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29th July 2001
INCOMPREHENSIBLY MADE MAN.
Tonight, the fifth Sunday in the month, I want to discuss with you one of the greatest Christian doctrines: the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, said that he enjoyed listening to these Sunday night sermons because of their content. Preaching is downplayed in Australian churches. Many ministers merely make comments on the set lectionary text with little regard to the theological framework or to contemporary intellectual issues. Others proclaim enthusiastically religious froth without Biblical substance.
I regard this congregation as special. You have shown great maturity in appreciating Biblical preaching and have stayed with me as we have wrestled with the books and ideas of people who have been shaking the Christian world. This half hour presentation I make to you each week is the most important thing I ever do in a week that is often crowded with many privileges and weighty responsibilities. To preach on the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the highest privilege a minister has. Nothing is more exciting! The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the greatest possible news story. It is the story every television station would drop every program to cover. Such a big story could never be dull! How we preachers should be chastised for making it dull! The facts are simple. God, who made this universe and all in it, has limited Himself by becoming a human, one of His own creatures, so He could communicate with us. Whether we believe it or not, He has come among us and lived and died as one of us! That is more exciting than what happens at an Eminem concert! I wish Church conferences and Synods would realize that they have this great news to proclaim.
Instead they have long discussions on women bishops, the treatment of refugees, and the use of heroin injecting rooms as if only these things mattered. They say nothing at all on the one thing that is the biggest news story of all: that God Almighty has come in Jesus! Charles Wesley pondered this incredible news:
"Let earth and heaven combined, Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine the incarnate deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man."
He deigns in flesh to appear, widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near, and make us all divine;
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below."
That stuns the intellect: "Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man." Charles Wesley was right: it is incomprehensible that the Eternal God should become a temporal mortal especially as He would suffer and be killed. What is happening here? This is amazing stuff not understood. Yet there it is in the New Testament.
1. THE MEANING OF INCARNATION.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines incarnation as "a central Christian doctrine that the eternal Word of God, the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, became man in Jesus Christ, who was then truly God and truly man." This is the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It is not fully developed within the New Testament because, while believers knew it was true, it took years before the best theological minds could explain it on paper. The early believers had to develop new words to express the concept of incarnation.
It was as if I had become an expert on small, social hymenopterous insects, the ones we call ants. As an entomologist, an expert on ants, I would know all about their nests, social interaction and industrious habits. But ants attack and bite me while I am sitting near their nest. I want to communicate with them and tell them not to be afraid of me as I want only their good. I could write a message only ants do not read. I could shout only that would make them scurry underground. I could tip some water on them and flood them out but they would just attack me. The only way to communicate with them would be to incarnate myself as an ant, to empty myself of all human knowledge and power and be limited in time and space to be born as a little white egg and grow up in the ant world and bring them my message of love from the Great Entomologist. What if the ants reject my message, and kill me? That is the risk when we say, "God became flesh and dwelt among us, .. emptied Himself of all but love, and bled and died for Adam's helpless race."
Incarnation was such an overwhelming thought that no existing words were adequate to express the Christ-ian perception of Jesus. Incarnation means more than just the indwelling of God in a good man. It means more than God inspiring a person. Incarnation was developed to express the unique way in which the divine and human came together in Jesus. The divine became human.
2. WAS JESUS AWARE OF THIS?
Jesus was a workman, a carpenter who made ploughs, yokes for oxen, simple peasant furniture. He was totally undifferentiated from any other workman in Bethlehem. But by the time of His baptism He knew!
He knew He was different from every other man. He started to call God, Father. Did Jesus speak of Himself in terms of the Divine embodied in His own human flesh? When John wrote his Gospel of Jesus, John was very sure. Jesus explicitly claims to have pre-existed with the Father. He claims John 10:30 "I and my Father are one." In John's Gospel alone, He speaks of His relationship with God as His Father more than fifty times. Jesus says He knows the Father, He is sent by the Father, He glorifies the Father, no-one else comes to the Father but by Him, if you know Him you know the Father, He goes to the Father and will come from the Father. From so many references it is obvious Jesus understands incarnation. Collectively they illustrate an entirely new thought and a bold claim for the uniqueness of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul understood, and in his earliest letters he spoke of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Paul put it 2 Cor 5:19 "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself." God had come to us, putting on skin, joining the human race, as one with us. Paul explained: Phil 2:6-7 "Christ Jesus being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!" Paul also wrote: Coloss 1:14-20 "Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.
He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross." No news is bigger than this: the eternal has become temporal; the immortal has become mortal; the invisible has become visible; the author of Life has been killed!
The Apostle John understood it best. He wrote: John 1:2-4,14. "Christ was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him. Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us." The juxtaposition of the two concepts, Word and flesh is striking. The Word belongs wholly to the realm of the Divine, flesh belongs to this world. The two are opposed. 1:13; 3:6; 6:63 But John said "the Word became flesh." The concept of incarnation, as distinct from indwelling or inspiring, is explicit. Jesus is the incarnation of the divine Word. Word made flesh, "the incarnate deity, our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man." 1:18; 1:47-51; 3:12-13; 6:46, 60-62;14:9.
Once Jesus spoke of knowing the great father of the faith and of the nation, Abraham. The scholars scoffed: John 8:53-59 "Who do you think you are?" Jesus replied, "If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know Him, I know Him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." "You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to Him, "and you have seen Abraham!" "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" At this, they picked up stones to stone Him." The reason they stoned Him was that they recognized what He was saying. "I am" was the sacred name God used of Himself when Moses asked at the flaming bush God's name. Exod 3:14 Jesus was applying the sacred name to Himself.
Even more amazing is the way the title "God" is used to describe Jesus. "No one has ever seen God, but (Jesus) God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made Him known." John 1:18 After the resurrection, Thomas comes to faith from previous doubt, falls at the feet of Jesus and declares: John 20:28 "My Lord and my God!" Jesus was acknowledged as God. That title was absolutely provocative to the Jews. 5:18; 10:33 Within a few years the rabbis charged that Christians had abandoned belief in one God. (early 2nd century). The New Testament pushes the envelope of human understanding further. John links incarnation tightly to the cross. The whole gospel moves toward the climax of Christ's death. The glory of the Son is manifested particularly in His death. 12:23-24; 13:31 The immortal dies that we mortals might live!
3. WE MUST SHARE IN THE INCARNATION.
John was pushing into uncharted territory (6:60). A claim that God had revealed Himself in king, prophet, sage, or righteous man could be accepted. But to claim that the Eternal had become man in order to die was a step beyond. The focal point of the Word being made incarnate is the death and resurrection of Jesus. The moment of salvation remains decisively centered on the cross. At this point, hate and love, flesh and spirit, visible and invisible, human and divine blend into each other. Jesus is the person whom God's Word became. In His death our sins are punished and in His resurrection our mortality becomes immortal. This is the last thing that could be expected: that the nature, meaning of purpose behind the whole of creation is not something we discover, but something that discovers us. We do not find, but are found. We do not discover God. He reveals Himself: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel."
Incarnation means that the eternal God joins the human race. God is not aloof and indifferent. He reveals Himself in Jesus Christ, by taking flesh and dwelling among us. "Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man." Charles Wesley was right: it is incomprehensible that the Eternal God should become a temporal mortal especially as He would suffer and be killed for the sins of the world. Yet by our faith in Him our sins are forgiven and we have the gift of life eternal. The Son of God became a son of man, that we children Of men and women might become the children of God. John 1:12.
|Freedman, David Noel, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday) 1997, 1992.|
Rev Dr Gordon Moyes
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