If there’s one thing for us to remember in this season of Advent, this season of “coming”, it’s this: the Lord will establish his Kingdom.
We often get caught up or even led astray with all sorts of ideas or perceptions or philosophies about God. I think some of us, perhaps those who have seen and felt humanity at its worst, those who know real hardship and pain, just can’t imagine a God so merciful, a God so supremely generous that He would reach out, time and time again, to share His eternal life with messy, messed-up people like us.
Too many of us know well the pain and even anger that goes with being betrayed by those who should have been closest to us, and our instinct is to build a wall, to cut ourselves off, and we just can’t imagine a God so faithful, so steadfast and unchanging that He would keep reaching out, that he would lay aside all the glory of heaven to come and be among us, knowing full well that even we, who claim to be his followers and friends, would betray and deny Him.
And yet, that is our message; that is the Gospel truth: the Lord will establish his Kingdom. The Almighty Lord – who lacks nothing – desires to share his abundant life with people like you and me. The Almighty Lord – who creates with nothing more than a word – wills to fill his Kingdom not with perfect angelic beings, but with fallen, broken people like us, perfectly restored and adopted as His sons and daughters, heirs of eternal life.
That’s the entirety of the story – cover to cover – though we seem to want nothing more than to turn our backs on the rightful King and proclaim ourselves as lord and master of our own lives; though we take whatever gifts he sends and stubbornly claim them as our own; though we ourselves are utterly and wholly dependant on the mercy of the one who laid aside his glory to suffer on our behalf, but we stubbornly refuse to offer mercy even to those nearest and dearest to us, yet the Lord will establish his Kingdom – and wants us to share in it with Him!
God in a Tent
One of the great scripture readings of Christmas is that weird and wonderful reading from the opening of John’s Gospel. Every year, it’s the reading assigned for Christmas Day, and then for the last 102 years it’s been the last reading at the service of Lessons and Carols, and then it comes back again as the Gospel on the second Sunday after Christmas – that’s 3 times in 10 days! You know the one I’m talking about: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God”. It goes on to say that God came to his own, “and the world was made by him, but the world would not receive him; but as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the sons of God.” And you know how that reading ends: “and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”.
That’s the whole message of Christmas, the first Advent, the first coming of Christ. The Greek original says that he, the Eternal Word through whom all things were made “tabernacled”, he “pitched his tent” among us. God pitched his tent.
That’s the glory of the gospel. It’s not that we have to aspire to clean ourselves up enough, to make ourselves presentable enough to climb up to the Lord’s holy mountain. No. God shared our flesh and came down from on high. We could never make the climb up, so the king of glory pitched his tent… here. With people like us. He left the unceasing worship of angels so that he could share our hunger and our thirst, so that he could share our pain, and share our burdens. God is not far off; He pitches his tent, he moves in, right here with us.
…but people have a hard time accepting that.
In 2nd Samuel we see just how backward we get it.
The amazing reality of God choosing Israel to be his people was that God desired to be with them! From the time God appeared to Moses, the message was that God’s presence would be among them, mighty to save. As God’s chosen people wandered through the wilderness – as we wander through the wilderness – God wasn’t far away, but his very presence and glory moved from camp to camp with them in the tent, the tabernacle. The God of Heaven took up dwelling in a tent, to be near those whom He had chosen, and who had chosen to follow Him.
But by the time of King David, the king isn’t living in a tent anymore. David’s built himself an impressive fortress; a strong, sturdy building he can depend on, with a wall around it to fend off any threats. And what’s the human instinct? The great message of God is that He desires to be near us, present with his people… but as soon as we can, we want to ship God off to a “better” dwelling place. God wants to be with us, near us, part of the everyday life of his people; but we want to lock him up in a temple. It’s more fitting, we say; “see” said the king, “I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent”; but what are we really saying? Sure, I used to depend on God when I was in a tent in the wilderness, but now that I can count on what I’ve built up, now that I have these strong walls up around me, the presence of God is a bit of an eyesore; let’s get God out of everyday life and box Him up somewhere a little more seemly.
…and we even convince ourselves it’s for God’s glory!
It happens to the best of us – like the embarrassment we might feel when someone who was down and out, at the end of their rope, overcomes incredible odds and speaks boldly about how God lifted them out of addiction and despair: “yes dear, that’s nice, but let’s not get carried away”.
And yet: even when His chosen people try to box Him up, what does God do?
He becomes flesh and pitches his tent.
The Lord is establishing his Kingdom.
God is not deterred by our stubbornness, even though we can’t even imagine being that forgiving, as those who would rather build walls to cut ourselves off and grip tightly onto the chains that hold us down.
That’s the beauty of God in a tent – when we run away, when we wander off into the wilderness, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God pitches His tent. We never have to find God; he pursues us. We just have to stop running.
As the Lord wills to establish his Kingdom, for us to be a part of that, all we have to do is claim him as Lord and King. It’s not about special words to say; it’s about taking ourselves off the throne, quitting this foolish running away and building of walls that so many waste their life on, and simply surrender. Let the God who pursues you claim you as his own.
The coming of Christ – whenever that might be – or our own meeting Christ in our own of death is only a thing to be feared if we’re still running away. If we surrender, claim him as Lord, allow Him to claim the throne, and accept his presence right here with us, right here in the mess and pain of life, we have nothing to fear; we can finally find rest, we can finally have the peace that passes understanding.
“How can this be?”
The Lord will establish his Kingdom; and he wants us to be a part of that. But He won’t force us. It doesn’t work that way. If we refuse, He’ll keep reaching out, over and over again, but it’s like so much in life; you can have all the help in the world available to you, but you have to want to be helped before it’ll do you any good.
And lets be clear: surrendering is scary stuff.
Think of Mary in today’s Gospel lesson: a young girl, scared speechless as God’s plan is revealed. Her first response is like our own: how can this even be true? It’s impossible!
Yet, yet, God doesn’t expect us to have all the answers; he doesn’t expect us to find the strength to carry out his plan. All He expects from us is a simple “Here I am”.
It seems impossible that God could do what he has planned; it seems impossible that he could want us, it seems absolutely impossible that he would want to share in the very pain and hurt that we try so hard to run away from. But, the God who pitches his tent, the God who pursues us just wants us to stop running and say, simply, “here I am; you caught me, I’m yours”.
And that’s when we find more than we could ask or imagine. That’s when we’re healed and nursed back to health after our time in the wilderness. That’s when we’re taught to extend forgiveness and mercy, even as we ourselves learn to receive the forgiveness offered to us. And that’s when we’re able to accept God’s presence in our own messy lives, and finally start to live for his glory.
The Lord will establish his Kingdom, and he wants to start with you and me.
Let’s stop running. Surrender. And this Christmas, let’s accept the coming of the one who became flesh and dwelt among us; the one who came into the world he made, though the world did not receive him; yet, if we will receive him, he will give us the power to become the sons and daughters of God, and heirs of eternal life.
 Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14 as “he moved into our neighbourhood”.