I was asked once by a well-known broadcaster, ‘do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?’ I replied, as you do, by asking him, "it depends on what you mean by, ‘Son of God’." His reply shook me because he then said, "It’s a perfectly simple question, ‘Is Jesus Christ the Son of God?'" My own thought was immediately, "I wonder which bit of ‘Son of God’ he is finding simple?"
I presume he meant do I believe in a literal way? But that is hardly simple. Literal language is OK for baked beans and possibly sunsets, but it gets a bit thin when talking about most of the things that really matter such as love, sadness and wonder. It runs out of steam totally when talking of God. You can’t say anything literal about God.
"I was once in an argument about the new hymn book (I am afraid I get a bit grumpy about some of the alterations to ancient poems that we make and think that our desire to modernise the old is a little like the Christians who wanted to cover the modesty of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel). My colleague disliked the word ‘ineffable’ because he felt no one would understand it. There is a certain irony in that, as you can imagine. Given that ‘ineffable’ basically means something we can’t understand, I would have thought it was a useful word to hang on to if we also want to talk about God. God is ‘ineffable’ – and that’s the point.
That’s the point of Christmas. How does God communicate with us when words are not adequate? How can we even try to talk of God when literal language so lets us down? God’s answer is, of course, the ‘self sending’ – of a God who in Charles Wesley’s words is, ‘contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’ What we can ever understand of God has to begin by taking account of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who is written about in Colossians 1.15: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation", and verse 19: "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell."
The ‘Word’ is God, says St John. Now this isn’t simple language either, but it directs you to a kind of struggle to understand that is different from, for example, trying to get your head around Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.
Because it is truth revealed and held in a person, understanding and engaging with that truth is as much about love and obedience as it is about intellectual capacity and linguistic dexterity. We are not so much asked to assent to a philosophical or religious claim, "Yes I agree that Jesus is the Son of God," but to inhabit a story, the Christmas story; to live within ancient tale of human struggle and courage, of wonder and delight, of mystery and of angels declaring good news. Children get this much more easily than adults, who want the whys and the wherefores of an extraordinary story which is far more than an odd biological claim on the Universe.
Do I believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Of course, wonder of wonders, "Let earth and heaven combine... to praise in songs divine the incarnate deity." I inhabit this ancient story and find it to be true. Wrapped in our clay we may not immediately recognise the creator of all things. But it is our life task, to discover a vulnerable God who is on a mission to finish the ‘new creation’ and is looking for followers.
© Mark Wakelin is President of the Methodist Conference. This is his Christmas address for 2012. The Methodist Church (http://www.methodist.org.uk/) is one of the largest Christian churches in Britain, with nearly 230,000 members and regular contact with over 512,000 people. It has 5,023 churches across the country, and also maintains links with other Methodist churches with a worldwide total membership of over 80 million.