Have you ever noticed that even the world understands how important the principle of incarnation is? When people are in distress, what they desperately want is the presence of one who is in authority. Whether they think of a politician, a sports league commissioner, a business executive, or a pastor, they want with them a person they think can bring order to the chaos and healing to the pain. That longing for the presence of authority is met ultimately and powerfully in the gospel of Jesus Christ. When God saw His image-bearers mired in the muck of their sin, enslaved by their selfishness and pride and idolatry, He Himself appeared in the person of His Son, to visit us in our distress, to share our sadness, to save us from our sin and misery. John writes, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” He tabernacled among us, He took up His residence here, He moved into the neighborhood and set up camp and unpacked His bags and pulled up a chair and made Himself at home. He became poor for our sakes. The Word of God, who was very God of very God (cf. 1:18), is Emmanuel, God with us.
But here’s the amazing thing: in the same way that the Father sent His Son, so the Son has sent us. In John 17:18, while praying to the Father, Jesus declares, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” The incarnation of Jesus Christ speaks volumes to the way that we should live our lives in this world. We are to be doing the work of ministry, both to those who are a part of the body of Christ and to those who are outside the body of Christ. And our ministry is to be characterized by the principle of incarnation. Putting it like that makes it sound so abstract: the principle of incarnation. But it’s the most concrete thing in the world, as concrete and real as the principle of gravity.
What, then, does incarnational living, incarnational ministry look like? How does the incarnation inform our ministry, and show us how to live in a broken and hurting world?
We take the initiative with people.
The incarnation is the shining example of what the whole Bible is at pains to put on display, what Jonah learned when he was rescued in the depths of the sea by a great fish: “Salvation is of the Lord.” The incarnation is God’s rescue mission. God saves sinners, ultimately, by coming into this world to live and die for them. God took the initiative in the incarnation. He did not wait for us to find Him. And as Jesus ministered on earth, while He certainly was reactive, He took the initiative – consider his ministry to the woman at the well, with Zaccheus, with Peter after His resurrection.
And so we too, like our Savior, are to take the initiative with people. People are hurting, they’re lonely, they’re crying inside for help, for someone to listen to them, for someone to care. And so we must take the initiative, especially with unbelievers. We must go where non-Christians are, and seek to strike up conversations about their lives, their destinies, their alienations. We must make every effort to understand them and their world and their way of thinking, so that we might engage them with the gospel. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, and so must we!
We must also to take the initiative with our fellow believers. It’s so easy to go our merry way, only focusing on ourselves and our own struggles, and to ignore completely the pain of brothers and sisters around us. To be sure, each of us has real struggles, and needs other people to be pursuing us. But we ought to be interrupting each other to find out how we can be ministering to/praying for each other.
We are willing to get deeply involved in others’ lives.
The second habit is closely related to the first – the incarnation doesn’t merely call us to take the initiative with people, but it makes us willing to get deeply involved in others’ lives. Paul sums it up in what he says to the Thessalonians: “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” What he’s saying is that ministry is about relationships – seeking not merely to bring the gospel to people, but doing that in the context of a deeply involved friendship, a commitment to knowing people, and being known, intimately. Where did John and Paul learn this, but from our Lord Jesus Christ, who was intimately involved with people throughout His ministry – not least His disciples.
This is where we need to be wise and very self-conscious about our use of technology: email, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram, or all the other forms of social media are amazing ways to connect us to others in ways we couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago. But do we use them as a cover for the fact that we don’t want and don’t have authentic relationships with living, breathing human beings?
It’s certainly a lot easier to relate to people completely online. Because what happens when we become involved in deep relationships with other people offline? Well, it’s like gardening; you get the flowers and vegetables, but you also get the dirt – you become involved in their dirt as well as their beauty! You see how this point is so closely related to the first – so often, the reason we don’t take the initiative with people is because we don’t want to get involved in people’s lives. We don’t want to have to deal with what we might find when we do. The reason we don’t ask questions about how people are doing is because we really don’t want to know – if we knew the truth, we might have to do something about it, we might have to get our hands dirty with their sin or their misery, we might have to inconvenience ourselves to do something about it.
But that’s exactly what Jesus did, isn’t it? He got His hands and His fingernails dirty with our grime, He inconvenienced Himself to the point of death to serve us. He didn’t minister from a distance, He didn’t keep an arm’s length distance – rather, He was intimately involved with our suffering and grief and sin. He knew what He was in for when He chose to become a man, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Ministry begins as you seek to know someone, becoming involved in their lives, and not shrinking back when you find the skeletons in the closet.
We recognize our limitations of time and space.
You’re very likely to think, “Caleb, I can’t do this with everyone!” I don’t have time, I don’t have the emotional or physical energy. I can’t take the initiative with everyone, I can’t be deeply involved with everyone, I can’t meet everyone’s physical and spiritual needs at all once! You’re right. And neither could Jesus. Sure, as God He could be everywhere and meet every need. But He became fully man as well when He came to our world. He had the same 24 hours, the same physical body, He could only be in one place at a time. If He was in Samaria or Galilee, He wasn’t in Jerusalem. If He chose to speak to one person, He was making a conscious choice not to speak to someone else. He had to sleep, He had to work, He had to eat, He got exhausted, etc.
See the freedom this brings as we minister. Not freedom not to minister, but freedom to minister to some people around us without guilt that we aren’t ministering to everyone around us. Freedom to rest, rather than scurry trying to solve everyone’s problems. Freedom to invest yourself into a few people, rather than try to minister to everyone poorly. Jesus was limited in His human body and soul just like we are, and so He understands our limitations, and He doesn’t chide us for them. So let us minister where we are, while we are. Be with one person at a time, and when you’re with them, be with them, fully. Don’t think about all the people you’re not able to minister to at that time, but minister to the one you’re with.
Many of you can remember someone who ministered to you in this way, perhaps when you were in high school or college. That is certainly my own testimony. If you asked me what incarnational ministry looks like, my short answer would be a list of names: Craig Vanbiber and Rocky Rausch and Mac McCoy and Kevin Buchert and Lance Bourgeois and Clint Regen and Jerry Perret. These men were my youth ministers and youth leaders in high school. They entered into my life in the seventh grade, and stayed with me through my senior year in high school. They entered into all my adolescent awkwardness, all my confusion and pain stemming from my parents’ divorce, all my desire to know God and learn His Word and follow Him, all my youthful lusts and sinful idolatries. They listened to my struggles with my parents, with girls, with loneliness, with pride. They answered my questions about God and His Word. They taught me how to study the Bible, and how to live in a family, and how to be a friend. They came into my life and they let me into their lives, and I will never be the same because of them.
Whenever you meditate upon the birth of our Savior, ask yourself, is it transforming the way I minister to those around me? Has it made me more compassionate to those in need? Have you seen how the Lord has ministered to you, and do you want to minister like Him? May God make it so.