At the very heart of Christianity is an astounding truth-claim that is celebrated all around the world at Christmas. The claim is that God, the one who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. [CS Lewis, Mere Christianity]. This claim is central to the Christian faith and is known as the doctrine of the Incarnation. The word ‘’incarnation” is of Latin origin, and literally means “to make flesh”. The word incarnation is not used in the Bible, but we see its meaning in the prologue to Johns Gospel. (The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us). The Incarnation is at the heart of the biblical message for it reveals the person and nature of Jesus Christ. It can be difficult to understand what is going on in the incarnation, for that I turn an Analogy.
CS Lewis, the brilliant Oxford academic, lay theologian and author provides one in his book Miracles. Lewis invited the reader to imagine the incarnation as a diver plunging into a deep pool of water to retrieve a lost precious object. The diver first strips off his clothes and then dives into the warm green water, as the diver swims downward, the pressure increases, he swims down further to the black and freezing cold waters, to an area of ooze, slime and decay, then, the diver comes up again towards the surface, back to the colour and light, with his lungs almost bursting, he breaks the surface, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover. And what is this lost yet precious object, that merited this dangerous and difficult descent? It is “human nature”. God “descended into his own universe, and rose again, bringing human nature up with him.
”Today, I would like to look at a few aspects of the incarnation through the lens of today’s gospel reading, the story about Joseph accepting Jesus as his Son.
I personally believe that Matthew was a faithful witness to the events that he saw and was faithful in recording the stories he was told. Matthew, was a “tax collector” but was explicitly called by Jesus to be one of his 12 disciples. It is widely accepted that Matthew’s gospel was written to a Jewish audience, Matthew focuses on the fulfilment of the Old Testament. he quotes from the Old Testament sixty-two times, more than any other gospel writer. We see an example of this in todays reading, with Matthew referencing an ancient prophesy from Isaiah, ‘A virgin is pregnant; she will have a son, and will name him Emmanuel” . Emmanuel comes from the Greek rendering of two Hebrew words, `immanu, which means “with us,” and ‘El, which means “God”. Turn it around the other way and we get Emmanuel, God with us.
Today I thought I would look at three implications that come out of the name Emmanuel which tie into the Incarnation.
They are: Jesus is God, Jesus is Human and Jesus is with us.
Jesus is God
The Jewish religious leaders and scholars acknowledged the passage in Isaiah as a prophecy, but they didn’t think that it was to be taken literally. They thought it was talking about some great Leader, or Messiah, who would come and help Israel, and through his work, God would be more present with them. [Tim Keller – Hidden Christmas]
Virgin Birth stories were not a Jewish invention, the Egyptians had them, The Greeks had them, and the Romans had them too. The Jews distinctive view of God actually made them the people on earth least open to the idea that a human being could be God. Matthew was a Jew, he knew the Jewish scriptures, he knew Jewish culture, knew Jewish thought. But Matthew also knew Jesus, He knew what he did, he knew what he said, he knew what he thought, he would know the backstory concerning his birth. What Matthew is saying was this prophecy was greater than what anyone else had imagined, That Jesus was God, and the prophesy was meant to be taken literally.
The Jews believed in a single God, their God was both personal and infinite, and to the Jews, God was not part of creation, they believed that their God was the ground for its existence, and their God was sovereign over it. At Christmas we are reminded that God intervened, he added himself into our world. Somehow, the mechanism God used to do it is a mystery, God came in human form, as bunch of human cells now implanted and growing in Mary’s womb. Was Joseph the real father of this child?, No, God was the real father.
Jesus never explicitly said that he was God, but he did drop a few hints, About 30 years later, we find Jesus living in the fishing village of Capernaum. Jesus, as he did often, was teaching the locals about the kingdom of God. Jesus was popular, lots of people came to hear him, and on this day the crowd was so large that the house they were in was packed and you couldn’t get in. The people came from all walks of life, the locals, poor, the sick, the rich and well off, as well the local religious leaders.
While Jesus is talking, four men arrive outside of the house, they bring with them their paralysed mate, hoping to see Jesus. But they couldn’t get in. They come up with a harebrained plan, they get up on the roof of the house, they cut a hole in it, and through that hole, using improvised ropes they lower their paralysed mate down to the room below. I think even Jesus would have trouble completing with that.
A hush comes over the room, Jesus stops talking and looks at the man, he pauses, then smiles, then nods his approval, and then does something surprising, something odd, something unexpected. something the Angel told Joseph Jesus would do. He looks the man in the eye compassionately and tells him ‘your sins are forgiven’.
The religious leaders sitting in the front seats were furious, they are on their feet screaming! they knew their scriptures! they knew that only God could forgive sins, This was Blasphemy! Jesus stops, looks at the crowd, and then turns slowly back to face the religious leaders. He scans them one by one, looking for their leader. He finds him, yes, the one in the middle, The crowd goes quiet, they are waiting to see what Jesus will do. The religious leaders are still angry but also go quiet.
Jesus looks their leader straight in the eye. Then he asks him, ‘Which is easier to do, to heal this man or forgive his sins?’ The religious leader, not sure how to answer that one, looks at his colleagues for help. But no help is forthcoming. Jesus walks slowly over to the paralysed man, he reaches out and takes the man’s hand, Jesus pulls it up gently, at the same time telling him to get up and walk. For the first time in years the man is on his feet. He can stand! He takes his first tentative steps! He looks at his mates trying to figure out what just happened, At the same time crowd reacts with lots cheering, clapping and laughing, they were amazed, and the religious leaders are left stunned. Jesus quietly slips out the door.
I hope your will excuse my bit of improvisation, but it is the little hints that Jesus drops that confirm he is God, He taught His disciples to pray in His name. He claimed that He and the Father were one and that He was the Son of God. He claimed that to know Him was to know God, to see Him was to see God, and to receive Him was to receive God. To believe Him was to believe God and to honour Him was to honour God, while to hate Him was to hate God.
Jesus is Human
With pregnancy a certain chain of events takes place, these happen on a pre-defined timeframe and they are not negotiable. These were known just as much in ancient times as they are now. And so, several months after that Angelic visit, a baby was born.
‘That baby that was born to Mary, [who was named Jesus], at the time was unable to do more than lie, stare, wriggle, and make noises. Jesus needed to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child.’ [J I Packer]
Jesus was subject to the same bodily limitations we have, he got weary, he got hungry, he needed sleep, he’d sweat, he experienced physical pain. Jesus also exhibited the full range of human emotions, Joy, Sorrow, Love, Compassion, things astonished him, he got angry and felt lonely. Jesus had a body, He had flesh and bones, and bled when cut.
There is one story in the bible that highlights Jesus’ humanity to me. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, Just outside of Jerusalem is the tiny village of Bethany, It was home to Jesus good friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Mary and Martha had sent a message to Jesus. Lazarus was sick, very sick. They wanted Jesus to come immediately. But Jesus was delayed. It must be a bloke thing. I get busy and distracted and don’t aways come when called, particularly at meal time, Just ask Liz. By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is dead. Now it may be the shortest verse in the bible but it’s full of meaning. ‘Jesus wept’. Jesus’s good friend was dead, and Jesus completely lost it, he was overcome with grief. Jesus’ humanity was on show for all to see.
Jesus of Nazareth was not some kind of made-up legend. Apart from the Gospels there is historical refenced to Jesus by Tacitus (Roman Senator and Historian) , Josephus (Roman Jewish historian), and the Babylonian Talmud (a central text of rabbinic Judaism). The consensus among even sceptical historians is that Jesus was a real person who existed in the first century AD. These days, you would have more trouble convincing someone about Jesus’ divinity than you would about Jesus’ humanity.
In Ancient times we see the reverse, the early church had to deal with Docetists, a branch of Gnosticism, Docetists insisted that Jesus only seemed to be human (Gk. Dokeo – “to seem”), even asserting that Jesus had a “phantom-like body.” Docetism denied the true humanity of Christ.
Have you ever considered what it was like for God to become human? We get some insights to this an early Christian creed that Paul included in his letter to the Church at Philippi.
Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
As a human being Jesus was vulnerable, for example as a baby, he was whisked away to Egypt to avoid the wrath of a jealous king. He was nearly thrown off a cliff in his own hometown, The religious authorities were frequently plotting against him, he was let down by his closest friends in his hour of need, he was betrayed, Jesus could be tortured, Jesus could die!
Jesus is with us
When you think about it, Emanual, God with us, Infers relationships.
In the beginning of his ministry, Jesus appoints twelve disciples, Its recorded in Mark chapter 3, but it’s interesting, that in that passage, Mark included something that you probably wouldn’t notice at glance. Mark says Jesus appointed the disciples so he could be with them. Jesus spent time with them, he taught them, he ate with them, he travelled with them.
This is very different to what we see in the Old Testament. There, having God with you was a terrifying experience. To Abraham [in Genesis] God appeared to as a smoking furnace. To Job, God spoke out of a storm. To the Israelites fleeing Egypt [in Exodus], God appeared as a pillar of fire. Moses wanted to see God, but when he asked, God told him in no uncertain terms that it would kill him.
But when God showed up as Jesus, He arrives as a Baby. Babies are cute, they are fun to hold, and to cuddle. People go ga-gar over them. You see it here in this church, a new baby turns up, and people are queueing up for a look, secretly hoping hold them.
But why does God turn up as a baby? There are two accounts, one in Matthew and the Luke, two accounts of a heavenly messenger visiting Mary and Joseph. In both accounts, the Angel explicitly tells Mary or Joseph what to name the child. ‘You are to call him Jesus’. In those times, names have meanings, names have a purpose. Jesus, when translated back into Hebrew is ‘Yeshua’. It’s the same as Joshua. Yeshua means ‘to rescue or to deliver’. God didn’t turn up as the big angry God to judge, but came to rescue or to deliver us, Jesus came to pay the penalty for our sin, to remove the barrier between us and God, so that we
can be together, God didn’t do this just so we would know that he existed, He came to be with us but also, so we could be with him.
There is another side to God with us, God is a source of comfort in times of trouble. As a parent I constantly make that classic Dad error. It goes something like this, Daughter has a problem, Dad diagnoses the problem, and outlines the solution. For example daughter says; ‘I can’t sleep’, Dad says. Stop using your mobile phone while trying to go to sleep. Well thought out and sound advice but usually goes down like a lead balloon. At best Dad is ignored, at worst Dad gets yelled at. My wife, on the other hand, takes another approach.
Liz will go and be with them, and sit beside them, she will hold their hand, she will reassure them, she will sympathise and empathise with them. She knows what it is like to go through what they are going through. She will be there for them.
When things are going well, you feel like a normal human being. But when things go wrong, you are suffering, it feels lonely. But if you meet someone who has been through the same thing you are going through, they know what it is like, you listen to them, you take their advice, they provide comfort. [Tim Keller – Hidden Christmas]
In the New Testament, in the letter to the Hebrews, the author points out that Jesus was made just like us, Fully human in every way. Jesus suffered all the pain, all the testing, the betrayal —and now he can provide help when help is needed.
I called Cameron the other day, Cameron has been on a trip to Cairns with other some other Cancer patients and I wanted to find out what his experience was like. The course of the conversation changed from topic to topic, but Cameron mentioned something about God being with him. God was with Cameron even when Cameron was unaware of it. He recounted a time he was in hospital, He said he wasn’t due for his regular observations but he happened to cough, A nurse was passing by, and checked in with Cameron to see if he was ok, Cameron said he was, and she was about to leave, But, she stopped and decided to check Cameron’s Oxygen levels anyhow, His Oxygen levels were way too low, Cameron said that woman’s actions probably saved his life. Cameron was taken off for an X-Ray, and when they looked at it they found that Cameron had a major infection in his lungs, If the Nurses and Doctors hadn’t acted when they did, if help wasn’t provided when needed, Cameron may no longer be with us.
To finish up, I’ll share something that I tell the Boys at Boys’ Brigade on Wednesday evenings. The thing I tell them is this. What God really wants, above anything else, is a relationship with us. We can now have this relationship with God through Jesus coming to earth to be with us. In Jesus, we get a person who wants to be friends with us. A person who is willing to be your best friend. A person who you can share things with. A person we can learn from, A gracious friend that forgives you when we go astray. A person who knows us intimately and wants to transform us into the person he knows we can be. In Jesus, we get God and a Human being in one package, someone who wants to be with us.
Featured Image by Jan van ’t Hoff – Gospel images