The missional nature of the Incarnation

Dec 4, 2017 by

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As I enter this Christmas season, I am reminded again and again of the ways in which we have co-opted the story of the birth of Jesus as another ploy to get people saved (lead people to jesus, get people to heaven, save souls, etc. whichever phrase you prefer to use for the transformation that occurs in the revelation that Jesus is Lord of the world and is working in the world to make it right). We miss out on many of the themes and nuances of the Christmas story when we can only see Jesus’ birth as the middle passage to Jesus’ soon-coming and saving death and resurrection. I was reminded of this as I was glancing through Facebook posts and one of the ads was a guide for the Christmas season on how to make the most of the services, in which whole families will be attending so that you can preach “the gospel.”

One interesting theme that I have always been reminded of in this season comes from my time in Lesotho. We talked in several different training sessions about how the most effective missionaries/mission workers/aid workers have been conscious of the home culture that they are entering. They immerse themselves in the language and culture, appreciating those things that are life-giving and not being too harsh toward those things that may not make sense to them. After all of those conversations, I began to realize how the incarnation (God coming as a human being into this world as the person of Jesus) reflected this idea. Rather than God coming as a king, overthrowing the Roman empire and starting his own kingdom with bloodshed and dominance, God becomes a human, specifically a Jew. God grows up in Jewish culture, language, meaning, symbol, etc. God moves through the world that God created with us as God’s image-bearers, learning what we think it means to be human and coming alongside us, showing us a new way to be human.

Then at the age of 30, God decides that he has enough learning and tradition to move forward in the streams of scriptural thought from the Old Testament that reflect those things that he has been trying to teach the Israelites since God made God’s covenant with Abraham. In the actions and teaching of Jesus, God explains how the Jews of the first century were missing the point (and by extension, we continue to miss the point often).

In that process, God realizes that this teaching and the traditions that precede it in the Old Testament is so radical and earth-shaking that the people in power will be threatened and are threatened. This idea of powerful people wanting to keep and maintain their power and privilege starts in the nativity with the story of Herod in Matthew and Caesar Augustus in Luke. Powerful people want to make sure that all threats are snuffed out right away, so Herod kills all the baby boys in Bethlehem and Caesar Augustus calls a census, which is a painful reminder to the Jews that they are still under the thumb of empire. They are not their own people because they are forced to move to their hometowns to register, which would disrupt any plans of insurrection or revolution from this small region on the eastern edge of the empire.

So where do we go with all of this? I don’t know. My initial thought has always been that we become incarnational and missional ourselves. We enter every situation as an opportunity to learn from other people (how they think, what makes them tick, how their experiences affect their everyday). In those moments, rather than seeking to change people and tell them how to be saved, we come alongside them in love and hope, calling each other to be and become more truly human. We sit and ask questions, putting away our schedules and our phones, focusing out attention and energy on another person. Have you done this recently? Really paid attention to the person sitting in front of you or beside you?

Randall Koehler is farmer, mechanic and youth minister at Metamora (Ill.) Mennonite Church. He writes at, where this post first appeared.

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