"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel, which means God with us."
Dorothy Sayers is known today by mystery lovers as the creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. They're still in print seventy years after she wrote them and hailed by critics as among the best in the genre. But what won her fame and infamy during her lifetime was a series of radio dramas, "The Man Born to be King." A series of twelve plays that she wrote about the life of Christ from birth to resurrection which generated thousands of letters of protest to the British Broadcasting Corporation. Full page ads were taken out in the paper criticizing Sayers work. It was even debated in Parliament. Why? What was the big controversy? What was so upsetting about Jesus on the airwaves? Well, if I told you that this controversy was generated this year in the United States you would probably figure that it had something to do with the separation of church and state—keeping God out of the public square.
A few years ago a Fort Worth newspaper included a review of the Rockettes Christmas special. The writer/reviewer was highly offended that Santa Claus had to share the stage with Jesus and a manger. This is what he wrote:
For the first hour and forty minutes the big budget review succeeds in entertaining and building holiday spirit. And then the tone changes rapidly. A recreation of the biblical Christmas story completely with live animals, wise men, and shepherds drags on for a good twenty minutes. An ominous voice narrates the entire story beginning with Isaiah's Old Testament prophecy with such seriousness that it turns preachy and overbearing. You almost expect the narrator to tell the Easter story and then read the book of Revelation. Had the stage been a church and its congregation had known what to expect, terrific. But to lure spectators of all faiths and no faith with the promise of an entertaining holiday review and then ambush them with the Christian theology is dated and offensive, especially at a time when understanding other cultures and beliefs is more important than ever.
The story of God became man
Don't you feel sorry for all those people who had to listen to twenty minutes of Jesus talk in a two-hour Christmas special? But the controversy I'm talking about today, "When God Came to the BBC," didn't take place in the United States in 2010. It took place in Britain decades ago. And what people found so upsetting was not just Jesus on the air but that Jesus sounded like a real person, a genuine, flesh-and-blood human being.
Dorothy Sayers was committed to telling the story of God incarnate, God in human flesh, and not God pretending to be a man, or God in disguise as a man for a little while, but the story of the God who became man. And she knew that some people were just not ready for that. In fact, the Lord Chamberlain of England had to make a special exception to a law that had been on the books since Puritan times forbidding the portrayal of any member of the Trinity on the stage. Sayers wrote: "People will be shocked, and rightly. We are prepared for our Lord to be born into the language of the Authorized Version or into stained glass or paint. We are not prepared for him to be incarnate."
And people never really have been ready for God incarnate. In the first century when the gospel was preached, sophisticated Romans mocked the idea of God becoming man. Oh, they had their stories. They had their myths about the gods visiting our planet in disguise as humans and maybe having a fling with human maidens but then winging their way back to Mount Olympus. But the real God becoming a real man? Preposterous. And then in the church one of the first heresies that Christianity had to deal with in those early centuries was Docetism—the doctrine or notion that Jesus only seemed to be a human being. The word docetism comes from a Greek word that means to seem. He wasn't really a man. God can't become a man. He only seemed to be a man.
I don't know if you've ever thought about it this way or not, but most heresies come from well-intended people who are trying to simplify things for us.
Does the doctrine of the Trinity boggle our minds? Well then let's get rid of the three-ness of God or the one-ness of God. You can have one God, but you can't have three Persons. And if you insist on three Persons, you must have three Gods. But there can't be one-ness and three-ness held together in the one Divine Being. That just numbs the brain. So you get all kinds of anti-Trinitarian heresies.
Does the doctrine of the incarnation blow your mind? Well then, get rid of the humanity of Jesus or the Deity of Jesus, but don't try to hold onto both in the same Person. He was either God or he was man, but you can't have it both ways. The idea that God could genuinely become a human being was just too much for people. If God wanted to become human, that's a big if, then why not skip infancy with its dirty diapers and colic? Why not skip adolescence with its acne and peer pressure? Why not skip the temptations of youth? And why not, if you want to become a man, God, come as a man in his prime, maybe an emperor or at least a rich guy? Then, God, you could hit the ground running.
But "the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men," writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 1. The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men." Paul in that text was thinking primarily of the crucifixion of the God-Man, a notion that scandalized people. God hanging naked on a cross. Foolish. Well think of God lying naked in a manger. Foolish. Foolish, too, to think that God would send a multitude of the heavenly hosts to announce his Son's birth to a bunch of nobodies, shepherds out in the field. Or think about the heavenly hosts. I wonder if it seemed foolish to the angels when they burst from hyperspace and ended up on a Bethlehem hillside. Did they say, Whoa, must have made a mistake here? But that's how God did it.
And Dorothy Sayers was committed to telling the story as God did it, not some more sensible, sanitized version. She felt that the distance imposed between the hearer and the story by the King James Version of the Bible, by stained glass, by religious art, left people feeling that Jesus was not really a genuine human being—that the story was mythical, unreal. But she said,
God was executed by people painfully like us in a society very similar to ours. His executions made vulgar jokes about him and called him filthy names, taunted him, smacked him on the face, flogged him and hanged him on a common gibbet, a bloody, dusty, sweaty and sordid business.
She wrote to her producer in 1942, when she was preparing the plays for Holy Week: "I have finished the crucifixion except for cutting and polishing. It is pretty brutal, full of bad language. But you can't expect crucified robbers to talk like a Sunday school class."
Sayers struggled over what to do with accents, because accents in Britain convey class distinctions. Well, she decided to have Jesus and his mother speak standard modern English, and the crowd could talk rough, but she wasn't sure what to do about the disciples. On the one hand, if she had them speak standard English, like Jesus, they would sound like a bunch of university professors on a mission to the people. And, on the other hand, if Jesus was the only one in the bunch that spoke standard English he would sound different and alien.
Well, having worked through some of the writing challenges, Sayers than encountered opposition from an unexpected source—Christians. The Lord's Day Observance Society was outraged at the first radio presentation of Christ attempted anywhere in the world and offended by Sayers' use of language. A spoliation of the beautiful language of the Holy Scriptures which had been given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. "Gangsterisms in Bible play!" screamed one headline. "Life of Christ in American slang!" said another. And the British Broadcasting Corporation got eight thousand letters, mostly critical.
Sayers saw this response as a revival of Docetism with its hatred of the body and suspicion that God could or would really become a genuine human being. But the series went on the air to critical acclaim. Millions of people listened. Some of them every year for a while as the cycle of plays was aired again and again. The Archbishop of Canterbury called it a triumph, one of the greatest contributions to the religious life of the nation in his lifetime. C. S. Lewis said that he reread the cycle of plays every Holy Week, and it never failed to move him.
What was at stake when God came to the BBC? What was at stake in this realistic portrayal of the incarnation? What was at stake in this whole controversy? Well, you can answer that question artistically. Something artistic was at stake when God came to the BBC. Sayers was unwilling to make the story safe or mediocre. She could have written plays, scripts that offended nobody, but she was committed to telling truth. So she consulted with Bible scholars and historians. She wore out a Greek New Testament in her research. She drafted and redrafted, wrote and rewrote. She tangled with a producer who wanted her to change the scripts but stuck to her guns for artistic reasons.
We see our church as a center for the arts, says part of the Christ Community Church vision statement. Well, it seems to me that if that's true we can learn something from Dorothy Sayers about a commitment to producing art of the highest caliber. She felt called to tell the story to the best of her ability. In short, she wrote, "To make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not good or true in any other respect." To her the adjective Christian meant excellent, outstanding, of the highest possible caliber. She said,
No crooked leg tables or ill-fitting drawers, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter's shop in Nazareth. Nor if they did could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made the universe? No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true in itself. For any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.
I hope at the Christ Community Church we can encourage artists to use their craft to tell the truth, truly. What was at stake when God came to the BBC? Well, you can answer that question artistically.
Or you can answer that question theologically. There was a theology at stake in the reality of the incarnation and theology that's at the heart of the Christian gospel. The incarnation, the doctrine that God became a real human being is not one of those secondary doctrines over which Christians can reasonably disagree and still remain as part of the Christian community. Christianity stands or falls on this doctrine. Which is why John could write in 1 John "Anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is anti-Christ." Let me tease out a few implications of the incarnation this morning. There are many more things we could say about this. This is a hugely important doctrine, but let me just suggest a couple of the implications of the truth that God became man.
The implications of God became man
God knows by experience what we experience. First, because God became one of us he knows by experience what we experience. Because God became man he knows by experience what we experience. Can you remember, some of you who are my age or older, artistic representations of Jesus that we grew up with? I sometimes refer to paintings as the Breck girl Jesus. Paintings of Jesus that hung on the walls of my Sunday school class or that adorned the Bibles that we got that had pictures in them. Those pictures did not encourage me to think of Jesus as one of us. When you look at those pictures you could not imagine him as a boy wrestling with his friends or worrying about acne or how to impress the girls or as a young man struggling with the temptations that we face. Saccharin, halo enhanced images of Jesus give us the impression that he was something alien, something other than us.
But he knows our griefs. He knows our temptations. He knows our weariness. He knows our pain. He knows it by experience. This is what Hebrews 4 says:
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weakness. We have one who was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in or time of need.
God knows—boy, girl, man, woman, teenager—God knows what you go through not theoretically or just because he's God and God knows everything, but because he walked where I walk. He stood where I stand. He understands. That's precious truth, and it hangs on the incarnation. Because God became one of us he knows exactly by experience what we're experiencing.
We can become one with him. And another implication: Because God became one with us, we can become one with him. Because God became one with us, we can become one with him. Now I need to explain very carefully what I mean and what I don't mean by that, because there's a lot of confusion these days over a statement like that. I don't mean that we can become God or become part of God. That's Eastern religion or New Age mysticism. There's a huge difference between that and what I mean. What I mean is that we can become one with God in intimate, personal relationship. Let me use a couple of homey illustrations to show the difference in these two meanings of becoming one with God.
You've probably all played with Play-Doh. Maybe it's been awhile, but you can remember. So you can probably imagine sitting at a table where there's a little, tiny ball of red Play-Doh and a great big blob of yellow Play-Doh. And you get tired of playing with the red Play-Doh after a while, so you start messing around with the yellow Play-Doh, squishing it and shaping it and everything. And then after a while you get tired of playing with the yellow Play-Doh and you take that great big blob of yellow Play-Doh and you smoosh it down over the red Play-Doh and just stir it all together. And after a little while what you've got is not red or yellow but a kind of faint orange Play-Doh. Something like that is what Eastern religion means when it talks about becoming one with God. The divine being just kind of overwhelms and absorbs you and you lose your identity as you get mixed up in this one reality called god. And that supposedly is a good thing.
What I mean and what I think Christian theology means by becoming one with God is something more like this. Picture not Play-Doh but a husband and wife who have been married for fifty or more years. They've grown closer as the years go by. Intimacy. Relationship. Fellowship. They even start to look and talk alike. They become one. What I'm talking about is that kind of intimate relationship with God where you start to think like he does and echo back his Word to him and love him more and more with every passing day. But you never lose your identity. When you get to heaven you'll still be you, but you'll be your best you because God became one of us and made that kind of intimate, personal relationship possible.
Don't take that for granted. The Bible is full of good news like that, but the bad news is that your sins and mine separate us from God. The things that we do that we shouldn't do, the things that we ought to do that we leave undone the Bible calls sin and says that the judgment for our sin is death, separation from God forever and ever; not becoming one with God but moving further and further away from God for all of eternity. That's what the Bible means by death. And God loves us so much he would gladly let someone else die for us. The problem is that no other man can die in my place because he's got his own sins to die for. I can't die for you, and you can't die for me because we all have our own sin issues to answer to God for. The only one in all the universe who's perfectly good and whose death, therefore, could truly be substitutionary, is God. And God can't die. Ah, but a God-Man could die. And here is the really shocking news about the incarnation: He was born to die. He took on human flesh so he could be tortured and killed in our place.
What was at stake when God came to the BBC? What was at stake in a realistic portrayal and understanding of the incarnation? Well, you can answer it artistically. You could answer it theologically. And I think Dorothy Sayers would say that ultimately those two are the same, that good art always serves the truth. Her radio plays were well-written, and they spoke a profound truth about the God-Man. Musical art is no different. A really good Christmas carol perfectly matches tune with text.
That's also true about visual art. For instance, I think of a piece of visual art that I've described before. I saw it in our church in Colorado. I'm not sure exactly what you would call it except a mural, a mural about thirty feet wide and fifteen feet high, constructed out of 2x4's and covered with a mural that a layperson, an amateur artist in our congregation, had created out of hundreds and hundreds of pieces of tissue paper and foil. I realize it sounds chintzy—tissue paper and foil. But it was absolutely stunning. And every year he and a team of volunteers took a full day to assemble it on the platform of our church. It took up the whole platform. It was a manger scene—animals, shepherds, magi, holy family, of course. The dominant color in this mural was red, not only for Christmas but for Christ's passion. Because front and center lay the Christ Child with his arms flopped open like this, like a baby's arms might sometimes flop open. And the whole thing was lit so that the shadow of Christ with his outstretched arms fell on the upright and horizontal beams that held up the manger behind him. A cross with a shadow of the Christ on the cross … even there on day one.
"Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth." That's what was at stake when God came to the BBC.
Ken Langley is pastor of Christ Community Church in Zion, Illinois.