The season leading up to Christmas, which has already begun for this year, is an opportunity to celebrate, ponder and engage a little-talked-about Truth. In our dash toward Christmas, we race right on by a power-full rest stop – one that is good for our entire life. This is the Truth of the Incarnation!
IN-CAR-NA-TION: (noun) “assuming human form or nature”
As Followers of The Way, we do not accept just any “incarnation.” A careful reading of the key teachings of other worldly religions reveals an awareness of “incarnation,” often under the idea of “reincarnation.” In fact, not long ago, because of the power of incarnation to move people, the Chinese government passed a law that no one can be re-incarnated without their permission! Tibetan Buddhists acknowledge incarnation. You’ve probably heard that various factions of Islam are also awaiting yet another “incarnation” of one of their great teachers.
As Jesus-followers, we believe The Incarnation. This is the teaching, or doctrine, that the second Person of the Holy Trinity assumed human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the God and man – fully God and fully human – a Divine Person intimately and permanently united to a human nature with a human body. And, he needed no one’s permission to be so!
For years, I have quietly pondered the Nicene Creed’s confession: “Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” Too bad we read this so quickly thinking we have confessed this transforming Truth. Here, we believe The Incarnation is for the purpose of our salvation – rescue.
The Incarnation of the LORD causes me to pause for it speaks of the condescending nature of our God: “he came down from heaven.” So many want a God who is larger, bigger, stronger, above it all, what we call “transcendent.” Yet, in The Incarnation, He comes to us! He enters into the world he made! He takes on the human form designed to bear the Image of God! He becomes the servant among us … living as we live … speaking as we speak … learning as we learn … working as we work … laughing as we laugh … crying as we cry! In a specific place and within time, God the Son empties himself, submitting to all things and everything human – being tested in every way as we are – even to death. Too many people still overlook this mystery of Grace; this God-coming to us as we are – and for our benefit!
What could happen today if Christians believed The Incarnation? I know, many read the Nicene Creed and claim to agree with what it says. Others will take the less-than-thoughtful position “the Bible teaches it; I believe it; that settles it.” Still others will say “I’ve been to pastor’s bible study on incarnation and I believe what he taught” or “I’ve read the textbooks on the topic.” My question is “So?”
What this exposes is a faulty understanding of “believe.” To “believe” something – like The Incarnation, let’s say – is not so much being able to agree with the doctrine, studying it, intellectually assenting to the teaching or even accepting it as true for those who believe it. When I listen the conversations many “believers” have nowadays, I regularly hear “belief” is what I can agree with, understand. Too many overlook this mystery of Grace because they think they “believe” it.
Here is where it is helpful to move beyond the Hellenized world of our culture and enter into the Hebraic world of the Incarnate One. Jesus did not live in a world where to “believe” something primarily meant you agreed with it. He served in a world where “to believe” meant you drew strength from what you “believed.” Since words tell stories, the Scriptural words for “believe” tell the story of “one who is weak drawing on and from the strength of one who is strong.” In other words, what you “believe” is fully relational and life transforming!
Consider the man whose son is healed and blurts out “I believe, help my unbelief.” This grieving father’s confession rarely impacts our lives. Most of us think the man was saying to Jesus “I agree with what you’re saying/doing, please help me to overcome my ignorance.” That, to me, would seem an odd way of hearing what this father was crying out for. Consider the alternative: “I have drawn strength for living from you, but I still need your help in drawing strength further so that I can continue to live.” I like that a lot better!
OK, so you say “I believe in the Incarnation.” My question is “really?” Do you mentally assent to the doctrine or do you draw strength for daily living from this even-now Reality? Do you claim to know what this means or do you recognize the Life-Changing Truth offered to you? Just imagine, if we “believed” The Incarnation, how this transforms everything about the world in which we each live. The Living God has honored my human nature, my human body, my human vocation, my human living of life! And, “Faith” is not so much agreeing with the teaching of such-and-such or so-and-so, but is the daily drawing of breath and strength, vitality and hope from the One who knows – really knows – what it is to live in this world!
So, back to my question, what could happen if Jesus-followers “drew strength for living” from the Incarnation? While I suspect there is likely a multi-faceted response to this question, let me suggest at least one opportunity: Jesus-followers would themselves be “incarnational.”
IN-CAR-NA-TION-AL: (adjective) “the act of assuming the form or nature of a local neighborhood.”
I so appreciate the paraphrase of John 1:15 from The Message: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” That Jesus – the fully Incarnated Son of the Living God – “moved into the neighborhood” is a pretty good understanding of what the Spirit moved John to record for our learning. The original text says that The Logos came to “tabernacle” among us. He was the mobile Presence of the Living God! This highlights that Jesus lived the human life as we do, that he used human language, that he developed human relationships, that he learned to speak, read and write as we learn, that he faced temptations as we do, being as we are. To meet Jesus is to meet the Living LORD!
This short verse unites the reality of the Incarnation (the Word became flesh) with the life-focus of being incarnational (moved into the neighborhood). As I suggest, to “believe” the Incarnation leads to incarnational living. We draw from Jesus the pace and direction of our lives as his apprentices.
Jesus-followers are like a van load of people on tour observing him in the local culture while learning to live as he says is best. We “move into the neighborhoods,” placing our lives alongside the mission of Jesus to the people of the world in the places where they live, work and play. This is certainly a multi-faceted, life-on-a-mission approach. Using our sanctified imagination, engaging our creative gifts with a life toward loving God and our neighbor, the incarnational life opens many possibilities for Jesus-following in the local places of life where he is already active.
Consider: “as the Father has sent me (Incarnation), so I am sending you (incarnational).” Suddenly, Immanuel – God with us – is real! Being incarnational is stepping out of our safe places and engaging people and neighborhoods around us as Good News. Francis of Assisi reminds us: “preach Christ often, sometimes use words.”
“Drawing strength” from The Incarnation makes possible the life that is Incarnational. Not automatically, however. Sure, you can agree with the doctrine of Incarnation, you can even know what “incarnational living” might look like in your community. There is no end to the conversations that could be had if all you do is talk about what Jesus says is best. What must take place at some point in your journey with Jesus is choosing to become an “incarnationalist.” And, as part of your choice, you must take action – “you” being plural!
IN-CAR-NA-TION-AL-IST: (noun) “one living an incarnational life”
Frankly, I’m not even sure if that is a word regularly used by Jesus-apprentices, but it does seem to capture one aspect of our privilege in life today. Being an incarnationalist asks that we move from our understanding of Incarnation and beyond our agreement with incarnational living to the actual, everyday being with Christ and living along the relational contours He offers. Up to this point, learning to live as Jesus says is best keeps us in the house with our buddies doing the necessary study to make sure we’ve got it right. Becoming an incarnationalist moves us from being a living-room learner to one who lives what we believe (remember what “believe” means?) in the places where people live, work and play – where Jesus already is.
As I consider this call upon our lives, I realize the unique way each of you will bear witness to the Incarnate One. It is within this marvelous diversity of living that the “nations” (local cultures) of our world can be shown a glimpse of the Life our Lord gave his life for us to have. My dream is for this “glimpse” to become an “apprentice” of our Master, and a community without walls.
Enjoy your time with family and friends, with your local church as you are equipped, graciously living with gratitude “for you and for your salvation.” Then, quietly ask for guidance as you’all “draw strength” to live as an incarnationalist in the coming … If we can help, let us know.
Craig W. Henningfield, M.Div., D.Min.
Missionary – Coach
The Church Without Walls