The glory of his incarnation - Luke 2

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 18th October 2009.

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Napoleon Bonaparte once said this of the Lord Jesus: ‘Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and his will confounds me. Between him and whoever else in the world, there are no possible terms of comparison. He is truly a being by himself. I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ, or anything which can approach the gospel.’ You have to admit it; the impact of Jesus cannot be overestimated, why, even our calendar reflects his coming- distinguishing AD from BC. But from a purely human point of view his monumental impact on the world is very difficult if not impossible to account for. In his own lifetime he was highly dismissive of the power and glory merchants of his day, so he held no high office for influence. Given his homeless lifestyle, he would be harassed and moved on by today’s police if he lived in Europe. Given his teenage mother’s lack of a wedding ring, he would be an automatic candidate for abortion if conceived in Britain. And given his ancestry, he would certainly have been pinned with a yellow star and shipped to the nearest death camp had he lived in Germany in the 1930’s. Would you not agree that for any natural enquiring mind some sort of explanation is needed? How do you account for this man? Where does he come from? What was he like? What did he do which so changed the world? Well, within a generation of the lifetime of Jesus one well educated medical doctor, whose name was Luke, decided to find out the answers to those questions. It seems he had a wealthy sponsor, a man called Theophilus who wanted to check out the facts for himself and so he employed Luke to do the investigative work, as people did in those days.  So in 1:3 Luke says that he set himself the task to, ‘carefully investigate everything from the beginning.’ And that is exactly what he has done- the word ‘investigate’ (akribeia), means to sift out, to scrutinize, to subject to a thorough going investigation, like a doctor carrying out all the tests necessary to diagnose an illness. And at the end of all the research he has written an ‘orderly account’, this doesn’t mean  that everything has been put down in strict chronological order, but rather the material has been put together in an orderly way  to produce a work which flows and makes sense, giving clear answers to the questions: who is Jesus and what did he come to do?

So let’s begin by taking a look at the origins of this extraordinary person in Luke 1: 26ff- the story of the Virgin birth, or to be more accurate the virginal conception.

 

As one NT scholar and former Bishop, Dr. John Robinson points out, ‘The first and indisputable fact about Jesus’ birth is that it occurred out of wedlock. The only choice open to us is between a virgin birth and an illegitimate birth.’ And because he didn’t believe in miracles Robinson opted for the latter- he said Jesus was illegitimate. But, if Jesus is who the Bible claims him to be- the eternal Word who was with God and was God, and whose life backed up those claims- the God who became man- then a unique origin of a unique individual makes perfect sense doesn’t it? So why don’t we let the story speak for itself? And I want us to ask two question regarding this unique conception of this unique individual; ‘What does it mean?’ and ‘Why does it matter?’

First of all, what does the virgin birth mean?

Take a look at v 35, ‘The angel answered Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’

The first thing the Virgin birth means is that Jesus is truly sinless. The angel describes him as ‘the holy one’ and this state of being holy, morally undefiled, separate and distinct- is the result of the miraculous conception which is to take place in the uterus of this Jewish teenager. Now Christians often speak about something called ‘original sin’. Some ask whether we are naturally wired so we have a tendency towards evil, maybe it is programmed as part of our genetic code which is with us from birth. Is that what original sin is? Well, it certainly is true that you do not have to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching even the smallest infant to do wrong ,it does come quite naturally as some of you parents know only too well. Not only do we often not want to do what is right, we really do want to do what is wrong. And you do see this in children. There is the story of the old woman who was about to go out to the shops and for some unknown reason she said to her children, ‘While I am gone make sure you behave. And whatever you do don’t put a pea up your noses.’ When she came back from her shopping expedition and walked into her house, all seven kids were standing there with- you have guessed it – a pea up their noses. That is what we are like. The moment someone in authority tells us not to do a thing, we want to do it!  Or is this original sin, as some argue, a kind of communal guilt which we incur as a result of our solidarity with the human race, traced back to our first ancestors in Genesis. As GK Chesterton once put it: ‘Not only are we are all in the same boat, but we are all sea sick.’ It seems to me that the evidence is that it is both. We have a fallen nature and we are a fallen race. But one thing the Bible is quite clear about, and that is that you and I are sinners from birth. Our personal history of rebellion can be traced right back to the moment we were conceived. That is why we are morally helpless and why we need a Saviour, a Rescuer. We are sinful in God’s sight even before we choose to sin, just as a cracked vase from the factory is flawed even before we buy it. In other words we enter the world as damaged goods, with this natural bias against God and towards self. But only one person of the human race has ever been free of that universal spiritual contamination and that is Jesus of Nazareth. By virtue of his unique birth the angel says he is ‘holy’, unlike any other human ever born. Here we have the divine blueprint for humanity, what man and woman were intended to be in God’s sight and it is beautiful and breathtakingly glorious.

But secondly, this unique conception means that Jesus is truly divine- he was the ‘Son of God.’ Now of course others in the Bible are referred to as ‘sons of God’- Adam, Israel, King David, even Christians in the NT are called ‘sons of God’ .But here there is a unique meaning attached, for in v 32 the angel says he shall be ‘called the Son of the Most High.’ The link here is one of a cause having an effect, by virtue of this overshadowing by the Holy Spirit (the cause), this person was also to have a divine as well as a human nature (effect). Luke is not using the language of adoption, but the language of begetting. It’s not as if here we have a normal human foetus developing and by some act of divine decree whereby God simply declares this baby into his Son. He is saying that taking an ovum of Mary, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, a divine embryo is implanted in her womb. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary. 100% divine and 100% human even when there was only one cell in the womb of his mother. Now let us try and get our minds around this for a moment and then tell me that Christianity is just like all the other religions; persuade me that Jesus is not worthy of our worship and utter devotion such that if needs be we will sacrifice everything for him. Listen to these words of one early Christian thinker Augustine:He (Jesus), through whom time was made, was made in time; and He, older by eternity than the world itself, was younger in age than many of His servants in the world; He, who made man, was made man; He was given existence by a mother whom He brought into existence; He was carried in hands which He formed; He nursed at breasts which He filled; He cried like a babe in the manger in speechless infancy -- this Word without which human eloquence is speechless!’ What a magnificent description. The 16th century writer, John Calvin wrestling with the same idea puts it this way: ‘Even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvellous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning.’  Now lets just try and ponder what this means. I means that the little baby born was sustaining the sun which is a star a million times the size of the earth and the other 100 billion stars which make up the Milky Way galaxy together with the other 150 billion galaxies dispersed throughout the universe. It means that the one who later lay in the wooden manger was the one whose genius and power brought into being the mighty cedars of which that little box was made. It means that as a young man pinned helplessly to a cross it was only by his sovereign will as King of the Universe that the atoms of those nails kept their structure so that the nails remained in place tearing at his flesh. Now, could I just pause there and ask you this question: is the Jesus you say you worship this magnificent- this big? Is he the glorious being whose presence fills the whole cosmos, so he is there at the birth of a supernova in some remote corner of the galaxy, transcending space and time while inhabiting space and time in a dusty, despised corner of the Roman Empire called Israel? That’s what this teaching means. Of course it defies the grasp our tiny minds because this is something beyond our comprehension, the fault lies with our lack of imagination not the teaching. The teaching is not meant to get us to say, ‘Oh yes I understand that’ but ‘Wow how amazing is that?’

But thirdly, this passage means that Jesus is truly human- one of us. Has it ever crossed your mind that God the Son could have arrived in our world in all sorts of other ways; maybe, by beaming down from heaven like some extraterrestrial in Star Trek? Why choose this method which is so sticky and messy ad gross? Well, to ensure his humanity. You see, one of the things that make us human is our family history. We all have a family tree and each family tree is connected with all other family trees in the world so giving solidarity to what is called the human race. Without an ancestry you are not human- and Luke underscores this by tracing out Jesus ancestry in chapter 3 of his biography of Jesus. What is more, what makes us the persons we are is not just the specific combination of genes, or our upbringing in the home but, as research increasingly suggests, what happens to us while we are developing in the womb-that shapes our character too. So if God is to become human, if he is going to really share our pains, our stresses, and our joys, then he must become human from the very point we all become human-namely at conception. Now you may ask: what is the point? If what we read here is true then what possible reason could there be for God to undergo this divine mutation in taking to himself human flesh and so entering human existence?

Well, it is here that we begin to hear the very heartbeat of God, what it is that moves him to the very depths of his being to go to such extreme lengths such that the angels must have been drawn back in horror and disgust when they found out, that the One whom they had been worshipping for untold millennia in the unsullied glory of heaven should undergo such a grotesque change in his being and enter the sullied darkness of the Virgin’s womb. They must have felt like crying out: ‘God what are you doing? Why are you doing it, why does it matter so much?  Here are three reasons why it matters.

First, the Virgin birth matters because it makes sure that it is God  who saves us-that is why in v 31 this baby is to be given the name ‘Jesus’ which means ‘the Lord saves’ Let me put it negatively, if Jesus is not God in our humanity, then God has not come to us-so let us call off Christmas. What is more God has not born our guilt on the cross-so let’s call off Good Friday. Even more than that- God has not spoken his final word to us, so let’s tear up the Bible. That is why liberal Christianity is so weak and anodyne it leaves us with this  pale faced teacher wandering around Palestine preaching peace and love ,like some forlorn Hippie- but what we do not have is what the Luke gives - God getting bloody and  dirty and sweaty in dying for our sins. God had to become man if he was to pay the penalty for our sin. How could God who is Spirit, suffer for the sins of man who is flesh? How could God take upon himself human suffering and the penalty for sin in human experience without entering our physiology and psychology? It was a human penalty he had to bear and therefore it was a human nature he had to acquire. No crib, then no cross.

However, by becoming human there is a second implication for our planet and its people which is meant to take our breath away. For it means that there is now a human being on the throne of the universe. In the place of supreme and central significance of all creation there is a man, a member of, and the head of, the human race, which God had intended all along- read Psalm 8. You go to the place where angels bow who never fell and you will find a man. You go to the very centre of the manifestation of the invisible God and you will find a man- whose true human nature mediates the pulsating glory of God into all eternity, so that all the angels and all the creatures fall on their faces in worship and cry ‘Glory’!

Which brings us to the third reason why the virgin birth matters so much; not only do we have a God who saves us, but we have a God who sympathises with us. You see, when God entered into our human existence some 2000 years ago he shared our life in all its grime. Here was a baby with dirty nappies, an adolescent with sexual drives, a man weary and in pain and finally a dying man amongst dying men dying for men. In my pastoral experience I find people wondering how they can relate to God who seems so distant and how such a God can relate to them. Of course the god of Islam can’t, the god of New Age can’t, but the true God of the Christian faith can. There used to be a famous saying about the medical profession: ‘Only the wounded physician can heal.’ Isn’t it true that we can relate better to someone who has shared our problems, who has been through what we are going through and has come out the other end? Well, that is what this is all about. God sympathising with us by becoming one of us. Could I ask: Do you sometimes feel lonely and neglected? Well, so did Jesus. Do you feel misunderstood- shunned by family and friends? So did Jesus. Do you feel scared, depressed, eaten up with anxiety about what the future might hold? So did Jesus. God has felt the adrenaline rushing through his veins. He has known the joy as well as the disappointments friendships can bring. But most of all- most of all- he has known the crippling burden sin and guilt wreaks upon the human soul as he died to take away your sin and mine. So don’t ever say that God doesn’t understand or cares-he cares this much to become one of us.

Someone who found this to be true in her own experience was Rita Armstrong. For many years Rita suffered from severe depression, the bombing she experienced during the Second World War was particularly traumatic and on the whole she had a very difficult life. But she records something that happened to her one day and this is what she wrote, ‘One afternoon I sat in a rare moment of peace meditating on God’s greatness and power. I thought back to the blitz, then scanned through the centuries to Calvary, and back still further to the beginning of everything. And only God was there. Then I contemplated the future, the time when my life would come to an end, and forward to the day everything would be wound up. And God was still there. I felt very insignificant against such a backcloth and my petty problems paled pathetically. Then I remembered the childlike faith with which I had given my life to God, confident that Jesus loved me. And Jesus cannot change; He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Suddenly a light shone. Realisation dawned and a great joy overwhelmed me. I started to sing over and over again, ‘I matter to God.’  Do you see what happened to Rita? She came to realise that she mattered to God because God mattered to her, the God whose face she saw in Jesus.

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