Incarnation Matters

a sermon by Pat Shaver, December 22, 2013

How long, O Lord? How long?! Is this, or has this been your cry to God?

How long will the baby keep waking up at night I’m so exhausted?

How long will I have to wait before finding a job?

How long must I experience the pain of losing a loved one? It hurts so much.

How long will injustice continue?

How long will this sorrow, pain, confusion, fear, depression, anxiety consume me?

The psalmist’s community also asks “How long?” “How long will you be angry? How long must we despair? And yet, they know that even in turmoil, there is hope. And so, they cry in longing “Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

This is the longing we express when we sing O come, O come, Immanuel. As Amy discussed with the children, Immanuel, a word we tend to only hear in Advent,   means God-with-us. Christmas is a celebration of God coming to be with us in the complexity of our lives.

Another word we tend to only hear this time of year is incarnation. Immanuel tells us that God is with us. Incarnation tells us HOW God is with us.

Incarnate comes from the Latin words for “in” and “flesh,” and so means “in the flesh.” God chose to enter the world in flesh and blood through a poor baby in Bethlehem. Through incarnation, God is with us,.. in human form.. in Jesus.. entering our history. In the incarnation, God became fully, truly human without ceasing to be fully, truly divine.

This idea, of being fully human and fully divine tends to make us squirm. We want it to make rational sense to us and, honestly, it’s a lot to swallow, and so we tend not to talk about it much. So, I invite you this morning to spend some time considering incarnation with me. Not the academic question of “how this can be possible?” That question is why we recognize the mystery of God.

Rather, the question I would like to consider this morning, the most important theological question for me is SO WHAT? What difference does the fact that God became human make to our everyday life? Why does it matter?

This list is not exhaustive, but I hope it invites you to consider the subject further.

One of the reasons the incarnation matters is because it affirms that bodies are good.

God created the physical world, including the human body, and God described it as “good.” When God became flesh and lived among us, almighty God profoundly affirmed the goodness of being human, and the goodness of the human body.

How do we honor these bodies that God pronounced good? Do we listen to them? I don’t always want to let my body tell me that it is tired, or hungry, longing to move or in pain. Instead of listening, I often drink another cup of coffee, take a Tylenol or promise ourselves that I’ll take a walk tomorrow.

Our culture sends us all kinds of messages about what our bodies should look like. Are we able to feel at home in our bodies, or do we fixate on their size or shape, or experience them as a source of shame and confusion, rather than delight? Do our physical limitations and frailty make us feel that we are inadequate, unlovable? How are our bodies part of our spiritual lives? How can our bodies help us experience God more fully? To love ourselves as God does?

Incarnation: God wanted to experience being human, with the richness and limitations of having a body. How do we attend to the sacredness of our bodies, and what does the fact that God wanted to experience having a body tell us about God?

The incarnation matters because it teaches us about the character of God.

The essence of the God who created the Milky Way, which is ten million light years from the earth,          is beyond our imagining. Michael Horton describes God’s essence as: “immortal, invisible, eternal, unapproachable Light (1 Tim. 6:15-16), the sight of whose face we cannot survive (Ex. 33:20). God doesn’t contradict reason, but transcends it infinitely (Isa. 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33). [1] If this were all we knew, then we might as well throw up our hands and conclude that we cannot really know God, in any rational way that we can put into words.

But this God beyond our imagining is deeply in love with us and did not stay distant. The Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….and the Word [who was God] became flesh and lived among us.”

“God did not send Christ to us; God came to us in Christ.”[2] Veli-Matti Karkkainen put it this way, “When God speaks to us about himself and about us, he doesn’t just utter words or leave a message. He speaks by becoming one of us.”[3]

Yet God’s ways are often counter-intuitive to ours. The creator of the galaxies did not come as a super hero, but as a vulnerable infant. Yes, Jesus performed miracles, but he was always clear that he wasn’t doing them, it was God working through him. The God whose essence we can’t understand stoops to our capacity, accommodating our understanding.

Our questions about God’s character – Is God really about mercy, justice, and a love that just won’t quit? – are answered in the person of Jesus.

We cannot know God in God’s hidden essence. Through the incarnation we understand that God expressed God’s overwhelming love by becoming one of us, and that the God who is beyond our imagining is confident enough to be vulnerable. Out of love, God was willing to become one o

f us, in all of our vulnerability.

What did God learn through the experience of being human?

The incarnation matters because through it, Jesus is able to identify with us and understand us.

When we cry out to God, “How long?”, we aren’t only crying out to a distant God.

Instead God accepted limits. Jesus was born into the same sort of earthly circumstances in which we find ourselves. He had his own set of “How long?” questions for God.

He experienced the challenges of growing-up. At age 12, he had mastered scripture, but he wasn’t yet ready for ministry – he needed to wait another 18 years to build the character traits God required.

He had a family who didn’t always understand him. He was tempted, and experienced public ridicule and shame. He knows what it means to be hungry, thirsty, tired and homeless. He had people so angry with him that they wanted to kill him. He experienced sorrow, anguish, and fear. He struggled with accepting God’s will. The book of Hebrews tells us that he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” to God, and that he learned obedience through what he suffered.”[4] He was abused and suffered unbearable pain. He felt that God had completely abandoned him. He experienced death.

The book of Hebrews tells us that because of all he experienced, because he suffered, Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need and so that he may speak to God more effectively on our behalf.[5]

The story of every human is now God’s story.
The experience of every human is now God’s experience.

What can we learn about ourselves and our lives from this human Jesus?

The incarnation matters because it shows how we were created to be.

Jesus, the revelation of God, is the prototype, the exemplar, for humanity. He is the only one among us who faithfully and perfectly represents what God, the Creator, wished for the human person, created in God’s image, to be.

One lesson we can learn from the human Jesus concerns our expectations about life.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, we can have a tendency to assume that if we are experiencing a lot of trials or difficulties, it’s because we’ve done something wrong and God is punishing us.

You know the passage about Jesus being the vine and God being the gardener. It says that God removes the branches that don’t bear fruit. But have you really noticed the next line? “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” So periods of pruning may not indicate that we’re missing the mark, in fact, they may indicate that we are exactly where we are supposed to be, but God wants to make us stronger.

Veli-Matti Karkkainen describes it this way: If it is fitting for almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, to become a human person who undergoes growth and development from infancy to youth to adulthood, to share the ordinary life of a working family, the betrayal of friends, the opposition of other people, and finally the anguish and fear of death – well, then it is [also] fitting for us humans.[6]

Our culture bombards us with the message that the goal of life is to be happy. Ron Rolheiser says that “there is a better question. The essential question should not be, ‘Am I happy’? but rather, ‘Is my life meaningful?’”

He writes, “What the incarnation promises is not that Christ will do away with our pain, but that God will be with us in that pain.”

He continues,

….My life is meaningful precisely when I sense God’s presence in the midst of my suffering…. My faith should never pressure me to ask God to exempt me from this. Why should I be spared the human condition? Rather my faith should allow me to stand inside of every reality in my life, positive and negative, and see some meaning in it. We can be lonely, sick, sorrowful about wrong choices, over-worked and unappreciated, staring old age and death in the face and still experience deep meaning. Happiness will be a by-product of that.

The incarnation matters because Jesus accepting limits shows me that I can accept limits, too.

In becoming human, God didn’t just want us to understand God and ourselves through the person of Jesus,

The incarnation matters because it enables our adoption as God’s sons and daughters.

In the Psalm we read, the psalmist doesn’t just lament, he asks for what he wants. “Awaken your power, and come to save us! Restore us, O God.” Galatians 4 tells us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law,        so that we might receive adoption as children.[7]

God didn’t just want us to know God through the person of Jesus, God wanted to adopt us as God’s children.

Iranaeus, a church father of the second century, put it this way, “The Word of God, Jesus Christ, on account of his great love for humanity, became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.[8] What he is himself – God’s child.

In Romans 8 we read,

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when [God] adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For [God’s] Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are [God’s] children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.[9]

Our legitimacy, what makes us worthwhile, does not come from what we do, or what we own, but from the fact that we are God’s children, created by God in God’s image. God loves us with the same adoring love that God loves Jesus.

This is not just a general theological concept. This is personal. You are God’s very own child, securely loved in God’s family, able to call him “Abba, Father.” You are an heir, with your brother Jesus, to all the treasuries of God, your heavenly father. May you have a growing spirit and mindset of being God’s beloved child.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Through the incarnation, God affirms that human bodies are good, reveals God’s own character in a way we can understand, enables Jesus to understand us so that we may receive mercy and grace, teaches us about expectations, and makes us God’s very own, beloved child.

O, the mystery of God’s dwelling in the child that is born!

In Jesus, the vulnerable baby in a manger, the glory of the Lord truly is revealed.


[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/december/why-we-need-jesus.html?start=3

[2] Don S. Skinner, Passage Through Sacred History as quoted in http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/december9/33.53.html

[3] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/january/humanprototype.html

[4] Hebrews 5:7-8.

[5] Hebrews 2:18.

[6] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/january/humanprototype.html

[7] Galatians 4:4-5

[8] IRENAEUS, Adversus Haereses as quoted in http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/december9/33.53.html

[9] Romans 8:14-18 (NLT)

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