Gerrit Scott Dawson

God in Skin and Time: Jesus as the Beloved Son

Few experiences are more wonderful than holding a newborn. Your heart melts with loving wonder. “You’re so beautiful. Just perfect!” Even amidst that gentle marveling, fierce-protective instincts arise. “I would give my life for you against all comers.”

How much more so for Mary as she held Jesus. In his well-loved Christmas song, Mark Lowery asks, “Mary, did you know . . . when you kiss your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God?” Though she would have to ponder the depths of it all her days, the angel had indeed told her, “The child to be born to you will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

This is one of the first and greatest titles given to Jesus. But what does it mean? “Son of God” comes layered with meaning.

Human, Hebrew, King

In giving Jesus’s genealogy, Luke tells us that Adam was the “son of God” (Luke 3:38). He was uniquely created, but he was also the father of the human race. So there’s a sense in which we are all sons of God. Paul affirms this universal sonship by quoting a Greek poet: “We are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28).

But Scripture gives us another sense in which the chosen and called people are collectively God’s son. “This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). God birthed his people in redeeming them from slavery in Egypt. Centuries later, beginning with David, the kings of Israel were considered to be the sons of God. This was a sonship by divine anointing that led to a special intimacy: “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:26–27).

Jesus fulfilled all three of those biblical meanings of “son of God.” (1) He was born of Mary and so was (and is) truly human, a descendent of Adam and Eve, one of the image-bearing offspring of God, just like any of us. (2) Jesus was also truly a Hebrew. Luke reminds us that he was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), marked as part of Israel, the son of God. But more, Jesus was the first of the new Israel, the founder of a people redeemed by grace and joined to him through faith. (3) Jesus was a descendent of David, and hailed as the true heir to David’s throne (Luke 1:32). Anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, Jesus is the Christ, the son of God who is the everlasting king of his people.

Eternal Son in Skin and Time

However, a deeper, older, more profound sense emerges in which Jesus is the unique Son of God. Thanks to John’s Gospel, we have the privilege of overhearing Jesus’s personal prayers to his heavenly Father shortly before his arrest. We learn the extent of this intimacy between them.

Father, I desire that they also, [the people] whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)

The relationship between the Father and the Son is eternal. Before the creation of anything, the Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father — all in the personal, flowing bonds of love, the communion of the Holy Spirit. Though this mystery bends our minds, we glean that relationship is at the very heart of the being of the triune God. The child in Mary’s arms was the eternal Son of God taking up our humanity in the particular person Jesus. He has been the divine Son of God forever, and now is Son of God in skin and in time.

“Before the creation of anything, the Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus pulls back the curtain on this deep mystery and gives us a peek into eternity when he declares, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). Knowing is more than factual knowledge; this knowing is relational intimacy. It includes a continuing exchange of love between Father and Son (again, in the Spirit).

Father and Son are so close that no one and nothing can get between them. This relationship precedes all things. This knowing is the foundation of the central Christian affirmation, “God is love” (1 John 4:7). In Jesus, we witness the relationship that undergirds all creation appear before our eyes in particular flesh, blood, posture, and vocal tenor.

Sons in the Son

The marvel deepens when we realize that the incarnation means God is opening up this utterly unique relationship to include us. This passage from Paul makes for a fabulous Christmas text:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:4–7)

“The triune God desires to adopt us into his eternal relationship of love.”

In Christ, the triune God adopts us into his eternal relationship of love. He makes this possible not only legally, through the forensics of atonement, but experientially, through the sending of the Spirit of his Son. The eternal Son brought his relationship with his Father among us in the incarnation. Now that he has returned to heaven, he brings us into his relationship with his Father by the gift of his own Spirit within us. We don’t just get information about redemption. We cry out as the Spirit vocalizes within us, “Abba! Father!”

All believers — whether men, women, boys, or girls — are sons of God in being joined to the one eternal and incarnate Son of God, Jesus.

Fellowship with Father and Son

We may well wonder if we truly are to be included in such love. Am I one of those “to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”? What a comfort then, to read the very next words out of Jesus’s mouth: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus wants us in on his relationship with the Father.

In his first letter, John says that he writes so that his readers “may have fellowship with us.” Then, he explains what that means: “Indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Jesus is uniquely Son of God in a way no mere human, nation, or king ever could be. Yet he desires to share that sonship with us, that we might be taken into the very life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And at Christmas, of all times, this mystery, now revealed, resounds in our hearts,

Silent night, holy night,Son of God, love’s pure light.Radiant beams from thy holy faceWith the dawn of redeeming grace,Jesus, Lord at thy birth.Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

The Death of Gandalf: When Tolkien Pierced My Heart

“Fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone.

These are the last words of Gandalf before he slides into the abyss beneath the Bridge of Kahzad-Dum. In all my fourteen years, no words had ever pierced me so.

Our junior high teacher read The Hobbit to us as an after-lunch treat. We loved it. But he challenged us that the really good stuff was to be found in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In ninth grade, I took up his challenge. At first it was quite a slog. There were all those long songs, and so much talking! “The Council of Elrond” was the thickest chapter I had ever attempted. It took me days. But when at last the Fellowship engaged the quest to destroy the Ring, things picked up.

‘Fly, You Fools’

One Friday night, I skipped my usual ABC sitcoms and just read on the couch. The watcher in the water outside of the Mines of Moria terrified me. I had to read on.

I stayed with it all through “A Journey in the Dark.” It wasn’t a school night, so my parents didn’t send me to bed as I started one more chapter. The future writer in me was thrilled when the company finds a decaying book in which the deeds of the dwarves in Moria were recorded until their last hour. The scribe’s writing trails off with the ominous “They are coming . . .” My heart pounded as the Fellowship realizes they are trapped like the dwarves of old and will have to fight their way out.

Near disaster follows upon near disaster. Even Frodo is stabbed with a spear that should kill him. But his hidden shirt of mithril silver turns away the lethal point. This is how it’s supposed to go. Against impossible odds, heroes still triumph. So when Gandalf faces the demon Balrog on the last bridge out, I felt sure he would win. It seemed like he had. Three times the wizard commands, “You cannot pass.” Then Gandalf’s power breaks the bridge right where the Balrog stands, and the demon falls into the darkness below.

“Yes!” I shouted silently. Then, “Noooo!” For the plummeting Balrog swings its whip and snares Gandalf’s legs. Tolkien writes, “He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, then slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.”

Wounded by a Sentence

I was totally shocked. Stabbed. My favorite character had died (so it seemed). It cut. It hurt more than I imagined a book, a single sentence, could make me feel. I wanted to howl. Yet, at the very same time, I loved it. I didn’t know one could experience this depth of emotion from reading. So terrible and so beautiful. Gandalf slid into the abyss. Gandalf was gone. I could hardly stand it.

I was only newly awake to Christ, so I felt, but did not consciously notice, the gospel implications in this scene. Through the following years, Tolkien himself would teach me some deeper meanings of this sentence.

Sorrow follows wherever sin remains.

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien laid the foundation for his entire legendarium. In this mythic world, the Creator, Ilúvatar, brings the world into being through themes of great music. But
one of the Creator’s angelic beings, Melkor, wants to create music of his own.

Seeking his own glory, Melkor begins to sing a theme contrary to the music of Ilúvatar. Discordant notes bring turbulence to the good creation. Ilúvatar allows this chaos to rage for a long time until it seems beyond repair. Then Ilúvatar rises and declares another theme of music. This new music is “deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (The Silmarillion, 1977, pp. 16–17). The Creator weaves disharmony into more wondrous music. The new song incorporates sadness.

“Sin sank the arrow of sadness into the very heart of all that is.”

We feel this sorrow underneath all the goodness we love in this present world. Sorrow flows through the deeps of creation because created beings sought glory of themselves over against the Creator. In short, sin sank the arrow of sadness into the very heart of all that is. I’m reminded of the days of Noah, when the Lord beheld the wickedness of man. “The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).

The sadness that struck me that night as I read of Gandalf’s fall partook of this primal sorrow. My heart cried first, It’s not supposed to be this way! The good and wise are not supposed to be overcome by evil. And second, It didn’t have to be this way! Gandalf had already defeated the Balrog. But evil never concedes. The Balrog’s whip could so easily have missed. Instead, evil once more begat sorrow.

Our freely chosen sin over time hardens into malice. The result is loss and harm that weaves a song of lament woven through everything. Even our God feels it. That night I tasted its bitterness.

Sacrifice often breeds redemption.

Gandalf descends into the abyss. Grief dismays the company. They don’t know how they can go on. But they do. The story does not end with this shocking loss.

The wizard’s gruff but affectionate final words rouse the Fellowship from the paralysis of horror. Even as they weep, they dash safely out of Moria. Gandalf’s sacrifice has opened the way for them to escape and to carry on the quest. But more: his gift now impels them to find courage beyond grief, to kindle hope in the darkness ahead and to hold to the cliff’s edge of faith until the very end. The remaining eight members go on to sacrifice mightily for one another.

“Suffering in love for another is redemptive. Evil does not have the last word.”

One’s giving his life for many is the heart of our faith: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This sacrifice is meant to change the course of our lives, for “he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Suffering in love for another is redemptive. Evil does not have the last word.

The evil chance of the Balrog’s whip snaring Gandalf does not void the wizard’s sacrifice. Gandalf’s giving of his life bears the immediate result of the Fellowship’s escape. But that leads to the whole redemptive resolution with which The Lord of the Rings concludes, a victory for which Tolkien would coin a beautiful word.

In the end, expect eucatastrophe.

I would have to read on to learn of Gandalf’s return. And go further still to see the Ring destroyed, the rightful king enthroned, and Middle-Earth restored. But the sacrifice of Gandalf, in all its shocking, piercing sadness, yet laid down a hope in me. This seed of love buried in Moria’s abyss would yield the fruit of life. I had to believe that.

Tolkien used the word eucatastrophe to express the sudden reversal in a story that leads to a longed-for but unexpected happy ending. This is the resolution against all odds that stirs hope in the human heart that the world’s destiny will not be the death and destruction toward which it appears to rush. Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son that the eucatastrophe in a story

pierces you with a joy that brings tears. . . . It produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature . . . feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives . . . that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our souls were made. . . . The Resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible . . . and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1976, p. 100)

The hope I felt even as I was stabbed with grief at Gandalf’s fall foreshadowed the great reversal of the entire story.

Gandalf Rose and Laughed

Delightfully, we see this deepest truth in the humble simplicity of Sam Gamgee. After the Ring is destroyed, Sam awakes to see Gandalf smiling on him. He exclaims,

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land. (The Return of the King, 1976, p. 988)

Reading of Gandalf’s fall that night struck me with the full force of the deep truth in every story of redemption. Each one is a shadow of the one true Story. Christ died. He entered the full stop of being lost in the abyss. And then he rose, changing everything.

When Gandalf fell, though I could not say it then, my heart was struck with the sorrow of man in his death and ruin. But the Fellowship carried on. I would read on. The Quest was not thwarted. Gandalf would rise. So will we. In a world restored, where everything sad comes untrue.

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