11 December 2019
First Sunday of Christmas
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.
Christmas resonates with life in New Zealand in countless ways. The pohutukawa flames its welcome, then drops its petals in a blood red carpet the week after Christmas.
The Gospel was first preached in our country on Christmas Day 1814. Its great to stand in that isolated cove between the twin pas guarding the beach and hear the echo of the cry, ?Behold ?I bring you good tidings of great joy.?
Tasman named the Three Kings Islands as he sailed away on Epiphany Day, January 6, 1643. The list of associations and connections go on and on through sheep farming and the brightness of summer days to the glory of the southern lights lighting up the southern sky.
I have always liked the way Christmas comes at the end of the year. It makes a richly satisfying climax to the year and brings an ending that is always a fresh beginning in hope. In fact I always had great difficulty with Christmas on the other side of the world where space for the festival is grabbed from the ongoing rush of every day events. Only too quickly do people have to return to the grimy mundanity of everyday. Christmas needs to be savoured as well as enjoyed. We need space to let the after taste linger before we pick up the responsibilities of the New Year.
I must say that the Lectionary reflects that very Northern Hemisphere approach to Christmas. As we heard, here we are three days after Christmas and Jesus is already twelve years old, worrying his parents by skiving off without telling them what he was up to. Well I am not going to worry about where Jesus got to this morning, because I have discovered another way of celebrating how close the New Zealand connections with Christmas are.
When we were young, we went to Foxton Beach for our holidays. We had the last bach up the river, but lots of people had travelled down to the beach during the year and hammered up a board on a tree, claiming that site for their tent or caravan for the summer. Since people went back year after year to the same site, you might say that regular use became a customary right! Those were the days!
All over New Zealand, people pack up the car, put the tent on the trailer, and set out on Boxing Day to go camping. We need to celebrate this now because, to my horror, I find that entire camping grounds are being sold off to developers so that well heeled people can build casual mansions with sea views. Ordinary people who went to the beach for a cheap uncluttered holiday are being squeezed out.
As a nation we know about living in tents. We think of tents in camping grounds. Our forebears lived in tents when they first took up a block of land to break it in. Before they built their first raupo hut, they put up a tent. It was a very temporary dwelling. Hopefully it was going to be superceded. But it was shelter and home.
The gangs that pushed through the great road works and the Main Trunk Line for the railway lived in single men?s camps. They were harsh places and lawless, but the transport networks depended on the people who lived in these tent cities in inaccessible country.
Then there is the army on the march, living in tents, pitching and striking camp as they pressed forward into enemy territory. Above all there are the images of refugees fleeing from conflicts and violence pouring into reception centres put up hurriedly in barren and inhospitable places ? rows and rows of tents providing their only shelter for people who have lost everything. These camps may not be permanent but they become established cities even though they remain labelled as camps ? with all the connotations of temporary and transitional accommodation. The Palestinians have lived in such places for over fifty years.
Living in tents is a sign of a people on the move. It may simply be people travelling on holiday enjoying a simpler life. It can be people who stop in one place awhile while the job is done and who then move on, seeking the next job. The army is on the march. Refugees are fleeing from terror. They have lost their homes and their security. Always tents are the sign of impermanence. Here for a time, then to move on.
There are ancient stories like that as well. When God?s people streamed out of Egypt, set free from the oppression of slavery, they became a people who lived in tents too ? for all the reasons that we know well. They lived in tents in the desert for forty years. Their great discovery was that in their journeying, God went with them.
The story goes like this: God said to Moses: Make me a tent so that I can dwell in the midst of my people. So whenever the people pitched camp at the end of the day?s journey, they put up God?s tent of meeting in the middle of the camp. They carefully placed the tablets of the law in their carrying case ? the ark ? in the tent. This reminded them that God was dwelling among them.
The sign that God was present was the cloud that hovered over the camp by day, and the pillar of fire that danced over the place at night. So long as the cloud and the pillar of fire stayed over the tent, the people could stay put. But when the cloud began to move, then the people had to strike camp and move on once more. Once God got itchy feet and wanted to get on, if they were to continue to go with God, then they had to pull up stakes and move on. God would not hang back waiting for them. So for them to experience God dwelling among them, they had to be alert to how long God was prepared to stay and when God was ready to move.
So the word for God dwelling among God?s people is ?to set up a tent.? When God sets up the tent, God is present among God?s people.
But that means in the experience of the people, that God is always a travelling God ? One who moves on. God doesn?t take up permanent residence and stay put. We don?t build God a house and put God away in it, thinking that he will always be there for us. That is not the sort of God we deal with. Our God dwells with us as in a tent. For awhile. For the present. On the journey. As a travelling companion. In all sorts of harsh and difficult situations when we needed shelter and protection. In desert conditions. As a promise. A tent-dwelling God.
Now, does it surprise you that when St John wants to tell us how Jesus is born to share our lives he says: The Logos (the Word) became flesh and pitched his tent among us. Suddenly a glint comes into our eyes. We know what that?s like. That is part of our family memory. It means the joyous freedom of summer days. Jesus dwelling with us restores the sheer fun of doing simple things. Life becomes less cluttered, more expansive, more open to embracing the good earth, the foaming surf and the still green bush. Life is affirmed again.
It also means that for Jesus to dwell with us, it is not permanent. It is a tent dwelling presence that abides for a time and then moves on. That is our link between Christmas and the New Year. We would love to stay with Christmas and keep celebrating for the whole twelve nights. We would love the presents to keep coming and not just once in the year. But life is not like that. It has its moments of high celebration but they cannot be captured and kept. They have to be enjoyed and let go because we keep journeying on. We too are a tent-dwelling people.
So what we have to discover is how to live in this way with our tent-dwelling God, who also keeps moving on. There is a secret embedded in all this. The great message of Christmas is: Immanuel, God with us! As John says: God pitches his tent among us in human life, in the birth of the baby. God is present in Jesus. But for God to be present is not simply God arriving ? God being there. It always means ? like the cloud and the fire ? God being ahead of us. God being in the advance party. God coming among us to lead us on and go on ahead. Presence always has this drive to move on. That is the sense in which tent-dwelling is not permanent.
We know that in the moment the flowers of the pohutukawa burst open in all their glory, that they will fall to form a blood red carpet. So it is with the birth of the Christ child. His dying as a young man is already part of his coming. He comes in order to give his life in love and to die that we might be free. That too is the impermanence of flesh. All that we suffer, everything that happens to us, our living and our dying are all part of being people who live in tents and who move on. We don?t have to be depressed by that at all. That?s the way it is. But the exciting thing is that that is exactly the way it is in our life with God. God too is a tent dweller. God goes on ahead of us so that as we journey on we find God coming to meet us. In the different places of our life experiences, God continues to be present. As we move out to embrace the fresh challenges of our lives, God is present among us.
This is the Christmas message that we take with us into the New Year that God has pitched his tent among us in the birth of Jesus. And we are glad.
Let us pray:
Tent dwelling God, we are glad at the audacious ways you chose to join our lives. You come among us living in a tent, covered in a cloud. You speak to us in human words that still convey the wisdom of your ways. Above all you enter our lives in the love of a human family, humble enough to be born a baby, to grow up a child and to live and love and die a man of courage. You take on human flesh as a tent to give you freedom to be for all. We rejoice in your coming, we live in your presence and we journey on, confident that you go with us and go on before us. Receive us into your glorious presence in the company of your Son and all who travel with him into the fullness of life.
Rev. Graeme Ferguson
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