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Born to Die? Yes, but…

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Merry tenth day of Christmas! Lords a leaping, I believe. Forgive me for dragging us back to Christmas. You can put on your Christmas music if that helps.

ten-lordsMost of the time sermons don’t leave a memorable impression. That’s okay. Sermons are more weekly sustenance than enduring landmarks. Sometimes a sermon is so wonderful it leaves a lasting memory. Some are even life-altering. And sometimes a sermon is so bad, so disturbing, you can’t forget it either.

So it is for a Christmas sermon I heard years ago. I half wonder if my imagination has made it worse over the years, if I’ve only remembered the bad parts, distorted it into a bad caricature of itself. The preacher himself wasn’t a bad guy, if only a mediocre preacher.

As I recall the point was that while Christmas was celebrated on earth, it was a day of sadness and sorrow in heaven. The heavenly host grieved that the beautiful and eternal Word was sent off to this terrible, stinking, ugly place called earth. The Father took the Son out for a long walk, painfully explaining that “it was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.” The Son dutifully said, “I’ll go.”

I understand the point the preacher was trying to make. The incarnation involved sacrifice. Perhaps the earliest expression of the incarnation we have, the Kenotic hymn in Philippians 2, emphasizes Christ Jesus’s humility, self-emptying, becoming like a slave, and obedience unto death.

I don’t want to give short-shrift to Jesus’s suffering. To be human is to suffer. Jesus’s crucifixion is the focal point of the incarnation. I’m not opting for a shallow and sunny picture, where the incarnation was something like a long visit to a resort in the tropics.

Still…when we hit so hard the suffering and “born to die” themes of the incarnation, we give rise to that all-too-common notion that God may love us, but certainly God does not like us (to borrow from James Alison); the fussy God who endures us more than embraces us. God saves us, but not without a roll of the eyes and a deep sigh of disgust. God is a bit like the exasperated parent, yelling down the stairs to the rambunctious kids in the basement, “Don’t make me have to come down there!” Finally, Jesus, holding his nose and recoiling at the awfulness of it, groans with grim resignation. “Well, somebody has to do it.”

In the middle ages, scholastic theologians debated whether or not Jesus would have come to earth if there had been no sin. I realize that sounds only slightly more important than how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Debating hypotheticals tends not to amount to much. And I really don’t know the background or players in this debate.

But my sympathies are with those who said, “Yes!” Christ’s incarnation would have happened regardless. If we see the incarnation only as a makeshift salvage operation, God sending in the ultimate relief pitcher because the game seems to be getting out of hand, then we under appreciate God’s deep love and desire for fellowship with all creation. Yes, of course, Christ comes to save us. But doesn’t Christ also come because of a profound divine longing to be among God’s creatures? If we see the incarnation as the aim of God’s creation, what God, from all eternity, desperately wanted to do, then we are closer to the message of Christmas.

I’ve always loved the part of the creation story where God walks in the garden in the cool evening breeze. A passage from Revelation 21 is equally tender to me. I often read it at funerals. As the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, a voice booms from the throne, “Look, the home of God is among mortals.” In these passages don’t we catch a glimpse of the heart of God?

God’s loving desire is to be with us. That is how it began. That is how it will end. And in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, that is what happened. Jesus loves our company and is eager to be with us. Good News of great joy!

 

Cover art: Manger and Cross, Beate Heinen

 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the Reformed Journal's previous iteration, Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

6 Comments

  • Clyde says:

    Well done! Thanks again for your thoughts and writing!

    Clyde Rinsema

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    You’re making me rethink this!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Because first I was really drawn to the Incarnation no-matter-what idea, then I was converted by van Ruler’s “emergency measure” corrective, now you might convert me again! But even without the Incarnation and Hypostatic Union, say, in the Indwelling of the Spirit, God does like to be with us, right?

  • Chris says:

    Was not God in all His fullness “walking in the Garden” before sin entered?

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Daniel, I can’t think of many subjects where you haven’t read more and thought more than I have! I’m not trying to take a hard stance here on the finer points of doctrine, but rather, as you suggest, to remind us that God does like to be with us.Chris, thanks to joining the conversation. I’m not sure I’m following your train of thought. The walking in the garden in Genesis 3 is right after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit. They are hiding at this point. I think you’re suggesting that sin may change how God interacts, where and when and how God now walks in gardens in light of sin, etc. I agree–sin changes a lot. But I would be inclined to say that God’s basic desire to be with and among creation is not changed by sin, even if sin changes how God expresses that desire. Make sense?

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    I wonder if the preacher whose sermon you recall had been reading Milton. In the council in heaven scene in Book 3, God the Father, having just delivered a very grumpy speech about how man is about to fall for sure and it is NOT God’s fault, basically calls for volunteers for a salvage mission. The Son immediately steps up and says, “I’ll do it.” It’s a parallel to the scene in Book 2, the council in hell, in which Satan volunteers himself. (That parallel might give us some pause…) I agree with you that imagining Jesus as the resigned errand boy degrades the doctrine of the Incarnation in at least two ways: by separating the persons of the Godhead and by deriding a Creation God loves, even when fallen.

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