Today is part 2 of our Christmas series. I am going to follow up on the theme of the incarnation that I introduced briefly last week. But today as we wrap up the new year, it’s also going to be part reflection, part confession, part hope for how things might be different in the new year.
Last week, we talked about the birth of Jesus. The first Christmas. Christmas is one of the few times that we talk about the incarnation. I’ve been meditating on it more this week and it really is mind blowing if you really sit down and think about its implications. God became a man. It’s part of history. Jesus who is both fully God and fully man. At the same time. It’s like trying to fit the force of the Niagra Falls into a water bottle.
Rather than letting this truth sink in, we tend to domesticate Jesus. Cut him down to size. He’s one of us. We talk a lot about the humanity of Jesus and shortchange his divinity. We treat Jesus like he is Iron Man. Remember that illustration? He’s got a shiny suit and weapons and firepower, but if he takes the suit off, he’s just like you and me. He’s my friend. We’re buddies. Jesus and me, we’re tight. He loves me. Those are true statements, but it misses an important element. He is the Son of GOD. God. Jesus is much more like Thor. I checked my seminary textbook–yes, that is a sacrilegious statement that I made last week. The point being, he is not like us. He is completely other. But at the same time, he IS like us. He sympathizes with us and our weaknesses. It’s both his divinity and his humanity side by side.
Baby Jesus, as portrayed in the nativity scene, is calm, he’s peaceful, he doesn’t cry, you never have to change his diapers. Helpless. Gentle. If you recall Revelation 1 and how the glorified Jesus is described, it’s a vastly different picture. The infinite God of the universe, the God who spoke and the universe came into being and stars came flying out of his mouth, THAT God’s Son came into the world. Jesus, he put his glory aside, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped (Phil 2), but he limited himself, he descended to our level and took on human flesh.
As we read Scripture, we get reminded here and there that Jesus is not from this world, we get glimpses into his glory. In Luke 2, it is not even talking about God or the Son of God appearing just yet. There, it’s talking about an angel. A messenger sent from God. And because these angels were in the presence of God, their entire bodies reflected the glory of the Lord. And even the reflection of God’s glory that shone from these angels was enough for these shepherds to be terrified. Terror is the most natural human response when we come into contact with the divine.
If Jesus came unveiled in full glory with eyes like blazing fire and a sharp double-edge sword protruding from his mouth, we might fear him, we might bow down in reverence before him because we are scared, but we wouldn’t love him. Love requires intimacy and proximity. Thus, Jesus veils his glory. Because if sinners came into the presence of a holy God and witnessed His unveiled, blinding glory, we’d be toast. We’d die. So Jesus veiled his glory while he was among us SO THAT we could get close enough to relate with him. Jesus, the Son of God, took on human flesh and hid his glory and entered the world. So that we could spend time with him and touch him and laugh with him and share meals with him. This is how we build relationship.
This is where I want to pick it up today and unpack more of what it means to relate with the Incarnate God of the universe. How does the incarnation affect and impinge upon our lives practically?
But before we discuss the incarnation and its impact, I want to spend a moment on why many were NOT impacted by the incarnation.
Please turn with me to John 1:10-14. Keep your Bible handy because we will be flipping to a number of passages.
10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Why did the birth of Jesus make no difference for the vast majority of the nation of Israel?
His own did not receive him. This is a shocking statement. What do you mean, his own didn’t receive him? We need to let the force of this statement sink in a bit. It’s supposed to jar us. The gospel writer, John, phrased it this way deliberately so that we do a double take. And re-read that line. His own did not receive him? It’s not supposed to be like this. It doesn’t make sense. It’s like if I went away on a mission trip for a few weeks and I come back home, and knock on the door and instead of being welcomed home, Jackie and the boys open the door and say, Who are you? What do you mean, who am I? I’m your husband. Boys, it’s daddy. How tragic it would be if they did not recognize nor welcome me back home. His own did not receive him.
A similar thing happens in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Have you seen the movie? I only saw the ending a few nights ago and I did some research about the movie afterward. George Bailey is a business owner in a small town of Bedford Falls. And Mr. Potter is a corrupt business owner who wants to take over the town. The only thing stopping Mr. Potter from succeeding is George Bailey and his company. George is an honest man and his business does good for the community. Good old George gives his uncle some money to deposit into the company account, but on the way, the uncle loses it. It was a rather large sum and the company didn’t have enough savings to cover the loss so the lack of funds would mean George would lose his company. This causes George to spiral downward.
In his distress, he contemplates taking his own life and that’s when he is visited by a guardian angel. And the angel gives him a view into what the town would be like if he had never been born. In one scene during this alternate reality, George appears to Mary, the woman who would have been his beloved wife, and tragically, she doesn’t recognize him. It’s a nightmare.
The same thing is going on here in the Christmas account. Jesus is the Son of God. He is our Elder Brother. And this Jesus was born and his own, his people, the Jewish nation, his own family did not recognize him. And because they failed to recognize him, they didn’t receive him. They didn’t welcome him.
Why did this happen and what lessons and warnings can be glean for ourselves? Because Jesus could be in our midst right now and speaking to you and speaking to me and perhaps we are not recognizing him. We are not hearing him. And therefore, we don’t welcome him into our hearts as a son or daughter would welcome their daddy or as a wife would welcome her husband after a long trip.
First of all, why did this happen? To answer that, we need to study the context. Let’s set the stage. From the close of the Old Testament in Malachi to the birth of Christ, 400 years had passed. Think about that. 400 years. Prior to that, God had sent spiritual leaders like Abraham and Moses and judge after judge and king after king and numerous prophets. Then one day, it all stopped. Malachi was the last prophet. 400 years of silence followed until John the Baptist appeared onto the scene, the one who prepared the way for the birth of Christ.
400 years–that’s a long time. Why did God stop speaking? One word. Judgment. Romans 1 describes judgment as God giving people over to what they want. It’s like God is holding back the floodwaters of sin and then he says, okay, you want it, you can have it. And he steps aside, the dam breaks and the waters coming rushing forth.
It’s kind of like parents with their kids sometimes. You warn them 100 times, you threaten them, punish them and then you reach a point–okay, Elijah, you’ve been warned, have it your way. Do what you want.
Israel had been warned of their stubbornness and hard-heartedness again and again, but they did not heed the warnings. Malachi was the last prophet. It was as if God were saying, okay, I’m done. Have it your way. He stepped aside. He stopped contending with sinful man. He stopped speaking. 400 years of silence.
What do you think happened during those 400 years? Consider the mindset for the Jewish nation. 400 years of silence. 400 years of the same old thing. It became the norm to NOT hear from God. Think about it. No more manna from heaven. No more spiritual leaders keeping the people in check and telling them to repent. And the tragic thing is the fact that they settled for religion. They got used to going to the temple, doing their thing, fasting twice a week, giving tithe, praying several times a day, and all the while not hearing from God. The nation of Israel had lowered their expectations so much that it didn’t seem to bother them anymore that they never heard from the Lord while they were still very active in their religious duties and rituals.
This happened for 400 years. Think about how people get set in their ways as they grow older. When you’re young, you are flexible. Do I want hamburger or a hot dog today? I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I can’t afford a nicer meal anyway. And the fat content, I’m young, I don’t have to worry, I can burn it off. But when you get older, first of all, you’ve tried a larger range of foods. Instead of hamburger, you’ve eaten filet mignon and prime rib. Your taste buds get pickier. And because you are older and your metabolism has slowed, you have to start counting calories. You have to factor in your health. Because your cholesterol is high. You get less flexible with food intake as you get older. It’s no longer anything goes. Even when it comes to something as small as food, we get set in certain patterns.
Do you see many people in their sixties and seventies having a major paradigm shift late in life? It can happen, but it’s extremely rare. So we shouldn’t be surprised that after 400 years of hardening for the Jewish nation, they had become set in their ways. This is how we do things. This is how we worship God. This is how we deal with sin. It’s just religion. This first Christmas was just another day for the vast majority of the nation of Israel. Christ coming into the world made no difference.
Religion, when it becomes routine, it doesn’t require much engagement. It’s like when you are driving home from work, you don’t have to really concentrate after a few weeks. The same old route, the same old routine, hit the cruise control and you can drive home on auto-pilot. You can reach the destination without even thinking. Religion, when it becomes routine, it no longer matters if God speaks or not. Because your heart is unplugged. You are just going through the motions.
Into this routine, into this zero expectation, God silent, mind turned off, heart unplugged state, the incarnation happened. It’s supposed to wake us up. You can zone out when you are reading a textbook, but it’s much harder to zone out when a person appears and he begins speaking to you directly. The nation of Israel could read Scripture as if it were just words on a paper, just chanting laws and principles, reciting good ancient proverbs to live by, but when THE WORD became flesh and appeared, and a Person is before you, it’s much harder to ignore.