“An Untranslated God”–Sermon for Christmas Day, 2018


John 1:1-14

A translation company launched a ‘Think before you ink’ campaign to highlight the risk of botched tattoos. They cite the example of a man who had ‘Jenius’ tattooed on his forehead – spelled with a J. Another asked for the Mandarin symbol for ‘live and let live’ but instead got one for ‘sweet and sour chicken’. And a woman used a website to translate ‘I love David’ into Hebrew but ended up with a tattoo which said ‘Babylon is the world’s leading dictionary and translation software.’

Several years ago, Mark and I were walking downtown and wondered into a tattoo parlor to look at their artwork. In the chair was a young man getting marked up for a new tattoo—one that said United States Marines across his back. Except, the longer I looked, the more certain I was that ‘marines’ was misspelled. I pointed it out to the man—and the artist. The man’s friends ran to the car to get his military ID. Yep, if we hadn’t wandered into that tattoo parlor at just the right time, he would have lived his life hiding from his fellow marines—and his mother.

When getting a tattoo, it’s wise to ‘live’ with it for a while first. To make sure you love it. To be certain it says what you want it to say—and is spelled correctly.

As we read John’s beautiful poetic prologue—his eloquent description of what it means to ‘live with’—I’m reminded of this congregation’s decision made 20 years ago. Given the option of moving out to the edge of town, to build new and start fresh, or to stay here and minister to this neighborhood, you chose to stay. You chose to live with those who need the presence of this congregation right where we are. Because there’s a difference between receiving help from those who know the struggles of a neighborhood and those who just come in once in a while to help and then leave again—escaping to the safety of their own place.

And isn’t that what God has done for us? Rather than poking around in our lives when it’s convenient, God moved into the neighborhood. God took up residency. God entered into the core of our ghetto, ministering to us, healing us, strengthening us, and befriending us from the inside. God didn’t go on a mission trip vacation—equal time spent building a house and sight-seeing on the white-sand beaches of resorts. God took on our citizenship—paid the same taxes, endured the same challenges, died the same death. Because, though the lovely people who come in for a week to help out are appreciated, it’s the ones who stay for the long haul that you can trust with your life.

But it’s not only that God moved into the neighborhood that we celebrate today. It’s more. God offers more.

Rev. Samuel Wells has proposed the following challenge:

“What if the fundamental problem that we need to work to overcome, that embedded flaw at the core of being human, isn’t mortality?

“Consider all the ways that we struggle mightily to overcome our mortality – to extend life, transcend our physical limitations, care for others’ most basic physical needs for food and shelter.  Sometimes these are all good and necessary things.

“But is this the central human problem?  Mortality?

“What if, actually, it’s isolation?

“What if we reconsider our work and being in the world around the fundamental problem of human isolation?  That what we need more than anything is for someone to be with us.  Not someone to do something for us.  That what we need to do for others in need is be with them.  Be present with them.”

What God recognized this need and, instead of keeping us from death and struggle and pain, God chose to be with us through it all? What if the gift God gives us is more than saving us from our sin? What if God gives us a translation of who God is, what God’s love looks like, what true and abiding companionship feels like? What if God is showing us what it means to have someone on your side no matter what? To trust that God knows what we’re going through and isn’t revolted by our thoughts or actions but simply heaps even more compassion on us?

God’s love can get lost in translation as we place boundaries and rules around it, making sure people access it in the right way, keeping our enemies from it, and so on. So, God came into the neighborhood and set up house so that God, God’s very Self, can speak directly to each one of us without a go-between, without a translator, without an interpreter—God comes to us and lives our lives and speaks our language and tells us in no uncertain terms, “I love you.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE


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