Veiled in Flesh the Godhead See

Second in an Advent series on the theology in Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

Colossians 1:15-20John 1:1-18

live nativityAbout ten years ago, I was preparing a sermon for yet another Christmas Eve, trying to come up with another way to express the mystery of the incarnation: God becoming flesh in Jesus. That’s always the difficult task for the preacher during this season: trying to say something new in the midst of a story that’s very old and very familiar—so much so that people often miss the meaning under all the layers of Christmas tradition.

That year, however, I found an illustration that really spoke to me about the reality that John speaks of in today’s Gospel lesson: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The story was from a small church on another Christmas Eve, where another sanctuary was packed to standing room only. That year, this particular church had decided to have a living nativity in front of the church while the service was going one, including the presence of a real, live baby in the manger instead of the usual, predictable and quiet baby doll. As the pastor was preaching his sermon, the baby did what babies tend to do—he filled his diaper to overflowing (every parent in here knows what that means!). Pretty soon, the disgusting smell began to waft through the crowded, warm sanctuary, causing people to wrinkle and plug their noses, their eyes watering from the stench—all right in the middle of the sermon.

Now, there are certain distractions that preachers can handle during a sermon, but this one wasn’t going to be overlooked. Without missing a beat, however, the pastor looked at his grossed out congregation and back at the now smiling baby, and said, “Now we have an idea of what Christmas, the incarnation, is really all about. It’s not clean, it’s not pretty, it’s not fragrant, and there’s no halo around the holy family. There’s an odor not an aura, and God becoming a human was a messy, smelly business!”

I thought this was a brilliant illustration, so I preached it on Christmas Eve to end the sermon. On the day after Christmas, a couple was waiting for me when I got to the office. They were furious. They said to me, “You ruined our Christmas. Your illustration was disgusting. How dare you imply that baby Jesus had soiled diapers! That’s all we could talk about on Christmas Day (what a bummer of a day that must have been!).” They railed at me about it for an hour, and it was clear to me that they were offended by the idea of Jesus being really human and engaging in things like digestion. They stormed out of the office, threatening to leave the church.

A few hours later, I decided to treat myself to a post-Christmas lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant when they walked in and sat down. It took every ounce of holiness that I might have to keep from ordering a poo-poo platter to be sent to their table.

Saint Nicholas punching out the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicea, 325AD

Saint Nicholas punching out the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicea, 325AD

One of things I thought about while eating my kung pao chicken that day, however, is that this kind of objection to the reality Jesus’ humanity and divinity isn’t new. Some of the earliest Christian arguments were about the humanity and divinity of Christ. The Council of Nicea in 325AD (where we get our Nicene Creed from) was convened by the Emperor Constantine to solve an argument over whether Jesus was fully human and fully divine, or if he just appeared to be human, or if he was just human with some special relationship with God. A cleric named Arius said that God’s essence could not be shared, for such sharing would entail a division and diminution of God. Arius reasoned that Christ, the Eternal Word of God, can’t be fully one with God, but must be a creature formed by the Father. In a famous incident at the Council, Saint Nicholas (yes, that Saint Nicholas), got up and slapped Arius across the face for this naughty heresy, believing with his friend Athanasius that, as we say in the Creed, Jesus was of the same substance as God—fully human and fully divine. After all, Athanasius argued, that’s really what John says in his Gospel—The Word was with God and the Word WAS God.

Other heresies continued to pop up, however. One of the most prevalent, even today, is docetism, which says that God only appeared to be human from time to time. As Bishop Will Willimon puts it in his brand new book on the incarnation, “Docetism fails to acknowledge Christ’s full humanity— it is inconceivable that an omniscient and omnipotent God could suffer human pain on the cross [or, I would add, have even a poopy diaper]. Christ lovingly appeared to humanity as if he were one of us, but spiritually insightful believers know that he was actually God in human disguise.” It was docetism that stormed into my office the day after Christmas, and we see it in other places as well. A few years back, a group of scholars called The Jesus Seminar decided to try and discover the “historical” Jesus, voting on what they thought Jesus actually said and did (the answer for them—Jesus only said and did about 18% of what’s in the Gospels). They crafted a Jesus that was merely a spiritual sage who gave some good God-inspired advice, but whose life, death, and resurrection really didn’t matter that much. A lot of so-called Christians still have this kind of Jesus, who is one spiritual option among many—but don’t bother them with all that blood and guts and diapers and stuff. Docetism is still alive and well!

You even see some of this docetism in the hymns we sing at Christmas time. Now, I know I’ll step on some toes here, perhaps even ruin your Christmas (as you can tell, I’m good at that), but think, for example, about that line in “Away in a Manger:” “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Not only does he not need a diaper, he doesn’t cry! Indeed, in that hymn, Jesus isn’t even concerned with our humanity; his mission is to “fit us for heaven to live with [him] there.” It’s a beautiful lullaby, but it’s bad theology (By the way, I plan to be out of the office on Tuesday morning, just in case you were thinking about coming in…)

Charles Wesley counters with this powerful line in the second verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing, which we sang earlier: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate deity! Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” If we want to know what it means to be fully human, we find the model in Jesus. And if we want to know what the divinity of God looks like, we see that in his human face as well. Wesley echoes Paul who says in Colossians 1 that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…in him, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and (echoing last week’s sermon) through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross” (v. 15, 19-20). In Jesus we see the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity come together; we see heaven and earth come together; the hidden God is revealed through his life, and broken humanity is restored through his death.

This is why the mystery of the incarnation is at the heart of Christian faith: It teaches us who God is, and it teaches us who we are. We can fully identify with God and God fully identifies with us. These are two profound truths from which the heart of Christian faith can begin to understand the whole truth of the gospel.

Jesus reveals God to us. John calls Jesus “the Word,” which E. Stanley Jones called, “the expression of a hidden thought.” Jesus is “the hidden God, like the hidden thought, and we cannot know what God is like unless God communicates through a word…When you take hold of that Word, you do not take hold of something standing between you and God—that Word, Jesus, is God available… When you take hold of Jesus, you take hold of God.”

Theologian N.T. Wright often talks about being on airplanes and in public places and encountering people who, when they learn he is a Christian, are quick to say, “Well, I don’t believe in God.” Wright says he always replies the same way, asking, “Really? What God is it you don’t believe in?” Usually, people will reply that they don’t believe in a God that is arbitrary, cruel, capricious, and out to “get” humanity by sending them to hell.” To that Wright concludes, “Well, I don’t believe in that God, either. I believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” In Christ, we see God’s longsuffering love and grace embodied. In him we see the character of God; in him we see the truth of Jesus’ statement: “I and the Father are one” (John ). As Stanley Jones puts it, “If grace is unmerited favor, so here it is [in Jesus]. Love favoring us when we are not favorable, loving us when we’re not lovable, accepting us when we are not acceptable, redeeming us when by all the rules of the book we are not redeemable. Grace is love applied, the word of love become flesh. That is the distinctive thing in the Christian faith.”

And in the incarnation Jesus also reveals what full humanity looks like. It’s no accident that John starts his gospel with the words, “In the beginning,” which call the reader back to the very beginning of creation and, especially, to the creation of humanity. John seems to want us to view Jesus’ humanity and divinity and our own humanity and relationship with God through the lens of what God created humans to be in the beginning.

God and HumanIn Genesis 1, God makes these first humans “in his own image” and calls this creation “very good.” Genesis chapter 2 provides another account, this one saying that God created Adam, Hebrew for “man,” out of the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life. Both narratives make it clear that God is pleased with this human creation — a reflection of God’s own being. These humans have been created for relationship with God.

It is not only their physical creation that matters here, however; so does their vocation. God’s first commandment was for these humans, God’s own image, to reflect his care for the creation by exercising dominion and stewardship over the whole project. God doesn’t see these people as being “only human” but, rather, “fully human” — the full representation of God’s own image, character and vocation. They aren’t equals with God, as Genesis 3 will clearly reveal, but they’re invested with a status of divine favor. John is perhaps thinking of the “breath of life” in Genesis when he says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4). From the very beginning, humans have been given the capacity to relate to God and to receive his “abundant” life (John 10:10). Humans aren’t God, but they’re made to be indwelt by his presence — their full humanity enabled to be filled by the Holy Spirit (John 14:17). Although many see our humanity as a curse, we forget that God created us for his own “very good” purpose and for relationship with him.

Genesis 3, of course, reveals that the first humans sought to be like God — to be more than they were created to be — and instead wound up being less than the image of God and less than human. Our own heretical theology comes into play when we believe we’re “only human” because we sin, when the Bible reveals that sin is what makes us less than human. After all, sin is inherently dehumanizing: Violence turns people into targets, lust turns people into objects of pleasure, greed turns people into commodities, and on an on. Our humanity isn’t the problem; it’s our sinful sloughing off of our humanity that gets us into trouble.

Jesus didn’t do that, of course. In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus revealed what it meant to be fully human and, at the same time, fully indwelt and one with the Divine. He isn’t merely a perfect icon to admire but an example to follow in how to fully engage one’s capacity for relationship with God. In John’s gospel, Jesus is constantly trying to teach his disciples how to be one with him and one with the God he reveals in his own person. He taught them how to be fully human, made in the image of God.

Jesus does more than model full divinity and humanity, however. By becoming human and by dying a human death on a cross, the naked and bleeding Jesus experienced the ultimate dehumanizing act on our behalf. In Jesus, God would go through the very death that ends human life, but then he would rise from the dead, defeating death and offering the amazing and wonderful hope that the curse of death, which now ends our humanity, will someday no longer be in the way of an eternal, resurrected, embodied, fully human life with God — the way it was meant from the beginning. “In him was life,” says John, “and the life was [and is] the light of all people” (vv. 4-5). “In him, all things hold together,” says Paul (Col. 1:17). We are given the light of God’s Spirit dwelling in us, to be lived out in our fully human lives — lives that are meant to reflect and hold together both the human and the divine.

Here is good news of great joy for all the people. God became human in Christ. God’s ultimate Word is revealed in the midst of human life– a life where messes are sacred things; a life where we can see new possibilities and break old patterns, a life where we spend each day walking hand in hand with God and continue writing the greatest story ever told. John reveals that Jesus is the true Emmanuel—God with us. He comes to us in the midst of our imperfection and loves us with a perfect love. He understands that in the mess is where the true message, the real good news, is best known. God comes to be with us in person.

In a world where everyone is trying to have the perfect, “merry” Christmas, it’s easy for anything to ruin it. But Christmas isn’t about perfect, or even merriment—it’s about the mess into which God entered to save us all. Whatever mess you’re in, whatever stink you’re making with your life, the good news is that God has already entered into it. He knows what you’re dealing with—from poopy diapers all the way to the funeral home smell of death. He is God with us.

So, I don’t wish you a merry Christmas. I wish you a messy Christmas. After all, that’s what the story is all about!

Sources:

Jones, E. Stanley. The Word Became Flesh(Abingdon, 2006).

Kaylor, Bob. “Jesus Christ.” Homiletics, January-February 2011.

Willimon, Will. Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth(Abingdon, 2013)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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