Sunday, December 12, 2010

Life Overflowing: Incarnation

Life Overflowing: Incarnation

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. John 1:15

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. I Corinthians 12:27

God’s work. Our hands. (Tagline of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

Stir us up

Advent passes by way too quickly. Every December I want to linger longer in the season of Advent with its royal blue paraments, lush prophecies from the Old Testament, and those amazing “stir up” prayers of the day in Sunday worship.

Here we are, all tucked into the most nostalgia-laden time of the year, fuzzy slippers on our feet, hot chocolate poured up, It's a Wonderful Life plunked into the DVD player....and then on the Sundays in Advent we pray that God will STIR UP his power in our midst.

Yikes! We normally pray to God to calm things down or for things to return to normal. But in this season we ask God to stir us up . . . to agitate us so that we might become the ones God made us and calls us to become. When we implore God to “stir us up” in Advent, we ask for deep and dramatic change.

God with skin on

And exactly what sort of change does God work in our lives? It has to do with the Incarnation, God’s reckless decision to take on human flesh in Jesus. Incarnation is about an event, a person and an ongoing reality.

Here’s a tried-but-true illustration: A father was putting his 4-year-old son to bed. The entire bedtime checklist was completed: tucked in, story read, trip to the bathroom accomplished, night light on. Enough! Dad kissed his son and tried to escape. But as he exited the bedroom, the boy cried out that he was still scared to be alone. “Don’t worry, son,” his dad responded. “Jesus is with you.” “I know that Jesus is always with me, daddy,” his son replied. “But right now I need someone with skin on.”

When the Word became flesh and tented among us (John 1:15), God acted decisively to say: “I intend to be the God with skin on—for you, for all people, and forever.” The Incarnation (“carne” is a Latin word meaning “flesh” or “meat”) is the event we prepare for during Advent—the once-and-for-all occurrence of Jesus’ birth as Immanuel (“God with us”) “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4-5).

In one sense, this is an utterly unique, unrepeatable act of God intervening in human history. Advent prepares us to celebrate the Incarnation (event) of the only begotten Son (person) of the Father.

In another sense, the Incarnation is also an ongoing reality. The same Lord Jesus Christ who lived, suffered, died and rose again continues to be en-fleshed in the Word proclaimed, the Baptism poured out, the Supper served up, and the community that bears Christ’s name in the world.

We are not free-floating spirits. We are flesh-and-blood human beings, and to meet us where we are and as we are, God continues to seek out human flesh. God keeps “putting skin on” through the life and ministry of the church.

God’s skin on a new Body

Just the other day, at our local Anytime Fitness gym, I saw a fellow exerciser wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed: “DON’T GO TO CHURCH…” And then, in smaller letters, right underneath: “Be the church.” Bingo!

In the living, breathing church of today we see the Body of Christ—the way that God still has skin on, through the real gathered-scattered community that embodies the risen Lord Jesus in the world.

Here we behold another manifestation of the abundance of God—God’s life overflowing, that has been the subject of these monthly columns in Northern Lights this year. Jesus the risen and living One continues to be incarnated in all that the church is and does. In the Church we behold God’s skin on a new Body—the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27).

This means, among other things, that the Church embraces us through our lives of faith. The church precedes us—we are born into it. The church succeeds us—it outlives our earthly lives. The church, therefore, belongs to none of us. It’s not my church, your church or even our church, to do with what we please. The church is God’s Body, God’s business, God’s gift to us and to the world.

God’s skin on you

What happens corporately, in the church, is also enacted personally, in our individual lives as baptized Christians—disciples of our living Lord. When God claimed you in Baptism, God decided to take up residence within you—fancy that! “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (I Corinthians 6:19-20).

So you, right now, are a bearer of God’s Incarnation strategy—God’s risky way of getting close to us to make us new in Christ. The great Scottish missionary to India, Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998), showed how God’s saving of us is intimately linked to God’s sending of us to bear Christ to others. He wrote: “The corporate nature of the salvation which God purposes is a necessary part of the divine purpose of salvation according to the biblical view that no one could receive it as a direct revelation from above but only through the neighbor, only as part of an action in which he opens his door and invites his neighbor to come in….There is no salvation except in a mutual relatedness which reflects that eternal relatedness-in-love which is the being of the triune God.”   Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (1978, Eerdmans), p. 85.

“Be born in us today…”

As we conclude the year 2010 with the seasons of Advent and Christmas, I invite you to keep your eyes peeled for signs of how the Incarnation is simultaneously an event (the Nativity of our Lord), a person (Jesus, “God with us”) and an ongoing reality in our lives as Christian individuals and members of the Body of Christ. If you watch carefully, you will see hints of the Incarnation all around you—opportunities, invitations to live out the ELCA tagline: “God’s work. Our hands.”

And surely, you will hear this rich understanding of the Incarnation in the songs of the season. For example, notice God’s incarnation strategy in the 4th stanza of Phillips Brooks’s beloved carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem:

O holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today…

Thank you for reading, reflecting on and discussing with others this series of monthly columns on our synod’s 2010 theme, Life Overflowing. A rich Advent and a joyous Christmas to you all!

Your brother in Christ

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion

1. What are some of the ways your congregation embodies Christ in your community?

2. The article includes this sentence: ”It’s not my church, your church or even our church, to do with what we please.” How might remembering that the church is God’s church change the ways you make decisions in your congregation?

3. The article quotes Lesslie Newbigin as saying, “There is no salvation except in a mutual relatedness…” What does this say about God and God’s way of engaging with us?

This is the eleventh and final in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

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