Incarnational Living (Jan 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Rex Butts

At the invitation of one of my elders, I’m at Helping Up Mission, a homeless shelter and recovery center located on the east side of Baltimore. It’s a Christian based ministry that provides in-resident therapy, life-skills, and education for men who have suffered from poverty and/or addiction.

Here I am listening to the stories of men who have been given a new lease on life, where they are learning to live by God’s grace and truth. As you can imagine, their stories are filled with much pain and disappointment but that is not the end. Their stories continue and it’s beautiful. They are stories that speak of redemption.

Subconsciously, the story of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel of Matthew is simmering inside me. I’ve spent the last few weeks preparing and preaching sermons from this narrative. Matthew has reminded me that this story which God has chosen to be a part of is not a G-rated script. It’s a story filled with scandal, from the mentioning of four questionable women in the genealogy, to the appearance of adultery on Mary’s part, to Herod conspiring to murder Jesus.

The story of Jesus’ birth as told by Matthew is, in one sense, a sordid story. Yet it is also belongs to the beautiful story of redemption. God is with us and now we have a story that for far too long has gone wrong but now things are being made right.

That’s when it hits me. Call it an epiphany if you like. Here I am listening to individual stories which have been so wrong for far too long but are now being made right. In this moment it occurs to me that this is part of the doctrine of Incarnation. That is, God has become one of us to be a part of stories just like this, in places just like this.

The Doctrine of Incarnation

The Christian Doctrine of Incarnation confesses that God became flesh. In Jesus of Nazareth, God has become a human being. The Gospels, particularly Matthew and John, won’t let us relegate this doctrine to some lofty, sanitized confession. With the names of “Immanuel” and “The Word”, each Gospel locates this doctrine within the larger story. As such, we are not free to divorce the claim from the story.

As already alluded to, Matthew begins with the genealogy to remind us that our Incarnate God belongs to a story better scripted for the tabloids than a pious story only to be retold by candle light on Christmas Eve. The Gospel of John tells us that “The light shines in the darkness…” (Jn 1:5).[1] We are reminded of how seemingly unpleasant the circumstances are.

Our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, becomes flesh and in doing so, becomes a part of a world where things have gone so wrong. It’s a world which neither knows this God nor seemingly cares to and given the chance, it’s a world whose people, trying to be their own gods, will try to eradicate this God physically, intellectually, and so forth. Yet this is the world God becomes a part of by becoming one of its people in the person of Jesus, the son of Joseph, who is the son of Jacob, who is the son of…

As exhilarating as the case is, and perhaps difficult to fully grasp at times, there is beauty in this doctrine. We are told that “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” (Jn 1:14). The word “dwelling” summons our memory of God taking up residence in the tabernacle, to say that God has now taken up residence in our world.[2] Just as God enjoyed dwelling in the tabernacle, God now enjoys dwelling among us as a human being with us.

This is how we encounter grace and truth of which, we need of both. As I have heard it said by many preachers, there is not one without the other. To know the grace of God, we must know the truth of God and vise versa. Neither grace nor truth are abstract ideas but are both bound up in the Incarnate God. Therefore it is in this God, the Lord who became flesh in order to ultimately die in the flesh and be raised in the flesh, where we find true liberation from the darkness.[3] This is where redemption becomes the story of humanity.

Living the Doctrine of Incarnation

If you are like me, you are still trying to wrap your mind around the breadth and depth of this doctrine. Even greater is the challenge we have as the people of God living this doctrine. We believe it but when it comes to incarnational living, we struggle. We don’t know exactly what to do with the story in which God is pleased to become one of us, dwelling with us and every lurid and debased detail of our story. That’s fine for God but can we, in the same way, live among people who’s story may now be just as offensive as ours once was to God?

A few years ago I spent some time in the northern Denver Metro area helping my friend Hobby with his church planting. There was a young, recent college graduate, who wanted to belong to our church community. One day she invited us over to her apartment for a wine and cheese tasting party that she was hosting. It would be a place to meet her non-Christian friends. So we obliged her. There we were, two married Christian men sitting amongst seven or eight young adults sampling wine and cheese and eventually having a conversation about who Jesus is (that’s what happens when the party goers learn they’re partying with a couple of preachers).

Ten years ago, this would not have even been up for consideration, much less to participate in it the way I did. Yet here was an opportunity, not to revel in the darkness but to let the light of God shine through the darkness. So we came, we stayed, we listened, and we engaged in conversation without becoming critical. Out of that a new house church emerged … eventually resulting in two people participating in church community with us, learning to be disciples of Jesus.

Incarnational living will likely never be easy. It’s a challenge and that challenge will only increase the more secular and post-Christian the world around us becomes. We understand the need for missions, evangelism, ministry and all that. There are not any easy 1-2-3 steps. What we have is the Doctrine of Incarnation and it is a doctrine that must be lived, not merely confessed.

[1] All scripture is taken from the New International Version, 2011.

[2] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 28.

[3] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006) 44.

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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