I’m guessing the title of this blog post will mean 50% less readership today. Apologies for the double use of what is clearly a church-speak word, but, well, sometimes you just have to use church words. Incarnation is one of those church words that I just can’t help but use.
The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines incarnation as “(From Lat. in, “in,” and caro, carnis, “flesh”) The doctrine that the eternal second Person of the trinity became a human being and “assumed flesh” in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ was the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14). The doctrine holds that Jesus was one divine person with both a divine and a human nature. (140)
Which means that the title of this post is not actually a correct usage of the theological term “incarnate,” but my guess is that nobody would have clicked on a link that read, “Pre-Incarnation Theophany”.
Theophany, again according to WDTT, is “(From Gr. theos, “God,” and phainesthai, “to appear”) An appearance of God that is perceptible to human sight (eg. Ex. 33:17-23). Another example is this Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the calling of Jeremiah. It begins as a theophony, a word I’ve made up that means an experience of God that is perceptible to human ears, with the LORD speaking a commission to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
After Jeremiah balks a bit, “I am only a boy,” God gets down and dirty, showing up on earth (a pre-incarnation incarnate experience of God) and touches Jeremiah’s mouth and says, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” It is a scene that is reminiscent of the calling of Isaiah and his protest, “I am a man of unclean lips,” but in Isaiah’s case, he doesn’t get God himself, but rather a Seraph from the throne of God.
All of this has me wondering again about a question posed by a parishioner a few weeks ago. The gist of it was, “What’s the deal with all the physical appearances of God in the Old Testament?” As Christians, we believe that the Incarnation was a transitional event in human history. That the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth, was born, lived, and died as one of us is the linchpin in salvation history, but it isn’t an exclusive happening. God is present in the Garden. He is seen on his throne in Isaiah’s calling. Jeremiah is touched by the hand of God. Moses saw the back of God. Elijah experiences God in the still small voice.
The crux of it is that God has been making himself known throughout history. Again and again, he has through theophony and theophany attempted to bring his people back. Again and again, they went their own way. And so, ultimately, God moved from theophany to incarnation, and salvation came to all. The tenacity of God’s love is good news, even if being called as a prophet meant hard living. Today, I’m grateful for pre-incarnation incarnate experiences of God.