“And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14a).
What does the Incarnation mean?
God is not a tourist. God comes to stay. God embraces all the pain in the universe in order to stay connected. We who follow Jesus do not know a detached deity. That’s the Epicureans, and the free market capitalists (probably the same crowd). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said from a Nazi prison cell, “Only a suffering God can help.” Bonhoeffer should know.
We would prefer a detached deity if it were really up to us. When I say “we,” I mean most white American Christians. We desire the god who remains at a distance. We like the god who refuses to get involved. We want a god who minds his/her/its/their own business. We assume this god leaves us to our own devices. We settle for the god who doesn’t jump in or judge. This is the god we really like.
If we are honest, we must confess that God has not willingly left the scene. When I say “we,” I still mean most white American Christians. Instead, we have pushed God out of this world and onto the cross. We want a god who does not interfere, who makes no demands, who causes no disruptions. We can then blame God for being unavailable.
We live as functional atheists and then wonder why God is not present. We prefer autonomy and isolation, and then we weep over our spiritual desolation. We live as if there is no god, and then wonder where God has gone.
The Incarnation means that we worship the God who has “skin in the game” (by the way, that skin is brown, in historical terms). Colossians, chapter two, verse nine, puts it this way: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”
The Incarnation means that God comes to us as we are. In Romans, chapter five, verse eight, Paul reminds us that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
The Incarnation means that we are not God’s “project” to be abandoned once we are “fixed.” God comes to remain with us—to make us God’s children, friends, partners. The Incarnation declares to us that God’s love for the world is steadfast. In Romans, chapter eight, verse thirty-nine, we remember that nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God is not a tourist. God comes to stay.
So, what does the Incarnation mean today? A confirmation student once asked me, “Why isn’t Jesus doing any good stuff today the way he did two thousand years ago?”
We have failed that young person. The church is the body of Christ. The church is the ongoing expression of the Incarnation of Jesus in the world. So I answered that student in this way. Jesus is doing that good stuff today—through us, the church!
The church is one of the ways that God comes to stay. If it fails at that role, the Church should dissolve and give the building to someone who will do some actual good. No, this isn’t a cute Christmas homily with friendly beasts, smelly shepherds, noisy angels, and no teeth. Sorry (not really).
Nathaniel Ayers was cellist trained at the Juilliard School of the Performing Arts. He was also a homeless man on the streets of Los Angeles, battling paranoid schizophrenia. Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, saw him on the street one day, playing a broken violin. Lopez felt compelled to help him. The story was captured in the 2009 movie, The Soloist. The movie becomes a parable of the Incarnation.
Lopez gets Ayers a real cello. He tries to secure housing for him. He even arranges for more musical training and support. But Ayers’ illness remains. At one point he attacks both the music instructor and Lopez when he suffers a paranoid delusion.
As Lopez sits raging and bleeding, he has an epiphany. Michael Frost describes it this way. Lopez “realizes his mistake in trying to perform some miraculous therapeutic act in Ayers’ life and get out as quick as he can. Ayers’ presence in his life isn’t a simple project to be completed; it is an opportunity for true friendship—messy, frustrating, joyful and unending.” And we might end up raging and bleeding along the way…
Steve Lopez put it this way. “I’ve learned the dignity of being loyal to something you believe in.” (Michael Frost, Incarnate, page 83). That dignity is part of God’s heart. That dignity takes on flesh in the Incarnation. That dignity is the highest expression of God’s image in us. A side note, of course, is that any number of “secular” people get that a lot better than many “church” people do.
Jesus does continue to do the good stuff in the world. Jesus chooses to do at least some of that good stuff through us, the church.
God is not a tourist. God comes to stay. What does the Incarnation mean for us church people?
It means that Christian faith and practice are inherently and intensely communal. This is hard for churches and people who still hang with the bankrupt assumptions of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is supposed to make us all free and some of us rich. That happened for a very few of us because it leaves the rest of us naked to the power of giant corporations. Christians have historically been part of building and sustaining mediating social structures that provide love, cover and support for the most vulnerable in a society.
Christians are called to be critical of any and every human system which claims god-like powers. The “market” is such a system and cannot stand up to the scrutiny. I read somewhere that you cannot serve two masters…And by the way, non-Christian (which is different from anti-Christian, use your brains SBC seminary presidents) analyses like Critical Race Theory that get us to the same theoretical place are not opposed to Christian theology but rather complementary to it.
At this point in life and history it means that Christian faith and practice are inherently and intensely political. If I have not lost most church people by this time, they’re probably headed for the exits now. But “political” is what incarnational looks like, especially in a system that is supposed to be about “we the people.” “Political” in our setting means involved in the work of social justice for all. And all means all.
By now, a lot of traditional Christians have left the building and the parking lot as well. Fortunately for me, I’m retired and don’t depend on those people for my mortgage money. That’s a privilege I acknowledge, and I better use it for something besides myself. So, here we are.
At this point in life and history, it means that Christian faith and practice are inherently institutional. We need to work to make the institutions healthy. My love/hate relationship with the organized church tilts far too heavily to the “hate” side most of the time. When you work in the sausage factory for forty years, you lose your taste for bratwurst (metaphorically speaking).
But it’s easy to just blow it all up and say we’ll start over. As a veteran of such demolition efforts, I’m inclined to try to salvage the good and remodel the rest. So, no matter how pissed off I get at the institutional church, I want it to work, and to work the way it’s supposed to.
I can’t be part of that if I take my marbles (and my money) and leave. So, crabby old curmudgeon that I’m becoming, I’ve found a perch and I’m staying. That’s as close as I’m going to come to divinity, I suspect.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “the central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation…Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.” (Miracles, page 112). How will you be part of the miracle this week?
God is not a tourist. God comes to stay. Blessed Christmas!