At least forty-five years ago I came across a poem that has had a profound impact upon me to this day. It was written by Edwin Muir who died in 1959, he was raised and lived in the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland. The poem has the title “The Incarnate One” and the lines that impressed themselves so powerfully on me were these “The Word made flesh is here made word again.”
The poem goes on to criticize John Calvin in a devastating (and in many peoples view), an unkind way, indicating that in Calvin’s mind and writings God became “three angry letters in a book, and there the logical hook on which the Mystery is impaled and bent into an ideological instrument.” I suspect it was not so much Calvin but some of his followers that accomplished that terrible tragedy, and not wittingly either. So often a godly leader suffers much from his unwise followers.
Yes, doubtless Edwin Muir found the church in his area to be a barren place, cold and dead and the warmth of Jesus the Incarnate One, the Mystery Himself not present. Instead mere words, correct, assertive, harsh doctrine had replaced the reality of “the Word made flesh”(John 1:14). I am sure that the problem of the “the word being made word again” is an ever present danger to we who claim to know Christ Jesus as Lord. It appears to me that whilst in so many places the churches strive for relevance and effectiveness in the market place of the materialistic world in which we live we run risk of degenerating into mere words. The word must be made flesh in our generation.
This remains the central reality and heart of our calling. How seldom we ever hear any prayers being uttered, any songs being sung where we travel, songs and prayers in which a great heart cry rises up, “Oh to be like Jesus.” It had been a long time since I heard a song being sung that had the central theme, “Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in Me,” though I did hear it being sung in a conference recently and as I looked around I could see in the faces of those singing such a strong desire that their prayer be answered. Perhaps we can say that the apostle Paul was the greatest interpreter of Christianity the world has ever known. Ninety seven times in his epistles he uses the phrase “in Christ.” He is possessed with that reality, he is ‘in Christ’ and seldom or indeed never does he use phrases like ‘following Jesus,’ ‘near Christ,’ ‘believing in Jesus’ or ‘committed to Christ.’
This is significant. To Paul ‘in’ clearly was not merely positional, it related to the intimacy of relationship with the Divine Person Jesus into which he had entered; Jesus was his home, his past, present and future. Christ was his life, truly his all, in all and the secret of his continuance in every circumstance and situation he encountered. Christ was his glory, and his greatest desires Paul summed up in the well-used words, “that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings being made conformable to His death” (Philippians 3:10). ‘Conformable’ is a strong word, to be made like Him, molded in the same image. Paul knew he must be, in his generation, a living sign, made in the image of Christ and after His likeness, a continuation of the incarnation.
I am sure that Christ Jesus is His own defense. Christ Jesus rises above all the labels we adopt, ‘conservative evangelical,’ ‘emergent church,’ ‘mainstream denominations,’ and ‘charismatic Christian.’ Something in us should cry out, “Oh Lord Jesus please save us from our tendencies to unmake You and all You have done into mere words.” The more we learn to love Christ Jesus, to know Him and live ‘in Him’ the more disinterested we shall be in contemporary versus traditional church music and the fads and fashions that pass so boringly through the churches. Christ towers above these pettifogging sideshows, for that is all they are. They come for a while and disappear and all that remains of them is what was (often the little) of Christ in them. Yet so many of us chase the elusive holy grail of ‘being an effective church’ by adopting this or that technique.
What this world has always needed has been the Word made flesh and dwelling in the midst of it. To His Old Testament people God sent his prophets. He had given them law, written on tablets of stone, that law had impacted their national life for short periods and they had been a blessed nation in the midst of the nations but the underlying problem of being ‘in Adam’ always reasserted itself. Law and prophets, regulations and burning preachers only accomplished limited and temporary change and so there was but one way to break the cycle of sin and failure, the Word must become flesh. There must be incarnation; there is no technique that can ever compare with the Word become flesh.
We live in a world in flux, ever changing and offering its panaceas to cure souls and yet towering over all, to those who have eyes to see, is the One Unchangeable Person, He Who is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). God sent Him two thousand years ago. If we want to know what God is like, take a long look at Jesus. God is like Jesus! God has been sending His Son through the centuries since; this is the real calling of the church, it should be the living sign of God. Its life, its love, its hate, its purity, its internal relationship between brothers and sisters in the family of God, its whole existence being a continuing living testimony because Christ is in the midst and in the flesh of His body He is seen, the likeness is evident, the word is being made flesh.
I am convinced that Jesus Himself is the unfolding and emerging miracle of relevancy. I become relevant to people as I press on to know Him, love Him, am in vital daily fellowship with Him, enjoying Him means that I enjoy all that is in Him and I find that all things are in some amazing way ‘in Him.’ All things cohere together, everything ‘fits’, and in Him I find that God is for me and not against me. This should be the testimony of the saints of God, ‘the saints,’ not in the sense of special people, but the ‘saints’ in the way Paul used the word, to all who had been “washed, sanctified, justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God” I Corinthians 6:11).
Formerly they had been fornicators and idolaters and whole lot of other things (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) but now they were called ‘saints’ (1 Corinthians 1:2). For a while, in Corinth, the word had become flesh in these people, they had been transformed by the power of Christ Jesus and He was in them, but they were racked with schisms and argument, immature and not growing in Christ, the word was becoming word again. It is all too possible to slip into word only, tradition rules and not Christ Jesus ever the same but ever new! Christ unfolds from age to age, yet He changes not! It may be that the church has forgotten He Who is its life! So the stiff wineskins remain and the wine is long gone.
They retain the shape of what filled them in yesteryear and are now relatively empty of He Who filled them so wonderfully and if Christ should come and be poured in freshness the old rigid wineskin shall not be able to receive Him and shall burst. The more we see in Him, the more we shall see that there is to be seen. He is inexhaustible. Knowing Him, seeing Him will mean that the church cannot long remain in schism and argument, the heart cannot long retain bitter thoughts and unforgiving attitudes, all this must go, it does not belong, love reigns where Christ dwells. We should listen to a suggestion Mahatma Gandhi gave to some missionaries in India “I would suggest that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ.” He made a further suggestion or two, “that you practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down; practice it as it is and emphasize love and make it your working force for love is central in Christianity.”
We know that Gandhi, though he was sympathetic to the Person of Jesus, he remained a Hindu to the end of his days but in these remarks he was surely on the mark. He is basically saying to us Christians, the word must become flesh in you. We must remember that Jesus came armed with one weapon and with that He destroyed the enemies of God and of man soul, His weapon was love and He was and is the Word become flesh. He was stunned by the hardness of heart that still remained in the hearts of those disciple men with whom He surrounded Himself. They had been with him for several years but still did not understand what He was saying and He attributed it to their incipient hardness (Mark 6:52). I like the way that Luke begins his book of Acts when he refers to the former book he had written (his gospel) about “all that Jesus had begun to do and teach” (Acts 1:1).
Notice that he says ‘began’ inferring that what he is going to write about now (the book of Acts), is what Jesus is continuing to do and teach, albeit through His body (His flesh) on earth, the church! Yes, there is no doubt that in that book we see the vibrancy of the word being made flesh in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost part of the then known world (Acts 1:8). It begins on the day of Pentecost when the church is born in Jerusalem and the book ends with Paul in Rome living Christ, receiving those who came to him and sharing with them the generosity of God (Acts 28:30-31).
Perhaps you have noticed the order of the words “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” not “teach and do.” Therein lies the heart of everything, let the word become flesh in the way the church lives together as a microcosm of the kingdom of God upon earth, let the world look on and say, “behold how the Christians love one another” and hopefully they might add “and us also.” What we DO always speaks louder than what we SAY, at least in the final analysis. What Jesus said was first operative in His own life and so it must be with us. He emptied Himself, took upon Him the form of a servant, this was the Word becoming flesh and pitching His tent among us. Should our life be any different? This is a far cry from the concert hall church scene with its slick presentations of a superficial psychologised gospel. “Show me where the Christians live” should be the cry of the world in its dreadful lost ness.
Do we, the church, need to empty ourselves as never before and take upon us the form of a servant and so be sent into the world? Remember the story of Elisha found back in the Old Testament. God had graciously given a child to a woman from a village called Shunem, what a gift to a woman who had formerly been barren and to her husband. However, the child died and she sent for Elisha who sent his servant Gehazi on ahead and gave him his staff instructing him to “lay my staff upon the face of the child” (2 Kings 4:29) but there was “neither voice nor hearing” when Gehazi did so. Maybe that is like so many in this world who lie in spiritual slumber and death. We lay the word upon them, the ‘staff’ of power and word and there is neither voice nor hearing.
Then, as the story goes, Elisha arrived, closed the door upon himself and the dead boy and prayed unto the Lord and at least twice lay upon the child putting his mouth to his mouth and his eyes to his eyes and his hands upon his hands and stretched himself upon the child and the child opened his eyes and sneezed seven times and opened his eyes (2 Kings 4:34-35). We could say that this is a powerful picture of what the church must be, incarnation leads to a profound identification. Jesus did not come with powerful sermons and multitudes of words but He laid Himself upon us in our death, mouth to mouth, eye to eye, hand to hand and stretched Himself upon the cross that He become one with us and give us life. This is the Word become flesh and the church must follow on and do likewise.
Years ago I heard a memorable story about a man and his son. What a joy it is, when the children or grand children go to bed, to sit them on our knees and read a story to them. This particular father did this and his son enjoyed one story in particular, he wanted to hear it over and over again, each evening, the same story and the enterprising father decided to make a recording of it and play it to his son so he could do some other ‘vital’ things instead. To his surprise, having switched on and left his son listening to it some little while later his son left his bedroom found his father who said to him, “ what is wrong, it was the same story and my voice wasn’t it?” To which the son replied “Yes, but it does not put its arms around my neck.” This Jesus has done, He has taken us into His bosom, put His arms around our neck, this is incarnation and we, His people, are called to follow in that same pathway, the word must become flesh, there must be a continuance of incarnation.