INCARNATION: The Outrageous Claim at the Heart of the Christian Faith, Part 1 ©

“Whew! You’d better take that sweater to the cleaners,” exclaimed Jolynn shortly after Thanksgiving. I confess, she was right. I had been holding (as much as I possibly could) then seven weeks old Adam Amittai Gabrielse-Lowry on my shoulder. He had rewarded my enthusiastic affection and joy by spitting up, multiple times, on the sweater. The smell of sour milk had left its marking scent all over me.

As I put the sweater in the car along with other clothes to go to the cleaners the following Monday, my thoughts had turned to Advent. Advent is the great time of preparation for the coming of the Savior. Thus it was a short mental leap for me to move from my beloved newest grandchild to the coming birth of the baby Jesus. Frederick Buechner’s words about “God in diapers” stuck in my mind.

Stay with me here, for this is the outrageous claim at the heart of the Christian Faith. God has come to us in the person of a baby named Jesus.

This outrageous claim is embedded firmly in John the Evangelist’s great symphonic opening overture. “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). Many a scholar has noted that the phrase translated as “made his home among us” (CEB translation) or “dwelt among us” (KJV) means literally “pitched his tent among us.” Luke offers the awesome grandeur of an angelic announcement. “Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). Matthew shares in a more prosaic phrasing; “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place…. She gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus” (Matthew 1:18, 25). Mark, well Mark only gets at this universe-shaking change of reality in a roundabout way. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, … After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:1, 14-15).

Each gospel in its own unique way announces a cardinal, core conviction of the Christian doctrine (teaching). It is called simply the Doctrine of the Incarnation. The great Nicene Creed puts it this way:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”

Scholars define the term “incarnation” as literally meaning “enfleshment.” As one eminent scholar puts it, “incarnation expresses the belief that the divine took human form, or to be more specific, that God’s Word became the human being Jesus from Nazareth” (James D.G. Dunn, “Incarnation,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 I-Ma, p. 30). This outrageous claim lies at the heart of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul understands full well what is at stake in the doctrinal conviction of the incarnation, especially as it plays out in the death and resurrection. “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

This claim of incarnation, of the God of the entire universe coming in human flesh and living among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, must be at the very heart of our preaching, singing, prayers, and sharing at Christmas. Frederick Buechner grasps the essence of this outrageous doctrine at the heart of the Christian faith when he writes, “The incarnation is a kind of vast joke whereby the Creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers…. Until we, too, have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”

To us, a “savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). May we sing with the angels and come with exuberant awestruck joy to a Bethlehem stable to peer over the shoulders of kneeling and behold God with us.

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