THE TANGIBLE GOD
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As we look forward to Christmas in a few hours, we close our time of advent. Advent is a very important time in the Christian year and, in anticipation of the coming of the Saviour, we’ve been talking about love, peace, hope, and joy. These are words that can fill us with a sense of wonder and awe. Christmas is also a time of year when those of us who have experienced loss or are grieving, feel it more keenly. If you have a loved one who has died or find your family in trying circumstances, Christmas is a very difficult time. It can be hard to speak peace, love, joy, and hope into that darkness. Not that those words don’t bear any substance, because they do, but when you’re in that grief, you want something tangible to hold on to. Something you can touch and taste and see.
We’ve been talking about the idea of home over the course of Advent. What it is, what it means to us, and we’ve heard from people who are trying to provide homes for those don’t have one. One of our young people, in speaking about home, finished by saying, you always have a home with God. At Christmas, we definitely look to the young to set the tone so I want to tell you a story about a young boy.
His name is Francisco. He lives in a village called Aiquile in central Bolivia. I met Francisco in August when a mission team from our church, along with Weston Park Baptist Church, travelled to Bolivia for two weeks. Francisco is 14 years old. He lives in a small house with his mother, 2 sisters, a brother-in-law, 2 nephews and 1 niece. His father died when he was a child. Francisco was so young when it happened that he doesn’t actually remember his father. No one knows what he died of. His family remembers him getting sick and realizing they had no money to take him to the hospital; so they waited. What else could they do?
When I met Francisco, he had been out of school for four years. He was small in stature but very strong from working the family farm. Neither one of us had known his father, but in a way, his father was what brought us together. I said before that no one knows how his father died, but for a man in central Bolivia to die in his forties with the symptoms he had, it was most likely something called Chagas disease. This is a disease that is transmitted by a bug they call vinchuca. It lives in the mud walls of people’s homes and at night time, it crawls out and bites them, releasing a parasite that goes into their bloodstream. The disease can lie undetected for years and very slowly, it does damage to internal organs, including the heart.
This is a fairly common disease, affecting 30-40% of children and even more of the adult population. It is also a disease that is fairly easy to prevent with education and the proper resources. Our team was in Bolivia to work alongside Francisco’s family to plaster the walls of their house so the bugs would be killed, and to cement the floor. This first step ensures that the family won’t be at risk anymore. The second step is then to test the family and treat them if they test positive. Even if they have the disease, with proper treatment they can live long and healthy lives.
As we worked alongside Francisco and his family, we were all impressed with how hard he was working. For me, it was amazing to see a house being formed from raw material. The structure was already there yes, but we would take the yeso powder, mix it with water, wait for it to firm up, and then put it on the walls as quickly and neatly as we could before it got too hard. When it came to the floor, we had to collect rocks from around the family farm and lay them along the floor. Then we took cement mix and mixed it with dirt, then poured water in, then laid it on the floor of the house and waited for it to dry. I’ve never been once to marvel at dirt but I was left with a sense of wonder as I saw the cement we mixed with our hands and the plaster come together to make a home for the family we were working with. It was hard work in the heat of the day but the whole family was united in this common goal of building their home and making it a safe place to live.
When we left, Francisco and his family thanked us and tried to offer us a gift of a lamb to show just how grateful they were. Something tangible to remember them by. We didn’t need a gift to remember them. Given that it was very physical work, I still carry those memories in my body - the cold of the plaster, the weight of the mixed cement, the rough wool of the lamb and its tongue as it licked my arm. And Francisco’s eyes. All of these memories have informed the image I have in my mind when I think of a home. And I’m not sure if it was the almost biblical landscape of the Bolivian desert or the bond the family shared, but I knew that God was in that home.
Most of us don’t have the same problems in our homes that Francisco and his family are facing but we all know that no home is perfect. Every family has its own tensions and dramas. What fills our homes with wonder are those moments when Christmas becomes something tangible – a memory, the smell of food, the crackling of a fireplace, a warm embrace from your mother or father. In the same way, the Bethlehem stable was filled with wonder that first Christmas.
As we read about the shepherds visiting Mary and Joseph, we see that God wanted to do something different. God often spoke to people with words. He made his presence known in the temple as we read about in Exodus this past Fall, but his primary medium was to give words to the prophets who would then share them with his people. But his people were living with loss. They had lost their freedom and were losing their identity. Words, as they had been given to that point, weren’t enough. So God did something different. He gave them something concrete. Something tangible that people could touch and see. He made his word flesh when he sent his Jesus to be a light in the darkness. Something tangible for people to hold on to when everything else was slipping through their fingers. God came down.
This was something so unusual that heaven couldn’t contain itself. As God was born and breathed air and felt cool and smelled earth, angels were so in awe that they made a ruckus. So much so that shepherds, in the fields at night, heard what was going on up there. They saw the heavens open. They heard the angel of the Lord say “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”. And they went with haste to see what all this commotion was about. They arrived in Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and there, lying in a manger, Jesus, Son of God, the one would bring peace. The one who offered true joy. The one who embodied love. And the one who personified hope. And for the first time, they could behold God. They could see him and touch him and smell him and pick him up. And the shepherds praised God for all they had seen and heard.
It all happened around a manger. Something so very basic and raw and because of it, we now see a manger and are filled with wonder. This manger is a reminder that God came down. That during a time when things were falling apart, God looked and said, I’ve got this, I’m coming.
In the midst of our wonder and loss and grief, we have hope, because we know that God is here. God is among us. God is our home. It’s a great paradox that while God is our home, he also makes his home in us. For just as the heavens opened at his birth, they continue to open as God sends his Spirit to dwell in us.
If you are having trouble this Christmas with the words, hope, love, peace, and joy, start with something tangible. Start with the manger; a humble vessel that would contain the God-child. Start with your home; the walls that surround you every day. Start with yourself; a body in which our God is pleased to dwell should you open yourself up and invite him in. Follow the example of Mary, as she ponders in heart what all this might mean. And if you’re not having trouble being filled with the wonder of Christmas, you can be that something tangible for someone who needs to see God. I promise you, you won’t need to look as far as Bethlehem or Bolivia.
Christ is our true home, the place where we are welcomed and loved and accepted. Christ is our hope for all people and for all time. That’s why we gather around the Lord’s table. To be reminded that we have been adopted into God’s family and welcomed into his home.
Someone said it this way: No matter who we are or where we live, no matter whether we have come home for Christmas or we are celebrating with a family we have made for ourselves. No matter what our state or sinfulness or station in life. No matter what our status or identity or background or culture or beliefs. No matter whether we live in a mansion or an apartment, or a shelter, (or a mud hut on the Bolivian mountainside), the truth is that all our earthly homes are temporary.
There is only one home that is permanent, and that is the home we make with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate tonight and whose coming again we will not fear, but rather, will look for with the hope of Joseph, and the joy of Mary, and the curiosity and conviction of the Magi and the boldness of the shepherds in the field.
My prayer is that you will never lose the wonder of Christmas and that as you seek God, you come away like the shepherds, praising him for all that you have seen and heard.
Let us hold on to our tangible God. Let us gather around the manger. Let us gather around the table of the Lord.