A danger lurks in our endeavors to live incarnationally. Danger, yes, but not deterrent. It is a risk worth taking, though not treating lightly.
The danger is that we can subtly begin to key on ourselves, rather than Jesus, when we think of what Christian mission is and what incarnation means. Over time we start to function as if Christian mission begins with, and centers on, our intentionality and relationality. What really excites us is not the old, old story, but our new strategies for kingdom advance. Almost imperceptibly we’ve slowly become more keen how we can copy Jesus than the glorious ways in which we can’t.
But thankfully the Advent season, and its annual buildup to Christmas Day, serves as an important periodic reminder that the most important part of the Christian mission isn’t the Christian, but the Christ.
Our little efforts at incarnational living, courageous and self-sacrificial as they may be, are only faint echoes of the world-altering, one-of-a-kind Incarnation of the very Son of God. And if Christian mission doesn’t flow from and toward the worship of the Incarnate One, we’re really just running round the hamster wheel.
Jesus Sends Us
Make no mistake about it, Christians are sent. Jesus prays to his Father in John 17:18, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” In identifying with Jesus, we are not only “not of this world,” but also sent right back into it on redemptive mission.
The classic text is Jesus’ commission at the end of John’s Gospel: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Those whom Jesus calls, he also sends — a sending so significant that receiving his “sent ones” amounts to receiving him. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (John 13:20).
Such a sending should be awe-inspiring, whether our particular sending includes a change in geography and culture, or simply a fresh realization and missional orientation on our lives and labors among our native people.
But what are we “sent ones” sent for? What is this sending about anyways? Merry Christmas.
Why We’re Sent
This is where the Advent reminder is so essential. We are sent as representatives of the one born in Bethlehem and crucified at Calvary. We are sent to announce with all we are — with mouth and mind and heart and hands — that the Father sent the Son.
We are sent to say and show that Jesus was sent into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus and the good news about him (2 Corinthians 4:5). We are not the message, but mere messengers.
Which means that Jesus’ sent status is in a class by itself. He was not only sent as the preeminent Messenger, but sent as the Message himself. Jesus’ “sentness” is primary and ultimate. Our sentness is at best secondary and derivative. Christmas is a reminder of the primacy of Jesus as the Sent One.
His Ultimate and Utterly Unique Sending
That the Father sent his Son to share fully in our humanity is no mere model for mission. It is at the very heart of the gospel which our mission aims to spread. Christian mission exists only because the Message still needs to be told.
Jesus’ mission is unrepeatable. His Incarnation is utterly unique. We are meager delegates, unworthy servants. The more attention we give to the ultimately inimitable condescension of the Son of God, the less the language of “incarnation” seems to apply to our measly missional efforts.
Whatever condescensions and sacrifices we embrace along the path of gospel advance, they simply will not hold a candle to the Light of the world and his divine stooping to take our humanity and endure the excruciating death on our behalf.
Because he was in the very form of God, Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).
Is there something here to mimic? Yes, in some distant sense. But in the main, this Incarnation is not about what we are to do, but about what has been done for us.
So before going on too long about our mission as Christians, let’s give due attention — the attention of worship — to the Jesus whose mission showed us God and accomplished our eternal salvation. The great missio Dei (mission of God) finds its most significant meaning in the Father sending of his own Son not only as the high point and center of the universe and all history, but also the very focus of eternal worship. Our sending, then, empowered by his Spirit, is to communicate and embody that central message, and so rally fellow worshipers.
Our Mission Echoes His
What is the place then, if any, for the talk and tactics of Christians living incarnationally? So far our plea has been that we not obscure the important distinction between Jesus’ matchless Incarnation as Message, and our little incarnational attempts at being his faithful messengers in word and deed.
But are there any applications to make?
Donald Macleod is perhaps as zealous as anyone that the unparalleled condescension of Jesus in the Incarnation not be obscured. Macleod’s book The Person of Christ (InterVarsity, 1998) is a Christological masterpiece, and his sixth chapter, simply called “The Incarnation,” is about as good as it gets. And while his record of uncompromising Christological reflection speaks for itself, this same author would have us imitate Jesus’ incarnational self-condescension. Macleod writes elsewhere:
[Jesus] did not, as incarnate, live a life of detachment. He lived a life of involvement.
He lived where he could see human sin, hear human swearing and blasphemy, see human diseases and observe human mortality, poverty and squalor.
His mission was fully incarnational because he taught men by coming alongside them, becoming one of them and sharing their environment and their problems.
For us, as individuals and churches in an affluent society, this is a great embarrassment. How can we effectively minister to a lost world if we are not in it? How can we reach the ignorant and the poor if we are not with them? How can our churches understanding deprived areas if the church is not incarnate in the deprived areas? How can we be salt and light in the darkened ghettos of our cities if we ourselves don’t have any effective contacts and relationships with the Nazareths of [our day]?
We are profoundly unfaithful to this great principle of incarnational mission.
The great Prophet came right alongside the people and shared their experience at every level.
He became flesh and dwelt among us.
(A Faith to Live By: Understanding Christian Doctrine, 139, paragraphing added)
Macleod believes the language stretches sufficiently. There’s enough elasticity to talk of our incarnational mission without obscuring Jesus’. But to do so, we need Advent’s reminder again and again.
The Centrality of Worship
Christmas reminds us that our life’s dominant note must not be our witness for Jesus, but our worship of Jesus.
Mission is a critical rhythm of the Christian life, an essential season of redemptive history. Our mission of extending Jesus-worship to others, local and global, should be a frequent check on the health of our own Jesus-worship. But mission for Jesus must never take the place of our worship of Jesus, lest the very mission become crudely distorted along with our own souls.
Our Eternal Theme: Worship, Not Mission
If the chief theme of our lives is not worshiping Jesus, enjoying God in him, and being freshly astounded by his grace toward us sinners, we have no good business endeavoring to bring others into an experience that we ourselves aren’t enjoying. And so it is not only the most missional among us, but all of us, who need reminding again and again, that mission “is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is.”
Year after year, Christmas summons us to think of ourselves as worshipers of Jesus much more than we think of ourselves as on-mission pastors, ministers, leaders, or laymen. May it be true of us this Christmas.
May Jesus, the Great Sent One, ever be central — mission included — and may the worship of the Incarnate One continually be the fuel and goal of our faint incarnational echoes.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for Desiring God and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities. He and his wife, Megan, have twin sons and live in Minneapolis. David has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and most recently Acting the Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification.
[This was originally posted at Desiring God.]