One of the most surprising verses in the Bible comes in the transition from the Old Testament to the New. John begins his gospel by talking about "The Word." The Word, he says, was "in the beginning" (a clear reference to Genesis 1:1), and he explains that the Word is actually God himself. So far so good for most of his original readers. John uses the term "logos" for "Word." John's gentile readers would have been familiar with this term from Greek philosophy as an underlying principle that gives order to the world around us. And John's Jewish readers would have been familiar with major Jewish thinkers, such as Philo, using terms like logos to describe Yahweh, the God of Israel, albeit in somewhat philosophical language. For the ancient Israelites, God certainly was the ordering force behind everything that existed, since he was the creator of all.
But as soon as John draws his readers in around the concept of God as "the Word," he makes a shocking statement: "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).
No one would have been ready for this.
For the Greeks, the Word was not a personal being. And for the Israelites, God had certainly promised to come to his people, but "taking on flesh" would have been going too far.
And yet that is the central claim of Christianity: God came to the human beings he created by becoming a human being himself. And thus we are introduced to Jesus, who is God in the flesh, God with us (which is precisely what the name Immanuel means).
We refer to this shocking miracle (which has now become so familiar) as "The Incarnation." This is when God "enfleshed" himself. When he not only moved into the human neighborhood, but did so as a human.
Now, all of that is Theology (in a capitol T sense), and it's wonderful and inspiring. But too often, we interact with powerful truths like this only in textbooks, and we fail to consider the implications for our daily lives. With the incarnation, God was doing two primary things (and here I'll begin drawing on Alan Hirsch's book The Forgotten Ways):
(1) He was identifying with us as human beings, and
(2) He was revealing himself to human beings.
Hebrews emphasizes Jesus' identity as a high priest, but it insists that he's not an out-of-touch, elitist, playing-it-aloof sort of high priest (you know the type). Instead, Jesus has entered fully into our humanity. He's a great high priest precisely because he can identify with our experience of being human in this broken world. So Jesus taking on flesh was more than a CEO of a major corporation visiting a specific franchise to solve a problem, as in Undercover Boss. Rather, Jesus came to enter into the problem, to befriend the afflicted, to really and truly be one of us. If we're going through it, he's going through it. If we're rejoicing, he's rejoicing. When there's a neighborhood party, Jesus is there, because he's an actual part of the neighborhood. No parachuting in, no consulting. He's just one of us.
That's what it means for Jesus to identify with human beings through the incarnation.
The other side of the coin is that in the Incarnation Jesus was revealing God to us. Again, it's one thing to learn about God in a textbooky way. But Jesus offers us something different. Hebrews begins by saying that God had spoken to his people for ages and generations through the prophets. But recently, he has spoken to us in his Son. This is significant. He had spoken words through messengers, but with the incarnation, he spoke in a different language: personhood. Sonship. This is another aspect of Jesus being the Word. He spoke words, yes, but he also was The Word. Jesus in his body, incarnated, was the message that God was communicating to us.
So everywhere Jesus went, he was this physical statement of: “This is what God looks like when he lives as a human. This is what God says when he stands before these specific people in this specific situation. This is how God responds when he is treated in this specific way.” Jesus took everything we had ever known about God and embodied it. Made it situation-specific. In this way, everyone alive at that time got to see and encounter God in a new, highly personal way.
So what could this mean for us? If we're going to be followers of Jesus, it means that we will be incarnational people. Jesus took on flesh, and so must we. Now, we were all born with flesh, so that part is already taken care of. But just as God came to live amongst us, so our desire to show other people the love of God will require us to live amongst others. Happily, we already to live in the midst of a larger community.
Often, however, I get the sense that we Christians begrudgingly live in the midst of a larger community. That we'd prefer to live on the church grounds, like a massive dorm/parsonage. But that's just not how this works. When Jesus prayed for his disciple—knowing that he'd be leaving them to continue his mission without his physical presence—he specifically said, "I do not ask that you take them out of the world" (John 17:15). He wants us here. In the midst of everything and everyone. Incarnating.
Because of this, we look at our situatedness with new eyes. We are where we are for a reason. We get the opportunity of identifying with our friends, neighbors, and coworkers. We are literally one of them.
The other aspect of incarnation holds true for us as well: We get the chance to reveal God to the people around us. To stand in a specific place, as a specific person, amongst specific people in specific situations and say, "This is what God looks like here, now." Of course, only Jesus is God. But we are given the privilege and responsibility of bearing his image.
Imagine if your coworkers had the opportunity to literally work with Jesus. What would they see? What would they learn? How would they be drawn to him and transformed by him? In a real sense, this is what incarnational living is meant to do. What if your neighbors could live next door to Jesus? How would they feel blessed and loved and cared for and empowered? That's what incarnation is all about.
This is obviously an impossible calling. But Jesus died to make the impossible possible. And he placed his very Spirit within us to empower us for the impossible. We'll fail, but his grace is sufficient. So as we live and move and exist in our divinely orchestrated situations, may we always ask what Jesus would do if he were in our situation. Because that, after all, is the whole point of being a follower of Christ.