some nosy questions. He started asking me about my philosophy of life. And it pushed my limits and my buttons.
Whenever I told him that I believed in God, but not organized religion, he asked me to describe that kind of God I believed in.
*“Goodness, light, life. God is Life,” I said, succinctly. “It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
People make it out to be about obedience to human leaders, about money, about big institutions, but I don’t think God-as-Life has anything to do with that.”
He smiled and asked me what if I could be more specific. What was God like?
“I already told you, God is Life, Goodness, Peace, Love. God is Ultimate Reality, Love with a capital ‘L’ that undergirds all things. It’s that simple. Humans make it complicated.” I don’t want to have anything to do with the hypocrites who go to church and make an imaginary God their overlord.
He asked if I could get any more specific about what God is like. I could not, and I was furious.
But weeks later, I decided to buy a cheap Bible and prove him wrong. I decided to learn the Bible better than he and show him how hypocritical his Bible was.
I was curious, but mostly angry. Angry because I thought religion was a big cause for violence in this world. I was going to take him and the Christians down. So I bought a Bible in December over my winter break, but I didn’t tell Mike, lest he think that I was willing to become a Christian.
And I read from the first page:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”
I relished those words. They were so helpful in describing the beginning of time!
I kept reading but things got weird.
I got to Noah’s sons uncovering his nakedness and Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt.
So I texted Mike and asked what part of the Bible I should read first. He replied, “The gospel of John.”
It was exactly six years ago that I opened my Bible to this passage in John 1 and it changed my life.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God…”
Whoa. We’re talking the beginning of time again, I thought. This sounds like what I just read in Genesis!
Another translation by Eugene Peterson puts it this way:
1 1-2 “The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
in readiness for God from day one.
3-5 Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!—
came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.”
I was tracking up ‘til this point. I definitely already thought God was Life-Light. That God created us.
But who was this other figure that was inside God? That’s intriguing...so, with my interest piqued, I kept reading...
6-8 “There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.”
Uhhh...Who’s John? Why was John pointing to the Life-Light? What’s so special about that? I want to point to the Life-Light! That sounds like a reasonable thing to do. So I kept reading...
9-13 “The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life
he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
the world was there through him,
and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
but they didn’t want him.”
What?! This God-person came into the world and nobody noticed? Nobody would believe him?!
If he were God-man, then he’d do magical things and be like a ruler or a superman or an overlord, right? Why would nobody want him? He’d be super special and really important to listen to! I kept reading...
“But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
14 The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.”
After I finished that line, I closed the Bible because my head was spinning. All of a sudden, I realized how different my perception of Christianity was different from its content.
Whaaaaaa?! God became human? God moved into the neighborhood?
I tried to imagine God moving into my neighbor’s house.
How could that happen?! This changes everything. If God moved into the neighborhood, that means that God’s willing to be numbered among us.
If God, Life itself, Goodness itself, Love itself entered space and time and became a human, then this is a really, really big deal!
My thoughts buzzed because, up until this point, I thought the point of organized religion was to get up, get out and climb out of our humanity.
But this God was willing to move into the neighborhood.
I read on with rapt attention, late into the night.
I learned that I wasn’t wrong about the fact that God is Life, Goodness, Peace, Love.
God is Ultimate Reality, that God is Love with a capital ‘L’ that undergirds all things. It is that simple.
And it’s also true that humans make it complicated.
I learned later that I, too, make it complicated.
I realized later that I was content to criticize from afar, but this God wasn’t. Instead of removing Godself from the screwed up, hypocritical religious people, God instead walks in their shoes.
Instead of criticizing from afar, this God’s movement was toward the mess, facing the darkness head on, in solidarity.
I realized that I try to wiggle out of things and make myself the exception to the imperfect, human-screwup rule.
That my anger at Christians was actually part of the problem and not part of the solution.
That my anger begets more anger.
That anger, sin and brokenness spirals into violence, greed, murder, war.
That this has been playing out through history, again and again.
That the problem was not organized religion, but the human heart.
So God joined us. God “moved into our neighborhood.”
God became human in order
To deal with the problem of the Human Propensity to Screw Things Up.
To push the reset button on humanity.
I learned that this Mystery we call “God” has a desire for all of humanity.
That God wanted us “to be [our] true selves, [our] child-of-God selves.”
So God, not content to criticize humanity from afar, became one of us.
In other words,
God became human so that humans could become like God
(a quote from Athanasius' On The Incarnation).