God in the ‘Hood

Ask most people what Bible passages they think about in connection with Christmas, and they will often point to the well-known story of Mary & Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, from Luke 2. Some people will throw in Matthew 2, and the story of the Wise Men, and the Christmas Star, the wicked King Herod and the murder of the innocents. Those are certainly great stories, and they for sure give us the details of Jesus’ birth.

But that’s not my favorite Christmas Bible verse.

The scripture verse I like best at this time of year is John 1:14. Most translations will say something like, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory – glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” But I especially like the way that the Bible paraphrase “The Message” puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty good way of expressing exactly what Jesus did when he came to earth. Here’s what I mean.

Moving into a neighborhood reflects a choice. It’s possible to accidentally pass through a given area or section of town, but you don’t MOVE IN unless you mean to do so. Moving into a neighborhood means you chose it – and you probably chose it for a reason. There may be many different reasons why someone would pick a given neighborhood, but obviously, it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to do some planning, some preparation, and spend some time and effort in the process.

The Bible says that God sent Jesus “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). In other words, it wasn’t some kind of last-minute, half-hearted effort. It was a deliberate choice that the Father and the Son made to enter into our humanity, to provide the example of how we ought to live and the atonement for when we could not. Jesus chose to become like us, so that we could become like him.

Every neighborhood has its own blessings – and challenges. We all recognize that there’s no such thing as a perfect neighborhood; we also know that every neighborhood has its own unique advantages. If all we do is complain about problems, we will miss the good gifts around us.

When Jesus became human, he willingly accepted the limitations of his humanity. He couldn’t be everywhere at once any more. He accepted the frailties of a physical body. He voluntarily limited himself so that he could fully experience the human condition. But he also received the blessing of feeling wonder at the beauty and marvel that is creation, and could understand from personal experience the love of the Father for his children.

Neighborhoods invite relationships. When we live close to others, we build relationships. Not every neighbor becomes a best friend, but we understand the value of good neighbors and looking out for each other.

As a “neighbor,” Jesus has entered into our lives, and he invites us to enter into a relationship with him. Really, that’s what Christianity is – not going to church, not keeping a bunch of rules, but being in a relationship with Jesus, sharing life together. As the commercial says, it’s not complicated.

Jesus said that one of the two most important commandments was to love our neighbors as ourselves. He demonstrated that truth by becoming a neighbor to us, and inviting us to become his neighbor and friend, both now and into eternity.

Jesus in the manger. God in the neighborhood. Merry Christmas.

Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet.

I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding.  And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas.  Not the commericialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course.  Those things, I did and do despise.  But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends.  Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke.  Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite).  Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks that the Word became flesh.

And the music.  The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing.

I have recently upgraded this blog, and I now have the ability to put music on here (and video, for that matter).  So, in celebration of the season, at the bottom right of this page, you will find ten of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.  Some of them are sacred, some are not; some are traditional, others are new.

In my next column, I will tell the story behind my favorite Christmas carol, but meanwhile, from me to you, here’s some Christmas cheer.

Rejoice.

Our New Neighbor


One of my favorite Christmas verses from the Bible has nothing to do with shepherds, angels, or babies in mangers.  But it has everything to do with God becoming human.

John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  As he so often does, John is able to pack a lot of meaning into one short verse.

He begins by calling Jesus “the Word.” This translates the Greek word, “logos,” and continues John’s description of Jesus as existing with God before all things, being part of God, and being the Agent through Whom God created all things.  This aligns perfectly with the creation account from Genesis, where every time God creates, He does so through the spoken Word – “And God SAID, ‘Let there be light;’ ‘And God SAID, ‘Let the waters be divided,’ ‘And God SAID, ‘Let us make humans in our image,'” and God SAID, and God SAID, and God SAID.  It was through His Word that He created, so John reflects this by poetically referring to Jesus as “The Word,” communicating a powerful message to his Jewish readers who would have undoubtedly made that connection.

But he was also communicating a message to his Gentile readers, because the Stoic philosophers believed there was a power behind the creation, a divine Mind that brought all things into existence.  They called this creation power “The Logos.”  So John says, yep, you guys were right about that, and His name is Jesus.

In verse 14, he says that this Mind, this Power, this Logos, became human.  He doesn’t say that He took on some human attributes, or appeared as if He were human.  No, John stresses the unimaginable mystery that God became man, that the Eternal One became subject to time, that the Creator became part of the creation.  See John 17:5, Philippians 2:7, and Colossians 2:9.

Then, he says, something even more remarkable happened: that “Word Now Flesh” came to live among other humans.  I love how The Message paraphrases it: “He moved into the neighborhood.”  What had been the Other, divine and unapproachable, is now next door, and we can sit with Him and share a cup of coffee and enjoy His presence.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis described it this way: “Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.”

But there’s another aspect to this as well.  The word that John uses for “dwelt” is a form of the Greek word “skeine” – a tent.  This why some translations use the phrase, “He pitched His tent among us.”  It was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer to the Tabernacle.

And THAT connection points us to the Shekinah – the visible, glowing presence of God being among His people.  This visible glory of God is seen in Exodus 33:18, Isaiah 6:1-5, and elsewhere.  It comes from the Hebrew root Sh-K-N, which means “to dwell.”  Another word from the same root is mishkan, which means a tent.

Mt_HermonMatthew, Mark and Luke all tell us about one occasion when Jesus took Peter, James and John with Him to “a high mountain” – probably Mt. Hermon, along the Syrian border, in the area now called the Golan Heights.  There, Jesus was “transfigured” before them.  His clothes became white, “whiter than any bleach can brighten,” and His appearance began to glow, brighter than any lightning – see Matthew 17:1-8.  Although John does not tell us this story in his gospel, I have no doubt that the memory was on his mind as he wrote this, and how he saw the Shekinah in bodily form, right before his eyes.  See also 2 Corinthians 3:18.

At the end of the “Valley of Dry Bones” story in Ezekiel 37, God says,

24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

There’s a lot going on here – God’s promise to put a new David on the throne, the promise of one shepherd, the promise that they will inherit the land God swore to give them, and more.  But I want you to notice that the word in verse 27 translated “dwelling place” is mishkan – again, from the same root as Shekinah.

John is telling us that Jesus is the true and ultimate fulfillment of the promise made through Isaiah hundreds of years earlier, of Immanuel – God with us (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23).  Jesus, John says, is the genuine Sh-K-N, the dwelling of God in our midst, the culmination of prophecy, and the fulfillment of our hopes.  See also Hebrews 1:3, and also Revelation 7:15, where God promises to shelter us with His “presence.”

And finally, consider Isaiah 25:6-9, where God promises to host a banquet of the choicest of foods and the finest of wines.  He promises to “rip away” the shroud of death that has ensnared and terrified us, and to “wipe away every tear” from our eyes.  Obviously, to “host” a banquet implies the presence of the one doing the hosting.  It is the Presence of God, in and through the Person of Jesus, as well as His victory over death (1 Corinthians 15:57) that Isaiah foresees here.

Revelation 21 gives us a glimpse of when this will be accomplished once and for all:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

What does all this mean?  God moved into the neighborhood.  He wants to be with us – and He wants us to be with Him.  He became the first “intentional neighbor,” and proved once and for all that people matter to Him.  By sharing in our humanity, Jesus demonstrates what it means to live as a human; more importantly, He shows us how God expects us to live.  It’s NOT about keeping some list of “do’s and don’t’s.”  It IS about how we love one another, how we care for the least among us, how we reach out to the poor, the needy, the marginalized and the disenfranchised.

The King of the universe, lying in a feeding trough.  The All-Powerful One, needing His diapers changed.  It demonstrates a central truth that Jesus taught: When we let go, we gain.  When we lose, we win.  When we die, we live.

God in our midst.

Quotations from the New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

“The train slipped away…”

When I started doing this, I told myself that I was going to follow the rule of NOT simply re-posting stuff that I found elsewhere.

Well, I’ve decided to make that more of a guideline than a rule.

“The Train” is a dramatic reading by actor Geoffrey Lewis, performing with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.”  I first heard it a few years ago on a local radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix.  I don’t think it’s too well known, but I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.

You can buy a copy of it here, or see the YouTube video here.ain”

The Train”
by Geoffrey Lewis

There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam coming out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.

Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow and a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, and then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.

Suddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire,” and as I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.

I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, starring at the presents like sharks at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.

I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about the best way for him to crack the walnuts that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.

But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other…looking straight ahead and I head her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”

The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.