Since almost the beginning of time humankind “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:23). Influenced by the nations around them and their time in ancient Egypt Israel at times in its history wanted to, and did make idols. Aaron, priest of Yahweh, gave in to the cries of the people at Sinai and made a golden calf. Aaron “built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD’” (Exodus 32:5). The calf, Aaron proclaimed, represent Yahweh!
Centuries later the prophet Isaiah rebuked Israel for wanting to do the same. “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on his scales and the hills in a balance? To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy and spreads them out like a tent to live in. ‘To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing” (Isaiah 40:12, 18, 22, 25,26).
Solomon was under no illusions concerning God as he built the Temple. “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven and said: ‘O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below–you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built” (1 Kings 8:22-23, 27).
“Will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you.” Yet there is this outrageous claim by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. God, in the person of his Son, the Creator of all things, the one whom “the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain,” came in the flesh, as a human being. He was conceived in the womb of a woman. Jesus of Nazareth, born like any other human baby, grew, lived, and died. He, his disciples claimed was God, the Son of God, in the flesh! Jesus was God dwelling on earth!
The apostle John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-3, 14).
Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, wrote of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8).
Max Lucado vividly captures the mystery, the awe, of the coming of the Son of God in the flesh.1 “The omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl. God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created.”
One writer expressed his struggle with the outrageousness of the claim of Christianity. “The virgin birth has never been a major stumbling block in my struggle with Christianity; it’s far less mind-boggling than the Power of all Creation stooping so low as to become one of us.”2
C. S. Lewis calls the incarnation, God coming in the flesh, Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the grand miracle. “The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.”3
God with us, in the flesh, if this wasn’t outrageous enough, there is the commonness with which the Son came. “He came, not as a flash of light or as an unapproachable conquerer, but as one whose first cries were heard by a peasant girl and a sleepy carpenter. The hands that first held him were unmanicured, calloused, and dirty. No silk. No ivory. No hype. No party. No hoopla.”4
With a human heart Jesus knew joy and sorrow, acceptance and rejection. With a human, as well as a divine, heart he ached for a lost and dying world. The Son of God, as man, experienced the power of temptation at a level of intensity no other man has experienced. He felt the pain of the soldier’s whip and the spikes impaling him on the cross. Jesus died, knowing the Father’s wrath for our sins inflicted upon him. He knew humiliation–the Creator of all, surrendered his sovereignty for the shame of the cross, inflected upon him by his enemies. The Son of God, who was with God, equal with God, one with God, voluntarily relinquished his glory to the power of the Enemy. He “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The biblical texts are abundant testifying to God’s initiative and to the willingness of Christ. God gave. God offered. God sent. Christ was a willing sacrifice on the cross. Father and Son both willed the Son’s coming in the flesh and the Son’s death on the cross. They both freely gave of self and sacrificed self. In his gospel (19:37), the apostle John applied to Jesus the following words of God through the prophet Zechariah. “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son” (Zechariah 12:10). This was God’s experience for us–suffering and grief.
How often do we try to understand what God went through for us? Do we comprehend the relationship of God’s love for us to the difficulty, the pain, and the grief over the death of his Son whom he loved with a love beyond our experience? The text does not describe the events that terrible day when Christ died as such, but I cannot help but understand the darkness during the crucifixion of Jesus and the convulsion of the earth as the heart of God grieving.
It is vitally important for us to remember every day and season of the year that at the very core of our faith is this outrageous truth, Immanuel, God with us!
“The omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl. God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created.”5
“The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.”6
Sometimes I wonder, if this day had not become the tradition it became over the centuries, would I be as inclined as I am at this time every year to focus on and be renewed with the awe, wonder, and mystery of the incarnation, of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, God with us, the grand miracle?
1Max Lucado, God Came Near (Portland, OR: Multnoman Press, 1987), 25. 2ChristianityTodayLibrary.com, 12/4/2000. 3C. S. Lewis, “The Grand Miracle” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, 1997), 80. 4Lucado, 26. 5Ibid., 25. 6Lewis.