The Incarnation: The Lens through which we see God
25 years ago in church based magazines in Canada there was a furious debate about the nature of Jesus Christ. The question raised was; “Who do you say I am?” The articles covered, predictably, a wide array of alternatives that ranged from what some would call heresy and blasphemy, to answers that rang orthodox in ever clause.
The Rev. Mac Watts of the University of Winnipeg, in the March 1991 issue of The Observer, made one of the most insightful responses. He comments on the words of Jesus “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me,” He responds with the words:
“This is a very troublesome text for people these days. I think Jesus is saying no-one comes to God except through God. No one comes to the most high God except through the most lowly God. No-one comes to the victorious God except through the God who died on the cross. We are dealing with incarnation …. [Jesus] is God expressing God’s-self.”
In the ten commandments, found in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the second command reads in part, “You shall not make for yourself any graven image….” This word is given because every image of God was a distortion of what God was truly like. In that ancient world, if they took human form, the images of God were usually portrayals of a powerful king or warrior, or if they were animal images, then fertility and ferocity pervaded the imagery. God, therefore, forbad all images lest they distort what He was.
In later times and other places, the images of God were more abstract. God was seen as the ground of existence or the substance of all life, or the fate that manipulated a universe in a predetermined course. God became an “IT” instead of a person. These images too typecast God in the wrong role.
But there came a day when God went against His own law. In the fullness of time, (Galatians 4:4) God sent forth Jesus Christ into our life. The writer of the Gospel of John informs us that, no one had seen God at any time, (Not Moses, not Elijah, not Isaiah and not Ezekiel – they had seen only reflections of his glory.) But John goes on to say with incredible boldness, “No one has ever seen God, it is God the only Son, who is close to the father’s heart, who has made Him known.” (NRSV) John will expand on that when later he tells us that Jesus Christ has revealed God in such clarity that whoever has seen the son has seen the father.
In short, the incarnation is the revelation, without distortion, of what God was and had always been.
Horatio Nelson was a leader of great distinction in British naval history, and so the British people wanted to honour him after his death. They erected, in Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column. 167 feet above the bustling traffic below, Nelson stands in graphic pose. The difficulty is, however, that his statue is so high from the ground, no one can see the features of the man. He is a dim silhouette against the sky. The problem was noted in 1948 during an exhibition, and the need was felt to remedy the difficulty. An exact replica of Nelson’s image was placed at the base of the column, so that people could see the actual likeness of Nelson.
God too appeared remote from our lives. We needed a closer look at God, we needed to see His face, before we were sure we could trust Him. We had learned to distrust all gods. The mythologies of our world are very clear. When the gods come down, mankind pays a high price. The gods manipulate, dominate and coerce we mortals to their own ends. Even in modern times the acts of God are listed as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, forest fires, floods and blizzards.
Perhaps God was tired of being misread. So in the fullness of time, God sent forth himself in His son to demonstrate that the acts of god are acts of mercy and kindness and concern. He presented irrefutable evidence that God is interested in the lifting of the fallen, the forgiveness of the guilty, the restoration of that which is broken.
It is not only John’s conviction that when we have seen Jesus, we have seen God at His clearest. Listen to the apostle Paul as he speaks to the Colossians, “Jesus is the image of the invisible God…. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things….”
The writer of the book of Hebrews adds the clincher to the words of Paul and John, “Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Or, as an Englishman might say, “Jesus is the spitting image of God.”
If the question is raised, why is this teaching about “God becoming man” so important? perhaps one of the foremost reasons is to reveal to the world that the God of the universe is the God of love who can be loved in turn.
One cannot love a God of mere power, one can only cower and hope that that power is benign. A God who is seen as the Law Giver, who spells out duty with legal precision, can be admired, but never loved. The God, however, who revealed Himself in Jesus, is a God whom I can love, whom I can serve with joy, and completely trust with my life.
Of course, if the incarnation is the revelation of what God is really like, then the manger, the peasant parents, the Galilean mailing address, the homeless traveler with a dozen nondescript followers, and a cross at the end of the journey are all revelations of what God is actually like. God rarely ever plays God! He is the humble one, who has washed the feet of humanity times without telling, and He is a God that we have crucified at every turn, from Adam to our own day, and who instead of retaliation, says to each person to this very hour, “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”
Eugene Peterson reminds us that Jesus is the dictionary by which we define our words. And the word “GOD” has forever been redefined in the incarnation of Jesus. It is why Jesus said,” When you pray you shall say, Our Father….” The incarnation reveals to us a God whom we can love without reservation, because He has, first and always, loved us without restriction. To God be the glory!