The Christ Child by Mike Chapman, 1999
"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." (John 1: 14)
Sirach 24: 1-12; John 1: 1-18
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
January 2, 2011
My mother has never really liked camping, and now that I’m an adult I can understand why. Basically, it’s like living at home, only more work. Cooking was done over an open fire or a charcoal hibachi or on a propane stove. Pots and pans, plates, cups and silverware were washed in a single, small wash basin. The fridge was essentially a cooler with a bottom container for a block of ice, which also had a spigot for water as the ice melted. The bathroom could be a few yards or a short bike ride away. In summer we could usually count on a dozen or more mosquito bites and what you might call ‘traveling sickness’. In May and October the nights were almost always cold.
Of course my younger brother and I loved it. We got to sleep in our clothes, eat cook-out food every night, roast marshmallows, and sleep in the back of the station wagon, then a tent, and finally a pop-up trailer. Our family could not afford any other kind of vacation, but in all we visited 19 states including the entire eastern seaboard and four of the Maritime Provinces in Canada.
Sometimes when visiting family long-distance we would stay in the trailer especially if we had brought the dog and the cat with us. At a family reunion in Mississippi we set up the trailer in the backyard so there would be more room in my grandparents’ house for aunts and uncles and cousins. In 1976 we went to General Synod in Washington, D.C. but camped in Fairfax, VA because it was much more affordable than the Hilton hosting the meeting. Camping became a way for my family to go anywhere we wanted, to have a home, a familiar dwelling in a strange place.
When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt on their long journey to the promised land, God went before them. When the law, the ten commandments, were given, they were then contained in the ark of the covenant, an ornamental chest that was carried on two long poles shouldered by Levite priests. As God’s people journeyed through the desert, they would make camp and the ark of the covenant would be placed in a tabernacle—a tent-like dwelling where God promised to meet with Israel. It was a sanctuary, a temple of the Most High God that could go wherever the people went—a home, a familiar dwelling in a strange place. You could say that God camped out with the people of God.
From the apocryphal book Sirach we heard that Wisdom pitched her tent with Jacob and the people of Israel; that in the holy tent Wisdom ministered before the Creator and in Jerusalem Wisdom took root and was given a resting place, presumably the great temple built by Solomon.
Though revelation and salvation have come in particular times and locations throughout human history, God’s dwelling place was never meant to become permanent, was never intended to become prime real estate or a reason for war. Rather, like Jesus’ ancestor Ruth, God goes where we go, God dwells we dwell. As was said by the Lakota holy man Black Elk, the holy land is everywhere.
It has been the practice of humankind since before recorded history to mark a holy site, a place where God’s presence was unmistakable, with what the Celts call a cairn or a makeshift altar—a simple pile of stones. Some of these can still be seen all over the world. These markers point the way along the path rather than assert the privileged claim that God can only be found here.
As Christians we believe that God pitched a tent with us in the life of Jesus, the kingdom of God dwelling within us and within all creation. Over the centuries our hubris has led us to make exclusive claims that God-with-us is more like God-is-with-us. God-with-us, God living in the human tabernacle says more about God than it does about us. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul uses tabernacle as a metaphor for the human body, that our bodies are temple-tents for the living God, reminding us not only of the temporary nature of our lives but also that God is deeply and intimately connected to us.
And we know from the life of Jesus that God goes with us even into the most terrifying, messiest, loneliest places of our lives. So we shouldn’t be so surprised when Jesus invites us to make camp in the most terrifying, messiest, loneliest places in other people’s lives. As my good friend Larry Wood once said, because [Jesus the] Christ is spacious and gracious, the fit can be a little baggy. I’ve never known a tent that wasn’t a little baggy—which is reassuring when we are trying to make some room within us and in our lives for this newborn Jesus.
And the mystery of it all is that through the birth of Jesus God lives in us and we live and move and have our being in God as well. We dwell within each other, going where the other goes, setting up camp, a sanctuary, a home, a temple for the Most High God, a familiar dwelling in all those strange places we are compelled and called to go.
The question is, how attached are we to the way things are and what we think we know? What are we carrying that needs to be left behind or given away? How far are we willing to go on this camping trip with Jesus? Yes, it’s more work but it’s work that will bring all of us home.
Advent gave us time to prepare for the birth; Epiphany is our time to experience God’s presence as unmistakable. In Epiphany we get ready for the journey, one that eventually leads to the cross. In the words of the poet: “…but Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement; for nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.” We are being made into a sanctuary, a holy tabernacle, a temple-tent, one that can make itself at home in a stable with homeless shepherds yet take us all the way to the foot of the cross.
Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy
Tried and true
With thanksgiving I’ll be a living