Let’s reminisce: best trip, worst trip, scariest trip and a trip that you would never take again. I’ll start. We loved going to Sweden and Norway. It was a great trip. In fact, it was our best trip. We went to the Wisconsin Dells once. It was miserable. We also went to some awful cabin in Pennsylvania where the water was so contaminated with rust that when we showered, it stained our hair. It is tied with the Dells for our most miserable trip. I was nervous going to China the first time (Could I survive two weeks eating Chinese food? More importantly, would I want to survive eating only Chinese food?). I guess I am a picky eater, because I also felt that way about my first trip to Ukraine. Both fears were terribly, terribly unfounded. And my trip that I would never take again? The last time I went to Kentucky, some miserable bugs ate me alive. I blame Kentucky; and as a result, I’m never going back! Jo refuses to go back to Idaho (she is staunchly anti-potato).
I want us to think today about the trip God-the-Son took as he stepped out of eternity and into our humanity. This is the trip we celebrate each Christmas with joy because in our hearts we perceive it to be the best of all possible trips. Maybe even the happiest of all trips—God coming to redeem us and to save his people. Would there be hardships? Of course, but the joy far outweighs the pain. Christmas with all of its family and fun and festivities and food draws us to read the Christmas story in such a light.
And yet, I have been rethinking this view after reading this week’s section on “Redemption” in Bonhoeffer’s God Is in the Manger (compiled and edited by Jana Riess; translated by OC Dean, Jr., Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). These chapters made me wonder how God-the-Son must have felt on the eve of his incarnation. Now, I know I am over-anthropomorphizing here (clearly), but think about it. God’s Son (God of God, Light of light, very God of very God) steps out of eternity and takes on human flesh. There is no doubt that he did so voluntarily, maybe even with a sense of joy. However, it is also possible that God-the-Son did so with a great weight and sadness in his heart, but that is not an option I have considered much in my life. I have always pictured Jesus doing this enthusiastically; looking forward to adventure, looking forward to the relationships, looking forward to redeeming humanity, looking forward to sharing life with his creation, and also, very much looking forward to the reunion after the ascension. Here’s how I always pictured it; God-the-Son happily steps out of heaven and enters our world. But one paragraph in Bonhoeffer has made me rethink this (if I have ever really thought about this at all before). Here’s the paragraph (Bonhoeffer is the author):
“Jesus does not want to be the only perfect human being at the expense of humankind. He does not want, as the only guiltless one, to ignore a humanity that is being destroyed by its guilt; he does not want some kind of human ideal to triumph over the ruins of a wrecked humanity. Love for real people leads into the fellowship of human guilt. Jesus does not want to exonerate himself from the guilt in which the people he loves are living. A love that left people alone in their guilt would not have real people as its object. So, in vicarious responsibility for people and in his love for real human beings, Jesus becomes the one burdened by guilt—indeed, the one upon whom all human guilt ultimately falls and the one who does not turn it away but bears it humbly and in eternal love. As the one who acts responsibly in the historical existence of humankind, as the human being who has entered reality, Jesus becomes guilty. But because his historical existence, his incarnation, has its sole basis in God’s love for human beings, it is the love of God that makes Jesus become guilty. Out of selfless love for human beings, Jesus leaves his state as the one without sin and enters into the guilt of human beings. He takes it upon himself.”
Here’s what I wonder now: Did God-the-Son step out of heaven with a heavy heart, not because he realized all that he would be giving up by becoming human, but because he realized all that he would take on as he took on our flesh? Did he shudder at the thought of taking on our guilt, our brokenness, our burdens, and our estrangement? Did he flinch at the thought of suffering and dying as one of us? We’ve always celebrated all that Jesus gave up to become human, but I do not recall much serious thought about all that Jesus became (he became guilt for us, he became sin for us, he became cursed for us, he became forsaken for us). Did the cost of our redemption give God-the-Son pause for a fleeting second before he stepped out of heaven’s glory and into Mary’s womb? What an amazing love propelled God-the-Son to suffer everything for our sake. Again, I know I am over-anthropomorphizing here, but I have to believe that God-the Son knew that his next step would be wrapped in suffering; and yet, he took it, but not with joy and glee, but with a heavy sadness that it had come to this, that the only way to redeem fallen humanity was to enter into our suffering fully. Hebrews 12 (2) says it this way with one significant change: “For the joy set before him he (Jesus) endured the whole incarnation, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I am always struck by this quote from Augustine:
“Man’s maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused by false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.”
This is the savior we worship, the one who chose suffering so that we could find redemption.
Bonhoeffer continues to stress the seriousness of the incarnation with these lines:
- “It is Jesus’ love alone that lets him become guilty. Out of his selfless love, out of his sinless nature, Jesus enters into the guilt of human beings; he takes it upon himself.”
- “A love that left people alone in their guilt would not have real people as its object. So, in vicarious responsibility for people, and in His love for real human beings, Jesus becomes the one burdened by guilt.”
- “Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us.”
- “God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be—in our sin, suffering, and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us.”
- “A sinless nature and guilt-bearing are bound together in him indissolubly. As the sinless one, Jesus takes guilt upon himself; and under the burden of this guilt, he shows that he is the sinless one. In an incomprehensible reversal of all righteous and pious thinking, God declares himself guilty to the world and thereby extinguishes the guilt of the world. God himself takes the humiliating path of reconciliation and thereby sets the world free. God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon himself the punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us. God stands in for godlessness, love stands in for hate, the Holy One for the sinner. “
I’ve always thought Jesus entered the incarnation with joy, knowing that soon redemption would be accomplished and that God’s kingdom would have taken root on planet earth. Yes, there would be suffering along the way, but joy would come in the morning. But now, I wonder, if God-the-Son stepped into time and space with an almost-unbearable sorrow that, to redeem humanity, he had to enter into humanity’s guilt and suffering and shame fully and that it was a price that one could not pay with gladness, but only with tears. To me, this makes Christmas even more incomprehensible, even more solemn and, yet, even more wonderful. God was willing to do all this to redeem us. No cost, apparently, was too high.
Bonhoeffer writes, and with this I close:
“Now there is no longer any godlessness, any hate, any sin that God has not taken upon himself, suffered, and atoned for. Now there is no more reality and no more world that is not reconciled with God and in peace. That is what God did in his beloved Son Jesus Christ. Ecce homo—see the incarnate God, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world. God loves human beings. God loves the world—not ideal human beings, but people as they are, not an ideal world, but the real world.”