Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Aspects of Incarnation

There was approximately 33 years between the first Christmas and the first Easter.  Of necessity the annual Christian calendar compresses that distance to about three months.  Tragically, in our understanding of the incarnation we compress it  even further—to about nothing.  There is a tendency with many Christians to put Christmas and Easter almost back-to-back theologically.
The one aspect of the incarnation that we are most familiar with, and the one we most readily accept, is that Jesus became one of us so that he could do what we couldn’t  do—live a perfect, sinless life, and then die on the cross for our sins as a perfect, sinless sacrifice.  This understanding is best embodied in the statement, “Jesus came to die for our sins.”  And that’s a perfectly accurate statement—unless it’s the only statement about the incarnation that we make.  Then it becomes something of a distortion, and part of that distortion is how it puts his birth—”Jesus came”—up next to his crucifixion—“to die for our sins.”  He did come to die for our sins, but he came to do a lot more, and the reasons are all intertwined.  Separating one from the other distorts them.
At Christmas we become more aware of another aspect of the incarnation.  Matthew 1:23 (quoting Isaiah 7:14) says, "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  For many, this is a nice sentiment that has little bearing on Christ’s work of salvation.  It means that when we have difficult times, God is with us.  But the 23rd Psalm expresses that already (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.”), as does the concept of God’s omnipresence—God is always everywhere, so of course he is with us.  If that’s all that Emmanuel means, then the incarnation isn’t expressing anything unique.  It may be good news, but it’s also old news.  For a people living under foreign occupation, however, a people who experienced exile and not only the silence of God for over 400 years but his absence as well, “God with us” means so much more.  It means that Yahweh is returning to Zion, ready to forgive the nation of its sins, deliver people from slavery and oppression, and establish his everlasting kingdom.  That is certainly Good News, it’s anything but old news, and more than anything, it is a message of salvation.  Jesus’s birth was itself the announcement that the kingdom of God was coming; after his baptism that became the core of his teaching, and his kingdom and the kingdoms of this world clashed in Jerusalem.  At the cross the kingdoms of this world declared victory over Jesus and his kingdom; Easter morning showed who really won.
There is another aspect of the incarnation that we tend to acknowledge in theory but then ignore in practice.  At least we are in good company, for at least one of the 12 didn’t get it either.  In John 14 Jesus tells the 12 disciples, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."  Philip responds, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?”
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  There were a lot of different opinions running around Judea at the time of Jesus concerning what God was like, much like today.  For some he was angry, for some authoritative, for some distant and uncaring, for others he was war-like, or jealous, or vindictive, or even weak, or some combination of all of these.  Some thought they knew for certain what God was like, while many still wondered.  “Show us the Father,” was Philip’s way of saying, “We are confused.  What is God like?”
We understand what Philip is saying, don’t we?  We read the Old Testament, the same writings Philip and the others read, and we see different  images.  We see him angry and violent, and we see him merciful and forgiving.  We see him loving and caring, and we see him cold and distant.  We see him punishing some sin with capital punishment, and we see him letting a murderer—David—live, albeit with severe consequences.  And people today are really good at pointing to different Old Testament passages to support their causes and prejudices,  each one saying, “See?  This is what God is like.”  It is in fact confusing.
God became human to show us what the Father is really like, and that saves us from having to live in fear of an angry or distant God—or a false god.  We don’t learn what God is like by looking at isolated passages from the Old Testament, or through philosophical reasoning or speculation,  or through pop theology and superstition.  We learn what God is like by watching and listening to Jesus. 
To know the Father we look to Jesus first, last—and only.

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