Wineskins Archive

December 19, 2013

All The Way to Heaven is Heaven (Jul-Aug 1997)

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Living the Incarnation

by Darryl Tippens
July – August, 1997

God took a body. Of all the teachings in the Bible, this one may be the most remarkable and the least understood. God took a body. This weighty, mysterious, and inescapable truth is central to our faith. It is even more basic than the crucifixion and the resurrection, for if there is no coming in the flesh, there can be no crucifixion or resurrection. First things first. God took a body.

The teaching that God “enfleshed himself,” that the Creator of the universe entered into human form in the person of Jesus Christ, was a life-transforming conviction of the early church. “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great,” Paul tells Timothy; “he appeared in a body ….” (2 Timothy 3:16); “[Christ], being in very nature God, … made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness …” (Philippians 2:6-7).

What happens if we take the incarnation seriously? The enfleshment of God is no mere theological curiosity, but a life-changing principle. The great Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz expressed it like this:

If God incarnated himself in man,
died and rose from the dead,
All human endeavors deserve attention …
We should think of this by day and by night.
Every day, for years, ever stronger and deeper.
And most of all about how human history is holy
And how every deed of ours becomes a part of it,
Is written down forever, and nothing is ever lost.
Because our kind was so much elevated
Priesthood should be our calling ….
We should publicly testify to the divine glory
With words, music, dance, and every sign.

The point is, if God did come in the flesh, then everything about our material existence looks and feels different. Our sense of past, present, and future is radically altered. Like the saints before us, we come to see that heaven is not merely a goal in the remote future, but “all the way to heaven is heaven.”

Today, the church desperately needs to rediscover an incarnational spirituality, “finding God fleshed out in everything, embracing all that is good, celebrating, loving, living, and cherishing life, leaving the blessing of myself, in Christ, everywhere I go,” in the words of Macrina Wiederkehr. In short, we need to take the incarnation seriously – and personally.

What does an incarnational faith look like? How will an incarnational Christian act, live, and think? The answer can be outlined by looking at Psalm 139, one of the great incarnational passages of the Bible. (Let us consider a few passages from Eugene Peterson’s vivid paraphrase from The Message.) The Psalmist writes:

I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too – your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful – I can’t take it all in!”

God is everywhere! As the Psalmist declares, our God is awe-fully close to his creation. All the great theologians and Christian writers seem united on this point: God loves what he made, and he stays close to it. In Augustine’s terms, God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God,” observes C.S. Lewis. “The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend.”

The incarnation helps us see that our religion is not ethereal, abstract, and remote, but amazingly concrete. It concerns itself with cups of cold water, lilies in the field, seeds growing in the earth, dried blood on a torn body, a cross, an empty tomb filled with the fragrance of a spring Palestine morning. Unfortunately, over the centuries our faith has been tainted by worldly philosophies that are either deeply suspicious of material creation (Platonism, gnosticism, and Manicheeism) or profoundly doubtful of God’s nearness (Deism). (Sadly, many Christians think like Heaven’s Gate cultists who see their bodies as disgusting “containers” to be discarded.) C.S. Lewis reminds us that God likes matter. He invented it. Matter matters. Human bodies, not just souls or spirits, have a place in God’s eternal plan. Indeed, for incarnationalists, all creation is hallowed because it comes from God.

Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit? to be out of your sight? If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I got underground, you’re there! If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, you’d find me in a minute – you’re already there waiting!”

When you think incarnationally, all things become significant. The old distinctions of “sacred” and secular” begin to dissolve, and even the smallest details of life take on special meaning. Purpose, design, and meaning flow through all things. A “secular” movie, a pop tune, a chance encounter can lead you closer to God. Madeleine L’Engle says it succinctly: “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

Many theologians help us to see the holiness of the ordinary, but none more forcefully than Frederick Buechner. All of our lives, in the light of faith, can become holy, writes Buechner: “Deep within history, as it gets itself written down in history books and newspapers, in the letters we write and in the diaries we keep, is sacred history, is God’s purpose working itself out in the apparent purposelessness of human history …. A child is born. A friend is lost or found. Out of nowhere comes a sense of peace or foreboding …. Out of the shadowy street comes a cry for help. We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths.”

Many things flow from this incarnational view of things. Not only do we sense God’s hand in our own life stories, but we find a deep respect for nature, the “theater of God’s glory” as John Calvin called it. Though nature is fallen, God has not forsaken it. He wastes nothing that he made; he intends to liberate and renew it (Romans 8:21; 2 Peter 3:13). Incarnational Christians never worship nature, but they deeply respect it, seeing it as a divine gift, a dswelling place of the holy, and a cosmic “voice’ declaring the divine presence (Psalm 19:1-6). Incarnational Christians could never trans the environment for they have, in Thomas Merton’s words, an “unspeakable reverence for the holiness of created things.”

“Oh, yes, you shaped me in my mother’s womb, body and soul, I am marvelously made! … you know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was scuplted from nothing into something … all the stages of my life were spread out before you … Guide me on the road to eternal life.”

Living incarnationally, you know your life is no accident; rather, God was there at your conception, attending every minute alteration in your body from fertilized egg to fully matured man or woman. You have no crisis about where you came from, why you are here, or where you are going. What you do makes a difference, even if no one seems to notice. Every deed becomes a small passage in God’s history of the world. Everything is written down, “nothing is ever lost,” says Milosz. God entered a human form to redeem you and give you a road map to eternity. He awaits your return and cheers you on your way.

“I thank you, High God – you’re breath-taking! … I worship in adoration – what a creation!”

Isn’t it odd how some Christians talk about God in the third person (“he”), but seldom in the second (“You” or “Thou”)? Generally, we talk about people in the third person when they are absent, but when someone is present to us, it is more appropriate (and polite!) to talk to them. If you visit my house, for example, I would most likely talk to you. If you were absent, I might talk about you. Could it be that our assemblies focus on talk about God (sermon, teaching) rather than direct address to God (praise, prayer, thanksgiving) precisely because we do not think he’s present?

If, on the other hand, you really believe that God is visiting your assembly, things get exciting! An exuberant reverence reigns. Praise and thanksgiving break out – inevitably. The recent tred towards praise in our worship assemblies is not merely a fad. It’s a sign that we are rediscovering the presence of God. Incarnational churches spend a lot of time in praise because they believe God is in attendance: “[God,] you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3).

Incarnational Christians realize that they are not mere “souls,” but also bodies deeply affected by their God-given senses. They long to worship God with their bodies, not just with their minds (Romans 12:1). They are sensitive to the spiritual effects of light, space, color, form, and architecture. They understand why God fills artists, craftsmen, and architects with the Spirit of God so that they can use their artistic gifts to the glory of God (Exodus 31:1-11). They do not seal up their sanctuaries like tombs; instead, they welcome God’s natural light into their houses of worship. They take architecture seriously, knowing that in mysterious ways our structures first reflect, then shape, our very beliefs.

“Your thoughts – how rare, how beautiful! God, I’ll never comprehend them! I couldn’t even begin to count them – any more than I could count the sand of the sea.”

When you start talking about the closeness of God, some people get nervous. They fear that talking of God’s nearness might compromise God’s transcendent greatness, his “high-ness,” his “above-ness.” They worry that pantheism (the belief that God and nature are identical) lurks near. Yet, as the Psalmist shows, one can easily believe in God’s inescapable nearness, while firmly holding to God’s celestial otherness.

The Christian doctrine of God’s enfleshment refuses to shorten the distance between God and man, even while it asserts unashamedly that God took a body. When Christ was born, God became flesh, yet God remained fully God, and flesh remained fully flesh. This is a great mystery, says Paul.

“Then I said to myself, ‘Oh, he even sees me in the dark! At night I’m immersed in the light’! It’s a fact: darkness isn’t darkness to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.”

People of the Presence are not naive about evil, suffering, and absence. Though they believe in Presence, they fully realize how utterly dark human experience can be. Psalm 139 is not their only Psalm. They also know Psalm 122, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and 130, “Help, God – the bottom has fallen out of my life!” Life can be tragic. Holocausts occur often. God even appears to withdraw for awhile. Dark nights of the soul come to the most fervent Christians. Cries of dereliction flow from the most ardent believer’s lips: “I believe; Lord, help my unbelief.”

Yet the incarnational Christian can still remind herself that her feelings of absence are never the whole story. Darkness to me is not the same thing as darkness to God. He sees me even in my darkness – and is present to me, whether I feel his presence or not. “Whenever our hearts condemn us,” John explains, “we set our hearts at rest in his presence.” Why? “For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:19-20).

Because God took a body, my life becomes a great drama before God. Buechner advises, accordingly: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.”

In Foster’s words, our goal is a “symphonic piety”: “If we cannot find God in the routines of home and shop, then we will not find him at all. Ours is to be a symphonic piety in which all the activities of work and play and family and worship and sex and sleep are the holy habitats of the eternal.” When we discover the incarnation, we see, at last, that heaven is not only the goal. It’s heaven all the way.Wineskins Magazine

Darryl Tippens

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