Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth

October 24th, 2013

We are on our way to a great adventure. We will travel to wonderful, mysterious places you cannot visit on your own, destinations so exotic you must have a guide to lead you there. You will be told secrets that the world does not openly discuss. Your world will be expanded, your life enriched and changed ... While there is nothing to be gained from overly intellectualizing the faith, there is much to be lost in dumbing down Jesus Christ. For one thing, the church doesn’t delight in insoluble cerebral puzzles; life does. As a pastor I discovered that people bring to church bigger, bolder questions than I pose in my sermons. They ask: Why am I unhappy? Is death the last word? Why can’t I keep my promises? Is this all there is? If Jesus is the Redeemer, why doesn’t the world look more redeemed?

Hucksters, religious and otherwise, prance the web pronouncing, “Six simple steps to…” or, “The secret of happier….” The church need not prove the lie behind the allure of simple truth, life does. All around us we see the sad wreckage of those who believed the reductionistic deceit that, “It’s all just a simple matter of…”

More important, Jesus defies simplistic, effortless, undemanding explications. To be sure, Jesus often communicated his truth in simple, homely, direct ways, but his truth was anything but apparent and undemanding in the living. Common people heard Jesus gladly, not all, but enough to keep the government nervous, only to find that the simple truth Jesus taught, the life he lived, and the death he died complicated their settled and secure ideas about reality. The gospels are full of folk who confidently knew what was what-until they met Jesus. Jesus provoked an intellectual crisis in just about everybody. Their response was not, "Wow, I've just seen the Son of God," but rather, "Who is this?"

The Doctrine of the Incarnation makes it possible to say what Christians must say about Jesus Christ. We never needed a Doctrine of Incarnation until we met Jesus—a material, fully human being just like us who was also the eternal unlike us.

Matthew says that when Joseph was told (in a dream) that his fiancée was pregnant, and not by him (God seems to enjoy delivering news like this when we are asleep and defenseless!) Joseph bolted upright and broke into a cold sweat. Having his world rocked required Joseph to rethink everything he once knew. Joseph could warn us: thinking about the jolt of Incarnation can be a bumpy ride.

Take my hand, we are about to enter deep water. Join my astonishment that Christians don’t just believe that Jesus was much like God; we think God is who Jesus is. And because we know that God is like Christ, we know the way the world is moving and what we must do to move with the grain of the universe.

Currently we are experiencing an outbreak of “spirituality.” As for me, I pray for a counter resurgence of “incarnationality.” In Christ, heaven and earth meet, God gets physical. In seeing Jesus, we believe we have beheld as much of God Almighty as we ever hope to see this side of eternity. “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9) is an astounding statement for anyone to make—particularly if that person is a poor, unemployed, homeless, wandering beggar who was eventually tortured to death by the government.

On how many occasions Jesus taught us by throwing out a parable beginning with, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” He made God’s realm mundane by saying, “A woman was kneading dough to make bread,” or “A king set out to make war,” or “A man had two sons.” He revealed heavenly things through earthy, time-bound parables. This inextricable mix of the earthly and the heavenly, the temporal and the eternal, the mundane and the mysterious characterized everything Jesus did; and, so his first followers came to believe, everything Jesus is. We’re at the heart of the Christian faith: Almighty God, the same being who hung the heavens and flung the stars in their courses, has become a man who lived in Nazareth.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation is thus our human attempt to make sense out of an event that has happened, is still happening—heaven and earth overlapping, interlocking in a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly and died violently. Then three days later, the women shout, “He’s back!” God here. God now.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation is our attempt to think about that.

excerpted from Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth by William H. Willimon ©2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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