God in the Flesh

The Word Became Flesh by Guatemalan painter Hyatt Moore

In the biggest cities of the world, like Mexico City, and Manilla, there are huge garbage dumps that cover several square miles. On top of these heaps of waste there live thousands of families who have made this their home. Each day they send their kids out to forage for scraps so they can have something to eat and survive.  Few others tread where these families are.  Yet, there are believers who make the journey and try to bring the gospel of grace and mercy to such a place.

As incredible and sad a situation that this is, it is incomparable to the journey from heaven to earth that Jesus made. Christ came to the sin-soaked dump of this world, to us who were living on a heap of garbage and entered our lives to save us from our wretched condition. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, frames the Gospel of John 1:14 this way:

The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.

Jesus did not merely appear to be human; he is human. The Christ of God, enjoying unhindered fellowship within the Godhead of Father, Son, and Spirit, became like us and lived with all the same things we face from day to day.  He “tabernacled” with us, using the imagery of God’s presence with the ancient Israelites (Exodus 25-31, 35-40). Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

We must remember that the Apostle John and the other gospel writers were evangelists; they wrote so that people might believe in Jesus and come to see what God has done through joining them in this broken world. Another John, John the Baptist, had a sole purpose in life to be a witness of Jesus to others, to testify to the truth that Christ came to rescue us from our terrible condition.

The Apostle John saw Jesus interact with families in the dump. He knew what was happening, that God was coming to save the people. The way to reach people, who are so concerned for scurrying about their business and trying to survive apart from God, is through the incarnation – in testifying to what God has done in Christ and being sent as little incarnations entering people’s lives. 

In this way, believers are like the moon, not producing light ourselves, but in the middle of darkness, reflecting the light of the sun so that the earth may know that Jesus is coming. The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus became human and descended to live among us.

Any birth is an incredible miracle. I was present at the births of all three of my daughters, and one of my grandsons. There is nothing quite like it. Life coming into the world for the very first time is an unparalleled mystery with an unmatched sense of majesty. Although childbirth involves pain, agony, and mess, it is all quickly forgotten amidst the joy of this little baby becoming alive to all that is around them.

What a crazy contradiction of a virgin having a child gestate in her womb and then giving birth! That is something more than a miracle. It is Divine accommodation or condescension in which God does the unimaginable and unthinkable in not only coming to earth but entering as a vulnerable human baby. The great and mighty Sovereign of the universe got down on all fours and descended far beneath such loftiness. God got off the throne and sat on the garbage heap with us.

God is so far above and beyond us that to be revealed and communicate to us, the Holy Trinity conspired to enter the earth by means of a baby. God came to us. The sixteenth century Reformer, John Calvin, framed the incarnation of Christ in these terms:

“God lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children. Such modes of expression… accommodate the knowledge of the divine to our feebleness. In doing so, God must, of course, stoop far below his proper height… Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of God must be lowered to our capacity to be intelligible… God voluntarily lowers himself not as he really is but as we conceive of him.”

Indeed, God coos at us and babbles baby-talk not because that is his language but so that we can understand. What is more, God became flesh and blood for us, so we can climb up into his lap or lean into him, just as John did with Jesus. (John 13:23-25)

The incarnation of Christ means God loves us so deeply and completely that Jesus became one of us to bring that love with skin on, in ways that truly communicate empathy, compassion, kindness, and goodness to people. This is grace, that God first conformed to us before we are conformed to Christ. God went to the greatest lengths possible to reach us, save us, and bring us into the life of the Trinity.

Jesus climbed into our skin to assure us that God understands and cares. Jesus also gets into our hearts and invites us to know God. Even though Christ said a lot of things that can be difficult to understand, the love of coming alongside another person communicates well in any language and culture. Jesus, full of both grace and truth, bent over backwards to speak and act in ways that say, “I love you.”

God got down and dirty with us. The Lord jumped into the fray of broken humanity. God connected Jesus to an umbilical cord, covered him in the muck of fetal afterbirth, and caused him to cry alongside the sorrows of humanity. None of this was illusion or appearance. It was real, just like us. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews said this:

Since the children are made of flesh and blood, it is logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood to rescue them by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death.

It is obvious, of course, that he did not go to all this trouble for angels. It was for people like us, children of Abraham. That is why he had to enter every detail of human life. Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed. (Hebrews 2:14-18, MSG)

God’s grace stretches out on the wide horizontal beam of the Cross with compassionate arms for the world. God’s truth goes down deep with the vertical beam of the cross to give stability for the world. The truth of Jesus Christ, the One who reveals God, is strong enough to support the wide beam of grace which stretches round the earth to bring deliverance from the garbage dump of sin, death, and hell.

May we rejoice and be glad in this reality, and may it move us to be used of God to save those on the sin heap of this world.

1 Peter 5:1-5 – Humble Service

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”(NIV)

Today’s New Testament lesson addresses two groups of people: Leaders and followers, the older and the younger, shepherds and sheep. Both have their distinct roles and places, yet both are to share together in the virtue of humility. Whether pastor or parishioner, mentor or mentee, humble service is to characterize all.

I spent a good chunk of my ministerial life working with college students and twenty-somethings. One of the reasons I like being around young adults is that they have a very well attuned barometer to hogwash coming from older folks. Unlike children and more mature adults, this group of people live in a nexus between an emerging awareness of the world without having yet been crusted over with bitterness or disillusionment. They can spot a disingenuous person across the room like an eagle eyes the difference between a fish and a rock at five-thousand feet in the air.

All of us have likely had the experience of not being able to explain why, but a certain interaction with a person just seems off – it smacks of being a bit too contrived and manipulative. The other person might talk a good line, yet your instincts tell you different. So, for example, if a church pastor or leader seems to be just going through the motions as if the work is a necessary evil, then there might be something behind it. It is always a good idea to stop and listen to your gut speak.

Difficult for many people is that life is not so much about learning a certain skill set, as if we were in a trade school. The skills approach relies upon learning to say certain things, do certain things, and press certain buttons in others, and then get a solid expected outcome. That kind of approach is where the finely attuned baloney meter goes off in others. They sense that this person talking to them is not bringing anything of themselves to the discussion; they’re just talking without listening; they just go on without a sense of dialogue in which they learn from you or reveal anything of themselves to you.

I genuinely believe humility is the cornerstone of all virtues and the foundation to effective personal interactions and group dynamics. Without humility, there is no sense of the majesty and dignity of the other person – there is only competition and a twisted hierarchy of those with power and those without. If humility is absent, life is a trade school in learning to get what I want on the backs of others.

However, with humility, who we are as people matters. I bring my feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, my experiences, and my questions into the conversation or situation and seek to, in turn, discover what you think and feel. Then, together, we come to a third way of seeing that honors our collective sharing and consulting of one another with fresh collaboration which blesses the world. This is less a skill set, and more of just being a good human being.

Humility is a posture, not a skill to leverage for what we want. A humble disposition pursues learning, growth, and development. It sits with uncertainty and mystery so that genuine relationship has a real go at happening. Humility sits on the floor at Jesus’ feet and discovers something about self, God, and the interaction between each.

The humble emptying of oneself is necessary in awakening to a new awareness of God’s presence. It may not mean that shepherds and leaders have clear assurances and certain plans, yet it will surely involve living in the awkward in-between of assurance and uncertainty, being loved but not knowing where that love will take you, and following Jesus without a pre-negotiated plan. 

No one can malarkey their way through the Christian life; everyone needs the posture of humility. Jesus will be our Teacher, yet we will need to bring ourselves to the mix because Christianity is not dispassionately taking notes and then forensically regurgitating it all on an exam. Instead, Christianity is a dynamic spiritual encounter between God and self through the person of Jesus. It begins with humility. And the rewards of such living are permanent and eternal.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd of the sheep, give us the humility which realizes its ignorance, admits its mistakes, recognizes its need, welcomes advice, and accepts rebuke. Help us always to praise rather than to criticize, to sympathize rather than to discourage, to build rather than to destroy, and to think of people at their best rather than at their worst. This we ask for your name’s sake. Amen.

3 John 9-12 – On Hospitality and Against Being Inhospitable

Trinity by Russian artist Alek Rapoport (1933-1997)

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So, when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

Dear friends, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true. (NIV)

I believe in an egalitarian world. That is, humanity is meant to live, ideally, in equity with one another. Humility, meekness, and gentleness are to be the inner dispositions of a person’s life. These virtues work themselves out in being concerned for the common good of all, laboring toward just and righteous ways of living for everyone and sharing our lives as well as our resources with each other. In short, viewing one another as equals inevitably leads to gracious hospitality.

However, in a world of power disparities and privileged inequities are attitudes of seeking attention, a perceived need to always win and be first, and tight-fisted control of authority and money. The common good of all persons is scaled back to be the concern for the common good of some. There is a failure to regard the weak, poor, and vulnerable as legitimate members of the community.

The Apostle John wrote his short succinct letter in a concern that the church may be following a leader who was taking them down a bad path – a road leading to injustice where power and privilege remain with a few, and perhaps even one. John’s plainspoken exhortation was to judge rightly between what is good and bad, and then imitate the good while forsaking the bad.

Hospitality is the true litmus test between the good and the bad. An openness to the stranger, the immigrant, the migrant, the alien, the foreigner, the newcomer, and the outsider characterizes authentic fellowship. Being closed to such persons and having a xenophobic bent to others who are different is the mark of unwelcoming and inhospitable people. Hospitality serves others, whereas being inhospitable cajoles others to serve our needs.

Even Jesus, the Lord of all, did not come to this earth for people to serve him. He came to serve others and to give his life to save many people (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; John 13:1-17). We are to imitate the loving service and radical hospitality of the Lord Jesus. He is our example. We are to imitate Christ.

We are to have both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice). Both go together like a hand in a glove. Good actions are to be the result of good and proper beliefs. The following are some thoughts about this nexus between belief and practice:

  • Hospitality (which literally means “love of the stranger”) is a way of life fundamental to orthodox Christianity, based in the person and work of Jesus.
  • God is hospitable and loves the outsider, welcoming them into the dance of the Trinity, and provides for them. Our human hospitality is to reflect this divine welcome.
  • Hospitality means extending to another a kindness typically reserved for family or friends.
  • The teaching of the New Testament emphasizes the practice of hospitality, i.e. Luke 14:12-14; Matthew 25:31-46.
  • The consistent witness of the Church in history is to lift and uphold Christian hospitality. For example, the Reformer John Calvin said, “Whatever person you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help them.” This was no mere theoretical advice for Calvin, whose ministry center of Geneva, Switzerland swelled with French Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution. Calvin, always the theologian, grounded his understanding of hospitality in the divine: “We should not regard what a person is and what they deserve but we should go higher – that it is God who has placed us in the world for such a purpose that we be united and joined together. God has impressed the divine image in us and has given us a common nature, which should incite us to provide one for the other.”
  • Hospitality is a practice which integrates both respect and care. St. John Chrysostom warned his congregation to show “excessive joy” when offering hospitality to avoid shaming the recipient of care.
  • Biblical hospitality does not need to know all the details of someone’s life before extending care. If Christ forgave and healed those who injured him, how could we neglect even a starving murderer? 
  • True hospitality involves a face-to-face relationship of encouragement and respect – not just a distant giving of alms. Hospitable persons pay attention to others and share life with them.
  • The great twin concerns of hospitality are universalizing the neighbor and personalizing the stranger. One reason why many of the rich have little sympathy for the poor is because they seldom visit them. Hospitality depends on us recognizing our commonalities with strangers rather than our differences.
  • This is how we evaluate our hospitality: Did we see Christ in them? Did they see Christ in me?

Hospitable God:

Give us eyes to see the deepest needs of people.

Give us hearts full of love for our neighbors as well as for the strangers we meet.

Help us understand what it means to love others as we love ourselves.

Teach us to care in a way that strengthens those who are sick.

Fill us with generosity so we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give drink to the thirsty.

Let us be a healing balm to those who are weak and lonely and weary by offering our kindness to them.

May we remember to listen, smile, and offer a helping hand each time the opportunity presents itself. And may we conspire to create opportunities to do so.

Give us hearts of courage to risk loving our enemy.

Inspire us to go out of our way to include outsiders.

Help us to be welcoming and include all whom you send our way.

Let us be God’s hospitality in the world.

Amen.

James 4:4-10 – The Jilted Lover

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.”

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (NIV)

Apparently, the Apostle James was not trying to win friends. But he was trying to influence people, specifically those who are proud. So, please understand from the outset that James was going tough after haughty persons because it takes a hammer to break a hard heart. And so, his approach ought only to be emulated in the unique context of handling persons stuck in their own destructive hubris. Nevertheless, there is much instruction in these verses to help us all.

Throughout the Bible, a marriage metaphor is used to liken the relationship of God to the people much like a lover. God’s covenant relationship is at the heart of understanding the whole of Scripture. Whenever people stray from divine promises, God is offended and hurt. 

Yes, God feels pain. God is an emotional Being, which is why we have emotions as God’s image-bearers. One way to view the Bible is that it is a book about God, the jilted lover. The Lord set affection and love upon people, yet many people have spurned their lover’s advance. And this situation pains God. 

When Adam and Eve, decided to find satisfaction outside of God, the Lord was hurt. When people went on to have children and raise them, they did so largely apart from the God who loved them. People strayed so far from God that it caused pain:

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV).

Yet, God was gracious. The Lord took a group of Noah’s descendants, Abraham’s family, and set a covenant affection on them. God hoped to restore the world to right relationship through the Israelites. However, they too, came to set their affections on others. So, nearly half of the Old Testament is devoted to communicating the Lord’s hurt and disappointment. 

Like a jilted lover, God longed for Israel to remain faithful. The prophecy of Hosea is a case in point. Hosea had an unfaithful wife, Gomer, and their relationship mirrored the relationship between God and Israel. Just as Hosea did not give up on his wife, even though she was brazenly unfaithful, so God looked at Israel as a spouse and could not bear to give her up.

Israel spurned their lover’s grace and kindness and actively sought other lovers, causing God anger and agony. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God recounted the history of unfaithfulness:

“At every crossroad you built your platform and degraded your beauty by spreading your legs to all comers. And so, you encouraged even more promiscuity. You prostituted yourself with the Egyptians, your neighbors with the large sexual organs, and as you added to your seductions, you provoked me to anger…. Still not satisfied, you prostituted yourself to the Assyrians, but they were not enough for you either. So, you prostituted yourself with the Babylonians, the land of traders, but again you were not satisfied. How sick was your heart that you could do all these things, the deeds of a hardened prostitute?… You are like an adulterous wife: you take in strangers instead of your husband. Ordinary prostitutes are given gifts, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers. From every direction you even bribed them to come to you for your sexual favors. As a prostitute, you were more perverse than other women. No one approached you for sexual favors, but you yourself gave gifts instead of receiving them.” (Ezekiel 16:25-34, CEB)

Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God extended grace to the beloved spouse:

“I am taking you back!
I rejected you for a while,
but with love and tenderness
    I will embrace you again.
For a while, I turned away
    in furious anger.
Now I will have mercy
    and love you forever!
I, your protector and Lord,
    make this promise.” (Isaiah 54:6-8, CEV)

The Old Testament ends with God still longing for return:

The Lord proclaims: “I care passionately about Zion; I burn with passion for her.” (Zechariah 8:2, CEB)

All this theological awareness was in the heart of James when he wrote his letter to the hard-hearted. He knew they were flirting with the world and wanted them to stop and return to the God who longed to show them grace, if they only would but humble themselves.

God yearns, passionately, for us to find our needs met, and enjoyment found, in the loving divine embrace. Spiritual adultery hurts God deeply, like it would any jilted lover. God awaits with loving patience to show grace and compassion to wayward people. 

Only the stance and attitude of humility can receive grace. Pride and hubris prevent people from receiving God’s good gift. So, the Apostle James rattled-off ten quick staccato commands to remain connected in a love relationship with God.  We might frame these as resolutions to live by. 

  1. Submit to God.

Humble folk willingly place themselves under God’s authority because they are convinced God has their best interests at mind. One temptation when facing adversity is to entertain the belief that no one is going to look out for you except yourself. So, to avoid getting hurt too badly, we might become cynical, arrogant, and callous – self-protective strategies designed to keep the hurt away. This only creates hardness of heart. The alternative is faithful submission to God – knowing that God’s Spirit will protect and living with the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

2. Resist the devil.

Satan is a bully. The way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them. We face down the temptation. Notice that James says we submit to God and resist the devil. We are not to be deceived into flipping it around by listening to Satan and avoiding submission to God.

3. Come near to God.

Like a loving parent, the Lord longingly looks out the window waiting for prodigals to return. Coming to God is the first thing we ought to do. When my daughter was young her bike was stolen. So, we sat down together in the backyard and came to God in prayer. I barely finished praying when a police cruiser pulled up in the alley behind our house. The policeman rolled down his window and said, “Hey, are you missing a bike?”  We hopped in and he took us to where someone had ditched the bike. It was a tremendous lesson that when we come to God, God comes to us. I realize life does not always work that way, yet we can be assured that God listens, hears, and will respond.

4. Wash our hands.

We cannot approach God with blood on our hands. We must come to God squarely facing our sin and disobedience.  We must deal with the wrong we have done without sweeping it under the rug. God wants us to admit our sin, receive grace, and deal with matters of restitution and reconciliation, without trying to save face when found out in a concern for “optics.”

5. Purify our hearts.

Whereas the previous resolution is mostly external, this one addresses the inner person, the heart. Not only do our actions need to be cleaned up through washing our hands, our attitudes must be purged of pollution. Our hearts cannot handle two masters. We are meant to be single-minded without mixed motives. There is an African proverb which says, “The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.” 

The next four resolutions describe important emotional responses to sin….

6. Grieve.

Trying to move on without grieving and lamenting is called denial. Grief is not only an event; it is a process which takes time. Grieving is biblical. Sharing our stories with each other, giving testimony to God’s grace, and expressing ourselves is important. A loving God knows there cannot be healing apart from grief and lament.

7. Mourn.

Blessed are those who mourn (Matthew 5:4). Mourning the emotional response to devastation of sin, and how much we need God.  It is to see sin in all its foulness and degradation. People who do not mourn are or become hard-hearted and need deep spiritual transformation. Jesus offers the remedy: By his wounds we are healed.

8. Wail.

We are to cry – more than cry – to wail.  Whereas mourning might be more private and personal, wailing has a much more public dimension to it. I believe the great tragedy in many modern churches is an inordinate focus on victory and triumphalism. The result: Far too many Christians cry alone. No one should ever have to cry by themselves. We must weep with those who weep. If there ever was an appropriate place for crying, it should be amongst fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

9. Change.

We cannot turn the clock back to some bygone idyllic era. We are to grasp the type of change which occurs in living for Jesus Christ and above sin. In other words, no casual cavalier attitudes toward sin. I once had a conversation with a young woman about heaven and hell. When we began the discussion, she expressed a desire to be wherever the better party going on. By the time we finished our conversation she was grieving, mourning, and crying. I never knew what became of her – I even forget her name now. But once she got just a glimpse of the gravity of sin, it undid her.

10. Be humble.

Humility sums up all these resolutions. The paradox is that through grieving, mourning, and wailing we become joyful and satisfied; through suffering there is glory; becoming last is to become first; entering the narrow gate leads to the broad open space of God’s eternal life.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.