When God appears besides us
David J. Bort
God appeared to us as a baby to take God’s message of peace and justice all over the world. These were the words of George Kelsey, with whom Martin Luther King Jr. studied at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He had a significant influence on King which I have written about previously in the Banner. Kelsey left Howard to teach at Yale Divinity School in Boston and then came to my Theological School at Drew University in Madison, N.J., to teach Christian ethics. Since I was the managing editor of the school’s publication, "The Drew Gateway," as well as George’s student, I got to know him well. I remember his quoting the words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who ended up in one of Hitler’s concentration camps and was executed five days before the camp was liberated.
Bonhoeffer said that the radical truth of God came not as a strong man, or sage or saint, but in the birth of a child. He was acting on behalf of the so-called "Christ killers" in opposing Hitler. As he waited in jail for his own execution, he was confident that the God-poured essence that was put in the baby Jesus would come at a great cost.
What was radical, what was primary at the root, was that in Jesus, the Word entered the world as a human but remained God.
God decides to show us rather than tell us the divine plan. God did not come as a book, but a body. The incarnation has deep roots in the ancient world. In Greek mythology, the gods would mate with humans and have children who were demigods. In Egypt, the pharaohs were considered divine. In Hinduism, Vishnu took the form of a human. In Rome, the emperor became divine when Octavian declared himself the son of a God.
God’s Word in the material world was introduced in the beginning. Humans were made in God’s image and were blessed and God said it was good. All were meant to live in harmony and right relationship, but there has been brokenness and alienation from the beginning. God sent angels, prophets, storytellers, judges, lawyers and kings. God tried in every way imaginable to reach out to humans. Some understood, and others just did not get it.
God tried again in Jesus, one more time, for the people to try to get it and stay on the path of abundant life. In the incarnation, the very character of God is revealed in a human being. God was trying to repair a tear in the great tapestry of the human condition.
A colleague of mine had a Christian mother and a Jewish father. He said that he wrestled with the Jewish insistence on monotheism versus the claims of the incarnation of God in Jesus by Christians, "As I developed and matured in faith, a rabbi friend said to me: ‘Some are called by our creator to see and follow the word of God through Jesus, and some are called to see and follow through other revelations; we are summoned to unity with other traditions; we are called by one God,’ he said." The English word "dwell" comes from the Greek word that means to pitch a tent.
It is not poetic, but in John’s gospel, the word became flesh and pitched a tent among us. The people who followed Moses made a sanctuary so the Holy One could dwell among them.
I like the image of the great "I am" pitching a tent to occupy our human realm -- to have an up close and personal view of the complex and chaotic life we lead. When people build a building and put a moat or fence around it, they do not want to have interaction with people around them. Many people live in tents today because of war or famine. God is tenting among them, I am aware of those who put up tents in the public square to protest for justice and freedom. God is pitching a tent with them as well. The Word of God dwells with the people as the way for justice, peace and freedom. Tenting with Jesus is not a cheap holiday. It can be a reminder of what the world looks like when God’s Word is made flesh. But people’s movements can get out of control. It is sometimes difficult to discern if they are a blessing or a curse.
Jesus’ first disciples were frequently incompetent to spread the word. They constantly missed the mark and fumbled the ball, and the beloved community has often done the same.
In Jesus, we find the good but radical news, first in a child and then an adult, that God decided to pitch a tent among us. In that most vulnerable and appealing creature, God spreads love in the world while showing respect for those who know and worship God in other ways.
The Rev. David J. Bort is pastor emeritus of the United Methodist Church of Sandgate and a member of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Council.
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