God in the flesh

Published 8:42 am Friday, January 16, 2009

When we were children, we probably pictured God as an old man with a white beard, sitting somewhere up in the clouds, looking down upon the earth. That’s not a very realistic image of our creator, but sometimes our childhood imaginings stay with us longer than we think, and they even may keep us from getting a better understanding.

What is God like? How should we think of him? It’s difficult for any person to picture a being no one has ever seen, someone so much different from anyone we’ve ever met.

In the Gospel According to John, the writer begins his account of Jesus’ birth by pointing out that Jesus always existed. John calls him the “Word,” God’s expression of himself. He was there with the Father at the creation of the universe. Then John states something that absolutely shines with good news: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and true, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

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Theologians sometimes use the fancier term “incarnation” to describe what God has done. God does not remain up in heaven as some configuration brought to us by human speculation. Rather, God has chosen to express himself as a flesh and blood being who comes to take up residency in our midst. And John says that when it comes to understanding who God is, this Incarnation is the heart of the matter.

If I said the name “Clara Peller,” you probably would not recognize the person I’m talking about. But I bet you know her. In 1983 Clara was an 81-year-old retired manicurist from Chicago. She got hired by an advertising agency to do a very brief TV commercial for the Wendy’s chain of restaurants. Clara and two other elderly women were shown standing around an enormous hamburger bun. The first lady says, “It certainly is a big bun.” The second lady says, “It’s a big fluffy bun.” And then it’s Clara’s turn. In three short words, the grey-haired, 4-foot-11-inch lady makes this outraged, irascible demand: “Where’s the Beef?”

The saying caught on. Those three words became so popular in the language of Americans that it soon became an all-purpose phrase that people used when questioning the substance of an idea, event or product.

So when we hear John in his gospel describing the heart, the meat, of God’s incarnate way of expressing and communicating himself to his creation, it’s kind of like John is saying, “Here’s the beef, here’s the substance of who God is. You can’t grasp the understanding of God until you’ve grasped that he’s come to live with us, and to live as one of us.

God went about expressing himself to us through the life of Jesus in what may seem to us a strange way.

Born as a helpless baby, Jesus grew up as any other human being, experiencing the troubles, the frustrations, the joys common to people of his time, or any other time. Chances are that we wouldn’t have gone about it that way. No doubt we would have tried to figure out some other plan that would force people to believe. But in his wisdom, God saw that this would not work. No other way would convince human beings that God understands and feels the struggles of each and every one of us. No other means would have left us not speculating about God’s compassion and mercy.

So Jesus became a man. But this is a message that is sometimes hard to understand; the message is hard to believe. For if God is all we think he should be, why is he even interested in us? We’re hardly worth his attention, let alone his favor. We can’t begin to imagine what that must have meant to him. Jesus left his position as God of the universe to live the life of a human creature.

Let’s think about the incarnation this way: I remember as a kid going up north to visit my Grandpa who lived on the edge of a pine forest. Sometimes while playing out in the mowed field near his house, we’d come upon a huge sand pile that contained thousands of ants. And we’d stand above that mound just watching all those tiny ants swarm around, running into each other. That anthill seemed like a whole world unto itself.

Now, imagine what it would be like to be transformed into one of those ants, and spend years associating with other ants. And then to have someone step on you and crush out your life! That only suggests what it meant for Jesus to be born as a human being.

It only goes to show how crazy in love God is with his creation, in order to do that for you and me.