Pastor Todd Buegler
January 3-4, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God and the incarnation. Amen.
One of my very favorite places to take groups camping is Assateague Island National Seashore, on the Maryland coast. I’ve brought mission trip groups there many times. In fact, if we’re ever even remotely in range, I’ll make a point of bring groups camping there after our work weeks with Habitat for Humanity, because it has such great group campsites.
Only 50 yards from the waterline, over the dunes from the beach, protected from the wind, the sandy ground is soft to sleep on and the breezes are pleasant. Wild horses, descendants from horses shipwrecked hundreds of years ago wander the beach and the national park. It is all very picturesque.
Now I want to be honest, we call it “camping lite.” Or, “camping with donuts.” We weren’t really equipped for hard-core camping. We were, after all, a mission trip group. So we were heavy on hammers, but carried just barely enough camping equipment to be able to stay a few nights at Assateague. We were really only interested in the beach time together.
So you can imagine the look of horror on the scoutmaster’s faces when our group pulled up to camp to the group site next to theirs. Their site was set up with military precision. Tents in rows…a large screen tent just for cooking and eating…they traveled with their own portable flagpole and literally had revele and taps every day. They even (I kid you not) raked the sand.
We, on the other hand, backed our trailer up to our campsite and in an effort to get to the water, quickly unloaded. In about 10 minutes, our area looked like an Abercrombie and Finch store had thrown up all over the sand. Our tents were scattered and barely standing, beach towels were hanging from branches. We were a scoutmaster’s worst nightmare.
Finally, the scoutmasters mustered up the courage to come over and talk with us. We introduced ourselves and I said, kind of apologetically, “we’re not boy scouts.” “Clearly,” said the scoutmaster. And then he went on to say: “And I guess we’re neighbors. So how long will you be with us?”
“With us.” When he said those words, he said them with a kind of a sense of dread. As in “How long are we going to have to put up with your group?”
“With us” is, I believe, actually one of the most powerful phrases in the English language. When we celebrate…baptisms, marriages, anniversaries, Christmas, Thanksgiving, you name it, people we love come to be “with us.”
Because when we mourn, when we grieve, when we are sick, when we suffer, people come alongside of us to share in that, to support us, and to be “with us.”
In our everyday life, in our offices, in the cubicle next door, in the hallway at our locker, our friends are “with us.” And we often make decision about which events or gatherings we will go to based at least partially on who will be there “with us.”
Our Gospel lesson for today is all about “with us.” If you look at John 1, verse 14, you’ll find three critical words…if you brought your own Bible, I’d even recommend your underlining them, because I believe these three words describe the whole idea of the incarnation and our relationship with God. It says: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Lived among us.
To live among us means to dwell with…to come alongside…to be in the presence of; to be “with us.” “With us” implies a relationship…friendship, or even family.
Interestingly, in the original Greek text for this verse, we learn that this Greek word which is translated as “Lived among us” can also be translated as “pitched a tent with.”
So hear this text this way: “And the Word became flesh, and Jesus pitched his tent with us.”
Pitching a tent means one is planning to stay awhile. Jesus came to be with us for the duration. He came to be with us in every circumstance of life. The Christmas story is the story of how God came to be with us in all circumstances of life.
Jesus made a promise, a commitment when he came to earth to be with us. I’ve heard it referred to as “The Christmas promise.” We now live in that promise.
The problem is that for us, Christmas is a season, and all seasons end. And with the end of the Christmas season, we often forget about the promise of the season…of Jesus’ promise to be “with us.”
When Jesus pitches his tent next door, his commitment is to be with us through it all, the joys and the sorrows.
When I teach about this idea in confirmation, the idea of the incarnation, pretty consistently, there is a question that I get asked.
The young person will ask me “So Pastor Todd, how does that work? That whole God becoming human thing?” I love that question…and I hate that question. The incarnation is really hard to describe. It’s really hard to explain. It is a part of the mystery of God. So often, I’ll tell this story:
Paul Harvey wrote a parable called “The Christmas Storm.” He writes: “This is about a modern man, one of us, he was not a scrooge, he was a kind, decent, mostly good man, generous to his family, upright in his dealings with others. But he did not believe in all that incarnation stuff that the Churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense to him and he was too honest to pretend otherwise.
He just could not swallow the Jesus story about God coming to earth as man. I’m truly sorry to distress you, he told his wife, but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve. He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he would much rather stay home, but that he would wait up for them.
He stayed, they went. Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier, then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another and another. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. Well, when he went to the front door, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They had been caught in the storm and in a desperate search for shelter they had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze. He remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter — if he could direct the birds to it.
He quickly put on his coat and boots, trampled through the deepening snow to the barn, opened the door wide, and turned on a light. But the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in and he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow making a trail to the yellow lighted wide open doorway of the stable, but to his dismay the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them, he tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms — instead they scattered in every direction except into the warm lighted barn.
Then he realized they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature, if only I could think of some way to let them know they can trust me. That I’m not trying to hurt them, but to help them. How? Any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him. If only I could be a bird and mingle with them and speak their language, and tell them not to be afraid, and show them the way to the safe, warm barn. But I’d have to be one of them, so they could see and hear and understand.
At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sound of the wind. He stood there listening to the bells, pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.
What does it mean, for Jesus to be “With us.”
- When the storms come, and they will, Jesus steps into them with us.
- When we are deepest in our grief, it is Jesus who is present with us.
- When our marriage feels like it is in tatters, and we’re not sure what tomorrow is going to look like, Jesus is right there, with us.
- When we’re exhausted from being disappointed again, Jesus promises to be there, with us.
The incarnation is God in human form. Jesus is God, “with skin on.” Walking, talking, teaching, laughing, and living as an example of what we are to be for others.
This is the true gift of Christmas. And Jesus does this out of his deep love for us. Jesus does this because he knew that we could not do it for ourselves. Jesus does this, for you. For you. Jesus promises to be with…you.
But there is more…God comes incarnate in human form, to teach us to become an incarnation. While Jesus is the incarnation of God, he then calls us to be the incarnation of faith. We become faith, “with skin on” for others to see.
What does that look like?
- When because of our faith, we stand up for what is right, even in the face of pressure to do what is wrong.
- When because of our faith, we reach out and serve those most in need, even when it’s hard.
- When because of our faith, a group of people gather, as we did a couple of weeks ago, and go Christmas caroling at assisted living centers, care centers and at Homestead Hospice. I stood in Gordy Fretham’s room when about a dozen of us sang Angels We Have Heard on High and when we got to the chorus, “Gloria…” Gordy, whose eyes were closed, began singing with us. It was a powerful moment. And Jesus was there. And we got to live that out.
Our words, our actions, our service, our laughter, our very lives represent what it is to be people of God. Jesus is God incarnate so that we can become faith incarnate. Those around us: our children, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers can look at us and say “oh, so that’s what it looks like to be people of faith.”
Jesus comes to be “with us”
- First and foremost because of his great love for us.
- And secondly, so that we might be “with us” to those around us.
Jesus’ tent is pitched. He is here and he’s staying awhile. And regardless of whether your life, your campsite, is neat and orderly, or feels chaotic and askew, Jesus walks over and extends a hand.
Open yourself to the presence of God…to the incarnation…to Jesus, who lives and walks here. Today. With us.