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What the Incarnation Means for Me

 

Colossians 1:19

Canada is religiously diverse. Muslims outnumber Presbyterians in Toronto and outnumber us again in Canada as a whole. We used to read about Hindu people in India and elsewhere. But when a trustee from the Toronto Board of Education spoke of Mahatma Gandhi in a manner that offended the Hindu community, we learned quickly that our Hindu fellow-Canadians are more numerous and less visible than we had thought.

Unquestionably we live amidst religious pluralism. In the sea of religious pluralism the Christian conviction concerning the Incarnation sticks out like a sore thumb. If we remain silent about the Incarnation we can always pass ourselves off as vague theists; i.e., people who believe in a deity of some sort, people who believe enough about God to appear religious yet who don’t believe so much as to appear offensive.

Then should Christians downplay the Incarnation, as one professor suggested to me? We can never do this, for the truth; the undeniable, uncompromisable truth of the Incarnation has seized us. At any time, but especially at Christmas, we exult in the truth that the Word was made flesh, that God has come among us by identifying himself with all humanity in the humanness of one man in particular, Jesus of Nazareth. We who have cherished the gospel of the Incarnation for years are like those men and women of old whose elation concerning Jesus caused them to shout in exultation. Detractors didn’t like this. They told Jesus to silence his followers. “Silence them?” said Jesus; “If my followers fell silent the very stones would cry out [in acclaiming the truth.]”

We who cling to our Lord today must cry out too in gratitude for all that God has given us in him and done for us in him. We are never going to be found denying our Lord by denying the Incarnation. We are never going to surrender the particularity of the Incarnation in order to blend into the blandest religion-in-general. Without hesitation we are going to thank God for his coming to us as Incarnate Son in Jesus of Nazareth. Without embarrassment we are going to announce this truth in season and out of season.

Why are we going to do this? What does the Incarnation mean? Why is it crucial to all men and women everywhere even if they disdain it?

I: — In the first place the Incarnation means that God loves us in our misery so very much that he is willing to share our misery with us. He loves us enough in our alienation from him as to stop at nothing to fetch us home to him.

But do we need to be fetched home? In his best-loved parable, “the parable of the prodigal son,” as we call it, Jesus uses two pithy, single-syllable words to describe our condition before God. The first word is “lost;” the second, “dead.” Please note that Jesus doesn’t attempt to explain what he’s said in order to defend himself for saying it. Neither does he argue for it in order to persuade us to believe it. He merely states it: “Lost, dead.” He expects us to agree with him.

On another occasion people are gathered around Jesus, listening. They hear him using the strongest language concerning the spiritual condition of humankind. They assume he’s referring to “others,” “others” being inferior sorts whom they don’t like in any case and whom they could readily agree to be spiritually defective. “But what about us?” these hearers ask Jesus, expecting to be exempted. “What about us?” Whereupon our Lord utters two more words: “blind, deaf.” Suddenly enraged, these people fly at him: “Don’t talk to us like that. We are better than that. We have Abraham for our father.” “Abraham?” says Jesus; “You wouldn’t know Abraham if you fell over him. Your father is the devil.”

You and I ought never to deceive ourselves about our sinnership. We ought never to forget it. We should recall it daily, and daily feel better immediately, since to recall our sinnership is to recall the Christmas truth that God loves us enough to condescend to us sinners and number himself among us.

We speak of God’s love presumptuously and therefore shallowly. “Of course God loves. What else can he do? Of course God loves me. Who wouldn’t love me? Of course….” It’s all so very shallow.

We need to ask a profounder question. “How much does God love? How far will he go in loving me? What price will he pay to love me? How much will he suffer to love me?” The truth is, God loves us sinners so much that his love will stop at nothing to reclaim us and rescue us. His love doesn’t go “only so far” and stop there; his love goes as far as it has to go in order to have us home with him again. Plainly it wasn’t sufficient that he love us “from a distance;” plainly he could love us savingly (anything less is useless) only if he condescended and came among us as one of us humans, and humiliated himself by identifying with us sinners.

In my first congregation I came to know an old man, Jim MacCullum, who had served in World War I. One day he and his best friend were moving forward in “No Man’s Land,” the open space between allied and enemy trenches. Enemy fire became so intense that the Canadian troops had to fall back. When Jim got back to his trench he couldn’t find his friend. Whereupon Jim went back out to “No Man’s Land,” into the teeth of murderous fire, searching and calling out until he found his friend. His friend was badly wounded and unless rescued would shortly perish. The wounded man looked at him and said, “Jim, I knew you’d come.”

There’s a moving similarity between the situation of Jim’s friend and our situation before God. In Romans 5 Paul speaks of us as helpless. That’s the similarity. There’s also the profoundest dissimilarity between Jim’s friend and our situation before God. In Romans 5 Paul also speaks of us as enemies of God. Jim’s friend wanted to see Jim as he wanted nothing else. We sinners – blind, deaf, spiritually inert – don’t expect a saviour and don’t want one.

And it is for all such perverse people that God’s love swells and swells until his love has to find embodiment in the Nazarene. At this point God has loved us so very much that his love has humbled him in a manger, humiliated him with a reputation he doesn’t deserve (“sinner”) and tortured him in Gethsemane and cross.

Tell me: people who speak so very glibly about God’s love – how do they know that God loves them at all? We know that God loves us at all only as we see him loving us to the uttermost, only as we see him loving us until his love stops short of nothing in order to reconcile us to himself.

Let’s be sure we understand something crucial: while the Incarnation is essential to our salvation we aren’t saved by it. We are saved by the Incarnate One’s sin-bearing death. Then beyond God’s condescension and humility there’s humiliation as he, the holy one, identifies himself with unholy rebels. And his humiliation takes him even into a torment wherein he absorbs in himself his just judgement upon us in order that we might be spared it. This is how much God loves us. And only as we see him loving us this much do we have any reason to believe that he loves us at all.

For years now I have pondered the fact that the best Christmas carols sing about the Incarnation for the sake of singing about the atonement, the cross. Think of one of my favourites, “Hark! The Herald Angels sing!” But first let’s listen again to our text: “For in Jesus Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Incarnation) and through him to reconcile all things…making peace by the blood of his cross (atonement.)” Now listen to the carol: “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”

Think of the carol, “As With Gladness.” It says, “So may we with willing feet, ever seek thy mercy-seat.” In ancient Israel the mercy-seat was the gold lid on the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant was the place where God met with his people; and the mercy-seat, the gold lid, was the place where costliest sacrifice was offered. Jesus Christ is where God meets with his people; his cross is the mercy-seat. Costliest sacrifice is offered here, which sacrifice bathes us in effectual mercy. And we learn it all from a Christmas carol.

I glory in the Incarnation. I know that God loves me at all just because I first know that his love stops short of nothing in his searching for me and his rescuing me.

II: — In the second place I glory in the Incarnation in that Jesus of Nazareth, human with my humanness, has fulfilled on my behalf the covenant obedience that God’s love wants from us humans. God covenants himself to us in that he promises ever to be our God. We in turn covenant ourselves to him in that we promise ever to be his people.

God unfailingly keeps us covenant with us. What he promises he performs. What he pledges he delivers. And we? We promise unfailing obedience to God. We promise exclusive loyalty to God. We promise uninterrupted love to God. We promise truthfulness before him. Whereupon we break all the promises we make. Even the promises we make with the best intentions we break nonetheless. We are covenant violators.

God looks out over his entire human creation, hoping to find promise-keepers. Among six billion people he can’t find one human being who gladly, gratefully, consistently, fulfils humankind’s covenant with God. At this point God is faced with an alternative: write off his human creation on account of its disobedience and rebellion, or fulfil humankind’s covenant himself. He has already fulfilled his covenant in loving us undeflectably. Now he also has to fulfil our covenant with him if our covenant is ever going to be kept. In the Incarnate One of Nazareth God not only fulfils his covenant with us; he also fulfils our covenant with him. In other words, in view of humankind’s disobedience God has to come among us as human and in this way fulfil our covenant himself.

I glory in the Incarnation in that the Incarnate One is the human covenant-keeper to whom I must cling, covenant-breaker that I am. To be sure, I have heard the gospel invitation and responded to it. I am a new creation in Christ and grateful for it. Yet the old man, the old being, still clings to me. When we became new creatures in Christ the old man, old woman, was put to death. But as Luther liked to remind us, the old man or woman won’t die quietly; the corpse keeps twitching. This being the case, it’s plain that in Christ I am a new creature; in myself I remain the old covenant-breaker. Then I must cling to Jesus Christ so that his covenant-keeping comprehends my covenant-breaking.

To be sure, I do love God. But I never love him as much as I’m supposed to. Then I must cling to that Son whose human love for his Father is defective in nothing. To be sure I do trust God. But somehow my trust in God is always being punctured by episodes of distrust when I dispute that he can or will do for me all that he’s promised. To be sure, I do obey God. At least I aspire to obey him; I want to obey him. But actually obey him? In all matters? Without exception? Then I can only cling to that Son whose human obedience to his Father is faultless. To be sure, I am possessed of faith. Yet how faithful is my faith? Faith of the head comes easy to me: I believe all major Christian doctrines and have never doubted any of them. So much for my faith of the head. But what what about the faith, faithfulness, of my heart? My heart is treacherous. Then I must cling to that Son whose human faith in his Father was never compromised.

Let me say it again. God unfailingly keeps his covenant, his promises, to us. Just as surely we violate ours to him. Then we must cling to the Inarnate One in whom God as man has come to keep that human covenant with him which we can’t keep.

In other words, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate One, mediates God to us and at the same time mediates us to God. He is the one and only Mediator – both manward and Godward – whom God has provided us in our great need.

III: — Lastly, I glory in the Incarnation since it is the greatest affirmation of life. After all, if human life is so precious to God that he chooses to live our human existence as human himself, then human existence must be rich, wonderful, a treasure. If God so prizes human existence then we must prize it no less. If in living every dimension of our humanness God endorses every dimension, then we must endorse every dimension too.

Life is good. I didn’t say easy. I didn’t say life is trouble-free or confusion-free or pain-free. I said life is good. The Incarnation is the story of God’s coming among us to rescue us inasmuch as he deems our existence worth rescuing. Then human existence, however problem-riddled, remains good.

I feel sorry for the people who have slipped or skidded or otherwise fallen into the rut of not being life-affirming. Frequently they tell me they don’t feel very good because they have had the ’flu six times this year. But no one gets the ’flu six times per year. ’Flu-like symptoms – dragginess, weariness (“psychomotor retardation” is the fancy medical term) – these are the symptoms of low-grade depression. Low-grade depression is usually so very low-grade that it’s not recognized as depression. It’s what people slide into unawares when they don’t have reason enough to be life-affirming.

The Incarnation is reason enough. I love that verse from the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in all his toil.” (2:28) We are to enjoy eating and drinking and working not simply because they keep life going; we are to enjoy these because they are pleasurable, good in themselves.

I’m always impressed with the child’s exuberance. A child is on the tear every waking moment. He doesn’t want to go to bed – even when’s so tired he’s staggering – in case he misses something. Yes, I know; we adults don’t have the child’s physical stamina, and we are aware of the world’s grief in a way the child isn’t. Nonetheless, the child’s exuberance should inflame ours.

One day after church the Shepherds’ lunch-hour table-talk roamed hither and yon from that morning’s sermon to Canada ’s newest submarines to Alice Munro’s most recent collection of short stories to the Argos ’ Grey Cup victory. Maureen looked at me said, “You have a thousand enthusiasms.” Indeed I have. Isn’t this better than a thousand wet blankets? In the Incarnation God affirms everything he pronounces good.

The Word became flesh. The Word was embodied. Then to say “life-affirming” is also to say “body-affirming.” The taste of green apples and blue cheese. The crunch of buried ice fragments in the middle of our ice cream cone. Flannelette sheets on a winter night. Renee Fleming’s soprano voice. Yitzhak Perlman’s violin. Riding a bicycle for hours longer than we thought we could. One day I was walking through the ward of a nursing home where the residents were in the worst condition imaginable. One malodorous, old man was hunched over in his wheel chair, head on his folded arms, seemingly more dead than alive or virtually comatose. I assumed he was asleep or depressed or deranged or all three at once. As I tiptoed past him he sat up, grinned at me and shouted, “Did you bring the sweets?” I could have kissed him.

It’s Christmastide. Together we are pondering the foundation of our faith, the Incarnation, God’s coming among us as human in Jesus of Nazareth.

– Because God has visited us in this manner we know how much he loves us: he will do anything, suffer anything, absorb anything, to have us home with him again, reconciled to him forever.

– Because God has visited us in this manner we know that he as human has fulfilled our covenant with him when we couldn’t fulfil it ourselves.

-Because God has visited us in this manner he has affirmed the goodness of our existence, and insists that we affirm it too.

Yes, we do live amidst religious pluralism. So did Jesus himself. Yet he remained who he was amidst it and never apologized for being who he was and is. We are unapologetic. For that truth which has seized us we could never deny – and in any case would never want to.

Victor Shepherd
Christmas 2004