Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth

Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth

by William H. Willimon

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Heaven and earth interlock in the person of Jesus, a Jew from Nazareth.See more details below


Heaven and earth interlock in the person of Jesus, a Jew from Nazareth.

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The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth

By William H. Willimon

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-7518-5


God Revealing God

My first summer of college, bumming around Europe, I sprawled with other students in the middle of the night, near Amsterdam's Dam Square. A student whispered, "Want to see God? Take this." I awoke the next morning at the base of the queen's statue with a bad headache, without a vision of God.

Who doesn't want to see God? Atheists and theists alike are able to read human history as a long search for, and often a wild fantasizing about, God. However, the atheist's, Is there a God? is a less interesting question than the biblical, Who is the God who is there? Ninety-five percent of us already believe God is. But there are contentions among us: What does God look like? What does God expect of us?

And the most pointed question of all: Does God care about me?

It's fine to ask big questions about us and God. Trouble is, there are reasons having to do with the great gap between who God is and who we are that make it impossible for us, on our own, to give answer. How can creatures accurately conceive of their Creator? Can finite minds grasp the infinite?

Lost in the wilds of Alabama, trying to find my way to a little church, I stopped and asked a man leaning back in his chair before a rural gas station, "How do I get to Bangor?" He scratched his chin, thought a moment, and declared, "Friend, there ain't no way to get there from here."

Thought about God is of the same order—no way to get to God from here. Impressive reasoning, invigorating spiritual experience, devout practices, even deeply religious upbringing, cannot enable us to ascend to God. There's a word for a God who is accessible through our intellectual efforts—idol. An idol is a reasonable, believable, conceivable—but alas, fake—god we set up as substitute for the God we are unable to reach from here.

Every religion offers to help us finite creatures climb up to or dig deep into the infinite. Only Christianity contends that the infinite descended, taking the form of our finitude—Incarnation. This book is the good news that we need not climb up to God; in Jesus Christ, God comes down to us. I'm using "up" and "down" here figuratively. God is inaccessible to us not only because (as we have traditionally conceived) God reigns in highest heaven and we are down here in the muck and mire of earth. God is inaccessible not only to human sight but also to human reason. Incarnation is the counterintuitive, not-believed-by-nine-out-of-ten-Americans assertion that even though we could not avail ourselves of God, God lovingly became available. God condescended to be God With Us.

Thinking the Unthinkable

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 NRSV).

"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 Cor. 5:19 NRSV). 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 instead, "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 we lack the innate skills to comprehend on our 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 is worthy of our worship. From the first, Jesus failed to measure up to our expectations of God.

Danish Christian philosopher Søren 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 probably nine out of ten Near Easterners who assumed that God's primary attributes were unrestrained power and undeniable glory. There's 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 and 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 CE, 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" (John 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.

Furthermore, New Testament writers tell these stories and meditate upon the significance of the events they have witnessed not simply to give a detached, disinterested set of facts and figures. They speak as witnesses hoping to convince us that the truth about Jesus Christ is truth for us too. "These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, God's Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name" (John 20:31). In telling the story of Jesus, John hopes that we will take our places in the story so that our little stories become part of God's great story called the salvation of the world.

The Gospel account of the wise men and the star or the angels appearing to the shepherds is found only in Luke and Matthew, respectively. We shouldn't be surprised that an earthshaking event should attract to itself all sorts of fanciful legends and wild stories. Perhaps these nativity stories are metaphorical ways of talking about events that were very difficult to describe. But just because we are forced to speak of some strange event in metaphorical ways it does not falsify the reality of the event; in fact it underscores its mind-blowing reality. In an incarnational faith it's okay to think about God using human analogies.

I think of the truth of the birth of Jesus through the lens of the birth of our daughter, Harriet. On the day our second child was born, my wife Patsy says that the morning sunlight suddenly flooded in the hospital room and she distinctly heard Cat Stevens singing "Morning Has Broken." For Patsy, this was some sort of strange meeting of the very human act of giving birth with the very divine act of receiving an undeserved, wonderful gift of new life.

Maybe her metaphorical thinking was a window opening onto the true significance of this event. Be well assured that in the birth of our child, something actually happened in our space and time. Whatever happened, there was a surplus of meaning, something more to be learned in the event itself than could be adequately described by the attending obstetrician. The stories of the star, the wise men, the shepherds, the angels singing could have been somewhat akin to what Patsy experienced. The Gospels are proclamations of faith. They are rooted in history, but their intent is clearly more important than to report mere history.

God Coming Close

So-called progressive Christians like John Spong or Marcus Borg, who reject the virginal conception of Jesus or the Resurrection as actual events in time, betray their out-of-hand dismissal of the supernatural. If you grant that God could have created the world out of nothing (which apparently most of us do), then you will also have to grant that God could create a human person apart from human sex. What's important in the belief in the virginal conception of Jesus is not biology or the suspension of it, but rather that God's Son, the Word With Us, came to us through both human and divine agency. Sometimes the church has marveled that God came to us through an unexpected, undeserved divine act, and other times has been stunned that God came to us by being born into an all-too-human family.

Christ, for all of his glory, was "born through a woman" (Gal. 4:4), as you and I were born, as the Nicene Creed puts it, "incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary." How different would the story be if Christ had descended to us on a cloud from heaven. Jesus had a human mother, bore human genes, carried the imprint of human evolution, and was born to a particular people in a small hick town in Galilee while Caesar Augustus ruled the whole world with an iron fist. Hebrews 2:14-18 says that Christ's full sharing of the human condition is essential to our salvation, a work of a God who amazingly not only created us but also became one of us.

Mormonism's Joseph Smith taught that God was once what we now are and that we can (with help from The Book of Mormon) become what God now is. There is a fundamental continuity between God and the rest of us, a linkage that we can reawaken in ourselves by carefully adhering to The Book of Mormon. When viewed from the perspective of orthodox Christianity, Mormonism sounds suspiciously like first-century gnosticism. Gnosticism presents faith as secret, esoteric wisdom that only a few enlightened souls can attain. Each of us is born with a divine spark. By cultivating the divine within ourselves, by inculcating special secret knowledge (Greek, gnosis = knowledge) we can ascend to our original divine state. Thus Mormonism tends to speak of Jesus as a revealer of God, whereas orthodox Christianity views Christ as our reconciler to God.

The Christian faith teaches that we do not get over our estrangement from God by acquiring spiritual knowledge or philosophical insight; only God, through an act of God, can solve the problem between us and God. That's one reason Christianity has always taught that the world was created by God from nothing. God is neither dependent upon the world nor a creation of the world; the world is dependent upon God. God is not material or time-bound; we are.

However, in the Incarnation, God (as Gregory of Nazianzus put it) "remained what he was and took up what he was not." God became human without diminishment of God's divinity; God's divinity thoroughly embraced our humanity. Thus our reconciliation to God is effected not by something we do (as in Mormonism's theology of human ascent) but by something that God has done and continues to do in Jesus Christ (God's gracious descent).

The miracle of the birth of Jesus, maintained from the earliest church and confessed in its creeds, is, in theologian Karl Barth's words, not cause for intellectual debate but rather a "summons to reverence and worship." Barth charges that the narrow-minded thinking of those who deny the creed's "born of the virgin Mary" are in the last resort to be understood only as stemming from a desire for an all too near or all too far-off God.

Fully Divine, Fully Human

Please don't think that our utter dependence upon ancient scripture puts you at a disadvantage in thinking about Immanuel, God With Us. Again, Kierkegaard imagined a contemporary of Jesus who, in order to uncover the real truth about Jesus, hired secret agents who spied upon Jesus and kept exact eyewitness accounts of his every word and move. Alas, they were forced to report that Jesus was "an unimpressive man of humble birth, and only a few individuals believed there was anything extraordinary about him."

The true significance of Jesus was hidden from many who were in closest proximity to him. He often confused his own mother. He constantly befuddled the same disciples he presumed to teach. In the end, Jesus dies seemingly abandoned by his Father. His miracles were dismissed as the tricks of any wandering, wonder-worker.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation, God's enfleshment in Jesus Christ, is the church's attempt to think clearly about the great mystery that Matthew introduces as a child named "Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21); Mark depicts as a wonder-working, crucified stranger; and Luke says was conceived of the Holy Spirit impregnating a virgin named Mary.

"God is not a human being" (Num. 23:19 NRSV) is an undisputed, consistent scriptural truism. The vast majority of Americans already believe that God is eternal, immortal, invisible, omnipresent, omniscient, and a stack of other high-sounding, ethereal abstractions, the antithesis of everything human, or so we thought.


Excerpted from Incarnation by William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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