Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth — No Image of God but from God

In November, Abingdon Press published my book Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth.  This is the first installment in my new series on theology for the church.  Future writers in the series will be Stanley Hauerwas and Fleming Rutledge, friends of mine who have great talent for talking about the glories of Christian theology.   Below is a selection from my book on Incarnation.

No Image of God But From God

In the first of the Ten Commandments we were forbidden to create any image of God.  Counter to much current “spirituality,” we are not free to come up with any old “god” who suits our need.  In Jesus Christ, it was as if the true and living God said, “Humanity, you want a true image of me?  You want the secret of who I really am and what I’m up to?  Don’t attempt to make an image of me; I’ll give you a true icon – Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), no less than “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3).

“Incarnation,” (from the Latin word for “in the flesh”) is the set of ideas by which Christians believe that Jesus Christ is both divine and human.  The Incarnation is the grand crescendo of our reflection upon the mystery that Christ is the full revelation of God; not only one who talks about God but the one who speaks for and acts as God, one who is God.  Generally we do not say that God was Christ, more typical for the New Testament is the phrase “God was in Christ” (2 Corin. 5:19).   Or it is said that the eternal “Word became flesh” (John 1:14).

Not that Jesus Christ ─ as the visible image of the invisible God ─ is obviously, self-evidently God.  From the first, most people who encountered Jesus said not, “That Jew from Nazareth is God!” but, “That’s not the way God is supposed to look.”  A word of warning: Most of us have been indoctrinated into the modern, Western conviction that we already have the ability to think clearly about anything. We have all we require innately, on our own to think clearly and truthfully about whatever we choose .  Our democratic sensibilities are therefore offended by the thought that the meaning of God is a gift given to some, a phenomenon that I lack the innate skills to comprehend on my own. God must reveal the truth  to us or we can’t know it.

Why isn’t Jesus Christ’s divinity more obvious?

Well, for one thing, God is God and we are not.  The Old Testament teaches that it is fearful and devastating for mere mortals to gaze directly upon God, as painful as gazing upon the sun.  For another thing, we have expectations for how God ought to look and act if God were worthy of our worship.  From the first, Jesus failed to measure up to our expectations of God.

The Danish Christian philosopher, Sðren Kierkegaard said it would have satisfied our intellectual hankerings if God had appeared as a “very rare and tremendously large green bird” rather than as a homeless rabbi.  God surprised us by appearing in human form, as a person who looked suspiciously like the annoying guy next door, an undeniably human person who hungered, thirsted, rejoiced, suffered, raged, wept, and died as all persons do.

And yet, in an astonishingly short time after his death, Jesus’ once disheartened followers began boldly telling the world that when we encounter Jesus, we encounter God.  This Jew from Nazareth is as much of the true and living God as we ever hope to see.  None of them said, “Jesus lives on in our memories,” or “We’ve had a meaningful religious experience; let us show you how you may have one too.”  What they said was, “Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Father’s Eternal Word, the only begotten Son of God.”

This was a shock to nine-out-of-ten Near Easterners who assumed that God’s primary attributes were unrestrained power and undeniable glory.  Not much power and glory in a crucified rabbi.  But those whom the Holy Spirit pushed to greater open mindedness saw that there was more to God than they previously thought.  Once reminded that the main attribute of Israel’s God is steadfast, forbearing love, Jesus as Son of God made more sense.  If God is not solely power and glory, as we define those things, if God is glorious suffering, powerfully redemptive love, then it made sense that God might indeed come among us as a lowly servant who healed, taught, forgave, suffered, died and rose to bring us close to God.

How wonderfully ironic that God Almighty should turn out to be most godly precisely in God’s suffering and dying for ungrateful, wretched, erring sinners who, by our lives and actions, seemed most distant from holy, righteous God.

The Strangest Story

The only way we know the truth of this God-become-servant is through scripture, ancient stories that were told by those who were close to Jesus from the first.   If we are to know the whole truth about God, we must submit to these ancient writings.  The gospels at times seem a bit like biography, but they are more.  In places, they sound like history, but more.  They are certainly talking about events that happened at a specific time and place, but they do so in a way that often seems strange.  It is a mistake to think that the gospels sound strange because they are ancient.  They are strange because they attempt to describe events that really happened – God coming close to us in Jesus Christ – by events so challenging to our way of thinking that gospel talk sounds odd.

“Luke, tell us what you know to be true about Jesus Christ,” and Luke tells a story about a young woman conceiving a child out of wedlock, birthing in a cowshed, sky erupting with angelic proclamations, and, well you know the Christmas story.   Surely Luke would have told us what is true about Jesus Christ in another way if a more acceptable way were adequate for conveying the facts about Christ.  Indeed, Matthew, Mark, and John tell remarkably different stories about the advent of Jesus Christ, not to confuse the truth, but rather because the truth they  told was both historical and transcendent. Our gospels describe so much more than mere facts can tell.

Not that the earliest accounts of Jesus are fiction. The gospels are not some sort of primitive attempt at novels.  They are realistic attempts to speak about real events in which the witnesses found that their sense of themselves, of their world, and of God got decisively disrupted and rearranged.  But what they have seen and heard strains their ability to tell in order to be true to the facts of the matter.

In a sermon preached in 396, Augustine ridiculed a disbelieving world that regards, “this stupendous miracle as fiction rather than fact.… They despise the human because they cannot believe it; they do not believe the divine because they cannot despise it.”  Augustine went on to rhapsodize, “The one who holds the world in being lay in a manger; he was simultaneously speechless infant and the Word.  The heavens cannot contain him; a woman carried him in her bosom. She was ruling our ruler,…suckling our bread.”  A strange wonder evokes strange speaking.

The scriptures tell us the truth about Jesus who is in turn the truth about God.  If any of us limited creatures is able to comprehend, to believe, and in believing to stake our lives upon the one who was, “The way, the truth and the life,” (Jn. 14:6) that believing is also a miraculous work of God among us.  Thus we, by the grace of God, in our lives, become living testimony of the truth of Incarnation.  Theologian, Karl Barth said that if you are able to believe in the strange, wondrous birth, your belief is a miracle akin to the miraculous birth of Jesus.

Will Willimon


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