The Meaning of the Incarnation
The Church of the Good Shepherd
Sunday, June 16, 2019
Text: John 17:20
“The glory which you gave me, I have given them, that they may be one, as We are one.” — John 17:20
Jesus said, “I and my Father are one;” what powerful words and it remained for those who follow after Him, a most difficult act of faith, the great stumbling-block for those early Christians, because they looked at their world in earthly terms. We have an advantage, however, over those earthly Christians today, because we have centuries of writings recorded in a Book that we consider to be the inspired word of God, and this allows us to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt.
These are the words of the late Reverend Billy Graham on the subject of the incarnation.
“First, let me tell you that the incarnation is a spiritual fact. The recurring theme of the Bible is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Prophets wrote of it, the Psalmists sang of it, the Apostles rejoiced and built their hopes on it, and the Epistles are filled with it. Christ’s coming in the flesh – His invading the world, His identifying Himself with sinful men and women is the most significant fact of history. All of humanities puny accomplishments pale into nothingness when compared to it.”
I don’t believe the actual word “incarnation” is mentioned in the Bible, but we do find reference to it in our creed stating that “He became incarnate from the virgin Mary and was made man.”
There are plenty of people who are willing to affirm the reality of God’s creative word. As they look around them, they can well imagine that word calling the universe into being. All of the complexity hidden in the smallest of things, all of the cosmic splendor which surrounds us, all of the vastness and wonder of space hint that something dynamic is out there somewhere. Seeing the spectacle of creation, we can assume that there is a divine and infinite creative process at work. St. John tells us, “When all things began, the word already was, and the word dwelt with God and what God was, the word was.”
But then, God made the ultimate sacrifice. That word became flesh and came to dwell among us; flesh like yours and mine. I can understand why that fact has always been hard to accept. How can Jesus and His Father be one? How can the word by which all things have come into being ever become flesh? To be flesh and blood is to be so limited. If God’s word has become flesh, it means that the incarnate word is limited in precisely the ways that you and I are limited; there is no supernatural wisdom to foretell the future – only the insight that comes from being profoundly open to God and to other people. There is no immunity from pain, or sorrow, or death. It means that this man is driven by the same passions that drive us and is tempted by the same ambitions and fears that haunt us. It means that He has to learn, just like everybody else, that there is no deposit of pre-digested truth lurking in His soul. He needs to sit at the rabbis’ feet just like all of His neighbors. His questions are real, and He knows, just as we do, the joy of the discovery of being in the flesh – flesh that stubs its toe and feels the pain; flesh that yearns for a good dinner at the end of a long day; flesh that feels itself shaking joyfully at a joke; flesh that aches from sweat and fatigue after a long journey in the hot sun; and flesh that can be broken and even nailed to a cross.
Yes, here was a young man of flesh and blood who was born in an obscure village, born the child of a young peasant girl. He grew up in another village and worked in a carpentry shop until He was thirty, and then for three years, He became an itinerate preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never went to college, and He never traveled more than two hundred miles from the place where He was born. Jesus never did any of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself. While He was still a young man, the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to His enemies, and He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to that cross between two thieves; and while He was dying, His executioners gambled for the only piece of property that He had on earth – that was His robe.
After He died, He was put in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. He was a living human being, and yet all of this is hard to believe. No wonder Christians have had almost as much trouble with it as anybody else. No wonder even Christian people have sometimes tried to forget that Jesus was a real man and have attempted to cloth Him in their mind with occult gifts as if He knew everything, as if He was so spiritual that pain could not really touch Him. There are times when we can even see hints where the New Testament writers themselves could barely hold onto His Humanity, in spite of everything, as if even they had trouble remembering that God’s word had indeed become flesh. In their hearts, these writers knew that it was true — that their friend Jesus was a man, and the Word had become flesh and blood. What a powerful thing for Christ to say: “I and the Father are one.” What a powerful thing to say about God!
There are probably people who would really prefer that God not do such a thing as to take on flesh. it seems sort of compromising for the Spirit of all creation to take on our very human shortcomings. Look at how vulnerable He becomes. If the Word is present in such a way as flesh, it means that we can get at God. It means that He is open to us, open to our embrace, but also open to our scorn. The word made flesh can be beaten, it can be sentenced to death, and can be killed. What kind of God is that? Well, I will tell you.
It is a God who makes Himself known not in power, but rather in weakness. That was one of the discoveries that touched St. Paul: that God would permit Himself this vulnerability in such a way. The power to dream of a cosmos and call it into being is one thing, but the power to become vulnerable is a much more daring kind of strength. This God, who became flesh, is a God who chooses to be accessible. The Word became flesh and came to dwell among us.
This is how we know God: “I and my Father are one.” When they heard Him speaking, Jesus’ friends recognized the God of their ancestors — a God with all of His love, compassion, and forgiveness. God’s healing, which they had heard about all their lives, became real when they saw a woman who had been sick for seven years, suddenly restored to health. God’s forgiveness, which had been preached about in centuries of sermons, became tangible when Jesus said, “Young man, your sins are forgiven.”
If God takes flesh in the life of Jesus, He also takes flesh in your life and mine. God’s forgiveness takes flesh in you and me; God’s love takes flesh in you and me; and God’s judgment takes flesh in you and me. Because of everything that Jesus was, potentially, we are meant to be. Everything that Jesus did, potentially, we are called to do. The Word of God became flesh in Christ so that God might also come to dwell in you and me. To say that God was in Christ, is not to make Christ different, but to make US different. Everything that we can say about Christ ideally and potentially ought to be true about us – not as we are, but as we might be – because, like Jesus, we bear the very image of the invisible God! And, that is the most profound of all humanisms against which every other humanism pales. What more value, what more glory could we ascribe to ourselves than to say that we bear the very image of God? What more of a profound description of what it means to be human could we hope for than to say that, like God, we are creative; that, like God, we are meant for love; and that, like God, we are gloriously free?
Of course, we know that is not all that might be said about us human beings. We know full well that there is a great gap between the glory, which is in Christ, and the day-to-day reality of this flesh and blood which we so often try to ignore, and its fulfillment in the life of Jesus. St. Paul spoke of Jesus as the “first born,” the “elder brother,” who goes on before us to show us the way – the way of the cross.
It is God’s word made flesh which at last conquers death. It is not that God has not always cared about death; our ancestors in faith always spoke of Him as the God of the living. An ancient poet knew very well the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death; but, the word made flesh is crucified. The word made flesh dies and is buried; and the word made flesh is raised from the dead; and that is the last thing to be said about us. It is because God has become flesh that death is defeated. Now, we know what is in store for this flesh and blood of ours. The first-born from the dead is not a freak of religious history; but, rather, the pioneer, the pilgrim who leads us on through death, which all flesh must come to know for itself – through death and beyond to life – real life.
Once upon a time, Jesus’s closest friends caught a glimpse of Him as if His whole being was alive with light. We know this event to be the transfiguration of our Lord. It seemed as if His very soul had been laid bare for them to see. What happened was a reflection of the truth that He and His Father were indeed one. The Word has become flesh, and we behold the glory. What happened to Jesus could only happen because He is human; and to be human is to be a Child of God, formed in His image. Jesus on the mountain revealed not His uniqueness, but rather the very image of God that He shares with us. To be like God, and to share His glory, is what makes us human. “The glory, which you gave me, I have given them that they may be one as we are one.”
What a thing to say about God; what a thing to say about humankind!