|Today’s scripture readings:
Last week Jerry Seinfeld released the latest episode of his popular online video series called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. If you haven’t seen the show before, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d think. In each episode, Seinfeld takes another comedian for a ride in a classic car, the two of them go to a restaurant and grab a cup of coffee together, and Seinfeld interviews his guest all along the way.
The most recent episode has been going viral because in this episode the guest is President Obama. (I guess Seinfeld thinks that the President has cracked enough jokes over the years to qualify as a “comedian” for the purposes of his show.) As the episode begins, Jerry Seinfeld pulls up to the White House in a 1963 silver-blue Corvette Stingray and walks through the Rose Garden right up to the Oval Office. After chatting there for a bit, Seinfeld and the President hop into the Corvette and quickly discover they’re not going to get very far. Seinfeld rolls down the window as they approach the Secret Service agent stationed at the end of the driveway. “I have this little show called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Seinfeld says to the agent. “We’ll be right back. We’re just going to run and grab a quick cup of coffee.” “You’re a comedian in a car with the President,” the agent replies. “You’re going nowhere. Back it up.” They end up going back up the driveway, parking the car, walking to the dingy White House staff break room, and sharing a cup of coffee there.
The whole thing is hilarious. But you get the sense that behind all the jokes, the President really longs to be a normal human being, one who really can go out for a cup of coffee rather than being confined to the White House break room. “What’s the one thing you really want to do that they don’t let you do?” Seinfeld asked the President. “I’d love to go for a walk,” Obama replied, “and then run into you. You’re sitting on a bench and you say, ‘Hey, whatcha doin’?’ and I say, ‘Oh, nothin’, just enjoying a Saturday morning.’” Seinfeld kept going. “Have you ever touched a thermostat in here? Do you ever go on eBay? Who wakes you up in the morning? Who picks out your clothes? Do you ever get to cuss?” A whole series of questions revealed how disconnected the American President is from everyday American people, and what an isolating experience that is for him. Even after leaving office, every move Obama makes will be carefully watched, every comment carefully scrutinized. And so he’ll spend most of the rest of his life far removed from the real world. Barack Obama will never get to be just a regular guy.
I wonder, what would the President give to be able to be a normal person, to experience the world, and to have authentic relationships with everyday, ordinary people?
After Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, they spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. They were nomads, moving from place to place, without a settled home. This was long before the Hebrew people crossed into the promised land and made Jerusalem their capital, and long before a permanent temple in that city became the center of religious life. During the time in the wilderness, God commanded Moses to build a portable tent, a Tabernacle. The innermost chamber of the Tabernacle was called the Holy of Holies, and that’s where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. And inside the Ark of the Covenant were the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been inscribed, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff—three items that reminded the people how God had been there for them in the past and given them what they needed to survive. The Tabernacle was the place where offerings were made to God and where revelations were received from God. It was sometimes called the Tent of Meeting because it was the place where representatives of the people could go to “meet” and consult with God. The Tabernacle traveled with the people everywhere they went, until a permanent temple was built in Jerusalem. During these earliest years, the Tabernacle was the place of God’s presence among the people.
Maybe that’s more than you wanted to know, but here is why it’s important. In the translation we use here in worship, John 1:14 reads, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Biblical scholars point out that the English word “lived” doesn’t fully capture what John was trying to convey. The most literal translation of the Greek would be, “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” John’s original audience would have understood that John was making a connection to those early days in the wilderness, and they would have understood that God was doing something very profound in the person of Jesus. It’s something that’s lost on us when we read the Bible in English today. But what John is trying to say is that the Word-become-flesh—this person, Jesus—was literally the place where God was present among the people, where people could go to meet and consult with God. If you want to know who God is, John says, get to know Jesus.
Others who have translated the Bible into English have translated verse 14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” which I suppose gets a little closer to what John was trying to say. But I really like the way Eugene Peterson has rewritten the verse in his own paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. As he puts it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
When I think of God moving into my neighborhood I start to think of the incarnation—of the Word becoming flesh—a little differently. When I think of my neighborhood I think of the neighbors next door who are always looking out for us, who shovel our sidewalk if we haven’t gotten to it yet, and who keep an eye on our place when we’re out of town—the same neighbors who, in their backyard on a nice summer evening, sometimes, shall we say, over-indulge and light off too many noisy fireworks. I think of the Somali family who just moved in on the other side of us, whom we’ve yet to actually meet—though I’m not sure we would even be able to have a conversation. I think of the house at the end of the block on the other side of the street that some of our neighbors refer to as the “problem house”—the one where at least a couple times a year we see a squad car parked outside with flashing lights. I think of the folks on the other end of the block at Rezek House, a transitional living program run by Lutheran Social Service for formerly homeless teens who are trying to get on their feet. I think of the two friends from St. Cloud who moved into the house two doors down last summer and experienced a burglary just a few weeks later—welcome to the neighborhood! And I think of the elderly Jewish sisters around the corner who have lived in the neighborhood longer than any of the rest of us have even been alive. I think of all the people who eat at the McDonald’s two blocks away and are constantly throwing their burger wrappers and empty soda cups in our front yard—and I think of the neighbors who like to take a plastic bag with them when they’re out for a walk so they can pick up trash as they go.
When I think of God moving into my neighborhood I think of God hanging out with and getting to know all these people—regular, everyday people, the loveable and the not so loveable, the good neighbors and the not-so-good neighbors. That’s a God who really can go out for a walk on a Saturday morning and chit chat with a stranger sitting on a bench, or hop in a car, drive to a restaurant, and sit down for a conversation over coffee. The God of the incarnation is not a God who is confined to the executive mansion, far removed from ordinary people. Rather, it’s a God who is determined to dwell among us and be a part of our lives.
A God who has moved into our neighborhood is also a God who is well acquainted with all of our neighborhood drama. This is a God who knows what’s going on in that “problem house” down the street, who’s familiar with the plight of the Somali immigrants trying to get settled next door and the homeless teens in the shelter transitioning into permanent housing. It’s also a God who’s aware of the chaos in our own homes. The God we worship is one who wants to help neighbors reconcile differences, look out for one another, and build a stronger and healthier community.
All of this, to me, is the wonder of the incarnation, the wonder of the Word becoming flesh and living among us.
So what’s going to happen when God moves into your neighborhood?
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, “Just Tell Him You’re the President,” Season 7, Episode 1, December 30, 2015, http://comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com/president-barack-obama-just-tell-him-you-re-the-president.
Eugene H. Peterson, The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale, 2012).
Frank A. Thomas, “John 1:(1-9) 10-18: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).