Traveling in Turkey last week, and here in Jerusalem, I’ve been thinking about the archaeological treasures I’ve now had the privilege of seeing for myself. Layer upon layer, stone upon stone, they deliver the story of great powers and civilizations passing through this place.
And I’ve been struck by the way they demonstrate the human longing for something tangible, something solid to trust – temples to the gods, statues of great men [sic], cities that will be famous around the world, shrines and chapels to mark holy sites.
And I was thinking about how God respects that human need in the incarnation – sending the Son, in the power of the Spirit, to be among us in flesh and blood like our own. Tangible, solid, real, someone we can trust.
Then Rosemary Dewerse made a comment that took this to another place for me. Speaking to the National Ministers’ Conference in Jerusalem yesterday, she pointed out how remarkable it is that an ordinary teenage girl and her older husband were entrusted by the Creator with the mystery of the incarnation. She was helping us see how theologically fundamental is the concept of “mission in reverse” (Claude Marie Barbour). Just think about it.
Delivered into the world by an ordinary young woman, with all the drama and risk inherent in that, the Son of God needs to be fed, washed, clothed, comforted, kept safe. That simple first century Jewish family needs to teach him to speak, to say please and thank you, to behave himself, to share with his siblings. They need to initiate him into his own culture and civilization – so different from ours, or any other, really. And eventually, when by the usual trial and error he is ready, he will be the person and do the things that will cause the next generation to say:
“We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Tangible, solid, real, someone we can trust. But very far removed from the holy stones that have so fascinated me in my time in the Middle East.
I’m reminded of something Leslie Newbigin once said:
“It is surely a fact of in exhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, (nor a church of the Holy Sepulchre), but a visible community.”
That community had no special buildings. They had each other. They weren’t preoccupied with mortgages or maintenance. They were preoccupied with each other. A visible community gathered by the Holy Spirit in someone’s house – Jews, Gentiles, men, women, slaves, free people. Uncomfortably tangible. A sign and foretaste of a whole new world of reconciliation and peace.
Yousef Daher, the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Council, said to us: “You are not here as tourists to look at piles of holy rocks. You are here as pilgrims, visiting the ‘living stones’.” And we have been visiting those “living stones” – our Palestinian sisters and brothers, identifying themselves as the “mother church”, struggling bravely and living joyfully as peace makers in a troubled homeland.
Bishop Munib Younan, the President of the Lutheran World Federation and a Palestinian, said to us, “The international church – your church has a responsibility to us, your sisters and brothers in Christ.” And what might that be? “To teach everybody to see the image of God in their neighbour.”
What else would we expect as people of the God who risked coming to us in that vulnerable, utterly dependant Jewish baby?