Friday, 16 December 2011

Advent Breathing Space at Seal 3: There and then, here and now

During these Breathing Space talks we’ve been thinking about that famous phrase from the beginning of John’s Gospel “The Word became flesh”. We’ve thought about what kind of Word Jesus might be. We’ve thought about flesh and what that means to us. So there’s not much left to think about, just that word in the middle – became.  But actually that is a word full of meaning for us too in this context.
The Word became flesh.

At a specific time, in a specific place, something happened, says the word “became”.  I became a priest when I was ordained. I became a mother when I gave birth. We become successful if we manage to achieve a goal. “Becoming” can be a sudden event. All in a moment things change. Or “becoming” can be a more gradual process. However long it takes, though, we can look back and see that things have changed and that there is no going back because of what has happened.

When that change is a dramatic one there is one reaction which is very common. It is common whether the event in question is tragic, like the shooting this week in Liege, or happy, like a lottery win. “Who would have thought that such a thing would happen here and now?” people tend to say. “In this place, at this moment, in our neighbourhood, to me, to us…who would have thought it?” There may be no real logic to this. Such events are essentially random – as likely to happen to us as to anyone - but somehow we don’t expect it. Unless we have delusions of grandeur, most of us tend to think of ourselves as basically ordinary, living ordinary lives with broadly predictable courses. Why should anything specially good or bad happen in our neighbourhood, here and now?

The Christmas story, with its assertion that “the Word became flesh” challenges that though. If God was going to become flesh, it had to happen in one particular place and one particular time. That’s the nature of flesh. Human beings, no matter how hard we try, can’t be in more than one place at a time.  We are here, where we are, or we are nowhere. Biblical scholars argue about the historical accuracy of the nativity stories in the Bible but one fact is indisputable. Jesus was born. He grew up in the Galilean town of Nazareth in the early years of the first Century. As our Gospel reading tonight told us, he was born in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke pins it down in time and space very deliberately. There and then this thing happened. He knew it was true – whatever the details – because Luke knew those who had known Jesus, and he had seen the impact of his life on their lives. They had spread his message around the Mediterranean, at considerable personal cost. Many had been martyred. If Jesus hadn’t been real, none of that would have happened. What they had experienced in knowing him had convinced them that this was the work of God among them, that Jesus was God’s message, God’s word. Much to their surprise, I am sure, God had shown up in their world, in their lives, through Jesus, and it had changed everything.

In the Old Testament reading Moses is confronted by the same amazing fact, that God is where he is. He meets God in a burning bush out in the desert, while he is minding the sheep one day. Who would have thought it? Moses had long ago abandoned any idea that he could help his people, and had run away.  Whatever God might be doing to rescue his people – if anything – Moses was convinced he wasn’t part of the plan. But God had other ideas, and out there, in the middle of nowhere, God makes his appearance.

William Blake wrote, in his poem Jerusalem, “and did those feet in ancient time/ walk upon England’s pastures green?” He was referring to the old legend that Jesus had come with Joseph of Arimathea, who happened to be his uncle, on a trading visit to Glastonbury when he was just a boy. Legends like that reveal that, despite our scepticism and our disbelief, deep down we long to feel that God might just show up where we are. That legend isn’t terribly likely to be true – though I wouldn’t say that too loudly in Glastonbury – but ironically the story of the birth of Christ tells us that our yearning isn’t really so far-fetched. Turning up where we are, in the nitty-gritty reality of human lives, is precisely what God is about, whether that is in a scandal hit young mother in Bethlehem or in the muddle and the mess of our lives now. All we need to do is open our eyes and our hearts a bit wider so we can see him.

The Word – God’s own expression of himself – turned up and dwelt with us in human flesh in Bethlehem. That is the Christian Gospel, and it is truly good news, because if he came there and then to ordinary people in ordinary places then there is no reason why he can’t come here and now to us. Wherever and whenever we are, God is with us. In the silence tonight, let us think of the places in us where we might least expect to find him, and let us ask him to be born in us here and now, just as he was there and then.

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