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This month Abingdon Press published my book Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth. This is the first installment in my new series on theology for the church. Future writers in the series will be Stanley Hauerwas and Fleming Rutledge, friends of mine who have great talent for talking about the glories of Christian theology. Below is a selection from my book on Incarnation.
God Revealing God
My first summer of college, bumming around Europe, I sprawled with other students in the middle of the night, near Amsterdam’s Dam Square. A student whispered, “Want to see God? Take this.”
I awoke the next morning at the base of the queen’s statue with a bad headache, without a vision of God. Who doesn’t want to see God? Atheists and theists alike are able to read human history as a long search for, and often a wild fantasizing about, God. However, the atheist’s, Is there a God? is a less interesting question than the biblical, Who is the God who is there? Ninety-five percent of us already believe God is. But there are contentions among us: What does God look like? What does God expect of us?
And the most pointed question of all: Does God care about me?
It’s fine to ask big questions about us and God. Trouble is there are reasons having to do with the great gap between who God is and who we are that make it impossible for us, on our own, to give answer. How can creatures accurately conceive of their Creator? Can finite minds grasp the infinite?
Lost in the wilds of Alabama, trying to find my way to a little church, I stopped and asked a man leaning back in his chair before a rural gas station, “How do I get to Bangor?”
He scratched his chin, thought a moment, and declared, “Friend, there ain’t no way to get there from here.”
Thought about God is of the same order – no way to get to God from here. Impressive reasoning, invigorating spiritual experience, devout practices, even deeply religious upbringing, cannot enable us to ascend to God. There’s a word for a God who is accessible through our intellectual efforts – idol. An idol is a reasonable, believable, conceivable – but alas, fake — godlet we set up as substitute for the God we are unable to reach from here.
Every religion offers to help us finite creatures climb up to or dig deep into the infinite. Only Christianity contends that the infinite descended, taking the form of our finitude ─ Incarnation. This book is the good news that we need not climb up to God; in Jesus Christ, God comes down to us. I’m using “up” and “down” here figuratively. God is inaccessible to us not only because (as we have traditionally conceived) God reigns in highest heaven and we are down here in the muck and mire of earth. God is inaccessible not only to human sight but also to human reason. Incarnation is the counter-intuitive, not-believed-by-nine-out-of-ten-Americans assertion that even though we could not avail ourselves of God, God lovingly became available. God condescended to be God with us.
In November, Abingdon Press published my book Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth. This is the first installment in my new series on theology for the church. Future writers in the series will be Stanley Hauerwas and Fleming Rutledge, friends of mine who have great talent for talking about the glories of Christian theology. Below is a selection from my book on Incarnation.
No Image of God But From God
In the first of the Ten Commandments we were forbidden to create any image of God. Counter to much current “spirituality,” we are not free to come up with any old “god” who suits our need. In Jesus Christ, it was as if the true and living God said, “Humanity, you want a true image of me? You want the secret of who I really am and what I’m up to? Don’t attempt to make an image of me; I’ll give you a true icon – Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), no less than “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3).
“Incarnation,” (from the Latin word for “in the flesh”) is the set of ideas by which Christians believe that Jesus Christ is both divine and human. The Incarnation is the grand crescendo of our reflection upon the mystery that Christ is the full revelation of God; not only one who talks about God but the one who speaks for and acts as God, one who is God. Generally we do not say that God was Christ, more typical for the New Testament is the phrase “God was in Christ” (2 Corin. 5:19). Or it is said that the eternal “Word became flesh” (John 1:14).
Not that Jesus Christ ─ as the visible image of the invisible God ─ is obviously, self-evidently God. From the first, most people who encountered Jesus said not, “That Jew from Nazareth is God!” but, “That’s not the way God is supposed to look.” A word of warning: Most of us have been indoctrinated into the modern, Western conviction that we already have the ability to think clearly about anything. We have all we require innately, on our own to think clearly and truthfully about whatever we choose . Our democratic sensibilities are therefore offended by the thought that the meaning of God is a gift given to some, a phenomenon that I lack the innate skills to comprehend on my own. God must reveal the truth to us or we can’t know it.
Why isn’t Jesus Christ’s divinity more obvious?
Well, for one thing, God is God and we are not. The Old Testament teaches that it is fearful and devastating for mere mortals to gaze directly upon God, as painful as gazing upon the sun. For another thing, we have expectations for how God ought to look and act if God were worthy of our worship. From the first, Jesus failed to measure up to our expectations of God.
The Danish Christian philosopher, Sðren Kierkegaard said it would have satisfied our intellectual hankerings if God had appeared as a “very rare and tremendously large green bird” rather than as a homeless rabbi. God surprised us by appearing in human form, as a person who looked suspiciously like the annoying guy next door, an undeniably human person who hungered, thirsted, rejoiced, suffered, raged, wept, and died as all persons do.
And yet, in an astonishingly short time after his death, Jesus’ once disheartened followers began boldly telling the world that when we encounter Jesus, we encounter God. This Jew from Nazareth is as much of the true and living God as we ever hope to see. None of them said, “Jesus lives on in our memories,” or “We’ve had a meaningful religious experience; let us show you how you may have one too.” What they said was, “Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Father’s Eternal Word, the only begotten Son of God.”
This was a shock to nine-out-of-ten Near Easterners who assumed that God’s primary attributes were unrestrained power and undeniable glory. Not much power and glory in a crucified rabbi. But those whom the Holy Spirit pushed to greater open mindedness saw that there was more to God than they previously thought. Once reminded that the main attribute of Israel’s God is steadfast, forbearing love, Jesus as Son of God made more sense. If God is not solely power and glory, as we define those things, if God is glorious suffering, powerfully redemptive love, then it made sense that God might indeed come among us as a lowly servant who healed, taught, forgave, suffered, died and rose to bring us close to God.
How wonderfully ironic that God Almighty should turn out to be most godly precisely in God’s suffering and dying for ungrateful, wretched, erring sinners who, by our lives and actions, seemed most distant from holy, righteous God.
The Strangest Story
The only way we know the truth of this God-become-servant is through scripture, ancient stories that were told by those who were close to Jesus from the first. If we are to know the whole truth about God, we must submit to these ancient writings. The gospels at times seem a bit like biography, but they are more. In places, they sound like history, but more. They are certainly talking about events that happened at a specific time and place, but they do so in a way that often seems strange. It is a mistake to think that the gospels sound strange because they are ancient. They are strange because they attempt to describe events that really happened – God coming close to us in Jesus Christ – by events so challenging to our way of thinking that gospel talk sounds odd.
“Luke, tell us what you know to be true about Jesus Christ,” and Luke tells a story about a young woman conceiving a child out of wedlock, birthing in a cowshed, sky erupting with angelic proclamations, and, well you know the Christmas story. Surely Luke would have told us what is true about Jesus Christ in another way if a more acceptable way were adequate for conveying the facts about Christ. Indeed, Matthew, Mark, and John tell remarkably different stories about the advent of Jesus Christ, not to confuse the truth, but rather because the truth they told was both historical and transcendent. Our gospels describe so much more than mere facts can tell.
Not that the earliest accounts of Jesus are fiction. The gospels are not some sort of primitive attempt at novels. They are realistic attempts to speak about real events in which the witnesses found that their sense of themselves, of their world, and of God got decisively disrupted and rearranged. But what they have seen and heard strains their ability to tell in order to be true to the facts of the matter.
In a sermon preached in 396, Augustine ridiculed a disbelieving world that regards, “this stupendous miracle as fiction rather than fact.… They despise the human because they cannot believe it; they do not believe the divine because they cannot despise it.” Augustine went on to rhapsodize, “The one who holds the world in being lay in a manger; he was simultaneously speechless infant and the Word. The heavens cannot contain him; a woman carried him in her bosom. She was ruling our ruler,…suckling our bread.” A strange wonder evokes strange speaking.
The scriptures tell us the truth about Jesus who is in turn the truth about God. If any of us limited creatures is able to comprehend, to believe, and in believing to stake our lives upon the one who was, “The way, the truth and the life,” (Jn. 14:6) that believing is also a miraculous work of God among us. Thus we, by the grace of God, in our lives, become living testimony of the truth of Incarnation. Theologian, Karl Barth said that if you are able to believe in the strange, wondrous birth, your belief is a miracle akin to the miraculous birth of Jesus.
— Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia
About the Author
Published by Abingdon Press in print and electronically.
This book came to me just when I needed it. This past June, the bishop appointed me to a church. The congregation had previously suffered decline but had recently experienced some modest growth. A congregational long range plan dictated that they would be at 400 attendance in four years but they had been stuck at 230 for months. As a new pastor, what could I do to help lead this church move in a direction it wanted to go, but wasn’t quite sure of how to get there?
Then I read Overflow: Increase Worship Attendance & Bear More Fruit (Abingdon, 2013). I was fairly sure that any book by Lovett Weems – veteran church observer, founder of the Lewis Center at Wesley Seminary – and Tom Berlin – large church pastor with proven experience in growing churches – would be a good book. I wasn’t disappointed. The last Weems/Berlin book, Bearing Fruit, was a great success, prodding a church that has a studied resistance to noticing and responding to results. Weems and Berlin are sure that we count only that which is important and that whatever we count becomes important. A major reason why many in my church resist counting and accountability to results is that they are unhopeful that we have any means of getting better results. Overflow takes the thought of Weems and Berlin a next step and even more sharply focuses upon the issue of worship attendance as the most important indicator of congregational vitality.
“Nowhere is the challenge of fruitfulness more important than in helping increasing numbers of people experience God through worship,” say the authors. They then set out to succinctly, effectively bolster that claim through some wonderful chapters on the centrality of worship, the need for attentiveness to those whom the church draws to worship and to those whom the church excludes from worship. I first heard the phrase “attendance recession” from Lovett Weems in his description of the alarming drop in attendance that has been experienced by most mainline churches in the past decade. From my experience as a bishop, I was convinced that Sunday worship attendance is crucial, but I also was intimidated by the difficulties in impacting worship attendance.
Overflow attempts to “give people hope that they can improve their attendance” by offering encouragement and practical steps for “planning, implementing, and evaluating worship that can produce greater fruitfulness.” The book exudes encouragement and hope and is packed with practical advice. I immediately purloined the Visitors Questionnaire. Every visitor to Duke Memorial’s Sunday service now receives that questionnaire and most of them complete it. We go over the results of those visitor responses every week and that device is single handedly changing the life of our congregation.
The chapters on worship planning and evaluation, the constant emphasis on accountability, and the consistent call to transformative leadership by us pastors (the last chapter is, “If Churches Can Change, They Can Grow”) make this a book that is essential for every pastor and congregation who believes that the church is meant to have a future. I immediately utilized Overflow in a D. Min. course I taught on leadership at Duke Divinity School and every member of the class seized upon Overflowas the book they had been waiting years to read and a book that they would be putting to use this coming Sunday.
By the way, in three months we have increased our Sunday worship attendance by twenty percent. I’m not saying that Overflow alone caused this dramatic increase. Most of the credit goes to the Holy Spirit. But I am saying that the Holy Spirit used a fine book by Weems and Berlin to teach a new pastor how to be more faithful to the promptings of the Holy Spirit!