The Amazing Scandal of the Son of God
Prayer: Almighty Word of God, illuminate your word to us this morning. Scandalize us with the glory of your incarnation. Prince of peace, bring your peace into our lives today, and help us to be peace-makers ourselves. Incarnate Son of God, help us glimpse a fraction of your majesty this morning. Help this moment keep us focused on why we celebrate this Advent season, on why this is one of the holiest seasons of the year. Incarnate God, come into our presence today, make the incarnation more than an historical fact; make it real in our lives today. Scandalize us. Amen.
Reading of the Scripture: John 1:1-18:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
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 testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Leader: This is the word of the Lord.
People: Thanks be to God.
We live in a culture saturated by scandal. News media would probably have to cut their programming in half if they didn’t have the scandals of politicians and celebrities to talk about. Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton would have long ago disappeared from the public eye if they didn’t have such a penchant for getting drunk and then getting caught driving. Bill Clinton would probably be remembered more benevolently – even by evangelicals – if only he hadn’t gotten involved in the Monika Lewinski scandal. And human beings thrive on these scandals. The media reports them because it gets them viewers. We as human beings have a perverse desire to see those in power, or those with more fame than us, fall hard. It makes us feel better about ourselves, gives us the ability to say, “well, I’m not a movie star, but at least I’m not addicted to x.” We gossip about scandal. We love it. But for all our love for scandal, we always overlook the greatest and most outrageous scandal ever reported: the incarnation.
The incarnation is not a scandal in terms of drugs or sex, but it is scandalous nonetheless. Paul describes the doctrine that God became man and died to take away the sin of the world a stumbling block to the wise. The Greek word Paul uses is literally, scandalon. It’s utterly scandalous to think the God himself could become a human, could lower himself to the level of sinful human being, could take on fallen humanity and work to redeem us. It doesn’t make any sense. None whatsoever. But it happened, and it happened in a powerful way. Let’s try and unpack these first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John and see if we can’t understand the incarnation a little better today.
Normally during advent we read from the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and especially Luke. Most of the Advent narrative is actually found in the beginning of Luke (and we’ll look at some of it before the morning ends), but I feel as though John gets left out during Christmastide. And I’ve never been able to figure out why this is. Sure, he doesn’t have the cozy manger scene or the Immaculate conception or any of the other things we associate with Advent, but his opening chapter is an amazing passage to use when dealing with the Incarnation. This section of John is packed full of some complex theological truths – the pre-existent nature of the Second Person of the Trinity, his role in the creation of the world, the qualities of the Son, and the purpose of the Gospel. But today, I want to really hone in on verses 9-14 and then attempt to discuss what this amazing truth means for us today.
So let’s re-read those key verses: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
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 1:9-14)
My dear friend Amanda and I were talking about the Incarnation the other day, and all she or I could really say was, “God became a man? Woah. What?!” It’s a bizarre and complex topic to think about, but John offers us some help. In the first place, John talks about the light “coming into the world.” It was a process, one that involved preparation and planning. It involved lots of real people, people like a teenage girl that would become theotokos, the mother of God. It involved a frightened young man torn between what was proper, and what was right. It involved prophets preparing the hearts of the people for Messiah. It involved an inn-keeper and some shepherds (who were actually really sketchy folk, but more on that later) and some pagan astrologers. It was prepared for.
Preparation is what the liturgical season of Advent is for. The Greek Orthodox actually spend the forty days leading up to Christmas by fasting in preparation for the coming of the light into the world, the same way we fast to prepare ourselves for Easter. This Advent, I invite you to take active measure to prepare yourselves for the coming of the light into the world. Read the Christmas story and be amazed by the hand of God throughout the whole event. Listen to real Christmas carols, songs like “O come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Joy to the World,” and let the joy and anticipation of this holiest of seasons flood your heart. Give your spare change (and maybe even some change you can’t spare) to the Salvation Army. Donate some time at the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Spend real, quality time with your family and your church. Prepare for the coming of the Light.
But the biggest, boldest, most scandalous thing to ever happen comes in the next few verses: the light that was coming into the world actually does! The very son of the living God is born into the world that – according to John, will eventually despise and reject him. But nonetheless he IS born. One of things I love about this passage is the contrast set up by the first three verses. Let’s look at them again: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This cosmic passage is showing to us what Christ left behind in the incarnation. He was God and the very agent of creation. Scripture says all things came into being through him. He was utter light, holy and true. In him there was no admixture of error. He commanded legions of angels and enjoyed unrestricted access to the divine life with the Father and the Spirit. St. Paul puts this act of incarnation another way:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)
Christ emptied himself. Not in that he stopped being God, but in that he became fully human. Gods have been appearing to human being since before we have records of them. But not a single god in the history of the world has become human, has truly and fully submitted himself to this terrestrial life and the restrictions that come with it. We should be blown away by the love of a God who willingly endured all the sufferings and mundane things that come with human life, all for the sake of redemption and reconciliation. This is the greatest scandal in all of human history. God became man. Redemption came down. God, desiring so much to return us to right relationship, sent his only begotten son to live among us and teach us the way of redemption. God became man! That doesn’t happen! And yet it did. God loved us so much that it did!
And the scandal isn’t found just in the incredible act of the incarnation itself, but what the incarnation means for the divine life. It means that God himself experienced new things: things like physical pain, hunger, thirst, fatigue. It means he got experience the action of growing up. He matured and learned new things. He failed at things. He probably cut boards short or forgot to do his chores. He went to synagogue and learned from the Rabbis. He was tempted. The second person of the trinity experienced humanity in a profound way, and it surely impacted the divine life in a similar fashion. And, eventually, God died. The divine took death into itself and conquered it. And it all began with a brave little baby boy in a cave in Bethlehem.
It’s an amazing scandal. And it’s such a joy to talk about. But what does the scandal of the incarnation mean for us in the 21st Century, in Moundville, Alabama? I’d like to say there’s a simple, three-point, alliterative answer, but there’s not. The Incarnation is an incredibly messy business. It’s something brand new, but that’s what God’s best at:
“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
Forgiveness, and that extension always entails the possibility of rejection. It was (and continues to be) a painful and messy experience. Love always is. But God thinks we’re worth it. How amazing is that! The God of the universe became a man and dwelt among us for the sake of our redemption. Revel in that this Christmas.
But the Incarnation is about more than just my personal salvation from a future death and the menacing specter of Hell. It’s a present salvation. When the Son of God took on flesh, he took on fallen human flesh. And in doing so, he redeemed us. The fact that God himself took action to deal with our sin, to take it upon himself from the very moment of the Incarnation speaks volumes about his love and self-sacrifice. This is a truth I don’t think we hear very often. In assuming our fallen flesh, Jesus has begun the process of redemption from the very beginning. The fact that the divine assumes the mundane should blow our minds. The fact that he did so in order to save us, even more so. The life of Christ does more for our salvation that we often want to admit. We want to locate the saving moment in death or resurrection, but as soon as Jesus shows up, something is different. The world has been remade. That’s why John begins his Gospel with “In the beginning…” The world is being made new. God is doing something amazingly new, and it bears eternal significance for us.
The Blessed Mother of God has something else to say about the significance of the Incarnation. In a song commonly called the ‘Magnificant,’ Mary has this to say:
“‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’” (Luke 1:46-56)
In the act of becoming Incarnate, it was the purpose of God to bring greater justice into the world. Just consider the words the adult Jesus reads when he begins his ministry in the Nazareth Synagogue:
“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” (Luke 4:18-19
It got him kicked out of the synagogue. But it’s why he came. The mission of the Son of God was more than just to save the righteous souls of devout Jews. He came to bring real, tangible justice to the poor and downtrodden of his own day. And he doesn’t even wait until he can talk. Who are the first people to see the newborn king? Who are the people who we talk about even to this very day? The shepherds. A roving band of rough, former criminals are the first people to worship the newly en-fleshed Son of Man. It’s in this that we can see Christmas as one of the most subversive seasons of all time.
This sounds shocking, I know, but revolution is the theme of Christmas. This is a point Shaine Claiborne makes explicit in his book Jesus for President. The language of Christmas is incredibly revolutionary. The angels of Luke proclaim that Jesus has come as Soter, Savior, a title reserved for kings and emperors. His birth is proclaimed as good news (evangelion) a word reserved for Imperial mandates. His name, Emmanuel, is a Hebrew variant of the title of the Selucid king Antioches IV Epiphanes, god-revealed. For us, Christmas is as part and parcel of American culture as apple pie or baseball. In reality, Christmas is so revolutionary. Christ came just as the Jews expected: a leader destined to overthrow the Roman Empire. Only he wasn’t a political leader, he was a religious teacher. And his power to overthrow wasn’t military strength or political might, it was the amazingly subversive power of love. His very first action as a human being, simply being born, demonstrates this fact. Herod considers him a threat, though Herod has no idea how really threatening Jesus is. Herod sees him as a political equal, a threat to his throne. But Jesus is so much more than that. He’s love incarnate. And love causes those it encounters to do some pretty amazing, very revolutionary things.
The love of Jesus caused at least two tax collectors, flunkies of the Roman military might, to stop cheating their people out of their hard earned cash. The love of Jesus stopped the execution of a woman caught in adultery. The love of Jesus raised people from the dead. None of these things are conducive to empire. Roman tax collectors are supposed to tax their people as they see fit. Women caught in adultery are to be stoned. Criminals are to be killed. Dead people are supposed to remain dead. The world follows are very specific order, and the Incarnation of Jesus shakes all those patterns. The only order is the order of Love, and it is incarnate in the person of Christ. If we all behaved like the people in Jesus’ stories, profoundly affected by his love, empire collapses. Injustice disappears. The poor are filled and the powerful go away hungry. This is what the Incarnation means for us, today, revolution. Rebellion.
Please, for the love of God, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about the violent overthrow of any current government. I’m not advocating guerrilla war fare or open rebellion. Christ is the bringer of peace. What I’m talking about is the subversive nature of the kingdom of God, the incredibly subversive power of love in the face of empire. Because the plain fact is that Christians cannot function in an empire. The tax collector, forced by his superior to take more, must never engage in injustice against the poor. The general, forced to detonate bombs that will kill civilians, must refuse, in the name of peace and love. The detention officer, forced to execute a criminal, must offer mercy. And so the empire falls apart, and we are governed by Love Himself.
I often get criticized for this view. I’m an idealist, they tell me. And I recognize that people are imperfect. Even if the whole world were to participate in this kind of subversion, human nature would somehow manage to mess it up. But just because the kingdom of God rests far off in the eschaton, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to engage in it here and now. “On earth, as it is in Heaven.” We pray that all the time, and yet we rarely engage in the “on earth” bit. Jesus told us that the kingdom of God is among us. And we have made that incredibly hard to affirm. So this Christmas, rebel in little, but awesome ways, just like the Incarnate Christ. Love people a little harder this year. Show mercy to enemies, and show justice to the poor and downtrodden. Skip the long lines at the store and spend time with the family. Engage in worship more fully in the Church. “Love justice, seek mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Do as much as you are able to subvert the power of empire with the power of love. That, dear ones, is the amazing scandal of the incarnation. Redemption and revolution. These are the meanings of this most sacred of seasons. In light of the redemption offered by the Incarnate one, join me in a little rebellion this year. Remind the American empire that your primary allegiance is to a King and his Kingdom, and that the King of Heaven is coming to establish his peace on earth. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.