This post is a continuation of a train of thought I began yesterday in which I developed an idea presented by Robert Farrar Capon in The Third Peacock: The Problem of God and Evil (Part of a trilogy). Yesterday we noted that the incarnation of Christ was perhaps an inevitability even if sin had never occurred, partly because of the manner in which creation was set to being and function, and partly because the incarnation is an expression of God and what he is like. The mere fact of the incarnation has much to teach us apart from the message of an antidote to that nasty problem of sin that plagues us. I recommend a reading of yesterday’s post to get this all in perspective, but we left off with Capon’s words, “What [God] has a principle about is you… he loves you; his chief concern is to be himself for you.” We note that our best benefit is derived of God simply being God. I promised yesterday to begin in Exodus 3, which we shall do.
I remember hearing someone talk about the Tetragramaton — which is simply the scholarly word which refers to the four Hebrew letters that spell the personal name of God as he revealed it to Moses in Exodus 3. (We use a big word to refer to it so people will know for certain that we know what we’re talking about when we proceed from there to simply offer up our speculation.) It is, of course, translated in a variety of ways: “I am that I am” or “I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be” or simply, “I am,” of which a great deal is made in John’s Gospel. We keep trying to plumb the depths of its meaning, but basically God told us his name and we still haven’t figured it out yet. Moses, being more directly on the receiving end, understood the important bit. The one that stands out for me is the theologian who argued that it should be translated “I will be there.” This, to me, makes perfect sense. It’s a great answer for Moses, who’s worried about going someplace. “Oh, well if you’re promising to be there, no problem.” Turns out, that’s a central message with God. He was with Israel in Egypt, in the desert, in the promised land, in Babylon, and back out again. As the Psalmist says, there is in fact nowhere that God’s presence could be escaped.
In the tabernacle, God dwelt among his people: he was with them, which was the essential point of constructing the mobile temple in the first place. To simply be among his people expresses something of God’s nature, of who he is. It’s part of his God-ness not only to be, but to be with his people. So when we come to the Incarnation, John puts it most succinctly and says, as Eugene Petersen translates it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” The Greek students and people like me who love the hidden gems of Scripture will point out to you that the word for “moved into” (or “dwelt” in other versions) could or should be translated “tabernacled” so as to catch the direct connection that John is making to the presence of God in the Israelite camp; translated literally, he “pitched his tent” among us. God loves to be with his people.
It fits so well not only with what Moses hoped God would be, but with what we all hope him to be. With us, so we’re not alone. Moses faces a challenge, or we face one, with an uncertain future. If things turn out well, we don’t really need God there (or we habitually forget that we do); we’ll be fine on our own, thank-you very much. “I’ve got this one covered, okay, God? I’ll give you a shout if things turn sour.” If things turn out badly off the bat in this affair though, we surely do need God with us… so the best promise of all turns out not to be the nebulous one that everything will somehow be okay, but the far more reassuring one that either way, God will be there with us in the midst of it. Likewise, this turns out to be great news for the disciples rowing a little boat on a stormy sea.
One important refinement, however. People sometimes get the impression that the Incarnation showed up for the first time rather late in the history of the world—that it was not only a patch job, but a patch job after awful and irretrievable damage had been done. Once again, though, it’s not as simple as that. There are all kinds of hints that the Incarnate Word is not a late intruder, but rather that he is somehow coterminous and contemporaneous with the whole history of creation.
I’ve started to show some of the thread, but I like what Capon says about God’s conception of the incarnation, that “the Incarnation cannot possibly have been an afterthought. He has no afterthoughts.” And I think about the last promise that Jesus made to the disciples before floating away from them: he isn’t leaving them (or us) alone, but is sending the Holy Spirit, who though he won’t be “seen” in the same way, will nevertheless continue to dwell among them. We come to understand that like Jesus, the Holy Spirit is also God, and is going to keep expressing that bit of God-ness that he loves to have expressed — to be, and to be with his people.
It’s what he’s looking forward to in Revelation when ultimately we dwell together… and we have a sign of this in the Eucharist as the body of Christ ever with us. He in us and us in him. I find myself wanting to talk further about the Showbread of the Old Testament (the “Bread of the Presence”) and the bread of the Eucharist which is present and then further of us as the Body of Christ, present in the world… but I’ve gone on for some time already and will perhaps revisit that one at another time. As for the future, let us look forward to a great feast. Capon puts the words in God’s mouth, “There! I meant every word I said. The party will come off. Lion and lamb, wolf and kid, will all lie down together. Victimizer and victim will eat at my supper. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; I will wipe away all tears from their eyes.” As for the church, Capon says, “If I am on the right track, the principle function of the Church is to be the sign of the mystery of the Word—which is precisely what we mean when we call the Church the mystical Body of Christ.” He in the world through us as he is in us and us in him as we are in the world. (Notice the beautiful chiastically structured sentence you’ve just read, for those who, like me, love such things.)
So now, I close by bringing up a subject to which the reader may already have leaped… if we as the missional church are all about incarnational (substitute the word “missional” if you prefer) ministry, what further lessons might we draw from the incarnation itself? For us to be as a higher priority than to do makes many people nervous, but it must be observed that in the sense we’re considering, being results in things getting done, but in a much less stressful or labour-intensive way. Perhaps the best approach is not the tool kit version where we show up to fix, but where we show up to be, and to help draw people toward becoming the great healer. To be among not because those poor people need our pity, pathos, profundity, or proximity. But to be among simply because in doing so, we are expressing the God-ness of God to be among. Is it not perhaps in part the desire to show up and fix that we express in our worst moments of colonialism? Hubris, perhaps, to imagine that we’ve got the answer in our efforts… rather than in simply expressing by our presence the being-ness of God? If we were to, I don’t know, “Love God and love our neighbour” or to “Live our faith and share our life,” would that not be an expression of God’s being that draws people to the fix rather than casting them as objects to be fixed by us, the great handyman now on the scene?
Just thinking out loud and looking for feedback, that’s all… and trying hard not to show up on the scene of humanity fallen to spiritual cardiac arrest and say, “Stand back everyone — I’m a priest!”
Oh my. What do you think on these things?
Just happened to read the end of Matthew today — I will be with you till the end of the age… It resonates with the promise to Moses, of course. But as I read your point about being with people as our mission, rather than coming to impose some solution to their problems, I hear an invitation to read the great commission in a different light: Go make disciples, teach, etc. by being with people precisely as I have been with you and indeed continue to be with you…
I’ve been reading N.T.Wright lately and the whole issue of incarnation reminds me of his point about the relation of heaven and earth (or God and creation) as distinct, but not far away from each other. It seems we always have to work to overcome the latent deism in us that wants to set up a great distance between God and creation — which implies he had to have a very good reason to get his hands dirty with us in the end. But if God was never so far away, if his Spirit continued to brood over the creation, incarnation might have been inevitable. If we see it like this, we can’t really continue to see ourselves as little saviors who swoop in on people in need and fix them.
Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece…