I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord... - Luke 1:26-38
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A number of years ago the celebrated historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote: ‘Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?’ The answer, of course is: not very much. You have to admit it; the impact of Jesus cannot be overestimated, 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 of 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 certainly would have been pinned with a yellow star and shipped to a death camp had he lived in Germany in the 1930’s. He never wrote a book, his public ministry lasted less than three years and at the end he was deserted by his closest friends and yet today there are millions and millions of people all around the world who literally worship him. That in itself needs some explanation. Given that his first followers were Jews raised with the mother’s milk on the sacred belief that there is only one God who is in heaven, what was it that caused them to believe this man, a Galilean door hanger, could be identified with Yahweh the God of Israel?
Well one man who set out to find the answer for himself was a medical doctor by the name of Luke. As was befitting his calling he was a stickler for the facts and so after engaging in some meticulous research he wrote a two volume work, the first volume bearing his name which we call ‘the Gospel according to Luke’. And in that account of the life of Jesus he gives us a glimpse of the remarkable beginnings of this remarkable person which eventually helped to give rise to that clause in the creed we are looking at tonight: ‘I believe in Jesus Christ his (God’s) only Son our Lord. Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.’ And we read all about it in Luke chapter 1:26ff.
Sometimes you will hear Christians speak of the ‘incarnation’ of Christ, especially around Christmas time. What are they talking about? Well, it is a word which literally means ‘en-fleshment’ or as some of the early Christians put it, ‘en-manning’ – that is the God of the universe who knows all things, created all things, rules all things and who exists in a glorious dynamic of eternal love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, became a man- more specifically a first century Jew. Or as we sing at our carol service: ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity! Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.’ That is precisely what Luke is describing here.
So let’s look at this passage and work through some of its breathtaking implications under two headings.
First, divinity united with humanity.
Look at v 35, ‘The angel answered Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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.’ Luke has already established that Mary is a virgin in verse 34. She has not had any sexual relations with a man and that is important because it rules out of court straight away the possibility that the baby she will be carrying is an ordinary human baby brought about by ordinary means. No, this is a miracle unlike any other.
The angel Gabriel declares that this special baby will be 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.’ This is in contrast to his cousin John the Baptist who will be called the prophet of the Most high (1:76). What is more, as a descendent of King David he will have an ‘eternal kingdom’ which is a subtle hint to his own eternity and pre-existence. How is the Son of the Most High to have a human beginning? The answer is by the work of the Holy Spirit who will ‘overshadow’ Mary with the ‘power of the Most High’ an Old Testament term referring to God. 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 have a divine as well as a human nature (effect). Luke is not using the language of adoption, but the language of begetting. He is saying that taking an ovum of Mary, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, an embryo will develop which will be 100% divine and 100% human. He wasn’t part God and part man like pantomime horse. He wasn’t a chimera, a new kind of being which will be a mix of divinity and humanity to form ‘divmanity’. No he really was fully God while being fully human.
So what does that mean? Let’s take first Jesus’ divinity.
While the Son of God was on earth, even as a baby in his mother’s womb, he didn’t cease doing God ‘stuff’, like creating galaxies, keeping the world spinning on its axis, ensuring that light continues to travel at 186,000 miles per second. Now I am sure that you will appreciate that there were some in the early days of the church who couldn’t quite get their head around this (who can?) and so tried to reduce Jesus to a kind of ‘super being’, someone who was like God but not actually God. One of the leading lights in this movement was a man called Arius, the great granddaddy of the Jehovah’s witnesses. But he was opposed because what he taught didn’t stack up with the facts of the Bible. And one man who nailed him good and proper was Athanasius. This is how he tried to get over the shear wonder of God becoming man without ceasing to be God: ‘The Word [God the Son] 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.’ That is why Christians worship Jesus- he is God.
Then there is Jesus humanity- he is man, a sinless man to be sure because he was born of the Virgin he is called ‘holy’. The great fact is God's Son, took a human body which had exactly the same biochemical composition as our own, the same anatomy and physiology, the same central nervous system and the same sensitivity to pain. It was a human body with a genetic composition similar to our own. To this genetic composition His mother made the same contribution as any human mother makes to the genetic make-up of her child. One half of His chromosomes came from His mother. The rest were imparted miraculously by the Holy Spirit.
Now amongst other things this means that Jesus had a human mind which like all human minds was limited and finite. It had to reason in a human way from premises to conclusions, just like we do. It had to gather, store and organise information, just like we do. Its knowledge was not (as God's knowledge is) intuitive. It was inductive and deductive. Furthermore, it was not absolute or infinite. He was not, at the human level, omniscient. For example, we find the Lord confessing His ignorance of the time of the Second Coming: `But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father' (Mark 13:32). There is a similar indication in Luke 2:52 where we are told that the child Jesus `increased in wisdom'. He became wiser. He became better informed. He accumulated an ever-increasing fund of common sense. He underwent normal intellectual development and learned by observing the world around Him, listening to His mother and searching the Scriptures. He was not ignorant of anything He ought to have known. God the Father kept from Him nothing which it was good for His people to know. But there were things like the date of the Second Coming which were not the church's business and so the Lord said nothing about them. Do you see?
And it is in the incarnation that we hear the 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 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 would 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: ‘But Lord what do you think you are doing? Why are you doing it? Don’t go down there of all places! Do you know what they will do to you?
Well, yes he knew what he was doing and what they would do, which is why he had to go, it was so that humanity can know divinity- that is we can now know God truly and know God personally.
Let me ask: how do you know God is love? That is what people say he is, but how do you know? It can’t simply be by looking at all the good things in the world because there are a lot of bad things too which for many people places a big question mark against the claim God is a God of love at all. The Bible makes it plain that we can be quite certain God is love and has always been love because he has come to is in his in the person of Jesus who is God and he shows us that love. Think of it like this: if the measure of love is in what love gives then we can say that there never was such love shown than that which God has shown in Jesus who gave himself in order to save us. The Giver and the gift are one and the same- God. Could there be any great gift than that to you? Of course not! Did you notice the name which was to be given to this child? It is there in verse 31, ‘Jesus’ which means ‘The Lord saves.’ Look at his life and it shouts God is love- he is tender to broken hearted bereaved parents and raises their little girl to life; he touches a man who has not been touched in years because he is a leper and he is cleansed; he defends a woman from the religious hypocrites because she has shown him kindness; you will not find a man who has ever walked this earth who has shown such selfless love. But it was on a gallows that he poured out his love supremely and exhaustively as he took the penalty we deserve because of our rebellion against God so true forgiveness could be offered and real sins removed for ever. And it is still as a man that raised from the dead Jesus rules the world for his people’s benefit.
You know, sometimes people think of God as a stern, demanding, ill-tempered tyrant and cannot even begin to think of him as Father. They even misconstrue Jesus’ death on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins such that you have the nice Jesus trying to placate the angry God. But that can’t be right because if Jesus shares the divinity of the Father then what is true of Jesus as God is also true of the Father as God- namely God is love who will just pour out everything for his wayward creatures. Even some Christians keep on doubting whether God really loves them. Oh, they may find time for Jesus, but they hardly dare speak of the Father who they think is always on the lookout for some slip up so he can pounce on them. No, Jesus reveals to us the very nature of God which is love, the Father gave his Son and the Son willingly came so we can be saved.
Over the summer as a church we have been looking at the teaching of some of the Puritans. Here is one of them, John Owen, just listen to what he says about the significance of the incarnation which some Christians miss out on; ‘Few can carry up their hearts and minds to this height of faith, as to rest their souls in the love of the Father, they live below it, in the troublesome region of hopes and fears, storms and clouds. All here is serene and quiet. But how to attain this pitch they know not. This is the will of God, that he may always be seen as benign, kind, tender, loving, and unchangeable therein; and that especially as the Father, as the great fountain and spring of all gracious communications and fruit of love. This is that which Christ came to reveal.’ Do you want to know whether God loves you? Then go to the crib and see how God has clothed himself in skin and nerve tissue so that you could see God as a human and know what he is really like and wants for you. Better still go to the cross where you see the skin torn, the nerves shredded and the blood flowing because only a man could die for men.
So let me tell you of someone who discovered the love of God in Jesus for herself, a young American woman called Bessie Shipp. Bessie found herself one Christmas in prison. It was a devastatingly lonely experience. And what made it feel all the more lonely was that Bessie was dying of AIDS. There sat Bessie in her cell, wrapped in a bathrobe, shivering with a bible on her lap, when a Christian prison visitor arrived. After chatting for a few minutes, the visitor quietly asked: ‘Bessie, do you know the Lord Jesus?’ To which she replied, ‘No, but I want to.’ But I don’t feel as if He’s here.’
The visitor asked: ‘Would you like to pray with me to know Christ as your Saviour?’ Bessie looked down and twisted a Kleenex in her thin hands, and finally whispered, ‘Yes, I would.’ So there the two prayed together in that cold, concrete cell. Bessie had made a decision which would change her short life; she gave it to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Going home as a new Christian, Bessie was immediately drawn into a church where she was cared for and nurtured. Three weeks after her release, Bessie contracted pneumonia and was sent to hospital. As she was visited by a fellow Christian, this is what she said: ‘These have been the happiest days of my life. I know that Jesus loves me and I know you do too.’ Two days later, Bessie died. She went to meet the Saviour she had accepted only a short time before, on Christmas day in a cold prison cell.
When Jesus came to earth, he wasn’t born in a grand palace, but in a room reeking of animals. And do you know what? He still comes to us wherever we are, whoever we are and whatever we have done. He is even willing to meet with you right now if you ask him to. It really is true, Jesus Christ is God’s only Son and our Lord, born of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.
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