A line in a sermon yesterday caught my attention. Here’s my paraphrase: “Immanuel means God With Us. It doesn’t mean God is on Our Side and Opposed to Their Side.” In light of our never-ending culture war controversies, it’s a powerful statement. But it also got me thinking about the significance of the Incarnation.
The quick review of Google images I did to find the above banner shows a great many pictures of the nativity scene with Immanuel blazoned over the top. The Star shines brightly over the young couple and their new baby. Many include references to Matthew 1:23 and Isaiah 7:13. All that is good, but maybe too good.
And yet the Incarnation is much, much more than that. I’m not taking anything away from the miracle of God Become Flesh. But I am trying to think about why it matters that God Became Flesh.
In one sense, God has always been with his people. He entered into covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Unlike other gods, who were capricious and could remove favor if not appeased, ruining crops, destroying nations, and so forth, this God seemed to be committed to his people even when they were facing hardship. The Isaiah passage looks forward to Bethlehem but is also a promise of support in the midst of Ahaz’s political turmoil.
But that isn’t enough. God moves from being with his people to being ONE of his people. Philippians 2: 5-13 explains how truly momentous this is.
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it isGod who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
Paul argues that Christ becomes human while maintaining divinity. In doing so, he enters into the world.
Not the world we imagine in nativity plays, but a conflicted world. A world that isn’t anywhere close to perfect. A world with mad Kings who will kill babies to eliminate future competition to his reign (or that of his descendants). A world with pagan occupiers and religious zealots. A world of patriarchy, economic inequality, superstition, and political fights.
Even the nativity story is messier than we portray. Caris Adel observes in her post today that Jesus birth may well have been one of the first awkward Christmas family gatherings, what with the pregnant women and her betrothed gathering with all the cousins. “An unmarried pregnant girl and her boyfriend at the family home with all the aunts and cousins and gossip? Yup, not awkward at all.”
Today Rachel Held Evans also wrote on the incarnation at the CNN belief blog. She explains that Jesus allows us to see what God’s priorities are: siding with the oppressed, hanging out with sinners, treating women with dignity, forgiving His enemies even on a Roman cross. She concludes:
But even when there’s nothing left to my faith but a little seed of hope, that hope is in the incarnation, in the radical teaching that God loved us enough to become like us, and that when God wanted to show us what he was like, God showed us Jesus.
The world we live in is equally messy. We have fights on all kinds of things: same-sex marriage, politics, women in ministry, politics, Duck Dynasty, racial reconciliation, politics, gender roles, economic issues, and politics, just to name a few. I just saw on twitter that the head of A&E is getting death threats for not supporting biblical marriage. Messy.
Here’s the big deal: God enters our world in all its messiness. It was messy in Abraham’s day (and Abraham certainly helped that). It was messy in Bethlehem. It was messy in the Galatian church. It was messy in the Crusades. It was messy in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. It’s messy today. It will be messy tomorrow.
We too often act as if we have to get things straight so that God can show up. We need political clout to get “biblical principles” established into law. Even though we imagine God is behind our preferences, we don’t quite trust him with the details.
Yesterday, Micah Murray shared how pro-slavery forces in America used a “biblical defense”:
“This leads to one of the most dangerous evils connected with the whole system, a disregard of the authority of the word of God, a setting up a different and higher standard of truth and duty, and a proud and confident wresting of Scripture to suit their own purposes… They seem to consider themselves above the Scriptures.”
This stuck with me last night at a candlelight service when we sang O Holy Night. The third voice includes these lines: “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother/And in His name all oppression shall cease.” The author, John Sullivan Dwight, wrote these lines in 1855. He also had a vision of how God’s Kingdom should look.
To have both these views looking for God’s Kingdom seems troubling. But that’s only from my perspective. God Incarnate is capable of dealing with the messiness of modern life. He entered into the messiness to share remarkable news, maybe even more remarkable than what the angels shared with the shepherds.
The remarkable news is that “The Kingdom of God is at Hand.” It’s actually begun in our midst. Because Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. It changes everything. Even our conflicts and confusions are part of that Kingdom. But slowly and quietly, we are being redeemed along with all of Creation. Because God became one of us, He enters into our messiness (both personal and societal) in line with “His good pleasure.”
Yesterday, I finished a wonderful e-book by Ed Cyzewski titled Why We Run From God’s Love (download it here for only $.99!). The last part of Ed’s book really triggered this entire post. This paragraph just floored me:
It’s crazy to believe that God would come to earth as a man, let people kill him, and then rise from the dead, but it’s even crazier to believe that this same God wants to bring this resurrection into our lives every day. God wants us to hand over our death, brokenness, and sorrow.
And yet that’s why the Incarnation is what we celebrate the day after tomorrow. Not just a nice story of angels and shepherds and wise men. But a commemoration of the day when Everything Changed. The day when the Kingdom Project begins . The day when my life gets caught up in this Large Story and I spent my days looking for the Next Advent and contributing to the Kingdom Project with “great fear and trembling”.