The idea of incarnation is fundamental to the Christian faith, and something most Christians spend time pondering especially around this time of year. It perhaps has a particular significance for all of us as we come to the end of a difficult 2020. The word literally means, ‘in the flesh’ and in the Christian faith describes how the creator of the universe, and the creator of each person, took on human likeness and came to earth in human form. For many people, the idea that God could or would become human seems utterly bizarre. Leaving aside the philosophical considerations, to many, the very notion seems ridiculous. If there is a God, why would that God think that it is a good idea to come and live on earth as a human for a thirty or so years. It seems an irrelevant act, a strange use of time, and perhaps so ‘out of character’ with what we imagine a creator God would be like. But in a year where we have had to endure painful physical separation of loved ones, I know that for me, the idea of someone coming to visit me, ‘in the flesh’ has a new poignance.
Recently I was thinking about three little stories that the gospel writer, Luke, records Jesus telling. They are all stories of lostness and separation; a lost sheep, a lost coin, and lastly, two lost sons (Luke 15:1-31). Luke gives us the context for these stories: a very religious group of people, were criticising Jesus for ‘welcoming the sinners’ who had gathered around him. These leaders believed that religious people could not come near to anything or anyone that wasn’t holy or pure for fear of contamination. They believed this, because they believed that God could never come near to ‘sinners’. The religious leaders were shocked that Jesus, a Rabbi known for teaching the things of God, would so involve himself with these ungodly people.
It was in response to these questions and criticism that Jesus told these stories, stories which are in fact all about the nature of God. Jesus said that God is like a shepherd who will endanger himself for a sheep that has gone so far off course that it will take significant work and effort to bring that little sheep home. Jesus said that God is like a woman who is on her hands and knees searching for a precious coin. Lastly, Jesus said that God is like a father who will run towards a son returning home. For me, all of these stories give me a glimpse into the kind of God who would incarnate.
One theologian, Kenneth Bailey who spent twenty-five years studying ancient Middle Eastern culture in the West Bank records how shepherds of Lebanon and Palestine describe a sheep when it has got lost. They record that a sheep, when lost, can get into a state of nervous collapse and, finding as sheltered a place as is immediately available, will sit down and start shaking and bleating. In this terrified state it can’t respond to the shepherd’s well-known call, it can’t walk or be led, it cannot even stand or be made to stand. The only way that this sheep can be restored to the flock is if the shepherd himself comes to the sheep, hauls the sheep (which can weigh up to seventy pounds) up onto his shoulders and carry it like this, usually over rugged terrain, all the way home.
This image, to me, explains something about the idea of incarnation. In the image that Jesus gives us here, God is like a shepherd who will cover vast landscape to get to his sheep. Jesus is saying that God is like shepherd who will go the distance to make sure that his sheep gets safely home. There is a physicality to this story that speaks of actual closeness, of a gap being breached so that togetherness can be achieved. Even the image of a shepherd carrying the full weight of the terrified sheep on his own shoulders, not paying a hired hand to do it, but doing it himself, communicates to Jesus listeners, and to us, something of the nature of this God; a God who will endure suffering on our behalf.
The next image that we are given is that of a woman, down on her hands and knees searching for a coin that is lost. Here Jesus is helping his listeners to learn something new about God. Many theologians have noted the importance of Jesus likening God to a woman, as he does in other places (e.g. Luke 13:34) following in the tradition of many of the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 42.14). As in this case, Jesus constantly challenged the unjust treatment of women by including them in spheres from which they were usually excluded. The gospels record the religious leaders, the crowds and even his own disciples frequently being shocked by the way Jesus welcomed, included and honoured the women around him. He welcomed their intimate friendship as he did with his male disciples (Luke 7.38), he welcomed them as those who should be allowed to learn equally alongside the men (Luke 10:38-41), and in his teaching by using examples both from the world of men and from the world of women in that society (Mark 2:21-22).
This is no side-point about the character of God. In a world where power can often be associated with a type of dominant misogyny that seems to recoil from the feminine, the God of the Bible comfortably associates and identifies with women. Again, this helps us to understand something about the God of the Bible and the type of God who would incarnate. One of the reasons I find Christmas so compelling, and why each year I find that the carol Silent Night somehow captures my own feeling that I need to fall silent in awe and wonder, is this seeming paradox: that the God of the universe would become a little baby. Many scoff at the idea of the most powerful being becoming the most vulnerable. What kind of God would allow himself to be so weak? A God who doesn’t recoil from receiving love, intimacy, from being so vulnerable himself as to be held for 9 months in a mother’s womb, cradled in his parents’ arms, suckled, comforted. It is so hard for us to square with our preconceived notions of power and might. Yet here again, Jesus invites us to understand the nature of God in profoundly new way.
Lastly Jesus likens God to father. A father who has been scorned by both sons. Sons who are far more interested in what their father can give to them than in a relationship with him. Yet when one son realises his folly and turns for home Jesus tells us of a father who has been waiting, scanning the horizon, longing for his son to turn and come back. When he finally glimpses his son, still a long way off, we are told the father picks up his robes and runs to the son. Again, theologians have noted a stark cultural reference which could be easy for us to miss. It would have been unthinkable for a wealthy man to pick up his robes, exposing his ankles, and to run, let alone towards a son who had so dishonoured him. The listeners would have been aware of how undignified this action would have been in the sight of the community looking on.
Here again Jesus is conveying something utterly profound about the nature of God. Not only is this God willing to go the distance and bear the weight of a lost sheep, not only is this God willing to be associated with what might be thought to be weak and vulnerable, but this God is willing to be thought of as utterly undignified in his expression of love for his children.
When people think of the incarnation it can seem so undignified. How could a mighty and omnipotent God so closely intermingle with his creation. But the incarnation expresses something of the type of love that God has; a love that is not afraid to get up-close and personal. A type of love which is not revulsed by the materiality of this world, but who greatly values it and dignifies it, not only in having created it, but in having entered into it and taken on flesh himself. God loves and honours our bodies, he loves and honours this material world.
While the incarnation certainly contains much mystery, the more I consider what it tells me about the nature of God, the more I marvel and think – what other kind of God would I want to worship? In a year when so much distance has had to be created, I have felt again how relational intimacy is at the heart of life. If the God of the universe is a God who would incarnate, then that makes sense. The very reason for our existence is deep relationship with a God who has expressed his desire for intimacy with us in the ultimate way; he is Emmanuel – God with us. I hope that this Christmas whatever loneliness or alienation anyone might feel, we know the love of a God in heaven who longs to comes close to each one of us, a God who wants to carry our burdens for us, a God who searches for us because we are so eternally precious to him, a God who scans the horizon and will run towards us at the first sign of our turning for home.
Lara Buchanan is an Itinerant speaker with the RZIM and the Zacharias Trust. Lara holds degrees in History, English Literature, and Education from the University of Cape Town as well as a Certificate in Theology and Apologetics through OCCA The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and Oxford University.