And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. — John 1:14 (RSV)
I do realize Christmas has come and gone, and we are now in the Season of Epiphany. Still, maybe you’re with me, where I am — not quite ready to let go of “the Word made flesh to dwell among us!”
Did you know there is a Facebook page titled, “Christmas Junkies?” Obviously, it’s for those who love all things Christmas — even, and especially, the kitschy, glitzy, shiny aspects of Christmas! While I won’t classify myself as a Christmas junkie, I will admit I look forward to the season and appreciate that the Church, in her wisdom, gives us more than just one day of Christmas, but a season, albeit brief.
I would describe myself more as an “Incarnation junkie.” I love Christmas and our observance of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. I love preaching on the miracle of the virgin birth, the visit of the angel, the lowly shepherds on the Judean hills, the babe lying in a manger — a feed trough in Bethlehem, which means, “House of Bread.”
But more than that, I love the fact that God became human, in Jesus, to be the one and only Savior and Redeemer of the world. I love the fact that God’s divine Word became flesh — to dwell among us!
It’s not that I keep Christmas decorations up year- round, but I am always mindful that redemption wouldn’t have been possible without the Incarnation. We do well to keep the miracle of God-become-flesh in our thoughts and in our hearts year-round, that we never forget or ignore, as Martin Luther said, that “the manger and the cross are never far apart,” as quoted in Roland Bainton’s Martin Luther’s Christmas Book.
Luther writes in his essay, On the Councils and the Church (quoted in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord):
We Christians must know that unless God is in the balance and throws in weight as a counterbalance, we shall sink to the bottom with our scale. I mean that this way: If it is not true that God died for us, but only a man died, we are lost. But if God’s death and God dead, lie in the opposite scale, then his side goes down and we go upward like a light and empty pan. … But he could never have sat in the pan unless he had become a man like us, so that it could be said: God dead, God’s Passion, God’s blood, God’s death. According to his nature God cannot die, but since God and man are united in one person, it is correct to talk about God’s death when that man dies who is one thing or one person with God. (The Book of Concord, Tappert, ed., page 599)
It is worth mentioning this now, as we are past the Christmas season, into Epiphany, with Lent and Easter soon to follow! In Lutheranism, we do well at celebrating Christmas, together with much of the rest of the world. But it seems we pack up the miracle and mystery of the Incarnation and place it in a box to be stored until the next December!
Luther would not have it this way! Luther kept the meaning of God-become-human close at hand whenever speaking of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. He always affirmed that you cannot have one without the other. So we do well, also, to keep these two together in our Lutheran preaching, teaching and ministry.
It is no surprise that many of our congregations wrestle with decline — often blaming nearby “evangelical” or “mega-churches” which are thought to draw longtime Lutherans away to more dynamic, exciting, well-produced Sunday worship/ entertainment. If that is the case (and I’m not convinced that it is) then the most effective counter to the mega-church phenomenon and the greater temptation for Lutherans to be drawn away from worship by golf, fishing, bed, breakfast and youth sports is a renewed commitment to the miracle of the incarnation and the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In our every sermon, worship service, relationship and ministry opportunity, we will distinguish ourselves from many other Christians when we focus on how God came in the flesh to dwell among us, here and now.
This is one of the things we Lutherans, in our understanding of Scripture, get right — that the manger and the cross are never far apart! The Incarnation — God become flesh — is essential to our redemption! But even more, the Incarnation is not something that happened that first Christmas Eve, and never again, but God in Jesus Christ continues to dwell among us — in the flesh, embodied, to be with us always — and not just in some spiritualized, ethereal way!
Truly, this is why St. John wrote his Gospel — and in such a different manner! At the time John was writing, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the birth of Jesus already existed. The faithful already had some knowledge of Mary and Joseph, the visits of the angel, and the conception by the Holy Spirit. John
evidently felt no need to write yet another biographical description of the birth of the Christ child.
Rather, John wanted to help the faithful to understandthe birth of the Christ child. John wanted to provide the Church with a theological reflection on Emmanuel — God-with-us, the Living Bread come down from heaven.
So John begins his Gospel, not with Mary and Joseph, but with God and God’s Word — God’s mind, will and intellect, which was with God in the beginning and was co-creator of all that exists but then humbled Himself, subordinated Himself to the Father’s will to become one with the creation, to enter into His creation to be, not a distant, far-off, foreign God, but to be a God who would dwell with His creation — to be here with us, not just figuratively or spiritually, but literally, in the flesh, to walk with us, talk with us, guide and protect us.
That’s what is meant by “incarnation” — by God incarnating Himself to be God with us — not just 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, but again and again, in Word and Sacrament to be present with us andfor us and in us, to be our ever-present Savior.
And that’s what many Christians (and some Lutherans) have a hard time understanding. This is why Lutheranism and each Lutheran congregation can distinguish itself from other traditions and congregations by lifting up and focusing on our incarnate God in Jesus Christ every Sunday!
How do we do that?
First, make both Word and Sacrament — the means through which God provides His presence in Jesus Christ — available at least weekly. As the Holy Spirit works through the Word, written, read and preached, the Living Bread comes down from heaven to give life to us and to the world. The Holy Spirit also works through the Word, making Christ truly present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, which become His body and blood.
Lutherans have had a long history of elevating the reading of the Word and preaching of the sermon as essential at most every worship service. We have not always recognized the importance of the Lord’s Supper. We view it as “special” in some way, but we have not always understood why it is to be as regular as daily bread.
When we receive Holy Communion, we are eating and drinking the very presence of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. When we receive Holy Communion, St. Paul affirms that we are receiving, participating in, communing with the very body and blood of the Lord. He becomes one with us and we with Him (1 Corinthians 10:16).
About the Lord’s Supper, Luther writes in the Small Catechism, “Instituted by Christ himself, it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the
bread and wine, given to us Christians to eat and drink.”
He explains the benefit of receiving the Sacrament, saying, “We are told in the words ‘for you’ and ‘for the forgiveness of sins.’ By these words the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament, for where there is forgiveness of sins, there are also life and salvation.” The Lutheran Confessions state that we have the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and often during the week on other festivals (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 24).
If, through Christ’s incarnate presence in the Sacrament of the Altar, worshipers are given, as a gift, “forgiveness of sins, life and salvation,” why would we not provide this gift every time the congregation gathers? Why would we not point to Christ’s incarnate presence in the Lord’s Supper, together with His presence in the Word? Why would Lutherans not point to this as one important, significant way that we are distinct from Protestant non-sacramental churches which do not recognize and celebrate the incarnation in Word and Sacrament? First, let us in the North American Lutheran Church be marked, as much as possible, by Word and Sacrament each and every Sunday!
Second, let us be known by an incarnational theology. In simpler terms, let us take seriously the fact that Christ comes to us embodied, incarnate in Word and Sacrament — honoring His presence, welcoming Him, respecting the reality of Jesus Christ dwelling among us, not in some vague, abstract way, but concretely, physically, so that we know where and how we may find Him!
Many Christians do not grasp the reality of the Incarnation, believing that Christ comes only in some spiritualized, un-embodied way to be received by the hyper-sensitive and spiritual.
The nature of our human existence is that it is precisely when we are troubled, distracted and burdened by life that we are the least able to find Jesus, experience Jesus and be assured of Jesus’ presence with us. A spiritualized Jesus is a “subjective” presence, subject to our ability to sense Him near, find Him when needed, trust that He is with us somehow, someway.
Instead, God has sent His Son to be an “objective” presence. That means His presence depends upon God and His Word and Spirit — not on us and our ability or inability to see Him with us. In the Small Catechism, Luther affirms that the only preparation or ability needed is to “believe these words: ‘for you’ and ‘for the forgiveness of sins.’”
As Lutherans and biblical, sacramental Christians, we offer something different — an incarnational theology! As Lutherans and biblical, sacramental Christians, we celebrate Christ truly present in Word and Sacrament — for us and for the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation! May we keep that as the center of our lives and ministry — the miracle and mystery of Christmas, the miracle and mystery of the Incarnation — the Word made flesh to dwell among us!