It’s a wonder and a mystery that God uses frail human flesh to communicate divine love to the world in Jesus Christ.
It was a gutsy thing for David to say, through the prophet Nathan: “Lord, I want to build you a house.”1
Just imagine building a house for God. What ever-loving audacity!
Does David really think for a moment that the Highest God — creator of the heavens and the earth, chooser of the chosen people Israel, giver of the Law, maker and keeper of the covenant, inspirer of the prophets — will submit to confinement within four walls of mortar and stone?
As David soon learns, setting up shop in a house — even one richly appointed in marble and cedar and gold — is not God’s plan at that time.
God’s plan for a dwelling-place turns out to be stranger and more remarkable than anything David could have imagined. When the Lord says in response, “I will build you a house,” what God means is that the House of David — not any building, but the king’s descendants — will become the place where God dwells.2 The Lord rejects the temple of wood and stone, choosing instead the temple of flesh and blood.
It seems a remarkable choice to us because we know how impermanent human flesh is. If you’ve ever visited an old cemetery — one dating back to before the time of concrete burial vaults — you know this to be true. The headstones remain — moss-covered, perhaps, the crispness of their letters softened by the passing seasons — but the ground in front of them is sunken because, under the ground, the bodies are gone. They’ve been absorbed by the earth.
The flesh disappears in time, but the stone is the closest thing to forever, in the human imagination.
If you ever have an opportunity to visit Scotland’s Orkney Islands, you’re likely to visit a Stone Age archaeological site known as Skara Brae. It’s on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Skara Brae is one of the most important archaeological sites in all the world, but few get to see it because it’s so far off the beaten track. Here’s how it came to be discovered.
The people of the largest of the Orkney Islands, the one called Mainland, had long known about an earthen mound that sat on its west coast, not far from the beach. Anyone who took a moment to compare it to the surrounding countryside would have figured out that human beings had a hand in its construction. Yet, it was not until the year 1850, when a fierce winter storm attacked the coast and stripped the top off that earthen mound, that the Orcadian people learned what lay beneath.
What the storm revealed was a perfectly preserved Neolithic fishing village of 10 stone-walled huts. The roofs of the huts — probably made of wood or thatch — had long since disappeared. But inside the huts was furniture made of stone: beds and shelves and benches and fire pits. Once the archaeologists came along and carefully removed the remaining sand, the huts of Skara Brae looked very much as their inhabitants had left them.
What makes Skara Brae so important is its age? The village was first occupied over 3,000 years before Christ. That makes those simple stone huts older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids of Egypt.
This becomes very clear when you visit the place, because of something clever the Scottish monuments people have done with a rather mundane feature: the footpath from the visitors’ center to the ancient village. They’ve measured the length of this pathway and marked it out as a timeline, beginning in the present era and working back through history.
The first marker you see indicates the American moon landing in 1969. You pass, in turn, other markers, indicating other historical milestones. Back through history you walk, through two World Wars, through the reign of Queen Victoria, through the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution, and still, you’re a long way off from your destination. Further on you go, through the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, and the Magna Carta of 1215, and the Viking attacks on Western Scotland in the 800s, and a bit further on to the fall of the Roman Empire. By the time you come to the birth of Jesus Christ and realize you’re still not halfway there, it begins to dawn on you how unspeakably ancient this place is.
By now, the historical markers are getting fewer and farther between. The Exodus from Egypt is 1300 B.C. or thereabouts, the raising of the megaliths of Stonehenge around 2200 B.C. and the construction of the pyramids of Egypt, 2700 B.C. But the pathway keeps going. Going the linear equivalent of 300 years more, you finally come to the buildings of Skara Brae.
As you tour the ancient stone huts, looking over those stone beds and benches and fire pits, a question comes to mind: Where are the people? What happened to the remains of those people who constructed the place, who lived in it, who birthed and fed and raised the children?
Of them, not a trace remains. Five thousand years of history have a way of erasing every hint of the organic material that was their bodies. In historical terms, human flesh is so fragile and transitory! But the stones, dug from the ground and carved and laid one atop the other — the stones endure.
Is it any wonder that King David wanted to have done with the canvas and the rope and the tent pegs of the tabernacle and, in their place, construct for his God a massive house of stone? If God is eternal, then surely it is fitting that the houses we fashion for the Almighty must share some of the same attributes!
When you consider all this, it starts to become clear what a scandal is this Christian doctrine at the heart of Christmas, this doctrine we call the Incarnation. The gospel writer John puts it succinctly: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us ... full of grace and truth.”3
What possible business does the eternal Word — the Logos of God — have, becoming human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ? And how should it happen that, of all people for God to choose to become the bearer of this child, it should be Mary? Mary, that mere slip of a teenaged girl, betrothed to Joseph — a hardworking craftsman, to be sure, but still a nobody within the great sweep of human history!
Not only that, but there’s the literal scandal that erupts as soon as Mary comes back to her people with this wild tale of a visitation by an angel and her commissioning by the Holy Spirit to bear the child of God! When news of Mary’s pregnancy reaches Joseph, he very nearly breaks off the engagement. That would have had dire consequences for the baby’s survival, let alone his mother’s. God must send a second angel to speak to Joseph in a dream, to convince this very righteous man that, for once, doing the righteous thing according to the law may not be the most loving thing.
And so it goes, even today. Look at the things we build in our society that are meant to endure. We still have a love affair with stone, in that regard, but to that we add metallurgy — steel and aluminum — and the plastics that won’t decay, even when buried in a landfill for a thousand years.
In the years 1972 and 1973, our nation launched a series of probes into outer space, the most important ones called Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11. Knowing these space probes had the potential of making it out beyond our solar system, soaring silently onward into the deepest recesses of space, the scientists at NASA figured they had an obligation to say something about who we are, this people who had created that technology. If some alien race, dwelling on some world yet undreamed of, should take possession of one of the Pioneer probes, what should we tell them about our greatest achievements as a race?
A committee of scientists, led by the astronomer Carl Sagan, set to work. They decided on a plaque of anodized aluminum, with certain images carved into it. There was a picture of the spacecraft itself, with nude figures of a man and a woman standing in front of it — drawn to scale, so the extraterrestrials would be able to tell how big we are. Then, there was a series of lines and symbols, meant to communicate information about where in the Milky Way Galaxy our planet Earth is located.
If that message is ever read by alien creatures, it’s not likely to be for a very, very long time. By the time either of those slow-moving spacecraft reaches even the nearest star to our solar system, no fewer than 40,000 years will have passed. Where will humans be then, when only 5,000 years now separate us from our Stone Age ancestors who constructed the fishing huts on Skara Brae?
There are some things in this universe that last. Anodized aluminum is one of them — or so Carl Sagan and his band of scientists figured. Funny, but God seems to have very different priorities. When God resolved to send a message to humans, God chose to speak not in anodized aluminum — nor even in the proud stones of a temple built eventually by David’s son Solomon — but in the very perishable stuff of human flesh!
That message was first heralded by the angel who announced to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be holy....”
Later, the author of the letter to the Hebrews would describe this wonder in more theological terms:
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”4
It’s a strange and beautiful thing God has done, sending the message of salvation to us templed in flesh! So many things could have gone wrong with this plan! Eventually, of course, something did, as cruel and evil men took the human body of Jesus of Nazareth, this frail flesh that embodied the message from God, and whipped it and beat it and hung it high on a cross.
There he died. And there, it seemed to his followers for a few brief days, the message itself had failed. Yet, as we all know, on the third day Jesus rose again, and God’s living Word continues to speak.
Seeking to describe in poetic terms this wonder of the Incarnation, the hymn writer Charles Wesley came up with these words. They’re part of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased in flesh with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see....” “Godhead” is, of course, an old expression for the Trinity. But a veil? A veil is that filmy substance we can see through only with difficulty, as in a bridal veil.
When people looked to Jesus in his own time, all too many of them failed to discern the message sent from God. They saw only a human being, like any other. Those of us who have heard the Good News and can marshal the Spirit-inspired imagination to see beyond the veil will be rewarded with a message from God that is of infinite depth and complexity yet summed up in the simple declaration that he is Lord of all and the Savior of each one of us.
Let us ponder this wonder of wonders, as we recall the announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary, of the miracle soon to come into existence in her own frail and very human flesh!
1 2 Samuel 7:1-3.
2 2 Samuel 7:11-16.
3 John 1:14.
4 Hebrews 1:1-3.