A few years ago, a family I had never met before came into the church office to meet in the wake of recent tragedy. A mother and siblings of a 16-year-old boy who had died after falling out of a moving car were still in shock and tears as they reeled to find stable ground. They didn’t seem to have any church background, or much familiarity with Jesus.
In trying to console and steady the family, after listening and giving them space to be heard, I brought up Christmas. Church person or not, Americans know at least casually about Christmas. Sure, to the average person this holiday brings to mind Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, Red-Ryder BB guns, Bing Crosby and a host of other seasonal characters. But this is also a starting point to answer two of the questions that family would be wrestling with in the hard days ahead: God are you even there? And God do you even care? Both are answered in the birth of Jesus, and the positive answer to both are unexpected gifts to receive and cherish.
You may be familiar with this biblical narrative. The Old Testament ends with God’s people the Israelites exiled, scattered and slowly trickling back to parts of the homeland. Then we see an extended period of silence as no new prophetic voice would give hope to God’s people for some 400 years – they could only cling to promises that one day the promised Messiah would come.
Then according to the New Testament Gospel accounts, the silence is broken – a new prophetic voice is heard in the wilderness, that of John the Baptist, who was preparing the way for the Savior. The birth account of John the Baptist is how the Christmas story begins. Shortly after he is naturally conceived, which was miraculous in nature since his mom Elizabeth was barren, Jesus is conceived in a supernatural manner, more clearly miraculous.
Jesus’ mom Mary was a virgin, and stayed a virgin through conception and the birth of Jesus. This was clearly shocking news to Mary delivered by an angel, but her posture toward this we’d do well to imitate. She received Jesus as a gift, and cherished this good news in her heart.
What does this have to do with the family in my office? The birth of Jesus was more than the birth of a hero who came to save the day. The birth of Jesus was the incarnation of God, God drawing physically near to His creation. It was God showing up on earth and declaring – Yes, I am here.
For this family it would be important to know that God did not stay far off, distant and disconnected from the pain and trials of life. God did not start life and then just let it ride while chilling out on a heavenly La-Z-Boy while we are on earth figuring things out.
This is what John explains in the beginning of his Gospel, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. What he is saying in his introductory words about Jesus, is that Jesus did not begin to exist on the first Christmas day in Bethlehem. Rather, the Son of God, metaphorically referred to as the “Word” of God, was with God from eternity past, has always existed, and literally took on flesh to become a human being at Christmas. Theologically speaking, at Christmas the second member of the Trinitarian Godhead took on a body, put on flesh, came in “carne” – in “meat.”
In other words, Jesus got in it with us. He got into life as a human being that first Christmas then grew up to walk a mile in our shoes, speak our language, and eat our food. He is able to sympathize with us when we lose a 16 year-old son because He too has suddenly lost loved ones. He knows what it feels like to be betrayed, to be abandoned, to be mocked and bullied, to be misunderstood, to be falsely accused, to be heartbroken, to be lonely, to wrestle with hard decisions. Jesus has even been tempted in all the ways we are today, yet without giving into those temptations, which would be sin. Jesus, though God, was also fully human – fully equipped with emotions, pain receptors, and taste buds.
On the flip side He’s lived life to the full: making great friends, accomplishing His calling, obeying God the Father, demonstrating the highest kind of love, and leaving an example for all who want to succeed at life. To get to know Jesus is to get to know God, and He drew near in the flesh so that we could do that very thing. The incarnation is a grace bomb for us because we can see with crystal clarity the closeness of God, His desire to dwell among us, and His ability to meet us in the mess of life, warts and all, because He’s been here and lived that.
As we receive the gift of a God who can relate to all of our ups and downs, we get closer to being able to do that for others also. Just as God sent Jesus, Jesus sends us and this involves incarnation – getting in it with other people. Putting yourself in others’ shoes, speaking their language, and eating their food are all ways that we can begin to relate to and show care for people.
Incarnation inserts yourself in someone else’s life, even for a brief moment in time.
At the very least, incarnation involves being aware that neighbor exists and being willing to show up in their lives, a way of saying “ I am here, and I see you.”
Listen to what this mom took time to write in on gracebomb.org: “Our kids are loving this movement, we’re teaching them to be finders. Find someone who is working hard, or maybe someone who looks down on their luck and surprise them with a gift of love.” Then she goes on to share a grace bomb story. But notice her emphasis on finding. Finding requires proximity, intentionality and desire. Jesus intentionally drew near in proximity to us so that we’d grow in our desire to do the same for others.
In a similar fashion, a man named Will was present enough to notice when a co-worker needed support; he explained simply: “I filled in for someone at work on my day off after church. I gave my boss the grace bomb card and explained what it meant. He thought it was pretty cool.” Filling in for someone. Here, even for a day, Will was close enough to the action that he opened himself up to opportunities that allowed him to give the gift of time, in this case walking a day in his co-worker’s shoes.
When we take the steps of faith to find someone or fill in for someone, those are ways of saying, “I am here and I care.” When we live like this we mimic Jesus who saw us in our need, took our place when in mattered the most, and sets us free to go and do the same. Families like the one sitting in my office are all around you – when you see them, get in it with them, and flesh out the hope that is in you.