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He Came Because He Wants It the Way It Was
To truly appreciate what Jesus's incarnation means to us, we have to ask the why. Why did God come to earth? Why did He go through all the trouble? Why didn't He just forget about humanity, let it go, and start over? Why would He let His Son not only come to us but also die in the process? If you have grown up with Christian theology, you know that a perfect, holy God cannot let imperfection, or what we call "sin," have the last laugh. Because God is in His nature both perfect in love and perfect in justice, He needed a way to remove sin from humanity so that humans could be back in relationship with Him. The only payment, or what we call "atonement," for sin is someone without sin dying in the place of those who do sin. The only option therefore was God's sinless Son in place of us, sinful humanity.
That makes sense at least as an equation for why God had to come and die. But the incarnation isn't just about an equation. It's about an emotion. God wanted us back. He wanted it the way it used to be.
Nostalgia means "to return or go back home." It is an emotion like homesickness.
In my office I have several pictures. One is with my daughter Alli. She is standing with me in the Yellowstone River. Our backs are turned to the camera so you can see a beautifully snowcapped mountain casting reflections on the water as we're both fly-fishing. She was ten. Next to that is a picture of the first bull elk I shot after eight years of unsuccessful attempts. It was the perfect hunt. As a herd of elk came crashing through an opening in some deep, dark timber in the Grand Mesa, I hid inside some scrub oak. All the cow elk came running by my left shoulder, some even grazing my arm. The last elk, the six-by-six herd bull, stopped as it caught my scent. Then it came through, following the herd. I wheeled around and fired from twelve inches away. It dropped immediately, and for thirty minutes I just sat in silence, thinking, I must be God's favorite human. Next to that photo is another with both my daughters stooping down in a river that ran beside our vacation cabin. It was our favorite spot, and the photo fills my mind with memories that could sustain me forever. That trip was the best of everything.
We all have nostalgia and memories of going back home. Some of us remember our fathers through old cars; some of us keep Christmas ornaments our mothers passed down. Maybe it's old guns; maybe just a photo. But whatever the point of reference, we all know the emotions of looking back to times that brought us great joy. Nostalgia is the answer to the why.
God is not a robot. He isn't a comptroller of an accounting company trying to make things add up or work out. He is a being full of deep emotion, longing, and memories of what it used to be like. The incarnation therefore isn't about an equation but about remembering what home used to be like and making a plan to get back there. Consider this reboot of the Genesis creation account. It may help you see God's emotion a little better.
First off, nothing ... but God. No light, no time, no substance, no matter. Second off, God says the word and WHAP! Stuff everywhere! The cosmos in chaos: no shape, no form, no function—just darkness ... total. And floating above it all, God's Holy Spirit, ready to play.
Day one: Then God's voice booms out, "Lights!" and, from nowhere, light floods the skies and "night" is swept off the scene. God gives it the big thumbs up, calls it "day".
Day two: God says, "I want a dome—call it 'sky'—right there between the waters above and below." And it happens.
Day three: God says, "Too much water! We need something to walk on, a huge lump of it—call it 'land'. Let the 'sea' lick its edges." God smiles, says, "Now we've got us some definition. But it's too plain! It needs colour! Vegetation! Loads of it. A million shades. Now!" And the earth goes wild with trees, bushes, plants, flowers and fungi. "Now give it a growth permit." Seeds appear in every one. "Yesss!" says God.
Day four: "We need a schedule: let's have a 'sun' for the day, a 'moon' for the night; I want 'seasons', 'years'; and give us 'stars', masses of stars—think of a number, add a trillion, then times it by the number of trees and we're getting there: we're talking huge!
Day five: "OK, animals: amoeba, crustaceans, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals ... I want the whole caboodle teeming with a million varieties of each—and let's have some fun with the shapes, sizes, colours, textures!" God tells them all, "You've got a growth permit—use it!" He sits back and smiles, says, "Result!"
Day six: Then God says, "Let's make people—like us, but human, with flesh and blood, skin and bone. Give them the job of caretakers of the vegetation, game wardens of all the animals." So God makes people, like him, but human. He makes male and female.... He smiles at them and gives them their job description: "Make babies! Be parents, grandparents, great-grandparents—fill the earth with your families and run the planet well. You've got all the plants to eat from, so have all the animals—plenty for all. Enjoy." God looks at everything he's made, and says, "Fantastic. I love it!"
Day seven: Job done—the cosmos and the earth complete. God takes a bit of well-earned R&R and just enjoys. He makes an announcement: "Let's keep this day of the week special, a day off—battery-recharge day: Rest Day."
I'm not normally a paraphrase guy, but we always read the creation story like a textbook. I love this rendition because it captures the enthusiastic emotion that God felt about everything He created, especially humans. He loved it all. He loved us. Most of all, He loved the way things were. Life ran perfectly. We were in perfect relationship. We had perfect purpose. Perfect provision. Perfect protection from anything bad. It was even perfect in that we had a choice to keep it that way.
The choice came in a tree that God put in the middle of Paradise. After He gave Adam and Eve the fullness of perfection in every way, He asked them not to eat from this one tree. They did, and bam! Just like the herd of elk crashing through the timber, the earth began to groan and crack with noises and screams, lies, shame, guilt, pain, broken dreams, broken relationships—sin!
Was God caught off guard? Did the incarnation become a plan B that God had to put into motion? No. God knew that His perfect love would require free will to have its day, and He knew what we would choose. As an old song says, "It was not a haphazard event, or a secondary scheme, but it was the plan of the Lord to redeem." God knew as He was creating perfection that He would lose perfection and have to buy us back to get us home. God was nostalgic, and He still is today! His memories seeped vivid, living color; epic smells, sights, and sounds; and experiences with His created friends, animals, streams, forests, and food. And that's why He made plans to send His Son. He wanted to go back to the way it was!
THE BIG BUYBACK
Okay, now that we see God emotionally longing to have creation—and especially us humans—back the way it was, let's dive into a theological word that really colors in the lines. The word is redemption.
Redemption sounds lofty, but it just means "to buy back."
Nostalgia born of beautiful memories is the deep emotion that moved God to want to have things the way they were. Redemption was the pathway He created to get back there.
A question many people have in relation to sin is, Why didn't God just forgive everyone and let folks start fresh every day? Why let His Son die if He could just let everything go? Well, the answer is actually simple. If God just forgave sin without fixing sin, then the destruction of Paradise would continue: pain, unfulfilled potential, ruined lives. Essentially the world would run like Mad Max in the Thunderdome because people cannot fix themselves. Jesus's life, death, and resurrection proved not just that God wanted us back but that He has power over sin and imperfection and that His original design can be renewed, rebuilt, and reconceived.
Don't think of the doctrine of the incarnation as doctrine. The incarnation is a story of passion. God longed for everything to be back the way it was, and therefore He sent His Son, Jesus, to remedy the cycle of sin so that everything could be made new! That is way more than something to be studied. It is something to be considered and reflected on. That is the why of incarnation, and if you don't stop to ponder why Jesus came, you will most likely miss the passion God wants to give you for living incarnationally for those around you.
I've had the fortune of knowing quite a few people who have adopted children from other countries. In every case these children are being literally purchased from a life of parentless poverty. You would think that the process would go much easier than it does, but each case is full of lengthy delays, expensive additional fees, and multiple trips before a child is released to his or her new family. And then it gets worse. As children experience this literal "redemption," they often lash out in anger at the loving parents who are trying to give them a new life. The children have to learn a new language, they can't believe they won't be abandoned again, and they'll even fight other siblings for food because they have gotten used to rummaging for daily sustenance. One close friend of mine said, "I never thought it would be so hard to get my adopted son to believe he's actually adopted."
You would think that when people hear about God's love and His plan to send Jesus, they would run full throttle toward this story. No other religion offers a God who pursues humanity. Not one! Other religions paint a picture of gods who sit back and judge, leave us to our own devices, and wait for us to screw up. But faith in Jesus is simply not that. It's faith in a God who became one of us, who came to us and pursues us. But so many reject this faith, and even a large percentage of those inside the ranks never view their faith in context of His full humanity. We settle for faith about Him, and we let Him be our Savior ... but so few let Him actually buy their lives back. We love Jesus as a baby on Christmas, and Jesus risen from the grave on Easter, but somehow we miss Jesus the man, the teacher, the sage, the rebel, the subversive King, the local hero, the neighborhood friend. It is in all of these characteristics that He models a way to buy our lives back, to redeem us. But we miss it and settle for worshipping Him and waiting for Him to come back when all the while He offers us a pathway back to Paradise.
As you think about truly letting Jesus live His life in your life, or you living His life, try not to focus so much on reaching others, converting sinners, or challenging the saints. Redemption is a much bigger picture. God wants you to have His life. Jesus said that the whole reason He came was so we might have life—abundant life. He didn't come and take on flesh so that you would someday pray a salvation prayer, go to church, and settle for a semireligious life. He has bigger hopes and dreams for you than that. He came so that His divine life could actually take root in you and so that you could relate to Him like humans used to before sin messed everything up. So don't let the incarnation be just about you helping others find God. First, stop and smell the proverbial roses a bit, and realize that Jesus came for you!
Flesh for You
Most people I know believe that Jesus came to earth and died for the sins of all humanity. But most do not believe that He came to earth for them or died for them personally. When we see God sending His Son, many of us picture God as an angry principal and Jesus as the vice-principal sent down to get the wayward delinquent out of the class for punishment. Somehow when we picture God coming to us, we just think He's ticked off!
Imagine Adam just a few seconds after he screwed up the entire rhythm of humanity. Now, I've messed up a few things in my life. I've made some mistakes that cost me dearly and some that even hurt others. But consider how you would feel if you were Adam, having just brought sin into the world. You just screwed up perfection! That would be the major gaffe!
If that were you, how would you imagine God coming to you? Do you remember hiding under the covers after disobeying your earthly father? I do. In fact, one of my most memorable experiences with my dad came after I had spilled a paint can all over the carpet while my parents were remodeling a room. They didn't see it happen, so I went flying up the stairs and dived under my covers. In a few minutes I could hear the muffled voice of my father discussing how I had ruined the carpet. I tightened the sheet over my head and tried to prop up stuffed animals and pillows so he couldn't find me. I heard him call out to me. Then I heard his feet coming up the stairs.
"Hugh Thomas, where are you?" Trying not to even breathe, I remained silent. Then the door opened with a creak, and I felt his feet moving toward the side of my bed. I was terrified. I knew he had found me. I expected him to grab me by the ankle, jerk me out of the bed, hang me upside down, and whale away on my hind end with a wooden spoon. But he didn't. I just remember him gently grabbing the corner of the sheet, slowing pulling it up, sliding his face under the covers where he could make eye contact with me, and then saying, "Son, you ruined the carpet, but I love you. Why don't you come down and help me fix this? I'm not mad, but we have to clean it up, okay?"
When God came to find Adam, He was upset, for sure. Disappointed? Yep. And grieved to the core. But He came to Adam. He asked Adam some important questions before He addressed his massive misstep. So there goes your Old Testament image of the angry madman. If God didn't spank Adam then, you are probably safe now! Sure, there were some big consequences, like screwing up the entire universe, but there was a way of redemption for Adam and there is a way for everyone to be bought back. The fact that Jesus came, lived among us, and then died for us is proof of our sin and need for a Savior, but it is just as much proof that we are worth saving. For you to live incarnationally, don't move past this point. Jesus came to earth for you.
Flesh for Them
But He also came for them. Who's them? Everyone who's not you!
I went to Haiti last year. I had only seen pictures and heard stories of this broken place after an earthquake left over one hundred thousand people dead in an instant. I had to see and feel this for myself. As I had pictured in my mind, Haitians were largely homeless, sitting on the roadsides, rummaging for anything to eat. Because of their desperate situation, many Haitians are not safe to be around. We had a security team constantly moving us from place to place, protecting us. Our driver, a local Haitian, tried to explain his own tension in watching his fellow citizens become savages: "I have known many of these thieves since I was a young man. Many were my closest friends. I see them now in alleyways, waiting to mug, hurt, and steal, but I still love them. I know them, and I know why they are broken."
In an incredible story, the book of Jonah is about God sending Jonah to the equivalent of modern-day Haitians. The Ninevites were known as crazy people, many of whom were killing children, serving false gods, and terrorizing tourists and locals alike. But God was sending someone with hopes of redemption. The rest of this book will be about God sending you just like God sent Jonah and then sent Jesus, and as hard as it is for you to personalize Jesus coming to earth for you, it will be even harder for you to believe that God can use you in the lives of others. Incarnation is going to ask you to see people like my Haitian driver saw other Haitians. Second Corinthians says this: "We no longer view people from a worldly point of view" (5:16, author's paraphrase). This one verse can be your life force. Incarnation is going to ask you to have full faith in God's ability to transcend what you presently see in someone's life.
During the Haitian relief effort, Beyoncé reworked the lyrics of a song called "Halo." The phrase "Haiti, I can see your halo" is exactly what I'm talking about. If you can see a halo over a bombed-out city like Port-au- Prince, you will learn to see a halo above every friend and enemy God leads you to live next to.
Excerpted from FLESH by HUGH HALTER. Copyright © 2014 Hugh Halter. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 24, 2014
Halter, you've done it again. You would have thought I would have been prepared for conviction leading to growth, but it still caught me off guard. Could you wait a while before writing the next one? Apparently I have more work to get done than I thought....
Keep them coming though!
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Posted February 21, 2014
This is by far one the best books! If you are a Christian...you MUST read this book. It is easy to read but challenging to the soul...brings amazing perspective! Read it...you will be thankful you did.
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Posted July 16, 2014
"If we bear the artistic, altruistic image of Jesus, something remarkably natural and yet miraculous will become the new norm. It may take a little time to get used to, but Jesus's life can have a nice, snug fit in the natural rhythms and cadence of living here on planet earth." ~ Quote from Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth.
The Incarnation has been on my mind a lot lately, and so this was the perfect time to encounter Flesh.
I did my first reading of this book in one four hour sitting, in the dentists office. I was making notes (always a sign of engagement) underlining (capturing my favorite quotes) and laughing (yes... laughing out loud.)
This book really gave me a lot to think about. It is a flesh-and-blood centered look at imparting the good news of the Gospel, living in the full-bodied peace of Shalom, and walking in the reality of the our place in the Incarnation.
Hugh Halter talks all about Jesus... how he arrived in the world, how he moved into a town, how he knew names and faces and cared about people, how he presented himself and offered us himself when he entered a scene.
Several things jumped out at me, including the parable of planting seeds and the Kingdom growing while we sleep, and our call to be whimsically holy, rather than religious. How accurate! People think they know what to do with a "religious person."
We religious people are common enough that we can be ignored, like the coffeemaker that you see each morning.
Religious people can quickly be put in a box, unexamined, packed away in the bubble wrap of preconceived notions.
We can be categorized: "Right wing conservative fundamentalist... gun rights and America as a superpower," "Cafeteria Catholic who's skipped confession since Reagan was in office."
But a person who lives by Truth and Whimsy? One who has a sense of humor and dirt on their hands because they work hard and play easily on earth?
One who walks in the light of a Holy God and talks about Him all the time? A person who is joyful and calls you to Christ because He is calling everyone as children to come and be adopted? Someone who invites you to celebrate, and then tells you "By the way, that was worship." Who eats with you and says "That was communion."
That's a person who you can't overlook, can't silence, and can't dismiss. They're too compelling, too real, too honest, and too obsessed with Grace. And frankly, their message actually sounds like Good News, and you don't want them to shut up.
That's a good start for envisioning whimsical holiness. And I like it a lot. I see that in various saints, people such as Rich Mullins and Gladys Hunt and Ravi Zacharias and my own uncle who can morph from spiritual counselor to comedian in 30 seconds flat... and remind us that it is often one and the same role.
"The people of God are to be a stabilizing presence among all the swirling opinions...."
"Remember, if you let grace ooze out of your life, people will eventually seek the truth in your life."
Thank you David C Cook for my review copy.