Will got a lot of cool toys from my parents for Christmas: a toy helicopter and footballs and kiddy computers. But he got two big toys: a ride-on 4 wheeler from my Dad and a ride-on dune buggy from my Mom.
With each of these toys, Will did the same thing. He smiled and jumped on the toy. He hesitantly pushed the gas pedal. He pulled his foot off as soon as he started moving. He played along for a few minutes, then hopped off. That's it.
These are great toys. Why didn't he play on them all day?
As a two-year-old, he can only share so much about what he's thinking. We have to guess at a lot. But like any good scientist, I paid careful attention to see if there was any difference between the two situations. And there was.
At Dad's house, there was another little boy, a four-year-old. This other boy jumped on the 4 wheeler and started riding it. When Will saw this, his interest was re-engaged. He wanted another turn. He hopped up behind the boy and rode along.
At Mom's house, there was another little boy as well, a six-year-old. This other boy arrived right as Will went down for his nap. He left before Will awoke. They never got to ride the dune buggy together. And Will's interest was not re-engaged today.
Now, tomorrow's another day. And Will will love each of his toys. But I found this trend very interesting.
The other boy, not the type of toy, determined Will's level of engagement. When he saw another boy playing with the toy, he wanted in.
When we think about Christmas and what it means to us that God became present in our midst, I wonder if Jesus didn't become the other boy for us. We've tried to ride the dune buggy of the godly life. For whatever reason, we all lose interest, all fall off the machine, all go astray. And when we encounter Christ, we re-engage. He models a godly life and we strive to imitate him.
Recent evangelical theology has a hard time with this idea. We tend to pit the idea of Jesus as a Model against the idea of Jesus as a Substitute. Did he come to show us the way? Or did he come to help us because we are incapable of following the way? It feels like an either/or option.
But ancient theologians felt no pressure to make the choice. They could, in the same breath, affirm that we needed a substitute to live the sort of life we wanted to live and die a righteous death in our place and, remember that this is the same breath, affirm that Jesus showed us a new way to live and that we are called to imitate him.
A lot of us need to unresolve this tension. We need to find a way to talk about imitation without letting go of our language of grace and mercy. Because Jesus did not just complete a transaction on our behalf. He did it in full view. He did not pay through the mail. He did not send in a check. He commissioned his disciples to bear the good news of salvation and to look at his life and "go and do likewise."
We needed a Savior. But we also needed a Model. In Christ, we have both.
Let's get back up on that dune buggy.