The Incarnation: More than the Cradle and the Cross

canstockphoto16810578Though the cross is the main symbol of Christianity, I have talked with some people who seem to think that the crucifixion of Jesus was the saving event of the incarnation, and everything that came before was simply prerequisite to that saving event.

Indeed, a lot of the language of the church would lead to this conclusion. I have written before that the early creeds of the church, those statements that seek to boil the Gospel down to it’s essentials, jump from Christmas to Holy Week with nary a mention of the rest of Jesus’ life or his teachings. At most a nod is given to his sinless life as a prerequisite to an effective sacrifice, but that sacrifice is the event that brings salvation.

Jesus didn’t declare, however, that the kingdom of God would start after his death and resurrection; at the very beginning of his ministry he said that the kingdom was starting to break out.

It is the entire incarnation that is salvific, not just one part of it. “The cross” is often used by Paul as a shorthand way of referring to the whole of Jesus’ life: his birth, his teachings, his miracles, and yes, his death and resurrection.

But what is it exactly about the incarnation that is so significant? That may seem like a silly question, but bear with me. It can’t just be that God had entered into our world and our experience, because he had never left our world or our experience.

And it can’t be that God’s presence was now among us at the birth of Jesus, because when was he not present? Belief in God’s omnipresence means that God is always everywhere. Whatever is indicated by Jesus’ name, Emmanuel—God is with us, it can’t simply indicate God’s presence.

Nor can it be that in Jesus God was physically present among us. The Old Testament is replete with stories of God manifesting himself physically—whether in the burning bush with Moses, or in the fire on Mt. Sinai, or numerous other manifestations.

It’s not even that Jesus is God in human form, “God with a bod,” as some have indelicately put it, for that had happened before as well. In Exodus 24 Moses takes 70 of the elders of Israel and they all see “the God of Israel.” And it wasn’t some wispy ghost-thing they saw, for 24:10 says that “under his feet was something like a pavement of sapphire stone.” And when Jacob was finished wrestling all night with a man, he was sure that he had seen God face to face.”

So what is it? First, when Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:4 that a young woman would bear a child named Emmanuel, “God is with us,” that promise is not merely that God is present but that God is for us.

He is on our side, acting on our behalf, showing up to protect and deliver us.

There is no anger in him toward us, but mercy and compassion and unconditional love.

There is forgiveness for following a false path and a commitment to show us the right path to peace, security, and righteousness.

Unlike previous manifestations of God, this manifestation is complete. Jesus shows us everything we need to know about who God is and what he is doing in the world. The incarnation can’t show us everything because who could handle that? But it shows us enough, and shows it clearer than ever before or since.

Jesus shows us how to live at peace with God and with others, even our enemies. He shows us how to live a life that excludes no one, a life of radical love and acceptance. He shows us how to confront injustice without violence but with courage. He shows us a life worth dying for, a life that is fit for the kingdom of God.

All too many of us live lives that aren’t worth living for even a short lifetime. Jesus shows us a life that is worth living for all eternity, one that reflects the very nature, image and likeness of God himself.

That is what the incarnation from virgin birth to the cross, resurrection, and ascension does for us. It shows us who God is.

Image by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / catalby

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