Christmas 2 C: Pandemic Loneliness and God’s Self-Giving

The readings for the Second Sunday After Christmas are

Old Testament      Jeremiah 31:7–14 or Sirach 24:1–12

Psalm                    Psalm 147:12–20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15–21

New Testament     Ephesians 1:3–14

Gospel                   John (1:1–9) 10–18

The verse I want to focus on is from the Gospel for today, and especially the 14th verse of John’s prologue:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

A few years ago I received an email from England. It announced to me that Ken Gwilliam was dead.

Ken had been driving with his dog to a sheep herding competition in Wales, rounded a blind corner, and hit a big truck head on.

I was stunned. I broke down crying. Ken was one of my few true friends. I had stayed at his home many times. We had walked the hills of Shropshire England where he was a shepherd, delighting in the haunting calls of owls at night, and the satisfaction of a good hedge that would hold sheep in for many life-times. I had learned from him many things about dogs. We went to dog trials and dog sales together where he had made many good jokes at my expense. He had introduced me to his fascinating friends along the way: old shepherds and farm hands, a virtually blind man who hammered fence posts in while I held them, toothless men who lived selling second-hand stuff from the boots of their cars. When I couldn’t be in England Ken and I talked on the telephone long distance. But no matter the circumstance, Ken lifted my spirits because he helped me love even more the things I cherished: the countryside, the things men and women knew that couldn’t be written in any book, the sheep, the dogs, and all the touch and the smell of the good earth.  All these things came more alive because of his enthusiasm. “Brilliant,” “massive,” and “well done” were his favorite words, and they echo still in my memory.

True friends are rare, aren’t they? And they seem to be getting rarer every day. Carole King’s old song, “So Far Away” with it’s line, “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore.” could be the anthem for our age. We all flit and fly; and I think the easier we get around and communicate—and the more followers we accumulate on our Facebook page, and acquaintances we run into in our daily routines—the fewer real friends we have.

Don’t you have those moments in the run up to Christmas where you think how burdensome and annoying it is to write cards or email Christmas greetings – and then, out of the blue, there is the name of that one special someone you truly treasure? It you think, “This is someone I know. This is someone who knows me. I must keep this person close.”

People are like icebergs. On average only 10% of an iceberg is above the surface of the water—you only see a fraction of it unless you are a scuba-diver. The people who fly by as acquaintances or as followers on Facebook are like those tips of the icebergs. We don’t really know them, do we? But friends, we know, and we love so much it aches, and when they leave or when they die, we are devastated. I felt that with Ken.

The irony of the pandemic is that we are starving even more for friends, but we seem to be too eager for the flitting faces rather than spending the time to nurture truly in-depth relationships.

True best friends are those people who stay awhile with us. You share the most important parts of life with. You share all our loves with them.

Carole King puts her finger on the emotion: “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” Not

“far away, but “bein’ close to you.” That’s what Carole—that’s what all of us long for.

I think the Fourth Gospel is trying to tell us something similar about us and God. It starts us thinking with this: 

And the Word became flesh and lived among us full of grace and truth, and we have seen his glory.

Packed in this short phrase are these powerful ideas:

First: God wants us to know him—that is, see his glory.

Second: While we see the tip of the iceberg of God in flashes of glory in our life, it’s easy to be fooled with fake glory–empty promises and lies about God.

Third:  So God sent his Son, so we could see God’s true glory in flesh and blood—so we could see God’s self-sacrificing love on the cross.

So the first amazing Truth we find here is that God wants to dwell with us. God wants what a true friend wants – full disclosure. God wants us to be like a friend—living life in full mutuality. In the Old Testament the two most frequent words they use for God are hesed and emeth – translated most often as “Steadfast love, (or grace) and faithfulness.”   God wants us to know that he his faithful and trustworthy so that we can afford to be the same. “Our lives are in each other’s hands.”

And God’s goal for us is to see divine glory in Jesus on the cross—giving himself for us. Later in this Gospel of John it introduces the whole story of the cross by saying, “Jesus loved his followers and now he loved them perfectly – all the way – to the end.

The other thing that the Gospel of John says that is startling is that Jesus on the cross is glory. The time of his suffering and death on the cross – is the hour of the glory of God

Now, the big problem that you and I have with God is that most of the time we see glory in flashes. They can be good flashes, like “WOW” and “ISN”T THAT AMAZING.” These are the Goose bump times of life.  Absolute Awe! That’s what it is when it flashes.

It flashed for me when I crawled my way up a mountainside in a fog, and broke through on top of Natural Bridge in Kentucky and saw the full moon with bats flying about; and now the fog was like an ocean of white foam beneath me. WOW!

I experienced it in a  delivery room when the doctor put my newborn daughter in my arms, covered with white chalk, but with her dark long hair. A new life. AMAZING!

But there is also such a thing as fake glory–glitter glory—the Devil’s empty promises that we renounce in the baptism service. These are the things that feel good for a moment, but betray us and leave us filled with remorse.

I’ve helped treat people who came off the streets after taking LSD. Wow, what a trip—but then the paranoia. I’ve had to help people try to pick up the pieces of their lives after a fling of an extra-marital affair. And I have felt glorious about winning an argument, but then realized how I had only succeeded in pushing a person I cared for further away.

That’s our problem. Seeing God’s glory in flashes is exhilarating. But glory can also blind us, and even sometimes devour us like fire. So, God comes to stay with us, and to be like our friend, so that we can have full disclosure.

So, the Word became flesh and lived among us. This little word “lived,” which can be translated “dwelled,” or “took up residence.” has a story to tell. It is the English translation for the Greek word that literally means to pitch a tent. It is that picture of someone saying in one place—staying with us.  I think we best understand it as “God becoming a true friend” – God revealing his true, trustworthy, loving self. God giving God’s self to us, “full of steadfast love and faithfulness,” or “full of grace and truth.”

This little picture of tenting that the Greek verb “skenao” evokes, has a lot of stories to tell. Our Jewish brother and sisters have a noun for it–the “Shekhinah.”  It is the glorious divine presence resting or dwelling with us.

In the Old Testament God comes to pitch his tent with the people – and it’s like a devouring fire on Mount Sinai. Then God pitches a very literal tent in the Tabernacle that the Jews move about with them in their wilderness wanderings in the desert. And that is where the people come into God’s presence.

Later the Rabbis will speak of it in many ways: Study the Torah and God’s Shekhinah is there (something affirmed in the alternate first lesson for this Sunday from the Apocrypha–Sirach 24). Gather in prayer and the Shekhinah rests with you. Decide cases and settle conflicts and the Shekhinah is working through you. Wander as a refugee and the Shekhinah walks the dark paths of life with you. The Rabbis even said the fire of lust that has the power to destroy your happiness will be devoured by the brighter, holy fire of God’s Shekhinah.

But, of course, at the time of Jesus faithful Jews who hungered for the nearness of God felt it in the Temple in Jerusalem. That was the supreme place where they could be assured God’s glory, or God’s name was pitching tent.

To this the Gospel of John  says, “The presence of God that was felt by Israel in the Temple now walks among us in the flesh, now defines itself even more in the cross, now shows us how powerful is grace and truth.”

When Jesus stood in Gethsemane and gave himself to the soldiers – that was glory. There we see God’s love.

When Jesus stood before Pilate and said, “You and your oppressive Empire cannot kill me – but I give my life freely for the world.  There was God’s glory – there was the love of God.

When Jesus saw his Beloved Disciple and his Mother at the foot of the cross and created a new family of the Church, and said “behold your mother, woman, behold your son…” There we see the glory of God. There we see the fullness of God’s love.

In other words, we do not need to guess about God. God is not our fleeting acquaintance. God has pitched the tent and dwells with us as we encounter Jesus on the cross. As we take his body broken for us, his blood poured out for us—a fulfillment of one other little startling word in this verse, the word we translate “among” us really says, “in us.” What a perfect friend is Jesus, the Word that takes flesh and actually dwells in us.

We behold the divine glory here inside us now, full of grace and truth.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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