Much of our worship seems to reject the incarnation. Karl Barth, when writing to address the growing atheist movement in the early part of the 20th century, answered their criticism that ‘there is no such thing as a God up there’ with the words, ‘quite right.’ He reminded the church that we don’t believe in a God like that either. The only God we know of is the one who came to meet us, who asked us to call him, Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ That has not changed.
The incarnation is not only a story for Christmastime, it is the foundation of all our God-speaking and God-living. The only God we know is the one who came to meet us.
Yet, many of our contemporary worship songs seem to step all around acknowledging the primary place where God has made himself known in our world, in Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, they talk about loving Jesus, serving and surrendering to Jesus. But as far as letting Jesus be our window to the heart of God, not so much. More than that, they also reject what we could call God’s secondary place for revealing himself. People are made in the image of God. People form the body of Christ. People are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Yet can you think of a single contemporary worship song that enables us to express our belief and experience that God resides in the people singing alongside us, or even the ones who didn’t bother to come and sing?
Instead we push God further away. We don’t seem comfortable with the idea that God is in us, and in other messy, wayward people. So we try a different route. Instead of Immanuel, we get,
‘God of wonders beyond our galaxies’ – God of wonders
‘We could try to count the stars
You already know them each by name’ – King of wonders
‘From the highest of heights to the depths of the sea
Creation’s revealing Your majesty’ – Indescribable
Not a close God, but a bigger, further-away God. This fascination with finding God in nature seems to come at the expense of encountering God within fallen humanity (which is where he asks us to look the hardest). Note it is only ever the glorious parts of creation that are said to speak of God. No one is writing songs about oil-spills. We’re being mighty selective about where God can be found. Where does that leave us when our lives look more like an oil-spill than a sunset? Is God still with us?
This last song, ‘Indescribable’ goes on to make a familiar-sounding claim in the chorus.
‘All powerful, untameable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God’
We are fascinated by the power of God. Perhaps because we cannot experience it in our own lives, we push it out into the galaxies, the mountains and the sunsets. We sing ‘above all else’ and ‘glory in the highest’, seemingly unaware of the God who ‘emptied himself and became nothing.’ The incarnation was not a phase that God went through. The Spirit of that same self-emptying Jesus is the one who resides within each follower now. And yes, this Jesus is now glorified with the Father, but by his Spirit he is also still up to his armpits in the muck of human pain and degradation. Perhaps we cannot experience the power of God in our lives because we are looking for the wrong sort of power. Perhaps God is closer than we are willing to believe. Perhaps God is still letting this world crucify him in order that he might still redeem it from its brokeness and corruption. Maybe the lamb that was crucified before the foundation of the earth will be crucified until after it is gone. And this story plays out in the life of every person who loves him. Paul claims that he is crucified with Christ. It is not an event, so much as an ongoing reality. The Christian life has been said to be ‘cruciform’ or cross-shaped.
While we keep writing our songs about a big, powerful God whose going to help us live big, powerful lives, I think Jesus stands out in the foyer, inviting us to become little and childlike again. God is not going to win this world from the top down, but from the bottom up.