Moving Back Into Our Neighborhoods

Sermon – December 6, 2020

New Testament Scripture Reading – John 1:1-14

Last Sunday we read about Jesus’ predicting the fall of the temple and the disciples’ asking when all this would happen (Mark 13:1-4, 24-37.) Today’s Scripture puts us on the other side of that question. By the time John wrote his gospel somewhere around 90 A.D., the temple had been destroyed, and John’s audience was trying to come to terms with that loss. The temple was the center of their life. From the days when God led them out of slavery in Egypt, when they carried the ark of the covenant through that long journey in the wilderness to the promised land, the temple was tied to the presence of God. Now that the temple was gone, it felt like God’s presence was also gone. The temple was where they gathered every week to worship. It’s where they saw family and friends. The temple was the center of their life. To lose one’s center is disorienting, to say the least.

For many of us, the temple, the church, is the center of our lives as well. Thanks be to God, our temple has not been destroyed. And yet, while it hasn’t been destroyed, it may feel like the church has been displaced. Our buildings aren’t open. We can’t go into them on Sunday as part of our weekly lives, or for some of us our daily lives. Like John’s audience, many of us also associate God’s presence with the sanctuary. When we can’t gather here and be reminded of God’s presence, that’s disorienting, to say the least.

This year a lot of us may feel like John’s audience – displaced and disoriented. Not just in terms of losing our church life, but in terms of other things we’ve lost. Economically, we’ve lost jobs, profits, and sales. Personally, we’ve lost loved ones. We’ve lost our sense of security. Maybe we haven’t had a physical temple displaced, but we’ve had so many other things displaced that it makes us wonder: Where is God?

When we feel displaced and disoriented, how do we find our center again? 

Scholars believe that John was the last of the gospels to be written and that John was aware of the other gospels. John didn’t want to write a fourth version of the other gospels. Instead, he chose to write a different gospel. We could list the differences between his gospel and the others, but most notable for this Advent season would be the difference in the way John described the birth of Jesus.

Luke is most known for his birth narrative. From the lead-up to his birth to his actual birth, Luke gives Jesus’ birth two full chapters. Matthew comes in a close second in length, with an emphasis on Joseph and the wise men. As for Mark, he’s kind of the fast-and-furious “just the facts, ma’am” kind of gospel writer. The most common word he uses is “immediately.” He doesn’t go into a lot of detail about Jesus’ birth. He talks about John the Baptist, saying, “The one who is more powerful is coming after me….“ (Mark 1:7-8),  and then in the next verse, this one who is coming came into Nazareth – not as a baby, but as a grown man.

John’s account doesn’t have a baby Jesus either. John’s account of the birth of Jesus is this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). 

When writing to a people grieving the loss of their temple, John knew the people didn’t necessarily want to hear any baby talk. They could hear about that from the other gospel writers. When grieving the loss of the temple, what John’s audience wanted most is reassurance: Will we ever be back in the temple again?

John wasted no time but got straight to the point: The temple is still here. It’s in Jesus, he said. The temple was never just a building; it’s a living human being, God walking among us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The Greek can literally be translated, “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” 

Pitched his tent. That phrase may not mean much to us, but it meant a lot to John’s audience. It echoed back to those days in Exodus, those days in the wilderness, when their ancestors were making their way to the promised land. When they set up camp to rest, they set up a tent for the ark of the covenant. They set up a tent for God. 

God pitched his tent among them.

John wrote to remind them that, just as God pitched his tent among their ancestors when they were wandering in the wilderness and trying to find their way forward, God was with them now, when they had lost their temple and were trying to figure out how to live life without a temple. The temple isn’t gone, he said. It’s more present than ever, not as a building, but as a living human being, God walking among you. 

The Word became flesh and lived among us.

We call God’s Word a living Word, an ancient and modern Word. That means these words, these promises of God spoken through John some 1900 years ago are just as fresh and new and true today. Just as God spoke through John years ago to remind the people that the temple isn’t gone, it’s more present than ever, so God speaks through John todayto remind us that the Temple isn’t gone – it’s more present than ever. 

The Temple has never been about a building. It’s always been about a living person. That was true at Jesus’ birth. It’s still true today.

Christ came as the Temple, the Word made flesh. Before this Temple left the earth and ascended into heaven, Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit on the disciples. After he did so, he gave them their marching orders in John chapter 20, verse 21: “Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In John’s Temple language, you might translate that this way: Jesus said, “I am THE Temple; now YOU are temples.” Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you.

And where did the Father send the Son? To live among us. The Word became flesh and lived among us.

I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this verse in The Message: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” 

In the context of those marching orders from John Chapter 20, you might translate that this way: Jesus said, “I moved into the neighborhood; now I’m sending you to move into your neighborhood.”

Jesus is the Temple; now we are the temples. Just as the Father sent the Temple to move into the neighborhood, now the Son sends us to be the Temple, the Church, in our neighborhoods.

That’s not news. It’s old news. Ancient news. We the Church have always been called to go out into our neighborhoods. That’s old news. 

And yet at the same time, it’s new news. During this season of sheltering in place, we’ve had to be in our neighborhoods. We haven’t had a choice. For a while, we were even mandated to stay in our neighborhoods. 

What if we reframed that?

What if we saw being stuck at home in our neighborhoods, not as a mandate – at least not one from a government official? Could it be that this year Jesus has given us the gift of remembering his mandate to love our neighbor? Could it be that it’s not that we have to be in our neighborhoods, but that we’ve been given the privilege of being in our neighborhoods?

In this second wave of the virus, it seems we’re having a second wave of the same debates. More specifically, we’re having a second wave of national debates about whether the church should be open or closed. We had these conversations back in March when we debated what is and is not considered an essential business. Now with the Supreme Court case ruling and various reactions to it, we’re having some of the same conversations. 

What I said in March I still say and believe now: The Church is not closed. The church building may be closed. But the Church is not closed. In fact, it’s not really possible to close the Church so long as we believe that Jesus Christ is alive. 

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It’s about Jesus Christ and his presence among us.

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It’s always been about a living person.

It’s not really possible to close the Church so long as we believe that Jesus is alive. And it’s not really possible to close the church so long we take seriously Jesus’ marching orders: Jesus said, “I am THE Temple. Now I’m sending YOU to be temples.” Jesus said, “I moved into your neighborhood. Now I’m sending YOU to move back into your neighborhoods.”

This passage in John celebrates what theologians call the incarnation – God becoming flesh for us. It also celebrates our call to be incarnational – God in the flesh for others. 

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It’s always been about a living person, God walking among us. It’s always been about Christians – that is, little Christs – moving into our neighborhood. 

Over the past two months that I’ve had the privilege of serving as your interim pastor, I’ve asked various groups, “What’s been one positive thing for you that has come out of this pandemic?” I’ve heard some amazing stories with two common themes: First, we’re in this together, and second, when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” he meant it.

Some have shared stories about taking walks – many, many walks – in your neighborhood. Because when you can’t do anything else, what do you do? You go for a walk. On those walks, many of us have met neighbors we’ve never met before. Because when we can’t hang out and talk with our normal circle of friends, suddenly we talk to our neighbors. It’s amazing how it took a pandemic for us to get to know our neighbor…

Some have shared stories about the difficult decisions we’ve all had to make about Thanksgiving celebrations. How when COVID-19 meant our family gatherings of 20-30 suddenly got reduced to a gathering of two or three, but we still had food for that 20-30, those two or three took food to a neighbor. And for some of those neighbors from other countries or cultures, you learned it was the first Thanksgiving dinner they had ever had. 

What might God do through our Christmas dinners of two or three? 

Jesus said, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

This week I’ve witnessed firsthand a great example of God at work, not just in our individual neighborhoods, but in our Clairmont neighborhood. The past few weeks a young couple has been sleeping under the portico outside our office, along with their rescue kitten. We’ve affectionately begun calling them the “Kitten Couple.” They moved to the area a year ago, he found a job, and they began trying to get established here. But they’ve been hit hard by COVID-19. He lost one job, found a second job, and then lost that job also in the pandemic. They began living out of their car. Then their car broke down, which is how they ended up here. 

Many of our members and staff have noticed them and asked what we can do to help. A commonly heard question is, “What is it about this one couple that I keep feeling God prompting me to help them?” Andrea and Lady T got some initial information about housing possibilities. We told the couple last week that, once we had more details, we’d pass it along to them, if they were interested. “Yes, please. Thank you,” they said. 

On Sunday morning, I arrived at the office with a list of resources and gift cards we had collected, but they had already left. Don, Barbara, and I arrived early Monday morning in the hopes of finding them at the office. No luck. Don and I drove around the area in search of them. Still no luck. Knowing the temperature was going to drop significantly overnight, Don and I said we’d come back again at sunset to try one more time to find them. 

Later that day, while talking with our Preschool Director Barbara, she said to me, “By the way, one of our teachers Stacy happened to mention she saw the couple head behind a store earlier this afternoon. Perhaps they found a way inside and are staying there.” I’d already looked around the store that morning, but I said I’d check one more time that evening. The store was locked up tight – no way anyone was in there. But as I rounded the corner to head back to church to meet Don and continue searching, I noticed a familiar-looking bag behind a dumpster. Don and I walked back to look at the bag more closely. That’s when Don noticed a litter box scoop sticking out of the bag. 

That bag had not been there earlier that morning. Had Stacy not “happened to” notice the couple heading behind the store, had she not “happened to” mention it to Barbara, and had Barbara not “happened to” mention it to me, I would never have gone back and looked there a second time. And had Don not noticed the litter box scoop, we might never have known it was the couple’s bag. We left the list of resources, protein bars, and, yes, cans of cat food by their belongings, along with a note saying, “Come to Clairmont Presbyterian tomorrow! We want to help!” Our administrative assistant Linda arrived extra early on Tuesday to make sure she saw them if they stopped by. Around 8:30 Tuesday morning, she texted me: “The Kitten Couple came back! They saw our note, and they came back!” While we’re working on more long-term solutions, they are currently settling into a warm hotel for the week, and they have been telling us repeatedly, “Thank you. Thank you. We cannot thank you enough.” 

It takes a village, as they say. In this case, it takes the body of Christ working together to be the body of Christ, God made flesh, in our neighborhood.

That’s what God did in our neighborhoods last week. I can’t wait to see what God might do in our neighborhoods this week.

This week I encourage you to take a walk in your neighborhood. I know, I know – you’re thinking, “I’m already taking lots of walks in my neighborhood.” What else is there to do, right? Take a walk in your neighborhood. Not just any old walk. But a quiet, observant walk. If you typically walk with someone in your family, don’t talk. Don’t listen to music. Just walk in silence and observe your neighborhood. Maybe go for a walk at a different time of day or take a different route than you normally would. And look around. What do you see? Whom do you see? What needs do you see? Then pray, “Lord, how are you calling me to respond to this need?

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It has always been about a living person. God became flesh for us. Now God sends us to be God in the flesh for others. Go be that church. 

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