Discover the vulnerable God this Christmas

by Richard on December 21, 2012

Christmas message from Mark Wakelin, President of Conference

I was asked once by a well-known broadcaster, ‘do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?’ I replied, as you do, by asking him, ‘it depends on what you mean by, ‘Son of God.’  His reply shook me because he then said, ‘It’s a perfectly simple question, ‘Is Jesus Christ the Son of God?’ My own thought was immediately, ‘I wonder which bit of ‘Son of God’ he is finding simple?’

I presume he meant do I believe in a literal way? But that is hardly simple. Literal language is OK for baked beans and possibly sunsets, but it gets a bit thin when talking about most of the things that really matter such as love, sadness and wonder. It runs out of steam totally when talking of God. You can’t say anything literal about God! 

I was once in an argument about the new hymn book (I am afraid I get a bit grumpy about some of the alterations to ancient poems that we make and think that our desire to modernise the old is a little like the Christians who wanted to cover the modesty of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel). My colleague disliked the word ‘ineffable’ because he felt no one would understand it. There is a certain irony in that as you can imagine! Given that ‘ineffable’ basically means something we can’t understand, I would have thought it was a useful word to hang on to if we also want to talk about God. God is ‘ineffable’ – and that’s the point. 

That’s the point of Christmas. How does God communicate with us when words are not adequate? How can we even try to talk of God when literal language so lets us down? God’s answer is, of course, the ‘self sending’ – of a God who in Charles Wesley’s words is, ‘contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’ What we can ever understand of God has to begin by taking account of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Who is written about in Colossians 1:15: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ and verse 19: ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.’ 

The ‘Word’ is God, says John. Now this isn’t simple language either, but it directs you a kind of struggle to understand that is different from, for example, trying to get your head around Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity! Because it is truth revealed and held in a person, understanding and engaging with that truth is as much about love and obedience as it is about intellectual capacity and linguistic dexterity. We are not so much asked to assent to a philosophical or religious claim, ‘yes I agree that Jesus is the Son of God,’ but inhabit a story, the Christmas story, to live within ancient tale of human struggle and courage, of wonder and delight, of mystery and of angels declaring good news. Children get this much more easily than adults who want the whys and the wherefores of an extraordinary story which is far more than an odd biological claim on the Universe.

Do I believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Of course, wonder of wonders, ‘Let earth and heaven combine, angels and men agree, to praise in songs divine the incarnate deity.’ I inhabit this ancient story and find it to be true. Wrapped in our clay we may not immediately recognise the creator of all things. But it is our life task, to discover a vulnerable God who is on a mission to finish the ‘new creation’ and is looking for followers.

Happy Christmas!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Bob Gilston 12.21.12 at 10:19 am

“How does God communicate with us when words are not adequate?”

We have trouble enough communicating with each other! Hardly anyone uses a computer at Caergwrle so the only way they’ll get to see Mark Wakelin’s letter is if it’s printed out. I’ve put it in our notices for this Sunday because everyone needs to read it.

“But it is our life task, to discover a vulnerable God who is on a mission to finish the ‘new creation’ and is looking for followers.”

And how to communicate that message? A life task!

2

Richard 12.21.12 at 2:32 pm

I’m sure that’s a wider issue than just Caergwrle: there must be a significant proportion of Methodist congregations that don’t really do computers. And of those that do, I’m guessing it is only a minority that have signed up for this sort of communication from the Connexion.

Mind you, it’s probably always been true that taking an interest in connexional stuff is a minority interest. At least it is possible now for the person in the pew to receive these things if they want to.

3

Kim 12.21.12 at 11:05 pm

You can’t say anything literal about God!

Overall I take the point of the message, but let’s not go overboard here. The Christmas message is that “God is incarnate in Jesus”, and I take that quite literally. Wakelin isn’t one of those The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) types for whom the incarnation is a “mythological or poetic way of expressing his (i.e. Jesus’) significance for us”, is he?

4

Richard 12.22.12 at 7:34 am

No, he’s anything but that! As, I think, the rest of the piece makes clear. But he’s right that talk about God always strains language to bursting. You know I agree with you that your apparently straightforward “God is incarnate in Jesus” is ‘literally true’, but think about what that means and it isn’t long before the buttons start popping you find you can’t get the zip up!

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