The wonder of the Incarnation
Sometimes we say a thing ‘seems too good to be true’, though we are not really doubting its truth. Sometimes we say that ‘fact is stranger than fiction’, because that is just how it can seem. Sometimes a thing is so unexpected, so unbelievable, that we say it cannot have been invented, it must be true. At the heart of Christianity is something just like that: God became a human being and lived as a man in our world.
Just a lovely story?
This sounds incredible; it seems unthinkable and leaves the mind gasping. It raises unanswerable questions. If it is true, we are faced with a mystery no human intellect can probe. If it is false, why ever should anyone have thought of it in the first place, or believed it, or spoken about it? This is the central fact of Christianity. At Bethlehem, two thousand years ago, a baby born to a peasant mother was God, coming into the world in human form.
The story, at least, is well known. It is read, enacted, and carolled every year. And yet the wonder of it, its mystery, glory and magic seem to pass by those who hear it. It is remarkable that people are so unaffected. We could understand if people argued fiercely against it and said that the whole idea is quite impossible. But most people do not react like that. It’s difficult to know just what they make of it. Do they think it is just a lovely story, and leave it at that? If they believe it’s true, why don’t they ask what it means? And if they’re not sure it’s true, why don’t they try to find out for themselves? After all, if it is true, it is the most extraordinary event that has ever happened, and must have some special meaning for us all.
In Greek and Roman drama, when the plot became complicated and insoluble by man, a god would be introduced to sort things out – thedeus ex machina. Some science fiction is very similar, bringing in an alien or ‘superman’ to fulfil the same purpose. Certainly, the human race often gets itself into such trouble that only someone with supernatural wisdom and power could work out a solution that avoids widespread warfare and misery. However, what works of fiction introduce because there is no alternative, Christianity affirms as a breathtaking fact. God actually entered human life and became a man. In Jesus of Nazareth, Creator and creature become one; deity and humanity are joined together.
In many ways this is just what we need. For most people God seems a remote figure, even if they believe in him. How can he be known? How can we have anything to do with him? Isn’t he far too great, or high, for us to reach up to him? Here is the answer; he has come down to us. Not as an overwhelming figure; not with awesome majesty and clouds of glory; not with thunders, lightning and mighty power; but as something familiar, a baby who grows into a man.
The mystery of God
Somehow, God and man have become separated. If God made us, wouldn’t it be logical to expect that we would know him? That we would feel a oneness with him, a sense of belonging to him? Yet in reality, we experience a sense of distance from God. Something seems to have happened to alienate us from him. The gap between man and God is real and, says the Bible, is caused by our sin. How can the chasm be bridged? Here is the answer: God himself has crossed the gap and come to us. There is a man who is God!
How could God become a man? How could he be outside of his creation and rule over it, and yet also become a created being within it? Here is another mystery, but the answer lies in the fact that there is a certain plurality within God. There is only one God, yet God is not singular, living in splendid isolation and loneliness. Within the being of God there is love and companionship: there is the Father, there is also the Son (and the Spirit, too). Both Father and Son are necessarily God, just as human fathers and sons are necessarily human. The Son came into the world, but the Father remains ruler over the world. So God dwells in heaven and rules over all, but also assumes human nature and lives on earth. We cannot understand, but we can believe and wonder.
Jesus, God and man
How can a person be both divine and human at the same time? How can the One who made all things become a tiny baby, totally dependent on his mother? How can the One who provides us with food and all that we need, himself be hungry, thirsty and tired? How can One who, as God, knows all things, also be a man, learning and growing in wisdom? None of us can understand. Our best attempts only skirt the edge of the problems. Yet there is no other explanation for the figure of Jesus than that he is truly human and truly divine. He only lived in the world for thirty-three years. He was no great leader, as the world understands leaders. He was rejected by his own nation and died as a criminal on a Roman cross. Yet he towers over history. There simply is no one else like him: undoubtedly human, yet certainly God.
The reason he came
But why should he become a man? What reason did he have for entering our world at all? It must surely have been something pretty dramatic to cause the Son of God to visit our world. Such a miracle demands an explanation. It could hardly be that he came just to teach us how to live. God could have used prophets for that. And if he came to give us a perfect example to follow, then his coming was a waste of time. Why? Because none of us can begin to live the sort of life he lived, as two thousand years of history have amply proved.
He himself gave the reason when he said, ‘The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’. People are lost; we have lost our way. Turning from God’s way and following our own way, we have gone astray and got hopelessly lost. We wander blindly, far from God and far from home. But God has come to find us, as a shepherd goes out to look for a lost sheep, and bring it back when he has found it. Jesus Christ came to seek us and call us back to himself.
Seeking and saving
And he did not merely come to seek; he also came to save. Here is the unprecedented part. He became a man so that he could suffer and die for what men and women have done. None of us could pay for the sins that we have committed. None of us can make ourselves good enough for God. None of us are fit to live with God. But as the Son of Man he could act on our behalf. He could live the life of perfect obedience that none of us have lived. He could die the death that we deserved, bearing all that the justice of God demanded as the payment for our sins. And that is what he did. Through his death he reconciles sinners to a holy God. Those who once rebelled against his law are made his children and his friends.
It seems too good to be true. He came to save us from our sins, to deliver us from their condemnation and rescue us from hell. Out of love he came, and with overflowing mercy he calls us to turn from all that is wrong and come to him. He came to us; now is the time for us to come to him. Humbly, just as you are, you may trust and turn to the God who became a man. For as they said during his lifetime, ‘This man receives sinners’.