In the original movie ‘Shadowlands’, there’s a fictional conversation between C.S. Lewis and another university professor about the meaning of Christmas. Lewis says, “It’s all about magic, Christopher: God becomes a man”. The other professor replies, “Then God must be bonkers! Who would choose to become voluntarily human? Much better to stay safely divine!”
Well, I have to admit that they both had good points! On Lewis’ side, it’s absolutely that this is what the Christian story claims – that in the birth of Jesus, God has become a human being. A popular song of a few years ago says:
If God had a face, what would it look like?
And would you want to see it right,
if seeing meant that you would have to believe
in things like heaven,
and in Jesus, and the saints, and all of the prophets?
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way back home?
I’ve often thought that we should add this song to the Christmas carol books. This is exactly what the Christmas story is all about; it’s God becoming one of us, God sharing our human life, God experiencing all the things that we experience. The technical word for it in Christian theology is ‘incarnation’ – God taking on himself our human flesh.
But that leaves us with the point made by the other professor in the movie: “Then God must be bonkers!” Has God taken leave of his senses? If God is the almighty creator of the universe, why on earth would he allow himself to be born as a helpless baby on this tiny planet? Why would he put himself in a position of complete dependence on human parents and make himself vulnerable to all the pain and suffering of human life? What would be the point of it? What sort of God decides to do something like that?
Let me suggest a few possible answers to these questions.
First, the sort of God who would do this would be a God who believed in the power of love and not the power of brute force. There are a lot of people in the Christmas story who believe in the power of force. There’s the Roman emperor, for instance: Caesar Augustus. The story tells us that ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… All went to their own home towns to be registered’ (Luke 2:1, 3). Imagine having that kind of power! Caesar sits on his throne in Rome and sends out an order that all the millions of people in his empire are to be registered – presumably for tax purposes. Immediately thousands of public officials leap to do his bidding! That’s the sort of power that can get things done! Or think of King Herod – he hears that a rival king has been born in Bethlehem, and immediately sends a death squad to kill all male children under the age of two. That’s decisive action! No one would dare to question the authority of a man who could give an order like that!
And yet today, two thousand years later, the only reason we remember Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great is because of the birth of a baby in Bethlehem during their reign. Despite all their power and influence, they died like anyone else, and they left the world much as they found it.
In contrast to them, Jesus did not have the authority to order a million people to interrupt their lives for an income tax registration, and he killed no one during the thirty-three years of his life. He spent his life teaching the truth and reaching out in love to everyone he met. He didn’t concentrate on the powerful and the rich in an attempt to influence the movers and shakers of society; rather, he hung out with lepers and tax collectors, blue-collar workers and prostitutes, and everywhere he went he brought transformation into people’s lives. Jesus touched them, and they had the sense that they had been touched by God. It wasn’t brute force; it was the power of love – God’s love. He modelled it for us in the way he lived his life, and even when human beings rejected him, he did not strike back, but allowed them to kill him by nailing him to a cross. In that act, he was saying to us, “You may be able to kill me, but you can never kill my love for you”.
Christmas tells us about a God who believes in the power of love, not the power of brute force. Second, the kind of God Christmas tells us about is a God who thinks you make a difference by coming close, not by standing far away and yelling instructions.
There’s an old episode of MASH where Father Mulcahey and Radar find themselves in the situation of having to perform a tracheotomy on a man in a combat zone. Neither of them are doctors, of course; the only thing they can do is call the real doctors at the MASH unit and ask them to guide them through the operation. Of course, it’s an awful thing for both the doctors who are giving the instructions and for the people who are trying to follow them! Long distance instructions might work sometimes, but you know there’s something lacking there.
Religious history is full of stories of gods who give their wisdom at long distance – gods who aren’t crazy enough to get close to this dangerous human race, but stay safely divine, far away in heaven, and send their messengers to give us their words of advice. But the Christian story is not that sort of story. In the prologue to his Gospel, St. John calls Jesus ‘The Word’; he says, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory’ (John 1:14) – or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, ‘The Word became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood’ (‘The Message’). This God is not a general who barks orders at his soldiers by radio from a safe headquarters miles away from the front lines; rather, he’s a general who comes right to the front lines and knows what it’s like to wade through the mud in the trenches. ‘What if God was one of us?’ Well, he was!
And the thing is this: by coming close to us in this way, by living as one of us, he showed us two things. He showed us what God is like, and he showed us what a real human life is meant to be like.
Jesus shows us what God is like. This is what the writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews means when he says:
‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a).
‘The exact imprint of God’s very being’. In other words, Jesus is the very best picture of God that we humans have ever seen. Someone has well said: ‘In God there is no un-Christ-likeness at all’. When Jesus had lived his life of love for God and others, when he had gone all the way to the cross to show us the true extent of God’s love for us, then we humans had a true portrait of what God is like: God is like Jesus.
But Jesus not only shows us what God is like; he also shows us what human life is meant to be like. We have a common saying: ‘I’m only human’; usually we use it as an excuse for the times we mess up and fall short of what we know we should be. It’s as if we’re claiming that being human is an excuse for being bad! And, of course, you and I have never seen a human being who wasn’t flawed in some way.
But Jesus came and lived the sort of life that God dreamed for us humans when he created us in the first place. He told us that the two great commandments – the ones everything else depends on – are that we love God with all our heart, and we love our neighbour as ourselves. And then he lived that out in his daily life. To learn to follow him is to learn to be truly human, the way God intended human life to be lived. It’s not about who has the most toys, or who is the most popular, or who can force the most people to do what they want. It’s about right relationships - with God, and with our neighbours. Get that wrong, and we’ve missed the whole point. Get it right, and we’ve grasped the reason we were created in the first place.
But there’s another aspect to this as well. Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted and to suffer as a human being, so he can sympathise with us in our suffering and our weakness. Again, the writer to the Hebrews says:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
So no – God was not out of his mind when he decided to become one of us. There was method in God’s madness. God is love, through and through, and everything that he did was consistent with that love. He came in love, not in brute force. He came close to us, to show us the way and to give us the help we needed, rather than standing at a safe distance and barking orders at us.
The song ‘What if God was one of us?’ also has this question: ‘If God had a name, what would it be?’ The Christmas story tells us that when God came to us in his Son, he chose a name for himself: ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Hebrew, which means ‘God saves’ or ‘God to the rescue’. This name tells us so much about the character of God. The old saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves’, is completely wrong; the Bible tells us that God helps those who can’t help themselves! That’s why he came: to save us from sin and evil and death and to lead us into freedom and joy and goodness and love.