Late last spring, after vaccines against COVID became available, I met in person with a group of people I work with. We did one of those “working retreats” together at a church camp. In between the work sessions, we ate together, and did some hiking, and sat on a porch at the camp in rocking chairs. After more than a year of only seeing each other on Zoom, we marveled that things could be almost normal.
It was in that context that one of my colleagues talked about getting to see her grandchildren again after a year. As she shared the joy of that with us, she teared up: “I didn’t know whether the two-year-old would even remember me,” she said, “and he did!”
I thought of my colleague’s story when I read about Jesus making God known. God longs to be known, and is delighted when there is a recognition in our eyes.
Imagine God as a grandmother: there at your beginning and even way before that; joyful at your birth; happy to pace the floor with you when your tiny body is more comfortable moving than lying still; delighted as your unsteady toddle brings you to her open arms.
And then something happens that separates you, one from another, for more half your life. Grandma worries. Will you even remember her, this one who loved you before you were born and who loves you still?
God loves like that. And because God loves like that, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” God got close in order to be recognized. The story of Jesus is the story of God revealing Godself to us, simply for the joy of knowing us and being known by us.
John’s gospel differentiates between people who receive Jesus and those who do not, but almost everyone takes at least a little time to recognize who Jesus is as the revealer of God. The old radio and TV show called “The Lone Ranger” brought a particular question into American popular culture. After the good, but anonymous, Texas ranger had foiled the bad guys and ridden off into the sunset, someone would ask in wonder, “Who was that masked man?”
People wondered in a similar way who Jesus was. They would hear his words, or see him perform a sign, and they would sort of not “get” it:
…Nicodemus is a teacher who comes to talk with Jesus privately, and the scene ends with the teacher seeming more like a puzzled student.
…A Samaritan woman chats with Jesus and is moved to bring her neighbors to meet him, “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” she wonders.
…When Jesus says to a crowd that he is the bread come down from heaven for the life of the world, the people he is talking to point out that they know his mother and father. How can he say he came down from heaven? He’s from Nazareth!
…Even in the resurrection, one of those closest to Jesus looks at him and thinks he is the gardener.
Who was that (unmasked) man?
Biblical characters are not the only ones to puzzle over Jesus and his revelation of a God who knows and loves us as dear children.
For my part, I know that God loves me, but I also think that God also wants me to be very busy. Busy, busy, busy: “to whom much is given, much will be required,” Jesus said (Luke 12:48), and I am all about demonstrating that the investment God and a lot of people have made in me will be returned with interest. This impulse may be commendable, but if you have ever felt overwhelmed by all the responsibilities of your life, you know that being busy feels different from being loved. One of them leaves very little room for delight.
Many of us have thought at some point about someone who likes us or loves us, “If they really knew me, it would be a different story.” We can project that onto God too. We think, “If God knew me,” and then we do not dare finish the sentence. We conclude that it is best if God just stays way over there, or up there, or out there. Surely our flaws and mistakes will be less noticeable from a distance.
But at Christmas, we celebrate that God does not stay at a distance. The Word became flesh and lived among us. The Word ate, and walked, and slept, and woke up among us. The Word wept at the death of his friend, washed the feet of his disciples, and called Mary Magdalene by name so she could see him for who he was. God came so close in Christ, not because God wanted to condemn the world - not to examine our brokenness and recoil from it - but so that the world might be saved through that brother of ours, Jesus.
Years ago I was at worship, receiving Holy Communion, and I had a moment in which I recognized the God Jesus came to reveal. In my tradition, as the minister serves you the Communion wine, they say, “the blood of Christ, shed for you.” The minister that day punched the preposition, “the blood of Christ shed for you.” The way he said the words implied that he meant, “this is for you, not against you.”
“It could have gone the other way,” I thought, but that is not God’s way of saving the world: for the very busy or the very good, against everyone else. For a moment, I saw a God I did not have to impress with my work ethic or avoid in my fear.
To receive Jesus is to know oneself as family with him, family with God, and family with brothers and sisters too many to count.
I have an acquaintance who teaches at another theological seminary. He is a Black man, and he is from a Christian tradition different from my own. Our paths have crossed several times over the years. In his public speaking, when he takes questions, he calls on people by saying, “My sister,” or “My brother.” If he knows your first name, he will use it, “My sister, Mary,” he might say to me. He does this across family, denominational, and racial lines - and probably across every other line you can think of. He addresses everyone this way.
I was embarrassed by it at first, and I think I also felt a little undeserving of the intimacy. I wanted to say something like, “You can just call me Mary.” I’m glad I never actually said that. Later, I felt the kindness of the gesture: to this high-profile, widely published author, pastor, and teacher, I did not have to be black, or a Baptist, or something else I wasn’t in order to be addressed as sister. It was a generous welcome of each new voice in the conversation, and a kind one.
Later still, it occurred to me that this simple act of greeting, shared with everyone, helped the whole group to recognize something about God and ourselves that we might otherwise miss: namely that Jesus had given us the power to become children of God. We are brothers and sisters one of another eternally. Family is the truth about us, family with God in Christ.
Family is the truth about us when we act in loving ways toward each other, and when we act like strangers, or even enemies. Family is the truth about us when we look like each other, and when we do not. It is the truth about us when we agree with each other, and it is the truth about us when we cannot even understand each other.
You are my dear family, and I am yours. I am always shocked when I recognize this. It is a surprise and a gift, like seeing your grandma again when you had almost forgotten her.
The divisions among people today are so sharp. In our society and our congregations and around the dinner table, we are always facing opportunities to get stuck at the points of our greatest disagreements. I invite you today, my sister, my brother, my dear sibling in Christ, before any of that, simply to be the toddler headed to God’s open arms, and to know that I am that toddler too.
So is the person who leaves you just shaking your head. What would it feel like to call that one “my sister,” or “my brother?” From the perspective of those open arms, what we have in common is stronger than what leaves us isolated. Brought together in the divine embrace, we are free to love as joyfully as we are loved.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, through our brother Jesus, you have made yourself known to us. Guide us as we follow him. Teach us to live in the Spirit who made us your sons and daughters, in the love that made us sisters and brothers, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.