A Mysterious God, a Tangible Christ
As Advent draws near, we spend a lot of time thinking, teaching, and preaching about the great Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In Christ, God comes to us, becomes one of us, "pitches his tent" among us. We talk a lot about why God does this, with most of those discussions orbiting the subject of our salvation. But I want to suggest another reason for God's gracious decision to come to us in Jesus Christ: the fact that most of us would rather be God's creator than God's creature.
I sense some head scratching at that last statement, so allow me to explain. Most of us understand that Israel's great temptation throughout the Old Testament is to idolatry; time and again they fail to center their hearts and their loyalty on YHWH alone, choosing instead to hedge their bets by slipping in the worship of other gods on the side. What too many of us don't understand is that this is a universal human tendency; we would all rather worship something lesser, something inferior, because we know that the Creator and Sustainer of all that is requires our full and final devotion, and on most days that just feels like too much work.
For Christians, though, the temptation to idolatry often takes on a particular shape: we want to use the word "God" to refer to some mixture of our own desires, perspectives, and proclivities. In other words, we want to remake God in our own image, creating for ourselves a deity who acts and thinks like we would if we were in charge. That is what I mean by saying that we would rather be God’s creator than God’s creature. Rather than the biblical God who always insists on upsetting our plans, sending us to places like Nineveh when what we really wanted was a new car, the God we create for ourselves baptizes our wishes and sanctifies our prejudices. This God loves what we love, hates who we hate, and calls us to work for peace, justice, and equality – for people who look like us.
In his excellent book In Defense of Religious Moderation, William Egginton explains that this particular form of idolatry is often the result of a false religious certainty. Any time we “know” beyond question who God is and what God wants, the God about whom we are so certain always winds up enhancing our group or personal power. The alternative to this idolatrous religious certainty, Egginton claims, is to admit and embrace the essential mystery of who God is. If God is who we claim God to be—all-knowing, all-powerful, Creator of all that is—then it does not lie within the power of finite human beings like you and me to grasp the reality of this God. Yet far from alienating us from God, this realization should bring us great spiritual joy. To say that God is God and we are not, to admit that the reality of God confronts us as a mystery, is to open ourselves up to a life of surprise and awe in the divine presence. With the idolatrous God created in our own image, we experience a false and self-defeating intimacy; with the true God we experience the reverential, overwhelming love of the creature for its Creator.
And yet, divine mystery by itself is not enough for us. We are, after all, created from the dust; the world we experience through our senses is always going to be most real. The mysterious God who dwells outside of time and space is an abstraction whose presence, no matter how beautiful, will always feel fleeting to us. And thus, God accommodates the divine reality to us. In the stories of Israel, and (for Christians) most especially in the story of Jesus, God chooses to reveal the divine character to us in terms we can understand. The incarnation itself—the infinite God becoming a finite human—will always remain a mystery to us. Yet the life that this God-become-human lived—walking, talking, eating, sleeping, laughing, teaching, preaching, loving—is no mystery. Because he was human just like we are, his story has become the story of God. In word and in deed he showed us how to abandon our false selves and our idolatrous deities in order to find our true meaning as creatures of the one, true God. In showing us the power of self-sacrificial love he completes the mystery of God. How he could love us will always remain a mystery, but that he loved us is as plain as the dust on his feet, and on ours.
Why is Advent so important? Because in Jesus of Nazareth, we encounter the mystery of God as mystery no more. We rejoice at the arrival of this season because in Christ we have discovered a tangible God, a God who, in becoming human, fully revealed the depths of God’s mysterious, yet undeniably real, love.