By Chad Ragsdale
Difficult to comprehend, frustrating to explain, the fact that God became flesh is central to our faith. And he did it through the birth of a baby to a virgin.
Sometimes I wonder what Christmas at Job’s house would have been like.
Holidays can be especially difficult for families living in the wake of tragedy. The songs, parties, and decorations might have the opposite of their intended effect. Rather than inspiring goodwill and joy, they only amplify loss and grief.
So try to imagine living through Job’s unimaginable loss while also navigating the joy, festivity, and family of the holiday season.
Anyone who has read Job knows it is a brutally honest book. Chapter 9 provides a fitting example. In response to the misguided advice of a friend, Job makes what is less a complaint and more of an observation about God.
He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more. Then I would speak up without fear of him, but as it now stands with me, I cannot (Job 9:32-35).
Job’s circumstances might have been unique, but his cry was not. Job is the patron saint of anyone who has ever been frustrated with the distance and silence of God. Christmas at houses like Job’s are not easy, but they are also breathtakingly meaningful, because what Job was crying for in his pre-Christian way is precisely what we have been given with the arrival of Jesus—incarnation.
It is no overstatement to say the Christian faith is centered upon the historical reality of God taking on flesh. Author N.T. Wright makes a fair point when he says God’s glory is revealed not in the manger, but on the cross. Yet it is also true (as I’m positive Wright would agree) that without the incarnation made real on that first Christmas, the salvation story of the cross and resurrection is stripped of its power. In fact, there simply is no salvation story without the incarnation.
John’s Gospel begins emphatically on this point. In John’s unique rendering of the Christmas story, he takes us all the way back to Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, italics added).
Later in that same chapter, this time using language remarkably similar to God’s presence in the wilderness with his people in Exodus, John writes, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (v. 14).
Although we sometimes miss it, the Gospel of Mark begins no less emphatically by quoting a section from Isaiah 40:3. It is tempting to think Mark’s primary reason in using this passage is to make a point about the arrival of John the Baptist on the scene, but the context of Isaiah 40 is really about the glorious arrival of God for the comfort of his people.
Two verses away from Mark’s quote, we find Isaiah’s announcement: “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Using Isaiah, Mark exclaims that in Jesus the hope of generations has finally been realized! God has drawn near. His glory has been revealed. Incarnation.
The doctrine of the incarnation is testified to in various ways throughout the New Testament. One of its best and perhaps oldest expressions is found in Philippians 2 in a passage that many think was a congregational hymn before it was integrated into Paul’s letter. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (vv. 5-7, English Standard Version).
I like to put this passage side by side with the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is the account of Solomon, a son of David, as an old man reflecting back on a life of excess. He denied himself nothing. He spent his days filling himself up with whatever his appetites desired. And at the end of his life he concludes it was all empty and meaningless—a chasing after the wind.
In a bizarre way, Solomon’s life anticipates the incarnation. Jesus, also a son of David, was in the form of God but did not regard his divine status as something to exploit. So instead of filling himself with empty things, he emptied himself of divine privilege and submitted himself to the ultimate humiliation—death on a cross.
The incarnation is a movement in the exact opposite direction of what we have come to expect from this world. We live in a culture that celebrates its Solomons—those who heroically pursue the meaningful life on their own terms and in their own ways no matter how many times they inevitably and spectacularly fail.
In the face of a “chasing after the wind” culture, Paul points out that the incarnation is not only something to be believed about God’s saving us in Jesus, but also the model for our lives together as followers of Jesus.
Heart of Christmas
I have a friend who is in the habit of wishing people a “Merry Incarnation” during the Christmas season. As you’d guess, he gets some strange looks, but it is his way of reminding others and himself that the heart of Christmas is still the bold declaration of incarnation—Jesus, fully God and fully man.
This bold declaration walks hand in hand with another shocking announcement made at Christmas: the virgin is with child. Scripture declares and Christians confess that the incarnation of Jesus was realized in the virgin birth. Yet some have wondered aloud about the importance of this belief. Why, if at all, is the virgin birth of Jesus important?
Jesus was by no means the first miraculous birth in Scripture. Isaac, Joseph, Samson, and Samuel were all born to women who were barren—miraculous interventions of God. Israel had to be regularly reminded, as do we, that our salvation and our hope is from God and not from our own effort. These births were demonstrations that in their brokenness and helplessness, God was at work and was keeping his promises to Israel.
In her unique form of barrenness, Mary also conceived a child. Jesus, like those others before him, would save God’s people but in a final and complete way. The virgin birth reminds us of our helpless state in bringing about our salvation, but it also affirms our humanity. God’s intervention did not bypass humanity. God has saved us by becoming one of us and subjecting himself to the complete reliance of a child in his mother’s womb.
As Michael Bird adds in his book What Christians Ought to Believe:
The upshot is that Jesus was not simply a holy man whom God honored with divine status. Jesus was not a cosmic ghost disguised as a man dispensing philosophically savvy self-help advice to be true to ourselves. Rather, the virgin conception is the first expression of the belief that Jesus is both a human son of Adam and the divine Son of God. It shows us that Israel’s long-awaited “son of David” is also “Immanuel, God with us.”
And here we return to the wonder of the incarnation and the pain of Job’s house. In Hebrews 1:3, Jesus is announced as the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Breathtaking. But equally breathtaking is when we are told in Hebrews 2:11, “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” A bit later in the same chapter, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (v. 14).
The languished prayer of Job that the chasm existing between our creator and us would be bridged has been answered in Jesus. The God of the universe has come near, sharing in our humanity and even in our suffering in order to bring us hope.
Without doubt this is a mystery. Anyone trying to neatly explain the incarnation will either get it wrong, get frustrated, or very often both. The incarnation is not easy to get a handle on. But this is exactly as it should be. It is no embarrassment to have mystery at the center of faith.
Houses like Job’s don’t need the easily manufactured answers of worldly wisdom. Houses like Job’s need the wonder and mystery of an infinite God drawing near. Houses like Job’s don’t need the empty answers of the Solomons of this world. They need the emptying of Jesus. Houses like Job’s don’t need artifice. They need Christmas.
Chad Ragsdale is assistant academic dean and professor at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.