God Came To Us as Jesus
Sometimes in December—and sometimes in early January, people may approach me about their intention to begin reading the Bible. This is a good discipline any time of year, but w often find ourselves more motivated at the new year. I usually suggest that they begin by reading the Gospel of Mark. Genesis will soon turn into an almost endless series of “begettings”—Adam begat Seth, who begat Enosh, who begat Kenan… and so it goes for more generations than we can count. It will soon tax anyone’s patience.
Matthew is another natural choice, sitting as it does at the beginning of the New Testament. Open it up, and there you have those “begats” again, right out of the gate. And before long, the new reader may discover that they have chosen the longest gospel which has its own unique form of organization and it may be difficult to follow.
No, if you want the straight story, start with Mark. It is a gospel that can be read in full in one sitting; couple of hours, tops. In fact, The Gospel of Mark has been made into a stage play that has been performed on Broadway, off and on over the past few decades. One actor stands up and recites the entire gospel—King James Version—and it takes about 2 and a half hours, with intermission. This may sound like an incredibly dull night of theater, but having experienced it, I can assure you, it is a remarkable achievement. I am not speaking here simply as a minister interested in all things religious. No, it is genuinely mesmerizing theater.
Of course, if you are expecting to start reading the Christmas story, Mark will disappoint you. He does not have one. He is the Grinch among all the Gospel writers. He apparently knows nothing—or cares nothing—for the stories around Bethlehem, the journey of the Magi, or the exile into Egypt. John says that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Mark agrees with John, but Mark also recognizes that this is not news that is easily welcomed by all. The Gospel first comes to us as a warning, as a lone, wild voice that we are not sure we want to hear. The Incarnation is not just that God is with us, but that God has come to us particularly as Jesus. As Mark sees it, this is the sticking point. Getting to Bethlehem, to Egypt, and back to Nazareth – that is just a travelogue. Of all the ways for God to enflesh the Word. God came as a Jewish peasant from a village called Nazareth that many cannot even find on the map. He was murdered by the authorities, not because of the peculiarities of his birth, but for the revolutionary quality of his life. He suffered because of what he said and did as an adult. And his advent still provokes today a crisis in our settled intellectual and political arrangements, unmasking the relationship between our cherished notions of what can and can’t be, and about who is and who is not in charge of this world.
William Willimon spent years as the chaplain of Duke University Chapel. In that role, he had many occasions, especially this time of year, to talk with earnest young people who would approach him and confess: “I have a problem with the virgin birth of Jesus. Do I have to believe in this miraculous birth in order to believe in Jesus?” Willimon says that he often answered by saying something like this:
“We ask you to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus, and if you can swallow that without choking, then there’s no telling what else we can get you to believe. Come back next week, and we will try to convince you that poor people are really royalty in the eyes of God. And the week after that, we’ll tell you that the rich are in big trouble. Then we’ll ask you to believe that God rules the world, not nations or dictators, that God’s will is for us to live in harmony, in spite of race, gender, economics, or political differences. We start out with something small, like the miraculous birth of Jesus, and then move on to make ever more outrageous assertions.”[i]
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus means a crisis from the first moment his name is mentioned. Mark would remind us that all talk of Incarnation must be kept very close to the particular and peculiar talk about Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. While the Romans and pagans are venerating the virgin birth of Caesar Augustus, the baby Jesus brought with him not simply a way of getting on in thee world, but a whole new world.
In 2000 plus years, our age has the same problems with Jesus that the first century world had. For instance, just one year ago, the Supreme Court in the nation of India made a ruling that a young woman named Hadiya Ashokan, age 24, was unable to make a decision about converting from the Hindu religion to Islam. They annulled her subsequent marriage to a young Muslim man, and the court placed her under the care of her parents, saying that her interest in Islam was “out of the ordinary,” since normal young people “are indifferent about religion and religious studies.” Over the last year, the highest court in India has applied this ruling to those converting to Christianity as well. This reflects a modern attitude toward religious faith that only fanatics and fools can embrace the doctrines and practices that accompany a religious life. The assumption is that religious people are not thoughtful people. Or to take it even further, anyone who holds onto a religious conviction is “not normal.”[ii]
Closer to home, authorities in Washington D.C. this month have banned advertisements from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese that show shepherds on a hill beside the message: “Find the perfect gift.” This ad promoting charity and goodwill is considered out of bounds, while each day we learn of one more congressman or senator who has been abusing women for decades. Acts of senseless violence between human beings are reported daily, even in the high school in tiny, rural Aztec, New Mexico. But shepherds on a hill side? That image is out of bounds. Our modern world, not unlike the world in Jesus’s age, has difficulty knowing the difference between good and evil; cannot discern the things that make for peace.
Each December, an undisclosed organization buys an advertisement and places it on a bus in London. It reads: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Locals have taken to calling it the atheist bus.[iii] That there is probably no God is not an outrageous claim. Many people have wondered the same thing in every century. But the more subtle message is that religious people are incapable of enjoying life; that faith and joy are contradictory. Then again, all of life is not about enjoyment, but trying saying something like that in polite company. You see, this too is a philosophy that was present in Jesus’ time, just as it is in ours. Epicureans believed that if gods exist, they have little interest in us or our world. So the best course of action was to get on with it, enjoy this world as it is. Justice, goodness, human equality and human decency—all these are constructs that keep us from enjoying this world to the highest degree.
Without Incarnation, without a God who is passionately involved and committed to us and to creation, this is about the best we can do, religiously speaking. But Mark hears another voice afoot in the world. Compared to the buses that run, and the drum beats of Roman soldiers, it is barely audible. The voice Mark hears seems out of place, dressed as it is in animal skins, with breath smelling of locusts and honey. But to those who can hear, it is a voice announcing that God has broken into this world. The appearance of John—and then of Jesus—is not merely announcing the birth of a baby. The voice in the wilderness shouts out that what has been born is a new heaven and a new earth.
This is the great yearning of people first given voice by the prophet Isaiah: “O that You would tear open the heavens and come down, O God.” The people of the 1st century understood that heaven was a buffer zone. A buffer is a place or a thing that separates one great power from another. It is the bars in the zoo. We keep the tigers behind those bars so we can see them without fearing them. The Judaeans used the Temple the same way, keeping God in the Holy of Holies so that God’s holiness would not destroy the people. It was spiritual cage that contained the dangerous presence of God.
We have become more sophisticated, perhaps, in the ways we devise to keep God’s presence away from us, to keep God’s presence away from us, in a pleasant buffer zone. But the yearning is still there. That yearning for holiness is not only in our minds and spirits, but it is in our very flesh and bone. As Karl Barth says flatly,
“God is not a transcendent being… from all eternity, God has determined to turn to humanity, to enter into human history, and meet us in the real places and people that make up our lives.”[iv]
Our faith in the Incarnation means that while we may often be more than the significance of our bodies, we are never less than our bodies. There is no soul apart from the body, no Holy Spirit without the Incarnate Son, no resurrection without the suffering body.
If Jesus had not taken on flesh, we would not have known who God is, namely embodied. We would not have known where to find God, that is, in human history. We would not have known who we are; people whose bodies and souls are groaning for redemption, who are being redeemed in Christ, even here and even now.
Mark cannot wait to tell us the stories of Incarnation, to tell us what Jesus does to our bodies by using his body. Jesus is the one who talks with and casts out demons. Society calls them untouchables, but Jesus uses his body to touch and holds leper. Priests tell a paralyzed man to get used to paralysis. Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk. People were worried that Jesus would be taken in by tax collectors and sinners; but Jesus took them in and they became his followers. They were afraid that Jesus was acting like he was above the law by working and eating on the Sabbath; then Jesus taught them that everybody is above the law, because God intended the law to serve the human community. Just like at his birth, Jesus spent his life breaking down boundaries, ripping open the heavens, tearing away the things that divide us.
We have come here today to see the glory of God, only to be shown majesty that had nowhere to lay its head; grandeur that was meek and lowly; beauty that had neither form nor comeliness that anyone should desire him; the splendor of the lonely wanderer, weary and footsore.[v] In him, I confess, I have found all the God I want or need. All that I know of God, I have seen in this one called Jesus. And when we gather to celebrate the day of his birth, we celebrate the day when God revealed God’s self so fully, that we have not been able to get away from Him ever since. Amen.
[i] William Willimon, “The Challenge of Preaching Incarnation,” Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1999.
[ii] Tunku Varadarajan, “India’s Imaginary Love Jihad,” in Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2017.
[iii] Francis Spurlock, Unapologetic, Harper One, New York, NY, 2012.
[iv] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2
[v] Some of these images are borrowed from Paul Scherer, “Love Is a Spendthrift.”