Christmas Day 2015
A Meditation On The Incarnation
Let's review for a minute the basic theme of Christmas: the birth of Jesus Christ. On Christmas Eve we read the story of the angelic announcement of our Savior's birth to shepherds tending sheep in the fields just beyond Bethlehem. The following Sunday, we read the prologue of John's Gospel with the majestic summary of the doctrine of the Incarnation: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God... and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." And then, the Sunday after that—today—we read the story of the Gentile kings who followed the star to Bethlehem bringing gifts to the Savior. So year after year we read the same three stories, and year after year we are reminded in sermon after sermon of the same truths. The shepherds represent Israel who has patiently awaited its Savior. That Savior now is here and he is Christ the Lord, the one who will be crowned the king of Israel. But he is not the Savior of Israel only. He is also the Savior of all mankind. The Gentile kings who come to worship him at his birth represent the whole world beyond the borders of Israel. Christ is coming to save them as well from their sins and to reconcile them to God from whom, because of Adam's sin, we have all been estranged. Christ can do this for Jew and Gentile alike because he is more than a man, he is man but he is also the Word become flesh, he is also God. At the center of every Christmas sermon is this mystery, the mystery of the Incarnation: in Christ, God has became man while remaining fully God. In Christ God has become one of us, God has come among us, in person, God has taken a mother, God has visited the earth and dwelt among us. We are not alone in this universe. God is with us.
There is another dimension to the Christmas message, and that is that God did not come to earth unannounced. He announced his coming many times through his prophets. Both the angelic announcement to the shepherds and the presence of the gentile kings at his birth represent a fulfillment of prophecy. In the birth of Christ, God is doing what he promised to do. The shepherds are told that at last the promise of God to David is being fulfilled, and that one is born who will rule on his throne forever. This is the son of the virgin whom Isaiah foretold would be Immanuel—God is with us (Mt.1.22–23). God has come to Israel in a little child, born in Bethlehem, and he will be the Prince of Peace. God promised to send Israel a great king who would bring eternal peace to the nation and Jesus is that one.
But Isaiah also foretold that he would be the king of kings and that gentile kings would come to him, "Those who live in darkness have seen great light, on them has light shined." That promise too is being fulfilled; the savior is going unite the whole world, Jew and non-Jew alike, in a new religion that worships him, as Isaiah said, "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess" the one true God, the savior of the Jews who is also the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.
So what is Christmas? It is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. And who is he that people in every nation and of every race should celebrate his birth? He is the king of the Jews and the King of all Kings. He is the divinely anointed ruler whose coming into the world from heaven was announced by the prophets multiple times through the centuries before it happened. He is therefore more that a human king. He is also a divine king. He is again, in John's eloquent formulation, "the Word become flesh who dwelt among us." (Jn.1.14) He is eternal God become a human being. He is God become a man. His appearing among us is a miracle—a living sacrament of flesh and blood and bone (Titus 3.4–7). In him, time and eternity intersect. He is the crossroads of mortality and immortality, the one in whom sin is defeated by holiness. In Him heaven has come down to earth as on Jacob's ladder so that we on earth might through him ascend that ladder to heaven (Jn.1.51). God became man so that man might though him become one with God. He took our sin upon himself so that we who are born in sin might though him be born again to a new life of sanctification and redemption, the divine life that he offers all those who love him and believe in him (1Pt.1.23). Christ has come not to show the world a new and better way of living but to offer the world a new kind of life, the life that is free of sin and thus the punishment of death: eternal life. A life that is now available to all human beings because of Christ. He offers the world this new life, his own divine life and he offers it to all as a free gift through faith,” that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life"(Jn.3.16). God has come to us in person and has taken on a human nature so that we may receive from him the divine nature (2Pt.1.4). That is the Christmas message.
Now in these few words I have summed up every Christmas sermon ever preached, for every Christmas sermon is a commentary on one of three stories: either the shepherds, or the Wise Men or the Word made flesh. But in the end they all point to the same object: Jesus. And although there are three Christmas stories, they each express the same singular truth: that at a certain time and place God revealed himself to human beings as one of us. Or as the Nicene Creed succinctly puts it: "He became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man". That, in nutshell, is the Christmas story.
Now that in itself is something that most people will immediately say is "unbelievable". If there is a God, they say, why would he stoop to become a human being and subject himself to the misery of suffering? We're trying to get to heaven where there is no suffering. Why would God want to leave Paradise to enter into this valley of tears. It makes no sense. But the Christian gospel goes even further and says that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, not only became a human being but he took a human mother, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, he became a child, dependent on his mother. God became a baby.
Let us pause for a moment to consider the alternatives. We are so accustomed to thinking of Christmas as the birth of the baby Jesus that we run the risk of forgetting how amazing this birth was. God could have spared himself a great deal of suffering had he come to earth as a mature adult. Would you want to be a teenager again if you didn't have to be. He could have done that, and indeed that is what the Jews expected and what many still expect will happen. Or God could have come upon a fully grown man, entered his body and used him to house his divine Spirit and acted through a man. But God did not do that. God chose instead to become a unique person, one who would be fully man and fully God from conception. He wanted to be a God who had a mother, a mother who would be no one less than the Mother of God. But why? Why would God choose to endure "the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to," as Shakespeare put it, when God could have made being earthly an king so much easier on himself? He did it this way because redemption of sinners demanded that he must assume unto himself the totality of human experience. What is not assumed by the divine nature cannot be redeemed. Christ assumed the full human experience from birth to death in order to accomplish our redemption.
So even in the manger we stand beneath the cross. Even as Mary, the virgin Mother of God holds the infant in her arms, the shadow of the cross looms over them both. Christ came into the world to save sinners. And this he did in the only way possible, by becoming one of us from birth to death. He who knew not sin became sin in order to free us who were under the curse of sin from that bondage. At the heart of the Christmas message is a human heart, the sacred heart of Jesus. God came down from heaven to join us in our suffering, he joined his heart to ours, so that we the object of his love from before the Creation, might know the eternal life of God. Thus we come to Christ's altar on Christmas with reverence and awe, humbled by knowing that we are the beneficiaries of so great a miracle.
The Reverend Jansen String
St. George’s and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church