by Marie Wonders
January 5, 2020
The Word became flesh and lived among us. The Message translation says, “the word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Because we are in our year of the good neighbor, seeking individually and collectively to be good neighbors, the ministers were caught by the idea of Jesus moving into the neighborhood. Today I’ll be kicking off a sermon series that Jeff and Sara will continue, We want to unpack what it means for God to leave heaven, become human in Jesus Christ and move into our neighborhood. and how we can authentically follow.
A grandma named Wanda sent a text message to phone number she thought was her grandson, inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. Jamal, a high school student replied to her invitation, “who is this?” “It’s grandma!” Wanda cheerfully replied back. Through a subsequent exchange of pictures, Jamal and Wanda realized they were not grandmother and grandson. But, Jamal asked, “Can I still get a plate tho?” Wanda’s reply, was, “Of course! Grandmas feed everyone.” When Jamal accepted the surprise invite and showed up at thanksgiving, Wanda had a plate ready for him. Jamal and Wanda have become friends — her giving advice on career paths and him helping her set up her phone — and they have spent a subsequent four thanksgivings together!
Presence. Love. Hospitality. These are the hallmarks of becoming neighbors. Like Mark shared, sharing love is like starlight — it shines out to all and has the possibility of allowing all to come within it’s glowing light.
When Jesus moved into the neighborhood it was for the purpose of becoming true neighbors with us. To do this, he made his home with us. He moved in. He tabernacled with us. Camped out. Took off his shoes and stayed awhile. Was present. And his presence shone a light. John says that this was a revelation of God’s glory. The move of Jesus from heaven to earth, the move to the neighborhood, this was a shining light of God’s glory.
Glory. I should admit that I am a little uncomfortable with the word. I don’t use the word glory every day, or even weekly. It calls into my mind shiny, olden time-y things like gold angel statues. When I think about the word, “glory” associated with God, I think about God being divine, all powerful, all knowing, all sufficient, Holy, other than me, perfect and without need. I think about the burning bush, or the pillar of fire and cloud that led Israel. I think about the Holy of Holies… so holy that to approach the altar improperly resulted in death. I think about Jesus in a cloud, ascending, and of angels in dazzling white clothes. I think of visions and bright lights, storms and heart-stopping holiness. To see glory, to interact with glory, well, I imagine it would be like when Moses talked with God, that you’d have some sort of supernatural tan afterwards and you’d be gloriously shiny or at least have a gold halo. I don’t think about glory as being compatible with getting to know your neighbors. Glory seems too dangerous, too self-important to move into any neighborhood. Glory seems separate, lofty, too shiny to be relatable.
But, glory in the Bible, even Old Testament glory, while signifying authority, importance and often presenting itself in a very dazzling, shiny way isn’t just about shiny importance. Glory is a means of God’s revelation indicating God is present. The presence of God is revealed through glory, because glory is discernible to human sensing — a dazzling light, the smell of incense, carrying the ark of the covenant, the sound of angels singing. Glory is an experience with and in the presence of God. God with people, revealing God’s self to people, dwelling with people. A kind of encounter that might prompt you to say “surely God is in this place and I didn’t know it.” And maybe a better word for that encounter when it happens is simply, “Whoa.”
And this, “whoa,” encounter with God’s glory is meant not just for some, but for all. “What came into being through the word was life, and the life was the light for all people.” Glory moves into the neighborhoods of all people. Whoa.
We talk so much about the Magi on Epiphany, because they were supposed to be the outsiders. They became invited guests through the light of the star. Like a wrong number, the star was un-discerning on who it invited to see Jesus. All were invited, and the Magi came.
And what kind of encounter did the Magi have with Jesus when they arrived? Some nativity scenes have Jesus looking kind of shiny or emitting an otherworldly light. But, we know from reading the gospels, where great pains were taken to describe the humble and frightening setting for Jesus to be born, that while the angels and the star and the magi’s gifts were shiny, Jesus was not. He did not have a supernatural holiness tan. No gold halo. Yet, when the magi saw Jesus, they experienced a “whoa” of glory and they worshipped him. But how?
What I mean is, without some shiny stuff, what made the magi worship Jesus once they found him? What was it about entering the house and seeing an ordinary, non-shiny baby with ordinary, poor parents that led to worship and not disappointment and confusion? Could it be that glory is more present in the face of the human baby Jesus than in a full, bright angel choir?
This is one of the paradoxes of the incarnation, the word becoming human. The divine, shiny Word takes on humanity. And in becoming human, the true glory of God is revealed.
We know this because the gospel of John says that the glory of God was in the word made flesh. “The Word was made flesh and we have seen his glory…” God’s glory wasn’t veiled in Jesus as some theologians suggest, but most present when Jesus come in the flesh. The divine and human Venn diagram crosses in Jesus we know, and from that unity of divine and human, glory is what is revealed. God was glorious not at the epitome of shiny, but at God’s most vulnerable — the human incarnation.
The idea of vulnerability being glorious is a hard one to wrap your head around. Perhaps you are tired out this morning from the loving people and showing up for them during the holidays. Tired probably doesn’t feel glorious. Maybe you have kids home with you on break, in which case, congratulations to making it to day fourteen of winter break. Don’t worry, school starts tomorrow! Hooray! The song says, love is something that if you give it away, you’ll end up having more. Which I think is ultimately true. But in the short term, when you give love away, when you give time, resources, emotional energy away, you actually have less of those things. At this point after the holidays, all of us are likely running low on some resources at the cost of loving those around you.
Imagine if the opposite were true, if you had so much to give that you didn’t feel any different if you gave some of it away. Would that really be love? Love and mercy put us into need. This is normal and human and this is also the experience of God, who really loved us, really felt needy with us in Jesus Christ.
How can the vulnerable be glorious? Because love is glorious. Especially love that is from a God who has chosen, through loving us, to give God’s heart away. The song should go, “Love is something if you give it away, you end up being vulnerable and needy but that is OK because that is what happens with love if you’re really doing it right.” Because that is also true. God chose to really move into the neighborhood, not holding back any part. Jesus chooses a human life, chooses the cross, for us and for the sake of love. As pastor and theologian Debbie Blue concludes, “Glory doesn’t shine, it bleeds.”
Perhaps the Magi were able to worship the glory of a non shiny Jesus because just like us, the Magi weren’t longing for another shiny thing. They were longing for the presence of the living, loving God.
God moves into the neighborhood. And what kind of neighborhood? Not shiny town. Not the palace. Jesus doesn’t come in the shiny-ness of our lives. Not even in the shiny Glory of God’s own life. Jesus comes limited, not as an all-knowing, all-powerful, all sufficient God. But, as a baby, vulnerable without the care of his parents. As a boy, who went to the temple to learn from the teachers and the scripture. As a young adult, who relied on his relationship with God his Father, and God the Holy Spirit, often retreating to pray and rest.
Jesus as a human experienced human need. Sometimes it can feel disrespectful to think about a needy, human Jesus. My nieces are 5 and 7 years old, they were having some conversation with my sister in law after church one day. Someone had drawn a picture of Jesus that Lily found upsetting as she felt it was not anatomically correct for Jesus. She described it to my sister in law with indignation. It was a picture of Jesus with a butt. While Petra calmly explained that we shouldn’t dis-respect people in general or Jesus in particular by drawing them with butts, it was none the less true that Jesus was human and Jesus did have a butt. Lily did not like this. “No! Stop saying that, that is terrible!” she exclaimed. Petra persisted, it’s not terrible, it’s just true, but I’ll stop talking about it if it bothers you.” “Yes, please stop talking about it,” Lily responded. Meanwhile, the 5 year old, Norah, playing in the background, well versed at pushing her sister’s buttons unknowingly, started to quietly sing to herself in a sing song manner, “Jesus had a butt…” Which took Lily over the top in frustration and she had to leave the room.
Sometimes Jesus’ humanity can seem indecent. Jesus couldn’t have been that human. And it’s not just the neediness of a human body that seems too human. Jesus being needy at all might bother us. If we’re honest, it’s because our own neediness bothers us. We’d rather be the shiny version of glory, removed to some upper realm, perfectly self-sufficient. Not needing each other, not needing God. But that isn’t love. Love moves into the neighborhood. Glory enters the need and lowers itself to be with all. This glory doesn’t just shine, it also bleeds.
When we think about loving our neighbors, following love into the neighborhood. It is important that we not expect ourselves to do all the loving. Even Jesus needed others to love him back. To care for him. Even pagan astrologers — he wanted them at his birthday party and to bring him presents — his father invited them particularity! Maybe following love into the neighborhood and shining a light isn’t always about what we do to love others, but also how we allow them to love us and meet us with their gift of relationship.
A professor I had in seminary used to prepare for all his classes at a table in the McDonalds in his neighborhood. He wasn’t there for the great atmosphere, but because of the neighbors he would get to know as he spent time there. Rather than dispensing advice and virtue to the people around him at the McDonalds, his presence there allowed him to become real neighbors and friends with the people there. It was then the advice and stories of his neighbors from the McDonalds that began to teach us seminary students, as he shared his friend’s perspectives in class. If you have a haunt, a store, a coffeeshop, you know how relationship springs up when the choice is made to be present to each other. To move into the neighborhood, to kick off your shoes and stay awhile. To love and allow yourself to be loved.
Jesus is already there in our neighborhoods, with our neighbors, with all. We just need the eyes to see him there. “Glory is not standing apart, but standing together.” Glory is about the presence of the living God, not in a way that dazzles and leaves, but enters in, kicks off his shoes and talks with us. Glory is the presence of God that dwells with us and transforms us through relationship. May we really love as Jesus does, may we experience the glorious, vulnerable love of God with us and for all people. This is God’s epiphany.