The scandal of the incarnation

Posted: December 2, 2011 by J in General

In our evangelical tradition we tend to make much of Jesus’ superiority to all others. We emphasise his difference from us. That means at Christmas we want to say that the baby who was born was The King, Christ the Lord.

We don’t seem to be nearly so interested in saying that Christ the Lord was a baby. Which is strange, because that’s the thing that happened at Christmas, isn’t it? He was already the Lord. He became the baby. The baby is big news.

As I read the NT it gives plenty of space to the reality that Jesus is like us. In fact that God, in Jesus, has become like us. Not surprising that this gets noticed, really, since the likeness is the new bit.

God was always (and always will be) different from us. He became like us at Christmas. Difference is expected. Likeness is big news.

I’ve always thought this was the just about the most shocking and scandalous thing the Christian faith has to offer. And as such it’s always attracted me in a kind of terrifying way. There’s so much that’s disturbing here, perhaps that one reason we tend to avoid talking about it. Much safer to talk about God’s uniqueness and transcendence. Nothing confusing about that.

To get a sense of the threat the incarnation is to comfortable middle class existence, consider a statement like this:

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, He also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death…Therefore He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God    (Hebrews 2:14,17)

The dangerous thing is: if in Jesus God has come close, if his way of saving us relies on his coming close, then just how close has he come? A statement like ‘he had to be made like his brothers in every way’ is enough to send a chill down the spine. In every way? Really? The writer goes on to say ‘since He Himself suffered and was tempted/tested, He is able to help those who are tempted/tested.’ Jesus’ ability to help us is dependent on his having gone through the same experiences we do, especially at the level of thoughts and desires, the arena in which tempting and testing primarily happens.

Notice that the writer is glorying in this: God’s act of solidarity with us, his coming near. He clearly thinks it’s worth dwelling on.

We don’t often do that, and with good reason. Because what he is describing seems to be solidarity with sinful human flesh. Our flesh and blood are corrupted, so that they are not compatible with God’s kingdom:

flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor can the perishable inherit the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:50)

It is our ‘flesh and blood’, our fallen human nature, that make us so vulnerable to suffer temptation. If we weren’t saddled with such a dishonoured, compromised nature, we wouldn’t find sin so overpowering. So then if Jesus was to go through the same temptations as us, wouldn’t he need to share in our fallen human nature? In our corrupt flesh and blood?  Do we really want to say that?
But the writer is going to pains to say, ‘he has been there, and that’s the reason he can save us’:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are – yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

So what are we saying about Jesus’ incarnation then? That he was truly a sinner like us – only without sinning?!?! What about God’s holiness? How can he stand to look upon sin? How could he connect himself to sinful human nature in that way?
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That discomfort you’re feeling is the horns of a pretty awful dilemma. If Jesus wasn’t ‘made like us in every way’ he wouldn’t have ‘been there’, and he wouldn’t be able to help us. But if he was made like us in every way, we can’t protect him from being sullied by our corrupt humanity.
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Which brings us back to the original question – just how close has God come? Where did he draw the line? At what point did he say, ‘I cannot come any closer to these sinners, I cannot become like them in any further ways, I will stop at this distance to protect my holiness.’? How much connection does Jesus really have to us?
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You see, this is why I find the incarnation so scandalous, and so dangerous. Jesus a superhuman, yes I’m confortable with that – heard it in church all my life! But Jesus a real human like us? The thought of it makes me a little short of breath, I feel my world sliding away from beneath me. If it were true, if reality has been turned on its head so radically, then I’ve got a feeling everything else would have to change too – everything I depend on to give me my bearings in life.
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