Guest Post from Sophia Luke
Sophia Luke graduated from Wheaton College (IL) in 2018 with a BA in Philosophy, focusing on theological and ethical studies. Her passions include art, drama, and doctrine (the latter two being much the same thing). Sophia is married to writer Sean Luke.
This time of year, if you run in Christian circles, you’re apt to hear what the incarnation has to do with mission. And rightly so: “The Word became flesh” is such an earth-shattering, sweet truth. It merits informing our ministry strategy. “Incarnational ministry” is an approach to this topic harped on ad nauseum. It’s usually synonymous with “embodied” ministry, or models of mission which encourage cultural immersion. The model can be helpful: informing, for example, my husband’s and my decision to live in the same apartment complex as the families we serve. (Check it out at Puente del Pueblo.) But the model isn’t without controversy, and so attracts endless attention. The problem is that this hype can distract from other ways Christ’s humanity informs mission. This year, I want to draw our eyes to a different implication of incarnation:
The incarnation signifies God’s commitment to this world.
God’s commitment to physical reality isn’t uniquely derived from Christ’s birth. It’s central to the overarching narrative of Scripture. Theologian N. T. Wright has pioneered a contemporary discussion on this subject, lamenting that Christianity in the West has become all about escaping this world and going to heaven when we die. As it turns out, many of our “traditional” ideas about heaven and hell derive from pagan influences, adopted by Christian figures such as Dante and Michelangelo. In contrast, early Christians thought the point of the Christian life was not going to heaven, but rather God restoring his kingdom on earth.
Wright traces this theme through Scripture: God’s original intent for creation was to build a “temple” full of his presence, a display of his glory through beautiful things. When Adam and Eve sinned, evil entered that temple. Because God is holy, purely good, he couldn’t be present there in the same way. As the story goes on, we see God demonstrate a commitment to the broken world: first, in the covenants with Israel in the Old Testament, then through Christ’s life in human flesh in the Gospels. In Acts and the epistles, we see God bringing his kingdom and presence through the Spirit in the church, and we look to Christ’s return, when he heals and remakes all things. The earth in this way will become the “new creation,” and believers will be resurrected in physical bodies to reign with the glorified, crucified, human Christ.
Isn’t that incredible news? If it’s true, there’s more to the end of things than wings, harps, clouds, and dresses. Because I grew up with those images, that’s how I imagined life after death; to be honest, at times I had to force myself to be excited for it. But if it’s true that the point of the Christian life is God’s redemption of this reality, he won’t be destroying the beautiful things about this world. Instead he’ll be remaking them to be more like they were intended: glorified beautiful things. Instead of picturing the world vanishing, you are free to imagine and anticipate whatever glorified rainbows will look like. Glorified mountains. Glorified waterfalls. Glorified oak trees.
To me, the incarnation is the most lovely annual signpost to this reality.
Now, I’m not disagreeing with theologians who say the point of the incarnation is God taking on flesh to save people through his death and resurrection (a la “what is not assumed cannot be healed” with Gregory of Nazianzus and the rest). They’re exactly right. But if the incarnation only points to the death and resurrection, what do we do with the other thirty years Christ spent on earth, an embodied human— with our nature?
The Son of God, the King of the Jews, King of the coming New Creation, came and “tabernacled with us” (John 1:14), and was in ministry for three years before his death. During that time, he was typically teaching about God’s reign, the “kingdom,” (a phrase mentioned by Jesus over 100 times in the Gospels). We see, then, in the incarnate Jesus’ ministry, a wonderful something already happening: he began to restore the reign of God back to earth. We also see a wonderful something that hasn’t happened yet: he is coming again. He will remake the world into a new heaven and a new earth, and restore it as God’s temple. God is committed to this material reality. In a moment of ultimate humility and dedication, the Son gave up his seat at God’s hand, communicating the degree, the complete sense, of that commitment.
God is coming back to his temple, the world.
In moments when I’ve meditated on this fact, I’ve been overwhelmed all the way to tears.
Now, I want you to know: the majority of the outside world has no idea this is true. They think “fluffy heaven” is what Christians believe. The church has often motivated unbelievers by giving them two options: heaven—a spirit-y, cloudlike place with nothing to do but sing-alongs—or torture by fire. I’ve shared the gospel with so many people, only to have them confess that the former doesn’t sound all that much better than the latter. I can’t say that I blame them: the mental picture feels more like Zeus than the LORD to me.
If this is all true, then when we tell the story of the Bible, privately or publicly, we must teach people that the redemption of creation is the end of the story. Why? 1) It works. It excites people because it’s more beautiful and it’s true. It’s more winsome to the unbeliever. 2) More importantly, it glorifies God because it witnesses to his design.
During Advent, we remember how the Son humbled himself to take on our nature. In so doing, he began the good work of bringing God’s reign back to earth. And, during Advent, we look forward to his return, completing that work of redemption. This Christmas season, may you have the opportunity to help someone else reshape their imagination about what the Christian hope really means for the coming New Creation.