The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
One of the most famous hymns ever written in human history was written by John, the author of the Prologue of John, the Gospel appointed for the first Sunday after Christmas.
In the Prologue of John, John makes the most incredible confession of faith in his hymn. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” For the Semitic mind in the first century, this was an outrageous claim. The Word becoming flesh. An outrageous claim. God becoming flesh in Jesus. Again, outrageous.
For a Jew in the first century, and today, the word is central to God’s nature. The word of God was God’s creative force. In Genesis, we remember that in the beginning God created by speaking. God says, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. That creative word at creation is the same as the “word” in John’s Gospel. But John was writing to a Hellenistic community. John relates the creative word to the pre-eternal Jesus: Jesus becoming flesh and living among us. John understands Jesus as being with God before the creation. In other words Jesus was “co-eternal” with the Father, the Creator.
Ever since the early church, the Prologue of John has been under intense discussion. Questions such as, “What did John really mean?” have been hotly debated. Dissertations have been written on the prologue. One of the outstanding Roman Catholic biblical scholars, Raymond Brown, wrote a commentary on the Prologue of John in which he wrote long paragraphs on each word.
I promise you that I am not going to do that this morning, but there is a point that Brown makes that needs to be explored. Brown argues that in this hymn John shows the unique relationship that Jesus has with God, so unique that John can speak of “God the only Son.”
The Prologue of John is the unique confession of the Christian, that God took upon himself human flesh. This, of course, is a stumbling block for the Jew as they wait for the Messiah to come. It is also an obstacle for the Muslim who sees the divinity of Jesus as a stumbling block because there is only one God. For the Muslim Jesus cannot be God, Jesus cannot be with God in creation.
For the Christian, however, we see in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. In Jesus, God revealed God’s very nature in human flesh. John says that God comes and dwells with us. Indeed, an outlandish claim, but that is what John proclaims in his hymn: that God comes and tents/dwells with us. (It is interesting that John uses the Hebrew expression of tenting as the Hebrews did when they left Egypt.) God comes and tents with us. God comes and dwells with us.
With the birth of Jesus, we have a new creation. In Genesis God says, let there be light and there was light. Now in that same creation, John’s hymn tells us, “He was present with God in the beginning,” “in God’s presence.” The gift of Jesus’ birth gives us a unique insight to the nature of God’s love, “this enduring love comes through Jesus Christ.” Or as John later describes it in John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
What an incredible statement of God’s love for the world, for God’s generous, abundant love for all of God’s people.
Let me tell you about Suhaila. Suhaila is the director of the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, a hospital that is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. Suhaila is a Palestinian Greek Orthodox Christian who has lived her whole life in Gaza, although the rest of her family emigrated to the States several years ago. But Suhaila stayed in Gaza to run our Christian hospital that serves the 99.5 percent Muslim population that now lives in Gaza.
In the good old days, Gaza was a city of wealth, with wonderful beaches on the major trade route among Egypt, Jaffa, Damascus, and Baghdad. Gaza was a flourishing sea port city and well known for its beautiful trees. A hundred years ago it was described as having “trees all about the city, olive and almond groves.” Today Gaza’s fortunes have been reversed. The fishermen, who made their livelihood from the sea, no longer are allowed to fish. The olive trees and orange groves have been bulldozed. There is 60 percent unemployment. Gaza has become a large prison where no one can get in or out. Even our Episcopal bishop, earlier this year, along with the Lutheran bishop in Jerusalem, was refused entrance into Gaza to visit his hospital, our hospital. Last year, at this time, Gaza suffered from a war that destroyed the little infrastructure that was still left. More orange groves were uprooted and olive trees bulldozed, date palm trees destroyed, homes blown up, and the roads in Gaza became nearly impassable. Both the government of Israel and Hamas have been accused by the United Nations of war crimes against humanity; but the United States effectively blocked any investigation in the U.N. of those charges.
In the last several years the occupation has gotten worse, and as a result, Gaza today has become a breeding ground for terrorism and hatred.
Yet, in this “armpit” of helplessness and hopelessness, there is an incredible woman who helps us today to understand the new creation spoken about in the Prologue of John. Suhaila helps us to see the nature of God’s love for all of humanity.
Suhaila could have easily emigrated with her family to the States, but Suhaila stayed in Gaza so that others might be able to have health and know what it means for God to live/to tent with God’s people in the poverty and hopelessness.
When a father or a mother, when a son or a daughter, a grandmother or grandfather goes to Ahli Arab Hospital, they know that the care they are going to receive is special because they are going to be cared for as a child of God. Their life is important. They know at the Ahli Arab Hospital their dignity is important.
For Suhaila nothing is more important than a human life and the dignity of that life. For people living in Gaza, the diet everyday is humiliation and degradation, but when they are sick and need love the most, they know they will receive it from this petite, unassuming, Christian woman. The poor, the oppressed, those living in hopelessness, the sick, the infirm, and the lonely in Gaza all have seen a glimpse of Jesus because of Suhaila.
Because of Suhaila, I know more about the meaning of the Prologue of John today. Because of Suhaila, I have seen God’s generosity. There is no question in my mind that the Word/Jesus came into this world to reveal what God calls God’s people to be: generous with open arms to all of God’s people.
This Christmas season Suhaila challenges each one of us to live in the radicalness of God’s Son born in human flesh. This Messiah, this king, was absolutely the opposite of what the world was expecting the Messiah, the king, to be. Instead of another Herod or another Caesar, God revealed God’s understanding of Messiah/kingship in Jesus. A king who would turn upside down everything the world holds to be so important: authority, power, wealth, prestige. Instead the perfect icon of God, Jesus, shows us a king concerned about the poor, the oppressed, those living in bondage, the sick, the infirm, the lonely.
This king, born in a cave in Bethlehem, and who was placed in a hewn out limestone watering trough called a manger, is concerned about the people of Gaza in this world, those who have no power. This Christmas there is no doubt in my mind that Jesus is indeed living/tenting with Suhaila as she reaches out to the people of Gaza.
God becoming flesh calls us to do business in a different way. God wants us to do business in a different way. Are we really serious about God’s agenda in this twenty-first century of Gazas and Afghanistans? In this twenty-first century of Suhailas?
But ultimately I suspect each of us has to ask ourselves the hard question of Christmas: Do we really want God to tent/to dwell in us this Christmastide? Do we really want God to tent, to dwell with us in 2010? The cost can be pretty high. The risk is pretty great.
In the name of God’s Incarnate Son who tents with us. Amen.