June 27, 2010

Grace in the Manger

By Tara VinCrosscapIam so grateful for the theme selected for this fifty-ninth General Conference session: “Proclaiming God’s Grace.” In the face of the human tendency to isolate and disconnect from sinfulness, we witness a God who reached out in grace to a fallen humanity. A God who, as John 1:14 says, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” This morning we look at the ultimate expression of grace—the ultimate proclamation of unmerited favor—seen in the Incarnation.

With the birth of Christ what we see God doing is so drastically different than humanity. So often we skip over the Incarnation because we hear about it too much. In many countries the story has been so commercialized that the celebration of Christmas has become the stuff of cardboard cutouts, Christmas cards, and children’s programs. We do not fully realize the amazing reality, the grace seen in God with skin on!

2010 1520 page10Incarnation is a word, not found in Scripture, that means “embodiment . . . a concrete or actual form,”* in which an immaterial entity or force is made manifest in human form. God took on human form in order to show the universe what He is like. Just think about it; we don’t even want to be us some days, but God chose to become one of us!

This word for “dwelt,” eskenosen in Greek, alludes to the Old Testament and the Shekinah glory that was found in the tabernacle where God dwelt with His people. Now this Shekinah glory, formerly in the tabernacle, has taken up residence in the person of Jesus.

Think back with me to the story of Moses. When God calls him in the desert before the burning bush Moses asks God, “What is Your name? What should I tell the Hebrews when I go to them?”

Then God, who has every word at His disposal, doesn’t use many words. Instead, in Exodus 3:14 God speaks two verbs, saying, “I AM who I am,” or “I am that I am.” In other words, to answer Moses’ question, “I exist. You have to experience Me to know Me. You have to see what I’m doing to understand Me.”

Words aren’t enough, are they? They don’t tell the whole story. You can study the Word (the Bible) and never have your life affected, but to be a Christian is to follow after Jesus Christ. You can study grace all your life, yet if you do not experience the reality of your unworthiness, and the greatness of God’s gift, you will not grasp the majesty of heaven’s sacrifice. You can see the manger scene, but to be led to worship, and kneel before God as the Magi did, you must know and experience the transforming power of grace as God is made manifest in human flesh.

So Jesus took on flesh—skin and bones—and lived with us. Why? Because flesh can be known.

We see a beautiful picture of Jesus as the Shekinah glory in Luke 8:43-48. Jesus is pressing through a large crowd on His way to a very sick girl. In the midst of all the commotion someone touches Him, and He knows power has left Him. It’s a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years, and no one has been able to heal her. The woman, ceremonially unclean and unholy, came along, touched the hem of Jesus’ robe, and was purified. Jesus was God in the flesh, the Shekinah glory in human form. Grace made manifest.

Touch is all about weakness and vulnerability on both sides. Reaching out says a person is in need of something outside of themselves. Jesus’ need is seen in the Garden of Gethsemane as He goes and weeps and cries out to the Father. When He comes back and finds the disciples asleep, He basically says, “Can’t you stay awake with Me? I need you.”

Becoming Vulnerable
Being touched is being vulnerable. Christ became flesh and went from untouchable to touchable. To let other people touch you, to let them reach out and come in contact with you, can make you weak. You are vulnerable, and the contact is only an example of the infinite physical, spiritual, and emotional vulnerabilities.

We need to reach out to other people—we need their companionship, love, and acceptance—realizing that sometimes we’ll get burned. We also need to allow other people to reach out and touch us. We need to be vulnerable, realizing that their touch is not always gentle.

To be incarnate is to touch and be touchable. This is what is modeled in the life of Jesus.

2010 1520 page10How do we “Proclaim God’s Grace” as we are focusing on this General Conference session? By allowing God’s grace to become incarnate in us to be shared with the world: “I in them and you in me,” as Jesus described it in John 17:23.

Are you touchable? Do you allow yourself to be touched? By God? By other people? Somehow we’ve gotten this idea that we are not supposed to share our weaknesses as Christians. That it’s better if it’s just kept between us and God until things are neatly resolved and we can share a testimony about it—but even then we have to watch what we say. We try to keep ourselves up on pedestals and let people believe that we have it all together. But we know that if people got close to us they would see that we have issues too.

As I look at this need in our lives to be real, I study the Bible and I see a very different example in the life of Jesus than the one we see modeled. Jesus was incarnate in human flesh. Weak, fragile, touchable, available—in the flesh.

This is how God chose to share His grace. Many of the Jews expected the Messiah to come in strength, glory, and power. Many of us would like that too. Instead, we see the proclamation of grace in humanity’s flesh.

Second Corinthians 12:9 talks about God’s power being made complete in our weakness—our humanness. God is about using our brokenness. God makes Himself known in the midst of it. Being available to be touched and being willing to reach out and be touched is the incarnation of God’s grace in human flesh.

The woman reached out and took all that she could get, the hem of Jesus’ garment, and she felt God touch her life because Jesus was available. Jesus was reachable, touchable.

Are we willing to step out and be weak enough so that God can be strong? So that we can be a light in our community? a light in this church? a light in this world? Jesus said that people would recognize that we are His disciples by our love for each other. How do we show love to each other? How are we incarnate?

Jesus, the Word, the one all-powerful Creator, and our High Priest, set up His tent with us—in a manger. He didn’t abandon us. He did not consider His divinity (position, power, authority) as something to be used for His own advantage. In grace He reached out to us. We fall down in gratitude and we leave, like the shepherds, proclaiming His praises far and wide.

After encountering living grace in Jesus Christ we find that our lives are not the same. We do not long to be separated from the world, but to change it. Proclaiming God’s grace until He comes—this will revolutionize our world. We must become touchable. Incarnate.

How can we be incarnate in this world? This is our challenge.

* Merriam-Webster OnLine, www.merriam?webster.com.

Tara VinCross, pastor, Chestnut Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.