In Wales and Scotland many road signs are bilingual. There are several road signs in Wales which, famously, make sense in English, but for which the Welsh, when translated back into English, reads, “Thank you for emailing the translation department. We will respond to your email when we reopen on 19 October”.
Likewise, there is the person who asked for a tattoo of 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”.
Translation is not risk-free, and translation is what John’s gospel is telling us about. God was searching for a way to translate his life and purpose into something we could understand, and that was Jesus. The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.
Theological college students have been known to amuse themselves by putting on a Nativity Play according John’s gospel, which consists of an empty stage. John has nothing to say about the call of Mary, the misunderstanding over her pregnancy, the wretched journey to Bethlehem, the stable, the shepherds, or the Magi.
John is concerned with the big picture, the cosmic significance of what’s going on here. This is no small town deity pushed to the edge and trying to get a mention in the weekly newspaper. This is the God whose light has been travelling towards us from the Big Bang for 13.7 billion years at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. This is a God of extraordinary scale, emerging from the mists of space-time and pouring his life and purpose into a human life, the life of Jesus bar-Joseph, carpenter from Nazareth. One life, lived so close to God, so saturated in God, that very soon people who’d known him were saying he must have been the Son of God. No other description seemed to fit.
This world that Jesus inhabited was as hard and fragile as it is now. Men and women were as confused and dangerous then as now. The human heart is always in need of divine surgery. As Studdert-Kennedy, the First World War chaplain, wrote, “the hand that rocks the cradle wrecks the world”. As human beings our gentleness with the child we love seems only to be matched by our capacity to hurt and destroy. The evidence is in the news every day – the savage murder of shoppers in the Berlin market, the appalling violence in Syria, the daily humiliation of the Palestinians; it’s endless.
So it’s not sufficient to be moved by the magnificent vision John puts before us. The incarnation had a purpose. God’s strategy was to move in, live deep, and share everything. Jesus lived up to his elbows in human need; his life was embedded in the lumpy contours of everyday life. And there he brought healing, hope, release, forgiveness, and renewal of every kind to people often bruised and broken.
So many people admired Nelson Mandela was because he too moved in, lived deep, and shared everything with his suffering people. Martin Luther King said that, “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice”. And with justice came kindness.
Mandela invited his gaoler to his inauguration as President. When he visited a Head of State he greeted the lady serving the tea as well as the Prime Minister. Mandela was renowned for his small acts of kindness – a sure sign of a gracious life.
Which is where we come in. What can we do? God’s call, through his Son, is to move in, live deep, and share everything. Which is why it matters that churches support debt counselling, credit unions, and food banks, as well as a million acts of kindness every day by ordinary Christians just getting on with it.
God has translated his life and purpose into something we could understand, and we do the same when we reflect his strategy of deep engagement, when our lives demonstrate that love. God has moved in, lived deep, and shared our lives. He calls us to do the same in our own sphere of life and influence, small or great. Some here today could end up making considerable changes in the fabric of civil society; others here can make a real difference in the life of one other person. The call to enlist as a change-maker is to everyone, whoever we are, wherever we are.
And with or without a tattoo…