The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
While some work is being done in the assembly area of our church building this week, I’ve grown kind of accustomed - in a way - to the foreman of the work crew, Rich, using, well, colorful language. He’s actually kind of a master at it; he interchanges profane nouns, verbs, and adjectives in a way that I didn’t think was possible - grammatically or otherwise. Most people who know what I do kind of make an effort to guard their tongues around me, but not this guy. It seemed almost unconscious with him, like his native language. Or maybe like a reflex. A profanity reflex.
One day, though, Joe, the sales rep who we had worked with, came by to check on things. As we were talking, he called Rich over to get his input on something. When Rich opened his mouth, Joe got very uncomfortable. He looked at me, then back at Rich. “Remember where you are,” he hissed, embarrassed. “You’re in a church.”
Rich looked to the front of the auditorium, where the communion table, pulpit, and such would normally be - but were missing because of the work. “Ahhhh (blank)
,” he said. “There’s no altar here.”
And with that, he continued speaking his native language. Fluently.
Joe reminded him that it was still a church, but to Rich it didn’t matter. For him, without an altar it was just another building.
Actually, of course, he’s not entirely wrong about that. I know of a church in Chicago that meets in a rented tavern. Every other day of the week, that building is a bar. On Sunday mornings, it’s no less a church than the most ornate, impressive cathedral. For Rich, the difference between a church building and any other kind of building is the presence of an altar. I’d argue something similar, though I’d say that what makes a building a church building is the presence of, well, the church.
But that’s actually because I believe something very similar to what Rich apparently believes - what makes a church a church is the presence of the Lord. Rich might say it’s an altar that contains his presence. I’d say he’s present in the people who wear his name and who are inhabited by his Spirit.
I think I’m in good company. Paul calls believers the body of Christ, not as metaphor, but as a reflection of the Spirit’s real presence in us. So the church, for him, is the temple of God. This has all kinds of implications for morality and ethics; anything you can’t imagine Jesus doing is not something any part of his body should do. It has implications for relationships; divisions and interpersonal conflict in the church threaten Jesus’ body and undermine God’s temple. It has implications for the way we use our gifts and fulfill our roles in the church - for the good of Jesus’ body, and not just for our own good.
But all of that just connects to something Jesus himself pointed out - that he’s present among those who gather together in his name. Even just a few believers embody the presence of the Lord. It’s not because we’re so good, or so eloquent in our testimony, or so single-minded in our worship, or so correct in our doctrine, or perform the right acts of worship in the right ways, or have the right feelings in our hearts. In fact, Jesus is regularly present in and among those who are sinful, tongue-tied, doctrinally unsure, and of mixed motives. That’s the good news of the gospel, and that’s why even an imperfect church can find him in their midst. It’s because he chooses to be present with us, and among us, and in us. It’s because he loves us.
That’s why he came, and that’s why he continues to stay with people who have neither the right nor the ability to contain or explain or even comprehend his presence.
If he condescends to allow a manger to contain his presence, so can we.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” John wrote to start his gospel. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Those two sentences are John’s nativity story, his equivalent of angels and mangers and swaddling clothes. The Word of God, the creative power by which God made the heavens and earth, became human. Flesh. He became flesh and lived among us. John uses a word there that translates the Hebrew for “tabernacle” - he “tabernacled” among us. And, as the Tabernacle did for Israel, so he does for us - he contains the glory of God. In him, we come face to face with God’s grace and truth.
The difference, of course, is that in the old Tabernacle the presence of God was a deterrent to coming near. “No one may see me and live,” he told Moses. But, in Jesus, “we have seen his glory.” And not only have we seen it - through Jesus we have become its residence. “Now the Lord is the Spirit...” wrote Paul. “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (emphasis mine)
As the song says:
Oh, holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the heavenly angels
The great glad tidings tell.
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Immanuel.
That’s what Christmas should remind us of: that the holy child of Bethlehem won’t be content to stay in the manger. He wants to live in us, be born in us, to bring us face to face with the glory of God and to radiate it from our lives. He comes to make us his body, his physical presence on earth. He comes to make us God’s temple, a suitable home for the Holy Spirit.
That’s why, if Rich is a believer, he should be careful of the things he says. And that’s why we should guard our own tongues and hearts and minds and steps. Christmas reminds us that, as those who have been redeemed by Jesus, wherever we are his presence goes with us.
May we always radiate with his glory. Wherever we are. Whatever time of year it is.