Christmas sermon 2018. Liverpool Cathedral.
“And the word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14)
This verse from St John sums up the Incarnation. It pre-echoes another verse from the very end of the Bible, where in Revelation 21 the writer says: “See, the home of God is among mortals; and God will dwell with them, and they will be God’s peoples, and God’s own self will be with them.”
“And the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Or as “The Message” translation says: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood”.
But these translations, lovely and true and moving as they are, don’t catch the visual image that the Bible writers wanted to convey.
A year ago I was not present in this Cathedral church, because I was on study leave, preparing to visit the United States in order to write the book which will shortly be published as “The Table”. I began that study leave in San Francisco, where among other things I spent some time with a parish church: St Gregory of Nyssa, in Potrero Hill.
If you go there on public transport you have a ten minute walk from the rapid transit stop. And on that walk you see a sight that, when I saw it, I had never seen in England – though I have seen it now. Where the sidewalk is wide, around two sides of a block, you see a township made of tents, pitched there on the street, housing the homeless poor. Scores of people, living quietly and courteously but very precariously, in a ramshackle collection of tents and lean-tos, one of many across San Francisco.
Three weeks ago here in Liverpool Kate and I went to one of our favourite coffee shops, just round the corner from the Radio Merseyside studios off Hanover Street. And there, sitting at the window seat in the coffee shop, we looked out on three or four tents, pitched up against the back of a supermarket, a tiny village made of tents, housing the homeless poor.
And we have all seen pictures of the Calais Jungle, still present there, cleared by the police again this month, a city made of tents pitched in rows like streets on the derelict land, housing the homeless poor.
There’s a marvellous new translation of the New Testament, just published this year, written by David Bentley Hart. He tries to be really faithful to the original language, even if that makes it sound a bit edgy in English. And when he comes to John 1:14 he writes this: “And the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the Father’s only one, full of grace and truth.”
It’s what the Greek says: “The Logos – the word – became flesh and pitched a tent among us”. That’s the visual image that the Bible writers tried to convey.
Now of course they didn’t have our sort of tents in those days. What they did was build booths, or a sort of temporary hut, or a “tabernacle” as the old Bibles would say. In the Old Testament a whole feast was built around that. And when Jesus is transfigured in the Gospels and Peter is watching and doesn’t know what to say he talks of building three tabernacles – in other words three huts, or as we would say pitching three tents.
And at the end of time, so the very end of the Bible tells us, God says “Look! The tent of God is with people, and he will pitch a tent with them and they will be his people.”
So God’s presence with us is all a bit in-tents, really. (See what I did there?) We live out of touch with God in our day-to-day lives as a people, and we look for God and we look for glory. And then at Christmas, and at the end of time, when the tabernacle of God was renewed, it is like a tent.
Tents take different forms. It’s hard to see this glorious building, this Cathedral church, as a tent, as temporary. You might think that if everything else passes away in Liverpool, still this huge building will remain. And yet fundamentally it’s a tent. It’s a temporary booth, made for the eternal God. And the Bible tells us that there is no temple in heaven. We will go there; but the tent won’t.
And as Christians we may learn from all this where we are to look for God.
In the Diocese of Liverpool we say that we’re asking God for a bigger church so that we can make a bigger difference, and we say: more people knowing Jesus, more justice in the world.
Here at Christmas we look at the tiny refugee baby, born on someone else’s property, fleeing to someone else’s country. And seeing that baby we open the door of the tent which, like Dr Who’s Tardis, is bigger inside than outside. We open the door offered by the Lord Jesus, which is tiny outside and infinite inside. And we meet God where God said God would be.
In a moment this talk will come true, right here, in this big tent. You will be offered the infinite love of God contracted to a little wafer and a sip of wine. And you will be called to take that infinite love inside, and to live inside that infinity.
And how does that life look on the outside? Where do we meet God then? Where will we stand then?
There’s a story from the Jewish tradition where someone asks a holy teacher, “Why can we no longer see the face of God?”, and the teacher answers, “It’s because we have forgotten how to stoop so low”.
If I am to see the face of God again today, then I can do worse than go to Hanover Street, or to Potrero Hill, or to the tents of the Calais Jungle, overlooking the fences that fence the tunnel. Or to the coast of the Mediterranean where the refugees camp before they risk their lives on the sea, before they risk drowning because they have nothing better before them. Or to the southern border of the United States, where the caravans stop and pitch camp, looking at a fence, and at the beginnings of a wall that some people say is beautiful.
God is there. When Pope Francis made his first ever overseas trip as Pope, to Lampedusa, he understood that. When we see the crosses made from the wood of the broken refugees’ boats, we understand that. The tent of God is with people and God will pitch a tent with them and will be among them.
We’re called and sent, called to worship and sent to stand, called to recognise Jesus and sent to recognise Jesus, to stand with those on the edge of things, to stand for example here, to stand for example in tent city.
Called and sent – to know where we stand, and then to stand there.
Love came down at Christmas, and made a pitch. Our God makes a pitch. God who is here, in bread and wine and words. And God who is there, among the homeless poor and all those on the edge of things. We know where God is. I know where God is. So where will I be? Where will you be?
© +Paul Liverpool 2018