Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth has been published by Abingdon Press. I’m hoping that his is appropriate reading for the season of Advent, the season of the Incarnation. Below is a selection from my book on Incarnation.
Thinking about God With Us
The Doctrine of the Incarnation, God’s enfleshment in Jesus Christ, is the church’s attempt to think clearly about the great mystery that Matthew introduces as a child named, “Joshua – God saves” (Matt. 1:21), Mark depicts as a wonder-working, crucified stranger, and Luke says was conceived of the Holy Spirit impregnating a virgin named Mary.
“God is not a human being,” (Num. 23:9) is an undisputed, consistent scriptural truism. Most Americans already believe that God is eternal, immortal, invisible, omnipresent, omniscient and a stack of other high sounding, ethereal abstractions, the antithesis of everything human, or so we thought.
Until we met Jesus.
No one disputed that Jesus was not a real man. As a Jewish man, he said and did things that most humans do. Nobody doubted that Jesus had a body. He spit in the dirt. He bled and hurt like hell on the cross. After a full day on the road, he was tired and had to get away for rest and prayer. He got angry, especially with people who presumed they were tight with God. On a couple of occasions, he broke down and wept. In every way, except sin, Jesus fully shared our humanity.
But he also said and did things—forgiving sins, performing miraculous signs and wonders, authoritatively speaking for God—nobody but God can do. Jesus appeared to be so godlike, so at one with God, that he not only spoke in an easy and intimate way of God as “Father,” that quite early on, his followers spoke of him as “Son of God.”
After his resurrection, his divinity seemed self-evident to those who worshiped him and experienced his presence. Yet even in his resurrection, even in his freedom from many of the limitations that bind us, Jesus still had a kind of body, still ate breakfast with his disciples on the beach and broke bread at suppertime, still spoke to them.
Jesus was no disembodied spirit fluttering above human life. Clearly he cared about real people who were caught in real, earthly, human binds – babies to be birthed, bills to be paid, an upper room to be prepared, and children to be raised. He gathered disciples and embraced the hungry multitudes. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and invited ordinary folk to walk with him. When he noted hunger, he offered bread. When the wine ran out, he made more. Rather than providing people an escape route out of this world, he intruded into the full, tragic human condition, modeling a new way of living in this world. You can almost taste the dust as he walks along Galilee’s roads. The gospels speak of him, not in the fashion of a, “Once upon a time in a far away land,” but rather by locating him in real time like, “during the reign of Caesar Augustus,” and real places like Bethlehem and Golgotha. He not only brought a message that was addressed to real people and their real people problems, but he fully embodied that message in his life in this real world. He thereby showed us that his “kingdom” was no dreamy fantasy but a place to be lived in here and now.
In order to do something about the human problem, Jesus had to become human and had to be present in this world. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, if Jesus was God with us, God doing something decisive about the problem between us and God, then “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” (Heb. 2:17) Only a fully human Savior can save us in our full humanity and redeem all of us, who we are on Sunday n church and who we are on Monday at work, or Saturday in the dark.
At the same time, in order to do something about the human problem, Jesus was more than human. The gospel writers strain to speak of his strange human-and-more-than-human quality. An embarrassing pregnancy, inexplicable signs and wonders. Something’s afoot among us that is bigger than us.
Rather than accommodate himself or his message to the limits of his audience, Jesus intensifies the oddness. “You have heard it said, but I say to you….” (Matt. 5:38) was a favorite phrase. A Messiah who avoids the powerful and the prestigious and goes to the poor and dispossessed? A way of life that begins in death, maturity that occurs only when one turns and becomes “as a little child” (Matt. 18:3), a Savior who is rejected by many whom he sought to save, a King who reigns from a bloody cross?
Christians believe that this story, for all its strangeness, is true. Here we have a truthful account of how our God read us back into the story of God. This is a truthful depiction not only of who God really is but also of how we who were lost got found, we enslaved got redeemed, we the dead restored, we the sorrowful damned rescued by a God who refused to let our rejection and rebellion (our notorious, long-term God problem) be the final word on matters between us and God. God with us in order to be God for us.