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To many as received him…gave he power to become children of God. [Jn 1:12]
Today we celebrate gladly, despite the restraints, the Incarnation of God – that God took flesh in Jesus Christ, to dwell among us.
A merry Christmas to you all!
But we cry out inwardly…
Just let us touch each other, embrace and kiss.
Just let us gather as one in large numbers.
Just let us sing with all our hearts, with voices together.
Just let us feast with our extended families, with our circle of friends, together, unhindered.
In an age where virtual contact is growing through the use of all of the technical means available – texting, video calls, internet – which we’ve made so much use of especially in the last 10 months – in this age, we also see more clearly the beauty and power of being with one another in person.
We could even describe these things we’re missing as images of heaven, as the very things that God has come into the world to bring about:
- The building up of the body of Christ – the family of believers – Jesus says we will, receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children [Mk 10:30] if we follow him. And we know something of this in the church community here. Most of us would not know each if not for Jesus Christ.
- And we know a kind of intimacy with others unknown before we knew Jesus – Paul says, greet one another with a holy kiss! Was this greeting, most natural (pre-corona) in the Netherlands, brought here by Jesus? How did people greet each other before Christianity came to this land? There are more profound ways we can be more intimate in Christ – but I will speak of that later.
- The visible and the tactile touch of one another and of God – John says of Jesus – that which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled [1 John 1:1] – this is the expression of closeness and physicality to God – they touched him with their hands. And we know Jesus as one who laid his hands on the children and blessed them, who in miracles physically touched the eyes of the blind to open them, physically touched the ears of the deaf that they might hear, physically touched the tongue of the mute so he might speak, and washed with his own hands the feet of his disciples.
- And this year we are restrained from lifting our voices together in praise and thanksgiving to God – when our voices align as one…like that conjunction of planets, light and joy grows. It is like heaven. When the shepherds were told by an angel of Jesus birth, suddenly there was, with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host praising God. [Lk 2:13] It is as John saw in Revelation – the whole host of heaven singing God’s praise!
All these things are at the very heart of what it is to be human and restored by grace to wholeness – to use all of our body in the right way to express our heartfelt love for one another and to express our heartfelt love for God.
God is bringing people together in Jesus Christ. And John says in today’s Gospel, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God is uniting not just us with each other, but earth with heaven. As many as believed in his name…gave he power to become children of God.
God’s intentions are the very opposite of self-isolation.
Self-isolation is something each one of us has had to do, probably at some point in the last 10 months, if we got the virus, or if we had symptoms, as we awaited the results of a test. And in these times and circumstances, it is a right love that motivates us to self-isolate – we want to protect others. But what a relief when we can then re-engage with others in our family and step outdoors to re-engage with society.
But even before the virus, self-isolation has been the experience of humanity from nearly the beginning of creation and remains to this day.
What is it that causes us to isolate ourselves?
The virus that divides us physically today, can be seen as a figure of the shame that isolates us from one another.
Even if we can be physically present with others, we can be emotionally, spiritual distant – we self-isolate – why?
We can self-isolate, hid ourselves, out of shame and fear – it may seem a way of self-protection, but it is way in that, in the end, limits our flourishing. The voice of the tempter, would have us stay at a distance, afraid to reveal ourselves to others. The tempter, Satan, would have us believe that if we really shared the deep secrets in our hearts that God and other people would not be able to bear it, and would leave us. Strange is the circularity of the tempter’s logic. The very fear of isolation leads to isolation. That shame and fear can divide husband from wife, brother from brother, sister from sister, race from race, nation from nation. And the devil would have us bound up and held in that self-isolation.
In Paradise, we read that it was not good for Adam to be alone. His isolation was undone through the creation of Eve – and we read that they were both naked, and were not ashamed. “Not ashamed” is the one thing highlighted in that account. Nakedness is an expression not just of a physical vulnerability but of a kind of openness of heart with those around us that we long for. To know and to be known by another, to be really seen, and to be deeply loved. The Fall of humanity – was followed by the first self-isolation – Adam and Eve covered themselves from each other…and they hid themselves from God.
The antidote, the vaccine, to the isolation that we create, because of our shame, and fear of being abandoned, will involve a certain vulnerability. (See the book by Curt Thomas, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the stories we believe about ourselves, Ch. 5)
In the Garden, God comes to Adam and Eve, searching them out. He does not come with words of condemnation, but words to restore relationship. The first words he calls out are – “Where are you?”
The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, so many years later, is a follow up to that seeking out of humanity, asking the same question, “Where are you?”
God has come in the flesh – and Jesus tells us very clearly, not for the purpose of condemnation [Jn 3:17], but to restore relationship, with the Source of Life, and to undo the self-isolation that each one of us finds ourselves in from others and also at the deepest levels within our own souls.
- When I speak of someone we are isolated from, or self-isolating from, it may be that a person immediately comes into our minds. Family members or friends or someone who has been offended by us. We may be isolating ourselves from them for good reason – for self-protection, so that we are not harmed further by someone who shows a disregard for our well-being. That’s not the situation I’m speaking of. But is there some person whom we have isolated ourselves from because we are ashamed?
- In my ministry I have heard over the years, sadly, of the experience in what should be the most intimate of relations, between a husband and wife, the experience of deep loneliness in the presence of their spouse – not heard, not really seen, and so not really loved.
- And that isolation from another, can include even isolation from ourselves when we are ashamed of something in our past, which prevents us from knowing ourselves and sharing with another what is most troubling to us. The very opening up of it, laying bare our heart, to God, and to another, which would lead to our healing and wholeness at the core of our being, so that we might truly flourish – this is a path we are afraid to take because of a fear of being rejected.
God shows us in Jesus Christ, that we will not be rejected by him, and that the possibility of rejection is not something that should hold us back from reaching out to others.
There are these powerful lines in John’s Gospel today:
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him… gave he power to become children of God.
God shows a vulnerability in risking rejection by coming into the world – knowing that he would be despised and rejected by many. And yet love compels God to reveal Himself in the flesh. We look to Jesus, … who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
As children of God, may this love compel us, not to remain hidden, self-isolated, but,
- To enter into the holy and necessary task of coming to know ourselves fully, even as God knows us fully (1 Cor 13:12);
- To enter into deeper communion with the God who made us, through laying bare our fears and failures to Him, and he promises to take away all our shame, (e.g. Ps 25; Rom 10:11; 1 Pet 2:6)
- And to enter into deeper fellowship with those people around us, who desire deeper communion and fellowship with us.
This can be extremely difficult – and we needn’t do this on our own – seek the help of a pastor or a wise Christian friend, our in a small group.
Today we have the opportunity now to handle God with our hands, and to allow Jesus to enter in – through the Holy Communion. God is not offended by us, but is grieved if we stay at distance – he is calling us – Where are you? He chose the path of vulnerability and calls us to do likewise.
If we are feeling lonely, let’s not wait for a call from another, but take courage and reach out. If there is a distance between you and your spouse, take courage and reach out, and share your fears. If there is a part of the family that is at a distance, or a friend with whom you are estranged, let it be a part of our celebration of Christmas, to reach out, as God has reached out, in vulnerability, into our lives.
And may the result be a more profound and lasting joy!