By Northern Seminary student and pastor Jeremy Berg
I was sitting across the table of a dear friend grieving the sudden and unexpected loss of her dad just before Christmas. She had to watch as the disease just slowly overtook his life and his entire body. As Bing Crosby sang above us and happy shoppers strolled by outside the restaurant, we were sharing a cold cup of suffering and wondering: What hope does Christmas offer the person with an empty chair at the table this Christmas?
Christianity does not merely offer a “spiritual” salvation that rescues our soul from our frail and corruptible bodiesin order to give us a disembodied “spiritual” life in Heaven. Such a view of salvation has no need or place for the miracle of the incarnation we celebrate every Christmas. If salvation was just about getting disembodied souls into Heaven, why would God need to be born in a manger, live 33 rugged years on earth experiencing all the normal “human stuff” from migraines to hangnails, and then suffer physical torture and death on a cross, and rise again bodilyon the third day?
The incarnation is the shocking assertion that the immortal, infinite, incorruptible, sinless God took on humaneness in all its fullness and frailty, bearing in His physical body our afflictions in order to redeem us—body, soul and spirit! He didn’t just bear our sins on the cross, he took upon himself our sicknesses, pain and wounds—the consequences and symptoms resulting from our sins—yes, even the sufferings we’ve brought upon ourselves through sinful choices and habits.
Because of the incarnation, Christ enters into the suffering of the person dying of lung cancer or liver disease due to years of smoking or drinking. In his incarnation God bears our sicknesses and on the cross he exhausts Sin’s power and effects, and begins to reverse all its destructive processes when he rose again in a new, glorified and incorruptible body. The well-known “good news” according to Isaiah 53 brings the incarnation and crucifixion of the Savior together and we, the church, dare not pull them apart or choose one over the other:
The incarnation reminds us that there’s no pit we could ever dig that’s too deep that the Savior wouldn’t climb down into to sit beside us in our muddy mess. There’s no cave dark enough for us to hide in that the Light of the World wouldn’t try to flood with His redeeming light!He is called “Immanuel” which stamps onto world history His promise to be “God with us.” But exactly which kinds of people is God willing to be with? Yes, its gracious of God to become a man, but certainly he’d have enough dignity to take on the flesh of a powerful king and live his earthly years in a palace overlooking his estate with servants at his beck and call. He’d open his palace doors only to the righteous and devout and keep the sinners at a respectable distance.
But the “us” in “God with us” is not restricted to those who deserve His company. He didn’t come into the upperclass, but as a poor and socially dislocated peasant, born out of wedlock with a reputation of “illegitimate” of a mother with her own reputation—the source of ongoing hushed whispers in the village. “He took on the form of a slave” (Phil 2). He knows what its like to be mislabeled and misunderstood and pushed aside and disempowered.
Perhaps we’ve let the graceless moralism of too many Santa songs taint our view of the One who truly comes to town on Christmas. For the miracle of the incarnation is for the naughty and nice. He’s already made His list and He’s checked it twice, and all are on it until we choose to reject His gift and thereby remove our own name from it. “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all would come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).
So, this Christmas, let’s not just wish each other a “Merry Christmas” but also a shout out “Scandalous Incarnation!” Let’s embrace the full meaning of “incarnation” by letting Christ into our very real, physical, bodily weaknesses and struggles. Let Christ come down into your social estrangement, your sense of being misjudged and misunderstood. Let him into your physical infirmities and bodily struggles.
Then, miracle of all miracles, watch him as He’s not content to just sit with you, offering sympathy and comfort. No, watch him reach out and begin to take onto and into himself your very physical condition: your cancer, your lung disease, your disordered sexual desires, your oppressive slavery to the bottle and failing liver, your obesity and arthritis, your OCD and ADD, your weakness and weariness and general longing to escape altogether this mortal coil. “He bore our sicknesses and carried our pains” (Isaiah 53:4). Jesus didn’t just die on a cross to forgive our sins. He was born into human flesh to bear our bodily conditions, too. As Athanasius put it famously some 1,700 years ago: “He became what we are so that he might make us what he is.”
Back at the restaurant, I looked across the table at my friend as she held back tears. She was worried her dad had died all alone in that hospital bed (the family didn’t get there in time). She wondered if Christ was with him as his body succumbed to the disease. He didn’t exactly live godly life, and His relationship with God was up and down. Would Christ bother coming to be with such a person in their final moments?
My friend admitted that in the midst of her grief and loss, the desire to celebrate Christmas had vanished. My best pastoral counsel and comfort was to tell her that the Incarnation is exactly the comfort she needed right now.
I hope it’s clear now that her dad is precisely the kind of person God longs to surprise with the miracle of incarnation. I believe Christ was there with him, gently but persistently knocking on the door of his heart, waiting to be invited in (Rev. 3). Christ (and likely an angel or two) stooped down by his bedside, sharing and bearing his bodily pain, and offering everlasting healing and peace as he breathed his last breath. Scandalous Incarnation!
God IS with us. Do you believe it?
God is WITH us. Can you imagine it?
God is with US. Yes, even us who don’t deserve it!
We don’t have a priest [or Savior] who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all — all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help” (Heb. 4:15 MSG).
So, let heaven and nature sing! Have a Scandalous Incarnation Day!