On Sunday we thought about the incarnation, and it was the sermon I had been most looking forward to but also most dreading, because for me the incarnation is everything, and that means I have no idea how to do it justice. And so I apologise if what follows only scratches the surface, but if you catch something of my excitement and finish this blog a little more amazed by the wonder of the incarnation than you were before, then I will be happy. And I apologise if some of what I say I have said before, but the most vital things I know about faith (and by that I mean both the most important things and the most life-giving things) are rooted in the incarnation, and so it is inevitable that I will keep coming back to them.
There is a lot of deep theological work we could do around the incarnation, the claim that in Christ God became flesh, because there are a lot of big questions it raises. How could Christ be both perfectly man and perfectly God? If Jesus is God then why did he call himself the Son of God? How soon did Jesus’ followers start to realise that they had walked with God? It is perfectly valid to ask those questions, and there is great richness to be drawn out of seeking to answer them, but that’s not the approach I want to take now, because ultimately I cannot explain the incarnation, I can only affirm it. And I do affirm it, because when I think that God lived and moved among us in the person of Christ, taking on the fullness of our humanity while still remaining so perfectly God that he could reveal himself to us more fully than ever before, it moves me in a way that nothing else does, and in such a way that I know it to be the greatest mystery and deepest truth there is.
Theologian and novelist Frederick Buechner once wrote that it was the part of the preacher to tell the gospel in its highest and wildest and holiest sense, and what could be higher or wilder or holier than to declare that Christ was God with us? What a privilege to be given that truth to tell!
Buechner also wrote that God does not give answers, only himself. We see that in the story of Job, who demands to know why he has suffered so greatly, and who is never given an explanation but instead an encounter with the majesty of God. And that is precisely what we see in the incarnation. God doesn’t tell us how he does it, but he gives himself to us by stepping into our experience, sharing it with us so that we might know him better. And not only know him better but also know ourselves better, for in Christ we see the unspoilt image of God which we ourselves were created in, and so we learn what it means to be truly human.
The theologian John Colwell holds that there are only really two questions to ask when it comes to theology. What kind of God? And so what? They are the questions I want us to have in mind as we go on. What kind of God does the incarnation reveal? And so what for us?
For the last few years, my refrain over Christmas has been God with us in the dirt and the mess. We see that in very literal terms in the nativity story, as Christ is born into the dirt of an animal feeding trough and the mess of a family about to become refugees, and that beginning sets the pattern for the rest of his life. When Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the temple, they offer the sacrifice required of poor families, so we know that he did not grow up in wealth and ease. He spent forty days living in the wilderness and then three years on the road. And he died in blood and filth on the cross. God with us in the dirt and the mess is not just a strapline for Christmas, but the central truth of the incarnation, and so the central truth of God’s interaction with us. God is with us in whatever dirt and mess we are in.
The physical reality of Jesus’ life tells us that God did not shy away from living life on hard mode, and Jesus’ emotional life has always been significant to me too. It matters deeply to me that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and knew such distress in the Garden of Gethsemane that he sweated blood, and felt the absolute agony of feeling abandoned by God on the cross. It matters because it tells me that those feelings are part of what it means to be human in a broken world. They are a rubbish part of being human, but if Christ in his perfection could feel those things, then I am not a failed Christian or a bad human for feeling them too. There is great freedom and comfort in that.
The incarnation reveals a God who does not hold the pain and the difficulty of human life at a distance but stands in solidarity with our suffering and our hardship. A God who knows how it feels to hunger and to fear and to mourn, who knows what it is to be wounded and betrayed and tempted. A God who does not nod in remote sympathy when we turn to him in anger and lamentation, but sits with us in absolute empathy. And when we ask ‘so what?’ in the light of that, it cannot be to shrug it off or to defy it, to act as if it is of no importance, reactions which are perhaps suggested by that question. A God who has embraced our humanity so thoroughly is a God who calls to be embraced in return.
But it’s not just that Jesus shared our sorrows, because he shared our joys too. From the sheer number of gospel scenes that take place around dinner tables, I think we can say that he took pleasure in eating and drinking and spending time with people. If he felt thirst at the well in Samaria then surely he also knew the sweetness of a cool drink on a hot day. Perhaps the fish he barbecued on the beach for his disciples after the miraculous catch of fish was his favourite meal. Mary and Martha and Lazarus are described as friends not only followers.
The history of Christianity has at times revealed a tendency towards asceticism and spiritualisation, but that Christ took pleasure in material things means that it is right that we too take pleasure in material things. Of course there is a balance to be held if we are to avoid the opposite tendency towards a gospel of prosperity, but there is perhaps a sense in which Christ hallowed matter. Moses was told to take off his shoes at the burning bush because the ground he stood on was holy. Perhaps then all of human life has been made holy, or given the potnetial for holiness, by Christ’s presence in it. Before Christmas we decorated our tree with things we find beautiful. We started Lent by creating a tree of thanks for the things we see that are good in creation. Let us keep celebrating the simple and honest joys of life, of our own embodied existences, as Jesus enjoyed those of this.
The incarnation is one of the great contradictions of a faith that rests almost entirely on contradiction, and not only because it claims that Christ was at once fully God and fully human. It is a contradiction because it is at once utterly consistent with God’s action and altogether scandalous to our understanding. God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he appeared in pillars of cloud and fire to the Israelites in the desert, he showed himself to Ezekiel in exile. He has always been breaking into our experience, revealing himself in tangible ways, through matter and our senses, and he always will be. And yet the incarnation of God in Christ is still more than we comprehend or make sense of, and that’s okay. It should never be less than strange or surprising that God chose this way of reaching us, because it was an act of audacious hope and outrageous grace, and yet God’s track record can give us confidence that the incarnation is just the kind of crazy scheme he would dream up.
If there is one last thing I want to say about the incarnation, it is that it wasn’t simply Jesus marking time until the cross. There is a danger that this is how we often treat it. Especially as we approach Easter, we can focus so intently on Jesus’ death and resurrection that we end up speaking as though his life and ministry are nothing more than an extended prologue. We tell the stories of his miracles and we repeat the words of his teaching, but we almost feel we could do without them as long as we have the cross. I think that misses out on one of the greatest truths of our faith, that God was so invested in our humanity that he spent thirty years simply living it, and three years inviting others to live it with him. The incarnation encompasses death and resurrection, but it should not be reduced to them. The life of Christ is the greatest revelation of God and humanity that we have, and we shouldn’t overlook it or underestimate it.
So as we draw to an end, let’s return to those two questions John Colwell thinks we should be asking. What kind of God? A God who gives himself with abandonment to all that humanity has to offer. So what? So give yourselves the same way - to God, to one another, to all that it means to be fully and truly human. In our stories as much as in the big story, death is coming and resurrection is following, but for the moment there is incarnation, so embrace it.