Insulting the Prophet, Insulting the Messiah

But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and he cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all. Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis

My job usually does not afford me the opportunity of doing any thing but my job. On most night (6:00 PM-4:30 AM) I am at a computer terminal logging in merchandise being shipped to the Amazon fulfillment center where I work. The other night, however, our area was caught up so I worked supporting what we call “outbound” (my area is “inbound”) by delivering product containers (we call them “totes”) all night or placing thousands of them on conveyer belts so I had time for thinking and I found myself meditating on the Incarnation. I found myself thinking of this in reaction to the numerous   displays of anger from those of the Islamic faith about those insulting the Prophet. I think this was due to having recently seen Salman Rushdie Joseph Anton come through the my check-in at Amazon. The book is Rushdie’s memoir about his life under that name while hiding because of the fatwa issued against him by the leaders of Islam because of his book The Satanic Verses.

Many times when these acts of violence follow these perceived attacks on the Prophet and Islam, Christian point out that Christians do not attack people, set off bombs or make threats when people insult Christianity or make fun of Jesus. It would seem to me, however, that these people trying to defend the faith either have forgotten or do not understand that Christianity does not need a Messiah who cannot be insulted, mocked or rejected. There is no action taken against Christ in our day that were not actually done when he was alive on earth. Christianity has a Savior who is not threatened by insults and hostility.

This is at the very heart of what the Scriptures see as one of the important aspects of the Incarnation. Jesus became one of us so that he might experience the reality of living in a fallen world as a real man so that he might spiritually aid those who live in a fallen world. This anger at those who denigrate Christ was perhaps seen most sharply when Andres Serrano photograph, Piss Christ, that showed a picture of a small plastic crucifix submerged in the photographer’s own urine. Christian’s rose up in arms and demanded some accountability but in reflecting on those days. I am not a fan of such art and especially of government funding of such art but the truth is that this might be a bold statement (clearly not intended by Serrano) of the depth of the humility of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation teaches us that the Second Person of the Trinity was totally submerged in the suffering and filth of this fallen world. The book of Hebrews tells Christians to take this knowledge and use it for their own spiritual encouragement: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that  you may not grow weary or fainthearted”. Most Christian’s like a sanitized Incarnation, not the real thing. One of the staggering truths of the Incarnation is that the Second Person of the Trinity put himself (to draw on Serrano’s photograph) where he had to pee. Christian’s don’t like to think of the Incarnation in these terms (I had one member of one of the churches I serve tell me after a sermon: “I think all sermons should be rated G”. This person mentioned this, of course, because they did not consider the sermon they had just heard to be rated G. I wanted to point out that the Bible is hardly rated G but thought better of it. Christians think this kind of thinking helps them be “separated from the world” but I think it has more in common with Victorian prudishness than Christian teaching) but if we do not fully understand the depth of Jesus humiliation the truth of the Incarnation will do us no good. Lofty thought of the Incarnation that do not grasp the daily reality of Jesus suffering and humiliation are not helpful, in fact they are just the opposite.

I posted on my Facebook page this week some of my favorite Christmas songs and carols and included among them In the Bleak Midwinter with word by the poet Christina Rossetti. I have often wondered, however, if one of the reasons that one of the most beautiful verses that is never put into the hymn is because it makes the Incarnation a little too “earthy”

Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

He had to grow up with skinned knees from running around and scrapped knuckles from working with his father. He likely grew up suffering at the hands of other children and even his own brothers and sisters. He had to put up with laughter, jeers and rejection by the religious leaders of his day because he was doing the work of his Father. He had to come to the point in his sufferings that he told his disciple in Gethsemane “My soul is sorrowful even to death”.

This is the aspects of the Incarnation that I found myself meditating on that night at work. At work I have easily several hundred fellow workers at any given time and as I was walking around I thought of Jesus, the man, the Second Person of the Trinity, moving an mixing among such crowds while he lived a life “of poverty and suffering” and I found myself strengthened spiritually. Hebrews 2:10-11 says “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (ESV). Christians know that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (or as my friend Dave McCarty refers to the Trinity “DaddyJesusSpirit”) has had an everlasting love for his people, a love that never changes, never doubts. This passage in Hebrews 2, however, seems to say that because Jesus shares our nature in the Incarnation, that love was deepened. It is because he shared our “flesh” that Jesus is not ashamed to be called our brother!

Did you have a younger brother or sister that at times did things that embarrassed you? Made you ashamed that they were in your family, or even an older brother or sister? “Hey is that your brother over there making a fool out of himself?” “It looks like him but that is not my brother, my brother is at home”. Because he shares in our humanity Jesus is never ashamed to call us brother and sister. Even when the “accuser of our brethren (Rev 12:10) points out our great and grievous sins. “Yes, oh Accusing One I know what Lee did but he is my brother! We share the same nature and I have died for him. So shut up!”

As I said in my last blog entry, I am celebrating Advent more fully this year and I find myself in true awe as I get a deeper, fuller understanding of the Incarnation. During my years in seminary we learned proper arguments from the Scriptures for defending the deity of Jesus. That is what is so often attacked in our faith but we did not spend much time learning to defend his humanity. As I have grown older, however, it has become the full reality of Jesus’ humanity that have over and over again nurtured my soul, especially in times of suffering, sickness and when my life has been touched by death.

One last thing. I am so thankful for God’s providence and so upset with myself when I miss opportunities for God sitings provided by those day-to-day acts of providence. I fail to encourage my life and faith when those special “mundane” events of God’s providence pop up. The other night at work, however, it was almost impossible for me to miss one. I was meditating on the Incarnation I walked past a woman working at some task at Amazon and notice her sweatshirt. It said “Don’t make me come down there … God”. It took all my self control not to shout out: “He already has! He already has!”

don't make

Jesus endure all of this with great humility and love. One of his great invitations to come and put faith in him is not one where he points to his deity, his power, his coming as a judge but to his humility his “lowlyness”

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon up, and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-29.

My friend and mentor, Jack Miller, used to tell me and others “Everyone wants to be humble but no one wants to be humiliated to get there.” Jesus was already humble when he came to earth (Philippians 2) but he was willing to be humiliated to be like me, to identify with me. You see the more you mine the depths of the Incarnation the more diamonds you find and with every diamond you find you look at every facet and are truly more and more amazed the deeper and longer you look. That is why we need four weeks each year for Advent. We really need every day of our lives and we still have not fully mined this glorious truth.

The Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond

I know that when Jesus returns it will be a “day of judgment, day of wonders” but I rejoice now that when he came the first time it was as one of us, that he suffered in every way like I do but without sin. We have a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses because he has tabernacled among us.

Rejoice! Rejoice this Advent season in the heady doctrine of the Incarnation.

Hear ye the message that comes from afar
up in the heavens there shines a new star
it’s shining brightly and lights up the night
leading the way to a wonderful sign
no one is lonely and no one forlorn
’cause in the manger the Christ child is born

   Hear ye the message it’s simple and clear
time for rejoicing is finally here
fore with the Christ Child there comes a new day
taking your worries and sorrows away
there in your nature and there in your grief
hear ye the message and start to believe

The Joy of Advent

Was there a moment, known only to God when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance f0r a fraction of a second, and the Bright evening starWord, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancientharmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy? 

Bright Evening Star, Madeleine L’Engle

I have been observing Advent for more years than I can count. Having an Advent wreath, using Advent readings in my personal devotional life and in our family devotional time, leading worship in churches I served with Advent sermons and so many other aspects related to the Advent season. But it seems like this year I am observing it in a completely new way, a way that for some reasons seem deeper and more true to me.

I have been avoiding the local radio stations that play 24 7 Christmas music but today, while in the car, I turned to one of the stations and was greeted by a Christmas song I

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad

have never heard. The only line I caught was “celebrating the holiday without the ones we love…” and I had to turn it off. I knew with moments I would be in tears and I was on my way to the dentist and would not like to do any explaining. One of the reasons that Advent is different this year is that it is the first without my parents, LeRoy and Audrey Ferguson who passed away this past July. It is also our third Christmas without Debbie’s mom, Laura. It is hard understanding how this season will ever be the same without these people we love but it has been the experience of all people of faith as life moves forward in all the sadness of living in a fallen world.

It is the third Advent season  that I have not been pastoring a church. Many will not be able to understand the struggle of this because some will consider it to be just like changing jobs but it is not. One of the things that I have come to realize over the past two years (thanks in part to reading The Pastor by Eugene Peterson and more recently Dangerous Calling, by Paul David Tripp) that though becoming a pastor was something I chose to do, it eventually became something that I was. I can only liken this inability to be what I have become to a musician losing the ability through an accident to play his instrument or a singer losing her voice or a surgeon losing control of his hands. Because of this I have become someone in the pew looking at the Incarnation, perhaps, in a fresh way.

This year the company I was working for decided to fold its tent and I find myself in a job that helps to pay the monthly bill but little beyond that. I am not complaining. Our lifestyle has only changed in small ways (we seldom go to movies, hardly ever buy CDs or DVDs and only occasionally eat out) but as my friend Matt B. Redmond (please buy and read his book The God of the Mundane:reflections on ordinary life for ordinary people) wrote recently in his blog about adjustments in his lifestyle after leaving the ministry “we have not even gone without Wifi”. In many ways this job has given me insight into what Matt calls the “mundane”. I work with young men and women, middled aged men and women and some men and women my own age (no adjective on this one) and most of them are excited about this job because “it is good money”. One man close to my own age recently told me that he had quit his second job because he makes more money in one week at this job than he did working two weeks at his other job. I reflect on this as I realize that at this job I am making (with overtime pay) only about two times as much as I did with the first engineering job I had out of college 37 years ago. This has allowed me to enter into the lives of folks that many (most?) Presbyterian pastor have little contact with: folks who work hard every day, at jobs they do not love just to put food on the table. They are hard woking folks of all backgrounds, some recently moved to this country who can barely converse in English. It gets me out of my comfort zone and allows me to hear problems, struggles, fears, joys, hopes of people I likely would never have met otherwise. Though many of them do know know it and few (in my conversations seem to believe it) they too are in need of the Incarnation.

For these, and other reasons, I find myself embracing Advent this year more tightly than ever before I think. I find myself lingering longer over my Advent readings, bringing to mind the accounts in Matthew and Luke (that are pretty much set to memory without even trying) and experiencing new wonder and awe at the truth of the incarnation.

As I have contemplated the incarnation this year I have come to see in a fuller way what Paul means when he talks about the foolishness of the cross and the gospel in I Corinthians chapter one. It is not only the cross that is foolishness to the wisdom of men but everything connected to the truth of the gospel, including the Incarnation. For the past three and a half centuries, Christianity has been trying to redefine itself into something that would appeal to “rational people”. Part of this has been in redefining Jesus and the incarnation. Wanting to call it a myth or a metaphor because it is just so hard to believe. Much that is called the church today tries to get by without an incarnation, turning Jesus into a great moral teacher, a great example of uncompromising love. I can fully understand this. How can the incarnation be possible. It assumes a doctrine (the Trinity) that is as difficult to understand and explain as the Incarnation itself. How can the Word that God used to bring all things into being (“All things were made through him and without him was not any thing made that was made”, John 1:4) become a growing fetus in the womb of a woman who live “in space time history” (to borrow one of Francis Schaeffer’s favorite phrases).

In seminary, I studied the Incarnation, learned about hypostatic union, learned from Chalcedon that the two natures are “unmixed, unchanged, unseparated, undivided” but you will notice that tells us what the Incarnation was not it does not tell us what it is and the reason, I believe, is that it is impossible. Thirty-one years after seminary I find myself agreeing with Madeleine L’Engle (who knew the importance of doctrines and creeds) “Don’t try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest galaxy. It is love, God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus, the Christ, fully human and fully divine“. (Bright Evening Star).

So this year I celebrate Advent because I marvel at the truth of the Incarnation and I more fully understand our world’s need and my need of a dying Savior who is God and man. As Sufjan Stevens recently sings in Christmas Unicorn “Oh, I’m a Christian holiday, a symbol of original sin”. There is no need for the Incarnation if we are not sinners. There is no need of the Incarnation if I am not a sinner. This Advent season, however, has served as a reminder no only of the miracle of the Incarnation but also the our fallen world’s need of the Incarnation and my own need of the Incarnation. New opportunities to see the sinfulness of my sin. New opportunities for repentance. New opportunities to rejoice it the pure, pure joy of the complete forgiveness. New opportunities to rejoice it the pure, pure joy of the Gospel. New opportunity to rejoice in the only truth that will do me or anyone else any eternal good that because of the Incarnation “God … justifies the wicked” (Romans 4:5). With out the cross the Incarnation is simply an astonishing miracle. Without the Incarnation the cross is simply a man suffering and unjust execution. But because of the Incarnation and the glorious story of the Gospel, this is indeed a time for awe and wonder

Dylan at the foot of the cross