Jesus the Man - Luke 1:26-38

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 10th October 1999.

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October 99.

‘The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man. The plot pivots on a single character, and the whole action is the answer to a single central problem - What do you think of Christ?

The Church’s answer is categorical and uncompromising, and it is this: That Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth... the God by whom all things were made.His body and brain were those of a common man; his personality was the personality of God....He was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man.He was not merely a man so good as to be ‘like God’ - he was God.

This is the dogma we find so dull - this is the terrifying drama of which God is both victim and hero.If this is dull, then what in Heaven’s name is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never accused him of being a bore -on the contrary they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left to later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild’, and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.

To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand....He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.’

So writes the playwright and author Dorothy L Sayers.Whichever we you look at him, Jesus -the man of the millennium - was a remarkable character. We are the ones who have tried to domesticate him, make him safe and inoffensive, whether it be through the two dimensional imagery of our stained glass windows, the sweet and effeminate melodies of some of our choruses or the scholastic emasculation of liberal academic theology -Jesus has been reduced and tamed.

So we can consider ourselves fortunate that over the next few weeks as people get caught up in the millennium bug, we are going to go back to a carefully researched document, which under God’s own inspiration, brings us face to face with the most fascinating, uncomfortable and yet attractive individual ever to walk the face of this earth - Jesus of Nazareth. And as we do so we must be prepared for our minds to be enlarged, our hearts to be set on fire and our lives changed for ever.So do come with me to Dr Luke’s account of the remarkable origins of this most remarkable person in Luke 1: 26.

Now right at the outset let me try and dispel a piece of propoganda which in recent years has received some notoriety through a former Bishop of Durham, namely, that all such talk of a ‘Virgin Birth’ is nothing more than myth - a symbolic spiritual truth presented in story form to evoke the religious imagination of its devotees.

The idea of ‘myth’ by definition undercuts the belief that there is an actual historical event involved. Sure, there may be a historical character, but later accretions have been added to what is otherwise a normal event and turned into something fantastic. Well, the Bible is certainly aware of myths and acknowledges them - 2 Tim 4 for instance. But Luke 1 hardly falls into such a category. For one thing, myths do have the air of the exaggerated. So there were Greek myths of gods coming to earth and having sexual intercourse with women. But what is so striking about Luke’s account is how discreet it is, how subtle and restrained is the telling of the story. No detailed explanation is given as to the ‘how’ the miracle occurred, except that Mary will be overshadowed by the Most High - a distinctly OT, not Greek, term. But the miracle itself is not described, did you notice?

Secondly, if Luke was trying a con job he fails miserably by portraying it as historical. There are no witnesses, only Mary, and in Jewish culture the testimony of a woman didn't count for much anyway, so at least he could have thrown in a few more characters to give it credibility, but no.

Thirdly, throughout Jesus life there was always suspicion surrounding his birth. In Mark’s account at one point people say, 'Isn't this Mary’s son,' which in a patriarchal culture was a most appalling insult. Even three centuries later in the Jewish writing called the Talmud, it was rumored that Jesus was the illegitimate offspring of a Roman soldier called Pantera, which was may be a play on the Greek word parthenos, meaning virgin.

As one scholar John Robinson pointed 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. But if Jesus is who he claimed to be and showed evidence of being -God -man, then a unique origin of a unique individual makes perfect sense, so why not let the story speak for itself. And I want us to ask two questions of this unique conception of this unique individual; what does it guarantee? and what does it matter?

First of all, what does the virgin birth, or to be more precise, the virginal conception, guarantee? Just look at v 35 ‘The angel answered, "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 it guarantees is that Jesus is truly sinless, the angel describes him as ‘the holy one’ and this state of being holy, morally undefiled - is the result of the miraculous conception which is to take place in this poor Jewish teenager. Now Christians have always argued about what is called original sin. Some ask whether we are naturally wired up so we have a tendency towards evil, maybe it is programmed as part of our genetic code which is with us from birth.

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.Or is it, as some argue, a kind of communal guilt which we incur as a result of our solidarity with the human race. It seems to me that the evidence is that it is both. But one thing the Bible is quite clear about, you and I are sinners from birth, our personal history of rebellion can be traced right back to the momnent we were conceived. That is why we are morally helpless and why we need a saviour. 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 touch it. Only one person of the human race has ever been free of that universal spiritual contamination and that is - Jesus.By virtue of his unique birth the angel says he was ‘ holy’, unlike any other human ever to be born. Here we have the divine blueprint for humanity, what man and woman were intended to be, morally upright and pure - worthy of our admiration and awe.

But secondly, this unique conception guarantees 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. But again the link here is causal, by virtue of this overshadowing by the Holy Spirit, this individual person was also to have a divine nature as well as a human nature. Luke is not using the language of adoption, but the language of beggetting. It's not as if here we have a normal human feotus developing and by some act of divine inter-uterine surgery God makes 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. 100% divine 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, that Jesus is not worthy of our worship and utter devotion such that if needs be we will sacrifice everything for him. Just listen to these words of the 4th century theologian, Athanasius, as he speaks of the Second person of the Trinity, God the Son: ‘The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. At one and the same time -this wonder -as Man he was living a human life, and as Word he was sustaining the life of the Universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.’

Do you know what that means? It means that the little feotus embedded in the wall of that young girl’s uterus was at the same time holding together the planet Jupiter.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 those nails remained in place doing their worst.

Now tell me, is the Jesus you say you worship this magnificent? Is he the glorious being whose presence fills the whole universe, 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 despised corner of the Roman Empire? Of course it defies our tiny minds because you cannot contain and domesticate the true and living God in Jesus Christ.

But thirdly, this passage guarantees that Jesus was truly human - one of us.Has it ever crossed your mind that Jesus could have arrived in our world in all sorts of other ways? Maybe beaming down from heaven like some extraterrestrial in Star Trek.Why choose this method, so messy, so base? Well, to ensure his humanity.You see, one of the things that makes us human is our family history, we have a family tree and each family tree is connected with all other family trees so giving solidarity to the human race.Without an ancestory you are not human.What is more, what makes us the persons we are is not just the specific combinaton of genes, or our upbringing in the home, but as research increasingly suggests, what happens to us while we ae developing in the womb - that shapes our character too.So if God is to become human, share our pains, our stresses, then he must become human from the very point we all become human -at conception.Now you may ask : what is the point? If what we read here is true, and that is the claim, then what possible reason could there be for God to undergo this divine mutation in taking to himself human flesh, entering human existence -would we ever do such a thing, for say -slugs?

Well it is here we hear the very heartbeat of God, what moves him to tears to go to such extreme lengths that the angels must have been horrified and disgusted -as the one whom they had been worshipping for millennia in the pure glory of heaven should undergo such a grotesque change in his being and enter the Virgin’s womb. Why did he do it? He did it for the likes of you and me.

What does it matter? It matters for two reasons.
First, it means that God 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. God has not born our guilt on the cross - so let’s call off Good Friday, 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 - we have this pale faced teacher wandering around Palestine preaching peace and love, like some forlorn Hippy - but we do not have God getting bloody and sweaty 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 phsyiology and psychology? It was a human penalty he had to bear and thererfore it was a human nature he had to acquire. No crib, then no cross. So don't be embarrassed about the Virgin birth.

But by becoming human there is another implication for our planet and its people which is immense. It means there is 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. Science has taught us, hasn't it, how vast this universe is and partly as a consequence we feel so small, lost of significance in a vast cosmos.

But because of Jesus, his birth, life and redeeming work we discover our true destiny as children reconciled to God.You go to the spiritual heart of this universe and you will find a man.You go to the place where angels bow who never fell and you will find a man.Go to the very centre of the manifestation of the invisible God and you will find a man - true human nature mediating the glory of God for all eternity.

And this brings us to the second reason why the virgin birth matters so much.For not only do we have a God who saves us, but we have a God who can sympathise 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 among dying men, dying for men and women.

People wonder 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 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 it and come out the other end? Well, that is what this is all about. God sympathising with us. Do you feel lonely and neglected? So did he. Do you feel misunderstood - shunned by family and friends? so did he. Do you feel scared, depressed, eaten up with anxiety about what the future might hold? So did he.

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 tell me that God doesn’t understand or care - he cares this much to become one of us. So that is why you can go to him and he understands when nobody else does.

And one person who discovered this for herself was Bessie Ship who was spending Christmas in an American prison -Bessie was dying of AIDS. She went along to a Christmas service in the jail. Afterwards she said to the man leading the service that she so wanted to know Jesus. There and then she gave her life to Christ in prayer. Going home as a new Christian was a new experience for her. She was immediately drawn into a church and was nurtured in the faith as she went to a Bible study group. Just three weeks after she had been released she contracted pneumonia.

In hospital a Christian minister visited her and she whispered to him, ’These have been the happiest days of my life, to know Jesus loves me, and that you do too.’ Two days later she died. She went to meet the saviour she had accepted on Christmas day in a cold prison cell. Of course when God came to earth, he wasn’t born in warm palace, but a dirty stable which reeked of animal dung and urine. And you know what? By his Spirit he still comes to us, wherever we are, whoever we are. Not just to inhabit dark and cold buildings, but dark and lost hearts.Has he come into yours?

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