Good morning, Christ Church! Happy Ninth Day of Christmas, and Happy new year! It is 2022, and that is kind of amazing.
My five year old son Liam is really into figuring how old people are. It’s kind of like his way of ranking himself and others among everyone else. So of course one day in the car he asks me, while we’re driving to preschool, “Daddy, is God the oldest person in the world?” And I say, “yes bud, God is the oldest, because God has always existed.” To which Liam responds, during Advent since we’ve been talking about Christmas, “but not Jesus, right, because Jesus was born, so he’s not the oldest?” I have a terminal degree in theology, but I was not fully prepared for that conversation 🙂
But I replied with something like, “well, you’re right, Jesus was born, but he also existed before his birth actually.” Liam goes, “What? That doesn’t make any sense, Daddy.”
And I said, yeah, it’s a little mysterious and can be confusing, but that’s what we believe, and that’s what we’re told in the Bible. I went on to make some other attempts at explaining how to understand the incarnation, that I think were unsuccessful, and within minutes I’m pretty sure Liam was bored and on to the next topic, like cars, whales, how far Antartica is, etc.
But this really struck me, because it is mysterious, and can be hard to believe if we’re honest about it. The incarnation is a strange doctrine — it’s a very bold claim, and yet it stands at the very center of our faith. Indeed, arguably, everything about Christianity hinges upon it:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him not any thing made that was made.” — John 1:1-3
And this is not the only place in the New Testament where we see this. Much the same thing is stated by Paul in Colossians, which is thought to be written several decades earlier than the Gospel of John:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. — Col 1:15-17
In modern times, even for the past couple hundred years, more and more people have doubted this claim or judged it untenable. Or, more recently, the belief might be tolerated, but only if it’s not held exclusively. I can Jesus is God, you can believe that someone else is God, no one is God, we’re all God — anything you want! — as long as it doesn’t infringe upon our individual rights to pursue truth and believe as we are led.
And increasingly, today, even if we could make a persuasive argument for the incarnation — and I believe we can, by faith, believe reasonably in Jesus’s divinity — it’s not blind faith, in other words, and it’s very clear from the historical record that the earliest Christians recognized Jesus’s divinity and worshipped him — but even if we can build a case for this, that they were right to believe this, I’m not sure that’s enough to lead anyone to relationship with God or to want to be a Christian.
And I think Jesus’s own life bears this out as well. He doesn’t merely go around telling people he’s God incarnate, right? He doesn’t deny it, and at times he does proclaim it! But what is he mainly doing? It seems that Jesus is primarily concerned with showing people who God is and what it would mean if he really is the Son of God, if he really is, the second person of the Trinity, a full member of the Godhead.
So if the Incarnation is true, what does it mean? What’s the significance? And what does it tell us about God? God’s purpose? What does it tell us about us and our purpose? This is what I want to explore this morning.
If Jesus is God, if the incarnation is true, then:
- God is with us (John 1:14)
- his wisdom will not be recognized or received (John 1:9-11)
- the incarnation is God’s ongoing plan for the salvation of the world (John 1:12)
O Christ, as we seek greater understanding of and guidance from the mystery of your incarnation, may your way and truth and life become increasingly evident. Guard us from error, and lead us on your everlasting path and light. In your holy name we pray, amen.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” — John 1:14
1. So first, if Jesus is God, then God is the great empathizer. God puts himself into our shoes. This is the essence of empathy.
Studies have been done recently showing that, as a society, empathy is on the decline in the United States. For instance, one study found a steep decline in empathy among young people from 1979 to 2009 (Dr. Sara Konrath et. al., associate professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University, and director of an Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research, https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/empathy-narcissism). This probably isn’t surprising to us having lived through the recent years of political charged and polarized rhetoric around covid, race, and many other things. We’ve seen the empathy deficit on full display.
Or maybe you’ve heard the phrase used, “compassion fatigue.” This is related, and touches on the same idea. We’re overexposed to the suffering of others, we too are suffering, though, many of us, and it’s overwhelming, overstimulating, we shut down, we shut out, we grow numb. All the more so if we ourselves are struggling just to stay afloat amid the stresses of modern life.
And empathy is different from mere sympathy. Many of us associate sympathy with empathy or think of them synonymously. But while empathy is a skill that can bring people together and make people feel included, sympathy —sympathy — sympathy is merely feeling sorry for, you might say. It can sometimes lead to compassion or empathy, but more often it actually tends to be patronizing. It’s the kind of feeling that produces short-term charities of exchange.
As one psychologist puts it, “empathy, on the other hand, is a choice, a vulnerable one.”
And I think this vulnerability aspect, which involves giving up some control, is part of why we’re increasingly hesitate to practice empathy. It’s costly to us.
For the past two years, many of us have felt exhausted – like we have no more energy to care.
But even as we struggle to empathize with others, we experience less empathy extended to us as well. We ourselves need and desire empathy as much as ever, and we’re finding it in short supply. Without experiencing that others know us, or are able to, we’re left feeling alone — at times, despairingly so. It’s a bleak place to be and can lead to feelings of emptiness and despondency.
The writer of Hebrews puts it this way:
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Hebrews 4:15
In this ultimate act of empathy, Christ enters not only into solidarity with our weaknesses and our experience of temptation, though, but also our suffering.
Remember that famous Philippians hymn from chapter two of Paul’s letter:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! — Phil 2:5-8
So to believe in the incarnation is to also believe that God in Christ has not only entered into our weakness first hand, but also that God has willingly subjected himself to suffering, to victimization from injustice, to misunderstanding, feelings of loneliness, fatigue, even rejection — all of which are emotions and experiences that otherwise put us on the defensive and make us less willing to trust and listen to each other. But in Jesus, these experiences are endured at the deepest level, survived, and overcome. He passes through them, and extends us his compassion on the other side.
But if Jesus is God, then we have this advocate, this fellow sufferer who understands us, who has walked and is walking with us. The great empathizer.
I recently listened to the audio version of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, while traveling for a day over Christmas. It was a gift from a parishioner to some of us on staff. And I had read the story before — most of us know it — but to listen to it again afresh this time, for whatever reason, was especially powerful for me.
I was struck particularly by the journey that Ebeneezer Scrooge goes on in the story, led by the three Christmas Spirits of past, present and future, to show him how he had deviated slowly but surely so far from a place of being able to empathize with the needs of others and specifically the needs of the poor and their children.
Dickens wrote the story in the context of the early days of the industrial revolution in England, and this was a dark time for many working class folks. Before child labor law, before any kind of regulations on factory workplace conditions, before minimum wage, etc. People were getting sick, lower-class kids were basically slaves, and some were even starving or freezing.
But Scrooge has lost the ability to care about any of this because of his love for money in his business dealings. Over the course of the story, though, as he is forced to look back at his life and see it from the perspective of others, and to experience again some of his own difficulties
His heart starts to grow warm again, and he experiences a complete transformation. His conversion is to deep, Christlike empathy. When he wakes up from his visit by the spirits, here’s what he says:
“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”
And this made me wonder what it was exactly that changed Scrooge so dramatically, from someone who despised both Christmas and people, to someone who could love both so passionately?
One answer to that is, is that Scrooge is made to feel again — that is, he empathizes — he has pathos with others.
The social psychologist, C. Daniel Batson, who has researched empathy for decades, argues that while the term can now refer to multiple concepts, in especially means actually feeling as another does; imagining how one would feel or think in another’s place; feeling distress at another’s suffering; feeling for another’s suffering… close to the word compassion.
Jesus himself is described as having this same kind of feeling and experience in several places in the gospels, where he is moved in his gut with compassion for someone in their suffering.
One commentator on the story of A Christmas Carol, a friend of Christ Church and professor at Fuller Seminary, Mark Roberts, says this:
“Throughout Ebenezer Scrooge’s momentous night with the three spirits, he frequently felt pain: the pain of having been a lonely boy, the pain of his broken engagement, the pain of suffering children, the pain of his own wasted life. This pain was essential to Scrooge’s transformation in a number of ways. For one thing, it warmed his frozen heart, helping him to feel things had had not felt for ages. Yet pain also caused Scrooge to desire a different life, a life filled with the joys of living.” — Mark D. Roberts
So Scrooge’s transformation is brought about by:
- This interruption and breaking into his ordinary experience
- Revisiting his own pain and truly facing/encountering the pain of others
- And, it especially comes through his encounter with children in his memories and visions, specifically the child Tiny Tim and the precarious situation of him and his family, the Cratchets
2. Secondly, though, if Jesus is God, then as the source of all wisdom, through Jesus, the wisdom of God has been made known. But this wisdom was not recognized or received by most.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:9-11
We see this as well in 1 Corinthians:
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. — 1 Cor. 1:20-25
What Paul describes here is very much still at play in our own time. There are those who, knowingly or unknowingly, reject or don’t recognize Jesus because they expect something or someone else. They’re looking for a different kind of Messiah. They have their own idea of who the Messiah should be. Their own interpretation. To them, just as to many people today, Christ is a stumbling block.
Or, there are those who, like the Greeks, and because of their worldview, do not expect a Messiah at all. The idea of a Christ is seen as either unnecessary or impossible. This is the view that is most prevalent today. An incarnate God is unnecessary, because sin is not the problem. Ignorance might be, but not sin.
Or, many people today think God is an unknowable hypothesis, and that the material, physical universe is all there is. There is nothing supernatural, so how could be there be an incarnation…
But even many of those who are open to the supernatural or to God prefer to pursue wisdom for their salvation. This is what the Greeks were most known for. And wisdom is a good thing! But God’s wisdom isn’t the kind of wisdom that we can come to know on our own — through philosophy, science or any other form human reasoning. God’s wisdom is seen as foolishness.
For all of these groups, the wisdom and way of Christ is foolishness.
3. And finally, if Jesus is God, then the incarnation is God’s on-going plan for the salvation of the world.
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. — John 1:12
Another way of saying this is the following:
“God became man that man might become God,” church father Athanasius (ca 298–373), On the Incarnation.
Here Athanasius is essentially talking about this ancient Christian theological idea of theosis — God becoming human so that we might become divine.
And he wasn’t the only or first to say this. St. Irenaeus, two centuries earlier, stated that God had “become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”
Even Augustine, who’s usually associated more with the Western tradition, agreed:
“But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God’ [referring to John 1:12]. If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.”
Jesus himself says elsewhere, later in the Gospel of John, something very similar:
18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. John 17:18-19
Y’all know that the word sanctify means to make holy, set apart, consecrate — it also means to heal from sin’s adverse effects; to make whole. This is what we long for, and this is what we’re for. It’s also what Jesus came for.
Most of us, if we have a Protestant and evangelical background, or even by virtue of our Western culture, associate salvation in Christian faith, with the death of Jesus, and maybe even the resurrection of Jesus, but probably not so much the incarnation of Jesus — exception insofar as it led to his death and resurrection.
Many early Christian leaders and thinkers believed that it was the incarnation itself that was the key to our salvation. That by the incarnation of the eternal logos, Christ, we are rescued from death.
Some of you are probably familiar with the atonement theory called christus victor, and there’s lots of biblical for this. Where the defeat of death and Satan are chief accomplishments of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
The resurrection, then, is simply the natural consequence of what was already accomplished at the birth of Jesus, with God fully taking on human nature while at the same time remaining God. The truth of the two natures unified in one person but not confused, and neither one overcoming the other.
This is not to replace our other understandings of the atonement, but to enrich them and expand upon them for a fuller picture of all that God intends to accomplish through his mission of redemption…
Some of you may have seen where Google creates a video each year at the end of the year, and they’ve been doing this for about ten years, that highlights and builds a theme around what people have most uniquely searched each year. And for 2021, very appropriately, the theme that emerged is healing.
It’s worth watching the video if you just search for it. There’s some things included of course that we probably wouldn’t all celebrate, but mostly it’s this very moving, heart-warming and raw depiction of the good of much of 2021. And I don’t know if anyone knows this, Youtube comment sections don’t tend to be a very encouraging place to look to get feedback — it can get pretty dark and ugly — but this video has like all positive comments and likes and from different languages from all over the world. It’s pretty amazing.
But I share this only to make the point that, people are crying out for healing. They long for it, and we’ve collectively felt the need and hunger for it in the past year maybe more than in any year in recent memory. So it’s a beautiful thing in a way to see people acknowledge and enter in together to some brokenness, vulnerability and even hope.
Jesus says, in some of his final words in the gospel of John:
“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” — John 20:21b
The church as the extension of the incarnation into time and space and the rest of the world throughout history — God’s hands and feet!
“Christ Has No Body,” St. Teresa of Avila
Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world
Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are His body
Christ has no body now on earth but yours
Now, it’s possible to take this idea too far, and we have to careful not to do so. We are not Christ — we are sinners still, and we fail often to be the body, to be the hands and feet of Christ to the world. And God is not dependent on us fro accomplishing his mission in the world.
Still, there’s something real and very true about the church as the continuation of the embodiment, that is, the incarnation, of God’s love through Christ and by the power of Holy Spirit, alive and expanding in the world and participation in God’s mission.
We are called to be empathizers with others! Embodiers of deep wisdom. Extending the incarnation and witnessing to God’s work of salvation through Christ. This is our mission. May it be so. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Also published on Medium.