Last Christmas I was standing in the lobby (foyer?) of a mega-church. This particular church had as, mega-churches often do, an impressive display that was changed with the season or sermon series.
This one was particularly impressive. It was a triptych of sorts. On one side, there was a nativity scene, complete with wise men and shepherds (together at the same time? I know. I wrote them a strongly worded e-mail). On the opposite side was a Christmas tree covered in ornaments with pictures of kids they were sponsoring.
And in the middle, larger than either of the other sides, was a 20 foot tall cross.
This year I’ve seen friends post on facebook that “Jesus was born to die.” I read a blog recently that said, “Bethlehem only happened so Calvary could happen.” I listened to a sermon that imagined the first Christmas Eve as Jesus saying goodbye to his father and preparing for the cross (it ignored the fact that Jesus had been in Mary’s womb for 9 months since he wasn’t just God wearing a mansuit and it ignored the fact that he wasn’t going to die for another 33 years).
It seems that we are eager to turn Christmas into Good Friday.
I want to be upfront about where I stand on this: I hate it.
It is a lie, it is bad theology, and believing it is damaging you.
It is a lie
At the core of the Christmas story is the idea of incarnation. Incarnation literally means “taking on flesh” and when we use it about Jesus we’re speaking about the most scandalous and wonderful event of all history: God becoming a man.
Throughout the Bible, God inexplicably desires to be with the people he created. He walked daily with Adam and Eve in the garden. The fall changed that when man decided they did not want to have anything to be with God. But God did not give up.
He came to Abraham and promised him a son and a land and that through Abraham He would bless all the nations. Here the Jewish people are born, and their mission is to bless the world with the knowledge of God. Even when he sets apart a people, God’s desire is to be with all of creation.
Sometimes it may seem like God is absent. Surely it would have seemed this way to Joseph when he was sold into slavery by his brothers and then cast into prison in Egypt on false charges. Yet scripture reminds us over and over again that God was with Joseph even in slavery. Even in prison.
The only thing that will keep God from you is your wanting to be left alone.
This continues through the Exodus, the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. God wants desperately to be with his people and they keep turning away from him.
Finally, Jesus comes. God in the flesh. God on Earth. God walking among the very people who keep turning on him. And when he walks among them he heals them, eats with them, suffers with them. He begins to teach them to call God “Father” or even “Abba,” which is like calling God “Papa.”
At the heart of the belief that Jesus only came to die is that without his death God could not (or would not) have anything to do with us. We have a picture of a holy God that we, as sinners, can not approach.
This is a lie. And Jesus proves it.
If God can have nothing to do with us how can he be carried in the womb of one of us? How can he be held by little shepherd boys and feared by power hungry kings? How can his father worry about him when he turns up missing at 12?
Christmas teaches us that there is a holy God that we, as sinners, WILL not approach. But the incarnation teaches that he approaches us over and over and over again. He isn’t hiding until someone is punished, he is chasing after us.
Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God, not to change the mind of God about humanity.
— Richard Rohr, OFM (@RichardRohrOFM) February 8, 2013
Jesus didn’t come to die. He came to show us who God really is. He died to show us who God really is. He rose again to show us who God really is.
He is, after all, the Word of God. He is God’s message to humanity. That message is “I want to be with you.”
It is bad theology
We commonly say that Jesus saved us. But save us from what?
If you believe that Jesus came only to die in your place to satisfy the wrath of God, then you have your answer. He saves us from God. This creates a fractured God. One part of him wants to damn you and another part wants to save you. And then there’s a third part around there somewhere too, doing who knows what.
This fractured God is bad theology.
But what if we’re right in saying that God is approaching us and seeking relationship? What if God never intended harm for us, but only good. What if we actually believed incarnation were real and that Jesus and the Father were, as Jesus said, one? What is Jesus saving us from then?
The brokenness of humanity.
Humanity is broken in two huge ways.
- Spiritually – We desire things besides God. We sin.
- Physically – We get sick. We die.
This is what life outside the garden is like, but it was not the original plan. The creation was good, God said so himself. And everything man had was a direct connection to God. Man ate from the tree of life and was able to live forever.
Let’s be clear: sin and death were never what God wanted for us. Jesus came to save us from them. He came to jump-start a new creation. And he could only do this by being God and man all at once. It was an inside job.
I love what James Torrance had to say about
You see, God does not heal us by standing over against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take, and then leaving us to get better by obeying his instructions – like an ordinary doctor might. No, God becomes the patient! God assumes the very humanity which is in need of healing, and by being anointed by the Spirit in our humanity, by a life of being completely given over to hallowing the Father’s name, our humanity is healed in him.
Now God has been human. When Jesus was born, when he learned to walk as a little boy, when he started getting hair under his arms, when he learned to read, when he played tag, when he skinned his knees, when he had his favorite meal on his birthday, when he drank good wine, when he laughed deep and hard, when he wept at the grave of his friend, when he built his first table and was pleased to see Joseph proud of him, when he did any human thing he turned these into things that God had done. These things now become a way you can relate to God. All of human life can once again connect us to God, because he has connected himself irrevocably to human life. He has healed our spiritual brokenness by taking it on himself and transforming it.
Like the carol goes,
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king,
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
We were reconciled, brought back into the relationship we’d been running from for all of history, the moment God became a man.
There is a sense in which Jesus came to die. He came completely as a human and humans die. He wouldn’t be human and he wouldn’t understand our experience if he were able to avoid this. And so he came knowing full well that he would die. He was born, like all of us, with a certainty of death.
But Jesus changed the game there too. He conquered death. This is now something humans can do, because this one did it. He had to be a human to die for us, because he had to be a human when he came back to life for us.
The great hope of Christmas is that humanity is saved because God is, quite literally, on our side. He lived for us, he overcame sin for us, he died for us, and came back to life for us.
Believing it is damaging you
When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away
You know that song, right?
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly means “When this prison that is my body is dead, my soul will fly away like a bird freed from its cage.”
This is a pretty common sentiment among Christians. This body is evil but the soul is holy. One day we will be rid of this evil body and just be pure and holy souls.
This isn’t Christian at all, by the way. Its gnosticism and it is literally a heresy.
When we believe that Jesus had no purpose but to die we ignore the beauty of his human life. He died only to cleanse our souls of the remnant of the sin of our bodies.
But the incarnation teaches us that bodies can’t be evil because God could never become something evil. The resurrection furthers the lesson, why would Jesus come back in a body if they were evil. “I can totally overcome death, but I can’t escape from this stupid body.” I don’t think so.
When we skip the beauty and truth and freedom and salvation of the incarnation we skip the beauty and truth and freedom and salvation of our own bodies. When we believe that Jesus came to only forgive us with his death we forget that he came to free us with his life.
We may know that we are forgiven of our sins, but that doesn’t fix the shame we carry because of them. We are trying to skip over Christmas and get straight to Good Friday because it lets sin remain the status quo.
When we accept that we are completely and irrevocably broken and can only be granted pardon but can not be expected to change we feel justified in continuing our sin. There is nothing more damaging to the life of a Christian than a bad theology that allows them to justify not giving their life fully to Christ.
The shame that comes from this view makes overcoming sin impossible. Christ came to forgive us and change us so that our guilt and our shame cane die and we can rise up as new creations.
This year as you gather around your fireplaces and read Luke 2, remember that God loved you enough to become a man with all the brokenness that entails, that you are living a life like the one God himself lived and are communing with him at all times, and that this enables you to become a new creation.
Rest in the hope the incarnation gives.
That is, as they say, the reason for the season.