A neglected theology book from my shelf, layered with dust and giving off that familiar “old book smell,” has a section entitled, “Incarnation.” That’s the religious word used to describe Jesus’ birth, the miracle whereby God became “flesh and dwelt among us.”
That dust-laden book reads: “Thus the Son of God became our Emmanuel; that by mutual union his divinity and our nature might be combined; otherwise, neither was the proximity near enough, nor the affinity strong enough, to give us hope that God would dwell with us; so great was the repugnance between our pollution and the spotless purity of God.” Maybe you understand why I have allowed that book to sit and sour.
I find Clarence Jordan’s folksy definition of Incarnation to be superior. Jordan, a winsome mixture of farmer, preacher, activist, and Greek scholar produced a translation of the New Testament called “The Cotton Patch Gospel.” It was written in the colloquial vernacular of the American South from the 1950s, and Jordan always spoke of Jesus as “the spittin’ image of the Almighty.”
Now that is a working definition! If we want to know who God is and what God looks like, we look to Jesus. This is no academic exercise, but practical guidance, for what do we find in Jesus? We find God’s solution for the brokenness of humanity; and it’s not more rules, deeper shame, or better ideas. It is the sacrificial, unlimited, hold-nothing-back giving of himself in love.
And this was especially true for the sick, the injured, the forgotten, the outsider, the marginalized, and the bumbling oddball. So, as followers of Jesus, if we want to truly “define” the Incarnation, we will continue to live it out, not just provide academic explanations. That is, we can do what Jesus did by working out the love of God and entering our communities with the “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people,” especially those who are weak, wounded, and broken.
A fine example of this occurred when a recovering alcoholic slipped into church on Christmas Eve. A family of four sat down in front of him, and seeing them together while thinking of all he had lost, he bolted for the door – and to get a drink.
On his way out the pastor asked him where we was going. “I’m going to get a Scotch,” the man answered, “If I had it together my family would be here tonight.” The pastor begged him to stay just a moment longer. Then, at the pulpit, the pastor made an announcement: “If anyone here knows Bill Wilson (Bill was the founder of A.A.), could you step out to the vestry for a moment? A friend may need you.”
From all over the sanctuary people started standing and making their way to the vestry to put their arms around someone who desperately need grace. That, friends, is the Incarnation, because that it is the “spittin’ image” of what Jesus would do.