John Wesley often spoke of preaching as “offering Christ.” For Wesley, preaching was more than a string of interesting ideas, even interesting ideas about Christ; it was experience of and engagement with Christ as a living, relational being. With other Christians we join in basing all that we say and know about God on the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in a Jew from Nazareth in whom we believe we have seen as much of God as we ever hope to see. Jesus is “the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). He is not only the definitive revelation of God, but he is God, so much so that he was called “the Son of God.” When the Creator said something decisive to Creation, God said, “Jesus Christ,” so much so that the Gospel of John calls Jesus, “the Word,” saying that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
At the heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth.
All Christian theology, for certain all Wesleyan theology, is a series of implications and expositions on the primal, originating wonder that the Word was made flesh and moved in with us and we beheld in him the great glory of God. We believe that those dear folk who say — presuming intellectual humility – that God is ultimate, distant, ineffable and unknowable, are wrong. God is not vague and indistinct, aloof and indiscernible. God has a face, a name, a certain way of talking and living, and dying, and rising. Jesus Christ – who lived briefly, died violently and rose unexpectedly – is the One in whom “all the fullness of God chose to dwell” (Col. 1:19).
Let’s be honest. When you listen, really listen to Jesus, as you get to know him as he is revealed in Scripture and present in the church in word and sacrament, there is part of you that wishes that God had remained vague, indistinct, aloof, and indiscernible! What with Jesus’ forgiveness of enemies, his nonresistance to evil, his denigration of the powerful, and reaching to the outcasts, well, Christians are those who are still getting over the shock that when God came and showed us the fullness of divine glory it was Jesus!
“Incarnation” is a word whereby we join other orthodox Christians in maintaining a difficult but saving truth: Jesus Christ was completely human and fully God. Jesus was not God in disguise, or a man who was almost divine; he was truly human, truly divine.
God came to us as a baby, born in a human family. Jesus hungered, thirsted, and hurt, just like us. He was tested and temped like us (Heb. 4:15). He was no make-believe person and the final proof of that was his horrendous death on a cross. True, he was rightly human in a way none of us are. Though he was “tested as we are” says the Letter to the Hebrews “yet he was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Though we “walked in darkness,” (Isa. 9:2) he was radiant light. Though we have this propensity to rebel against God and try to be gods unto ourselves, he was fully obedient, even obedient to death on a cross.
When we stand and affirm in the Apostles’ Creed that he was “born of the Virgin Mary,” we are telling the story that is Incarnation. The “Virgin Birth” both claims Jesus’ godly nature – he was not something that we worked for or thought up – and Jesus’ human nature – he was born as we are born and died as we must die. The story of Jesus begins with a woman, an obedient woman who said in effect, “I don’t know all that you are going to do for the world through me, but here I am, send me.” (Luke 1-2) This is why the church traditionally spoke of Mary as the very first disciple. She was the first to hear the call of God in Christ and to say, “yes.”
Just when we were all set to worship a God who seemed distant, indistinct, therefore undemanding and irrelevant, a God who could be utilized in our pet causes and to fulfill our assumed needs, we met God in the flesh, Jesus the Christ. He managed to be both very close to us, very much like us and absolutely distant from us, very unlike us. He both stood next to us in our suffering and walked on ahead of us in our complacency. So if you are aggravated with Christians in general for talking in such seemingly convoluted and complex ways, and with United Methodists in particular, please know that we are trying to think about the almost unthinkable – “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).
William H. Willimon