INCARNATION: The Outrageous Claim at the Heart of the Christian Faith, Part 2 ©

A couple of weeks ago the question was posed to the Warmed Hearts Sunday School Class (of which my wife is a member) at Arborlawn United Methodist Church along the lines of “what is the greatest miracle, the incarnation or the resurrection?” As my wife reported the discussion (I was not present), it is a fascinating question, and I have not been able to get it out of my mind. Even more, it is an excellent question. Regardless of how one answers it, the question takes us deep into the realm of core doctrines (teachings), which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.

I suspect that a good argument can be made for either the incarnation or the resurrection. Even more, my hunch is that a better argument can be made that they are theologically (ultimately) inseparable. This much is certain. Both the incarnation and the resurrection are outrageous claims at the heart of the Christian faith. Hold them together. In one hand, the incarnation – “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14); in the other hand, the resurrection – “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. . . . If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4,14).

Today, the great celebration called Christmas, I’ll take the incarnation as the outrageous claim at the heart of the Christian faith. If the incarnation had not happened, the resurrection could not have happened. I return again and again to Martin Luther’s great series of Christmas sermons (The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton). Luther is purported to have said, “The Gospel is not so much a miracle as a marvel” (Martin Luther, The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton, p. 10). This is so true. We take miracles somehow as an action outside of known scientific laws. I think this is a mistake. (For philosophers who are reading, I would argue that such a definition is a “category mistake.”) The label “marvel” better fits, for the incarnation is a wonder to behold, to take in with breath-stealing awe. God is at work here in our world and even more, in our very midst!

Dr. Bainton (a great history professor and author of the award winning Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther) captures well Luther’s conviction about the incarnation. “Christian teaching is that in Christ God became flesh. Compared with that, no particular miracle matters much. If one could but believe that do lay in the manger, one could let go the star and the angel’s son and yet keep the faith” (The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton, p. 12).

Recently a colleague encouraged me to re-read Annie Dillards’ marvelous book, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Dillard writes about attending a local church stuck back in a remote part of the country. “Week after week I was moved by the pitiableness of the bare linoleum-floored sacristy which no flowers could cheer or soften, by the terrible signing I so loved, by the fatigued Bible readings, the lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, the horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, p. 39). As she reflects on the core of the Christian faith she is taken in by the incredible truth and awesome reality of the incarnation, of the outrageous notion that the God of the entire universe is actually with us and for us in Christ. She writes, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flairs; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, pp. 52-53).

Thus it is, I think, that we come to this day called Christmas and this truth of Christian teaching we call the Doctrine of the Incarnation. John the Evangelist is surely right. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  Here we must live and move and find our being. This is a stone on which to stand; a foundation on which to build; an outrageous doctrinal core to hold on to at all costs.

In his missionary classic The Christ of the Indian Road, published in 1925, E. Stanley Jones eloquently portrays the powerful difference Christ’s show-and-tell, personal revelation made:

                He did not discourse on the sacredness of motherhood – he suckled as a babe at his mother’s breast and that scene has forever consecrated motherhood….
He did not discourse on the dignity of labor – he worked at a carpenter’s bench and his hands were hard with toil of making yokes and plows, and this forever makes the toil of the hands honorable….
He did not teach in a didactic way about the worth of children – he put his hands upon them and blessed them and setting one in their midst tersely said, “Of such is the kingdom of God.”…
He did not paint in lowing colors the beauties of friendship and the need for human sympathy – he wept at the grave of a friend.
He did not argue the worth of womanhood and the necessity of giving them equal rights – he treated them with infinite respect, gave to them his most sublime teaching, and when he arose from the dead he appeared first to a woman.
He did not teach in the schoolroom manner the necessity of humility – he “girded himself with a towel and kneeled down and washed his disciples’ feet.”
(taken from Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 46)

May the joy of the Savior’s birth be yours. Bishop Mike Lowry, Christmas Day, 2017

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