Monday, December 14, 2015

Not As It Seems – The Scandal of the Incarnation

The human ways of exerting power and compelling conformity have been everywhere on display this year.  Whether it’s ISIS and its clones enforcing by sheer brutality their vision of Islamic society, or the noisy multitude of outraged racial, gender and alternative sexuality crusades using their own brands of shaming and intimidation to force on the rest of us their vision of how things should be, it seems our recognizably Western and Christian way of life is being challenged from without and within as never before.

And yet even a superficial survey of history shows that both religion and culture are fragile things.  The only constant is that things change.  I grew up in what I thought was ‘Christian America’.  I now find myself part of an American society that bears more resemblance to the hostile pluralism of the Roman empire than the Christendom of medieval Western Europe.

Despite my assertion above, one thing that doesn't seem to have changed is the human addiction to power.  And whether it’s the Ming dynasty in China or Sennacherib of Assyria, or Ezana of Axum, or the great Khans of the Mongol Golden Horde, or Charlemagne, or the great Popes of the High Middle Ages, or the British Empire on which the sun never set, or the attempts, still in living memory, to impose murderous ideologies by Hitler and Stalin and the leaders of Japan, attempts thwarted only by the most massive effusion of human blood ever seen.  It would seem that power and force constitutes the only universal human language; these are the levers towards which everyone aspires.  Such a thesis is rather easy to demonstrate in the global halls of power.  But even in our own personal worlds, the dance too often is all about power and control, even when it is passed off by another name.

It is not surprising that our theology tends to view God through the lens of our own experience, our own perspective, our own preferred ideologies.  The ‘Fundamentalist’ thundering from the pulpit about a God who hates sin and hates sinners and who seems all too eager to send the unrepentant straight to hell is telling his/her listeners much more about himself/herself than about the God he/she professes to speak about.  But the ‘Liberal’ who preaches inclusivity and a God that happily affirms and celebrates everything countercultural one might wish to do is just as guilty of channeling cultural assumptions and agendas as the Fundamentalist is, albeit to different ends.  Both have recreated Jesus in their own image. Both appropriate their ‘Jesus’ to give credence to their own cultural presuppositions.  Neither is listening to the Jesus who actually is. 

Our leaders are not the only ones guilty of misappropriation.  Even at the personal level, there is often a profound disconnect between profession and behavior. For example, a person who professes to be a ‘Christian’, who is even considered a somebody by others may also at the same time employ rage, anger and abuse as one’s preferred method of maintaining power and control in one’s relationships.  The term found in the gospels that refers to this sort of behavior is simply hypocrisy. 

We seem to be prone to this confusion, addicted to power and control, even Christians.  We can only be grateful that God chose not to follow our example and fix what is wrong in this world and in our lives by force, compulsion and control.  Instead he comes hidden in full view, as one of us, quietly carried to full time in the womb of a virgin girl. A human baby boy, and yet Immanuel.  A toddler learning how to eat and play, and yet God in the flesh.  A teenager learning his father’s carpentry skills, and yet the Creator of the world.  A young man supporting his widowed mother, and yet One of the Holy Trinity. A man embarking to call his fellow Jews to repentance, and yet the rightful Heir to David’s throne.  Teaching the multitudes what it meant to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart, and yet the very Word of God himself.  Despised and rejected by the leaders and people he came warn, and yet the Suffering Servant Isaiah foretold. Crucified and embracing death itself, and yet lifted up like Moses’ bronze serpent that anyone who looks upon him may be saved.

None of this was obvious when it happened.  No trumpets.  No angels.  No public service announcements.  No advertising blitz.  All of this happened under the cloak of misunderstanding, of multiple attempts to appropriate Jesus for different agendas.  Even by his friends.  Some things never change.

It was the resurrection that transformed the perspective of Jesus’ followers.  It was the resurrection that convinced a growing circle of people that Jesus was who he claimed to be.  It was the resurrection that provided the lens through which to review Jesus’ life.  And it is in the light of the resurrection that we begin to see the incarnation, and begin to hear what Jesus is saying, and begin to see what Jesus is doing.  It is in the light of the resurrection that we begin to perceive how the incarnation changes everything.  Jesus is not captive to any interpretive ideology, Jesus is not enslaved by any cultural agenda.  Rather he draws us into his agenda, and acquaints us with his ideology.  When we insist on resisting, of pursuing our own agendas, of maintaining our own power and control, we end up creating our own religion that ends up merely using Jesus as a patron saint of our own views of what’s right or wrong, good or bad.

But as C.S. Lewis once said about Aslan, the Christ-figure of The Chronicles of Narnia, ‘He is not a tame lion.’  There is much nonsense and bullshit that goes on in the name of Christianity (and always has been).  But at some point, sooner or later, every single one of us will come face to face with Jesus Himself, and it will become irrefutably clear whether our knee has bowed to a golden calf of our own making or if we have submitted ourselves to His rightful rule over every aspect of our lives.  The mark of the latter is always repentance and self-giving love.  The mark of the former is always defensiveness, outrage, arguing, and self-justification.  A little self-examination now might save a whole lot of grief later.


The world’s way of power, intimidation, force, and manipulation often seems successful in the short-run.  But it has never accomplished what it promised.  The preferred modus operandi of so much of our world’s people is a cracked and dry cistern that holds no water. Our planet has been on the hamster wheel of futility since before history started keeping records.  The way of Jesus has also been littered with the wretched examples of men and women who have borrowed Jesus and Christianity for their own purposes.  But when men and women have seen Jesus for who he is and laid down their own pretensions, we become a beachhead of the very Kingdom of God right here in space and time, the ladder that connects heaven and earth

Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent