The whole thing is just overwhelming. Jesus’ instructions to “say, ‘we are worthless slaves’” probably weren’t meant to sound dreadful but they do to me. The sum total of faith is to say that I’m a worthless slave? Dear God! Pair this with Habakkuk and it’s too much. Habakkuk asks God why there is so much evil in Judah. God replies, “Hey, you think what you can see is bad? You should see what I see. So, yeah, I am sending the Chaldeans to destroy Judah.” The Chaldeans’ up and coming kingdom was a living example of internal wickedness, like Judah. So, Habakkuk struggles with this news. “I guess you’re punishing us,” he says. As he thinks about it, he says, “The Chaldeans are as unjust as the Judeans.” He pushes back. “Are you really going to let some wicked people win just to punish other wicked people? How is that justice?” God lets Habakkuk chew on that one. Habakkuk says, “I’ll wait for an answer that makes sense.”
Finally, God says, “I think you’re ready now.” And God gives Habakkuk a vision, a revelation, so powerful that Habakkuk pronounces woes upon all the wicked, so inspiring that Habakkuk expresses confidence in his faith, and so complete that Habakkuk sings praise to God with a joy that can sustain Habakkuk even as Judah crumbles around him. And the guy doesn’t bother to write down what it was! He doesn’t even give us a hint. And the thing is, without this vision, we’re stuck with Habakkuk’s question, “How is this just?”
We require some sort of intervention from God in order for this story to be good news. The same is true of the gospel story. Jesus tells us that if we had any faith we could use it to perform superfluous gardening tricks, and then tells us that we should regard ourselves as worthless slaves. Yeah, great advice, Jesus. I have to use my own hands to plant trees, and I struggle with my sense of self-worth enough as it is. We need an intervention. Something on the order of Habakkuk’s revelation, or the “appearing” that is described in Second Timothy. The author urges Timothy to join in suffering for the gospel, which, unless Timothy is a masochist, Timothy isn’t going to do. But the author reminds us of the boundless grace “revealed through the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who abolished death and brought light and immortality to light.” This “appearing” is sufficient to Timothy. It is the reality of the incarnation to him. The incarnation of God in Christ Jesus is what makes it all doable.
Incarnation is (among other things) a way of saying that God was present in Jesus, and God is present in Christ’s brothers and sisters now. When we confess that we believe in the incarnation, we acknowledge that we need someone to reach into our lives and help us. Without incarnation, life becomes, “Hey, Tim! Suffer with me!” “We are worthless slaves.” “You think things are bad? Try seeing what God sees!” It’s like being stuck in depression. People tell you, “Oh, just pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” or “You’re too young to be depressed.” Nope. It doesn’t work that way.
I was diagnosed with dysthymia—chronic, low-grade depression—when I was 24. I was an intern at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Warwick, Rhode Island, loving every minute of it and absolutely miserable. I would come home and crawl under the covers, refuse to go out, was usually irritable, often despised the things that I loved doing to pass time, slept poorly at night and needed naps in the day, couldn’t concentrate. And I just assumed this was normal, because I was always like this. It just got exacerbated by the stress of being a student pastor. It got pushed to the breaking point. So, one day, I was in the office and my supervisor, Dennis, and the secretary, Jan, shut the doors and started talking to each other about me. “Do you think Tim’s depressed?” “Oh yeah.” I realized this was like an intervention. They convinced me to look at some information when I got home. It listed some symptoms. Have you had five or more of these eleven symptoms… I’ve had, let’s see, ten of them. Yeah, that’s more than five. …for more than two weeks. Let’s see, I’m 24…so, yeah.
That was the beginning of a new phase in life. I was pointed to a congregation member who could point me to a therapist, who could help me and schedule me with a psychiatrist who could prescribe something that would help. And it worked. I’m very lucky, it worked perfectly and right away, and it doesn’t for everyone. I transformed over the second half of internship. (In fact, I swear to god, I started medication the weekend of the Transfiguration that year, and it felt like just as the real Jesus was shining through on the mountain, the real Tim was finally starting to come out.) When I got back to seminary, professors were asking my friends, “Why are Tim’s teeth showing so much?” And they’re like, “He’s smiling.” “Does he do that?” “Apparently.” I’m pretty certain that I couldn’t have been a pastor—wouldn’t have made it to the end of internship—without Dennis and Jan intervening. I suspect I would have a hard time doing anything. Dennis and Jan were the presence of God in my life. In them, God was incarnate in my life.
God is incarnate in this little saying of Jesus’. It’s just hard for 21st Century people to see it. Jesus talks about slavery. There’s no avoiding that this is a passage used to legitimate slavery in America. And I’m not here to talk about that except to say that Jesus also seems to have opposed slavery, so I don’t think he meant this as a legitimating story. Rather, he knew his audience. In Jesus’ world, slavery existed, and was part of the social order of patrons and clients. Everyone had a patron, who protected you, made sure you were fed, and gave you access to power. Even Caesar (who claimed to be a god) had a patron in Jupiter, the top god. As a client, you spoke well of your patron, paid his debts, refused to testify against him in court, and so on. Slavery put one into forced clientage, but there was always a hope (and a societal ideal) that you would be freed, because a free client brings more prestige than an enslaved client.
Anyway, the point is, that for Jesus’ contemporaries, this was life. This was all day, every day. You couldn’t function without it. Today, having no patron or no client would be like having no money, no phone, no transport, and no photo ID. Christians were wacky not because they avoided patronage: they didn’t, because it would’ve been unthinkable. Christians were wacky because their patron was the crucified Christ. If you were Christian, you were a slave of Christ Jesus, who would on the Last Day free you. This was something the early Christians understood. God was just as incarnate to early Christians thinking of themselves as obedient slaves to a good master, as God was incarnate to a 24-year-old depressed pastoral intern in Warwick, RI. In a world that seemed overwhelming, the notion that you were the client of the almighty patron was good news.
The world can seem overwhelming. When you’re suffering from depression, life is overwhelming. Whether the depression is brought on by grief or trauma, it’s postpartum, or it’s genetic, it sucks the life out of you and controls your thoughts. You need the incarnation. You need God present and helpful in your life, as people who care for you. And you don’t have to be depressed for life to be overwhelming. There is no reason to believe that the disciples, the prophet Habakkuk, or St. Timothy suffered from depression, but each faced an overwhelming world. Each needed the incarnation: a gracious master, a vision from God, the death and resurrection of Christ.
The scandal of the incarnation in Jesus’ day was that our patron was crucified. The scandal of the incarnation today is that we receive help at all. Our culture preaches self-reliance and self-sufficiency as though they were God’s commandments. For most of my life, I avoided getting help because I thought I would violate those unwritten rules, and it would mark me as “weak.” The incarnation changed that. I’m not saying, “And now, I am perfect.” I’m saying, “And now I know I’m not perfect and I don’t need to be. We’re all going to work together.” I am reminded repeatedly of this. We’re getting started on conversations about Stewardship, and when I am alone with my thoughts I’m thinking, “What am I gonna do?” but then the team meets, and I realize, “I’m not going to do anything alone. I’ve got good folks with me and we’ll do it together.” Or I will wonder, “Who is going to take care of everything and everyone around here?” And I’ll see our members working, visiting each other and caring for each other, and be like, “Oh. Right. We all do.” Or I will miss my Uncle, and wonder how to get by without losing it, and suddenly Jane or Audrey is there wanting to hug and wanting to talk about how they miss him, too. And it isn’t overwhelming. Because God’s here.