He Made His Dwelling Amongst Us
A Christmas reflection on the Incarnation.
I have enjoyed watching the BBC documentary Britain’s Biggest Warship, which records life aboard the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. She was commanded by Commodore Jerry Kyd, who came across as an exceptionally gifted leader bearing immense responsibility.
However, one thing that stuck me as surprising was that the captain almost invariably ate on his own in his cabin, rather than with the other officers.
One episode showed the crew enjoying ‘Saturday Night at Sea’, a formal dinner in the wardroom, whilst the captain dined alone, served by his personal steward. He gave several explanations for this naval tradition, including the weight of the responsibility he bears and the desire not to prevent his officers from being able to relax. This would not be easy if his presence meant that they felt they had to be on their best behaviour, rather than letting their hair down.
This little incident reminded me (by way of comparison) of the Christmas story. John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us” (John 1v14). The extraordinary and incomprehensible truth of the incarnation is that the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, took to himself a human nature like our own, and then made his dwelling amongst us.
He did not keep his distance from us but shared his life with us. He did not dine alone served by angels acting as his personal stewards but ate with his disciples and with the sinners he had come to save. There were times when he withdrew into private for prayer, but he never became exhausted or overwhelmed by his responsibilities, either as the Christ or the one sustaining and upholding the universe.
Our salvation is pictured as a great banquet hosted by Jesus, and this is anticipated in the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper when we gather to eat together in the presence of the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord, who will one day return to dwell with us physically once again.
Emmanuel – God with us
The fact that Jesus makes his dwelling with us is a key biblical theme, especially prominent in John’s gospel and the book of Revelation. Jesus dwelt with us in his earthly life, and although he has returned to dwell in the presence of his Father in heaven, he has sent us the Holy Spirit, “another counsellor” who dwells in and with all his disciples. The surprising end of God’s eternal plan of salvation, which culminates in a new creation, is not that we go to dwell with God but that he comes to make his dwelling with us for ever (Revelation 21v3-4, 22; 22v3-5). He will be with us and we will be with him.
Whilst Jesus does not want, or need, to keep his distance from us, the Bible warns us against refusing to allow him to come and make his dwelling with us.
Revelation 3v20, captured so evocatively by Holman Hunt in his famous picture The Light of the World, sees Jesus standing outside a home seeking admittance to come and eat with the occupiers:
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
This is often used as an evangelistic invitation. It is certainly true that those who are not-yet-Christians have refused Jesus’ invitation to the coming Messianic Banquet, they are excluded from the Kingdom of God. At Christmas we urge people to respond to this invitation because it is the “Day of Salvation” and there is still time to escape the coming judgment.
However, Revelation 3v20 is a word to the church. It is the church at Laodicea that is refusing Jesus entry. He wants to dwell and dine with them, but they want him to keep his distance. Perhaps their reason for this is that they do not want to have to submit to his authority and obey his commands. They cannot relax in his presence and remain content to enjoy their sin and indifference. His presence is just too challenging, and they prefer their lukewarm commitment, which is really no true commitment at all.
How will we respond?
Therefore, the challenge for us at Christmas, whether we are Christians or not, is this: will we allow Jesus to dwell with us? Will we metaphorically allow him to dine with us as he desires? Or would we prefer that he keeps his distance so that we do not have to conform our lives to his?
The great news of Christmas is that Jesus is not like the captain of a Royal Navy aircraft carrier. He does not keep his distance from us, but enters our world and, if we put our faith and trust in him, into our hearts and lives. He makes his dwelling with his people and eats with them in the community of the church. In the new creation he will dwell with us forever in person, physically, just as he did when he walked the earth 2,000 years ago.
Ultimately, we face a stark choice. Either we allow him to dwell with us and dine with us, or we keep the door shut to him and face the eternal damnation we deserve.
As the writer of the hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem so eloquently put it:
How silently, how silently,the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human heartsthe blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,the dear Christ enters in.
O holy child of Bethlehem,descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in;be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angelsthe great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,our Lord Emmanuel!