By Neil Cole I read an article once highlighting the missional strategy of a church. At Christmas time they sent their choir to the local mall to sing Christmas carols at the patrons walking past as a means to get the Gospel out. This was presented as a successful outreach. No one was spoken to. No relationships were made. No one was able to ask a single question of the religious people singing in strange robes. People heard the same songs already playing over the piped-in music throughout the shops, that’s it.
Like a flight attendant at the start of every flight, the choir was singing an important message of life and death significance to people who had no time to listen because they’d been inoculated to it. And the “churched” people are convinced that this was a significant work for God. One can argue that this was missional, but it certainly was not incarnational. I believe that those who would represent Christ must be both missional and incarnational or they are not Christ-like. Jesus challenged us: “As the Father has sent me [in the same way] I send you.” (John 20:21)
The heart of our message is that God didn’t expect us to make our way to Him in heaven. He came to us––on our terms, on our turf. God became “incarnate”. This is a theological word that is worth explaining.
Incarnate means He was “in flesh” or “in a body.” When I order chili “con carne,” I am ordering chili with meat…or flesh. Jesus was God incarnate. He was God with meat on his bones. Jesus was truth “fleshed out” for all to see. He “became flesh and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only Begotten, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)
There is nothing more remarkable than the humiliation and incarnation of Christ. Ironically that is what that choir was singing about in the local mall as masses of people walked by without a second thought.
Incarnation is not easy and certainly not comfortable, but it is an adventure. When Gandalf approached Bilbo and proposed an adventure, at first the hobbit declined the wizard saying, “An adventure? They’re nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things…they’ll make you late for dinner!” I’ve often said, “If you want to win this world to Christ, you are going to have to sit in the smoking section.” Jesus went a whole lot further than that.
Jesus Was Incarnational
Jesus is fully God. Jesus is fully man. This is a profound mystery to amaze our minds for all eternity, and I might add, is worthy of all our songs and more. He knows our struggles and our temptations first hand. He relates to us and represents us. When Jesus came He didn’t keep His distance, singing songs at the public.
Jesus relates to us in all the ups and downs of life’s mess. In fact, it is in the mess that His beauty is beheld most. He brings goodness and light to the darkest and ugliest edges of our lives. He is not the sanctified and sanctimonious spiritual guru untouched by the world that is so often portrayed in cinema. He didn’t arrive with flowing robes and an angelic back-up choir (well, actually there was an angelic choir).
God the Son was painfully squeezed, naked and slimy, though a birth canal like the rest of us. He was delivered by an unwed, teen mother without a hospital or home. Omnipotence became dependent upon a teenager for survival. God incarnate had to have someone change His diapers (or swaddling cloths, depending on your translation). The God who spoke the universe into being could only communicate by crying like every baby (don’t believe the propaganda of Silent Night…“no crying he made”).
Omniscience had to learn how to eat solid food, to walk, to speak. Holiness had to be potty trained. The One who walks on water had to learn how to swim. The Logos had to learn how to read.
Jesus lived a real life with real problems. He dealt with sibling squabbles. He disappointed and embarrassed his mother. He buried a step father. He got hungry, thirsty and tired. He swung a hammer and probably hit the wrong nail at times. He smelled like sweat after a hard day of work. His calloused hands got dirty, deep under the nails.
Jesus can relate to all peoples. His followers should as well if we wish to claim His name. As a child He was a refugee in a strange land on the run from a hostile regime ruled by an egomaniacal king. He dealt with frustrating people and corrupt politicians. He paid taxes he shouldn’t have had to pay. Many times He was homeless and dependent upon the kindness of others. In spite of having so little, people stole from Him. He was the object of bigotry and hatred as a minority in a world that didn’t understand Him or His people. His own people turned on Him and had Him killed. He was betrayed by a friend and denied by his closest comrade. He was slandered with lies and falsely charged for a crime He didn’t commit. He received unjust violence from law enforcement officers and was sentenced by a bogus system. He was wrongfully executed by political powers stacked against Him.
He came to us as one of us and died for all of us. Eventually, He even came to me somewhere in the 20th century in the midst of my own mess. We need to let Him come to the lost today as well, wherever they are found. People need to see Him as one of them, who experienced all their challenges and temptations. He’s one of us, in fact, the best of us. He bore our evil and gave us His good. We should live that way. That’s the adventure we were born again to experience.
Jesus Is Now Incarnate In Us
Jesus is still incarnate—we are now His feet, His hands, His eyes, His ears and His mouth. We are the body of Christ. We are His temple and His Spirit dwells within our flesh (1 Cor. 6:19). We are not deity, but Deity dwells in us. I propose that this truth is a dramatically life-altering reality that people should notice. The fact that people don’t notice is an astounding failure on our part. We have covered up the best part of us with the less impressive parts in order to win the approval of those in the world and entice them to become like us. What fools we have been.
Several years ago, Sir Walter Moberly in his book The Crisis in the University identified the failure of evangelicals to penetrate university campuses with the Gospel. To those who claimed to follow Christ, his indicting statement still has teeth:
“If one-tenth of what you believe is true, you ought to be ten times as excited as you are.”
Ouch! This is the word of a non-Christian that has listened to our message and studied our behavior. It stings because it’s true. We must begin to let the Word of Christ and the Spirit of God richly dwell within us so that His divine presence is noticeable because it leaks in our words and actions. It was for this that Christ came, died and rose again.
Theologian Leslie Newbigin rightly says, “The Church is sent into the world to continue that which He came to do, in the power of the same Spirit, reconciling people to God.” (John 20:19-23)
Just as Christ lived the gospel out among people, we must take our lives into the world and live out the gospel. In fact, a gospel that is not “fleshed out” is not a true gospel. I would argue that if we do not live out the good news among the people who need it, we are not representing the real gospel but a caricature. A false gospel doesn’t change the world, it doesn’t even change a life…it just lulls people into a self-centered state of isolation and ineffectiveness. We can no longer afford to only sing about the incarnation; we need to be it. It starts with an awakening inside that soon finds itself outside, furthering an adventure that Christ began in a manger two thousand years ago.
“As the Father has sent me, I send you.” ~Jesus