“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” 1 Timothy 3:16
This morning, we celebrate what is known as the birth of the Logos made flesh, the incarnation. God does the impossible, the incredible in that in Christ Jesus He comes to us; and it is only now that He has done it that we can see how utterly impossible it is to accomplish on our side of humanity. We could not by any means have approached Him. He did not only approach us, He became what we were.
In this monumental event, God shows us severe mercy for in this event, He shatters our grand delusions; He shatters our notions of approaching him by means of our own human machinations and He shows us the love by which He has embraced us by taking on our own flesh, to bring two together as one, without contradiction.
We can only know God in His Son which He sent. Anyone who rejects the Son has also rejected the Father. The reason why this is so is because it is in the Son that the Father has come to us and there is no other way by which man can know God. This is the message that is clearly portrayed to us. If we want to know Christ, we must not despise the flesh He has taken on.
The notion of the incarnation as presented in Paul’s epistles, within the Christian tradition, is offensive to many monotheistic religions. The notion that God would become man remains one of the stumbling blocks that prevents Judaism, Islam and other monotheistic faiths from embracing the trinitarian aspect of God. But this is divinely designed; for to despise the God who becomes flesh is to despise the very flesh He assumed. Let us not forget that it is our own flesh that He takes upon Himself.
The Godhead has made the body of our Lord the temple wherein God and man now meet. It is within Christ Himself, in His one person, that what is by nature God and what is by nature man are now brought together as one. The Son has assumed not just an aspect of our humanity, not just its appearance, but its fallen and estranged aspect as inherited from Adam.
Christ’s birth in Bethlehem immediately carries within it the implication of Calvary. At the birth of the Son of God, Mary enfolds the child in swaddling clothes. It will be this very same cloth of linen which will be used to embalm the body of Christ, after He was dismounted from the cross. Thus, Calvary remains enfolded in the coming of the Son of God in Bethlehem. It is this nature that Christ assumed, in the Logos becoming flesh, which He takes to the cross to abolish that which had separated man from God. Take note, it is not that which separated God from man but that which has caused man to live in self-alienation, estranged from God, hiding in his own delusions of God and himself. This self-imposed exile is what has kept man in a mistaken identity, also known as sin, causing him to live substandard to what he was created to be and inferior to what God had intended for him.
He entered our own darkness by becoming what we were and His rescue was to save us, not only from the sins that we committed, but to save us from the false notion of ourselves. For this reason, Jesus is qualified as our Saviour from the very moment of birth. He is called Saviour and proclaimed as such from the moment He is brought into this world; adored not only by angels, announced to shepherds and priests from the East. The coming of the Son of God fulfils the greatest longing of the human heart, the desire of the ages, that God Himself would reveal Himself for only by God Himself can God be made known.
Throughout human civilisation, there have been prophets, teachers, sages, men of uprightness who have all brought to the human consciousness certain teachings, principles, aspects of morality concerning the Almighty and how we are to establishment our rapprochement to the Most High. But irrespective of these multiple aspects of interpretation and sciences regarding man’s walk with God, to come to a point of certainty that one has attained God is only a matter of interpretation. There could not be any certainty that we have attained the divine or that we have reached the point known as salvation.
How could this be? How could a man know that he has pleased God? By his own deluded standards? By his own sense of interpretation? This is the state in which religion has portrayed humanity. That we are thrown back and left to ourselves to contemplate on our works on the scales of divine justice, hoping that they are going to mettle out and show equity and righteousness. What a great delusion it is to think that we can do so.
The God who expects nothing less than perfection looks at each of us in our own performances as having missed the mark. It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul explains, unequivocally, that by means of man’s own works shall none be accepted. For it is not a matter of reward; it is not a matter of debt owed; it is a matter of gift imputed freely without means of works. For this reason, it is God who comes to us, not ashamed of our condition. He is born as every other human being, naked and vulnerable. He is born as every other human being, in need of care and maternal oversight. He assumes such vulnerability because of the love with which He has embraced us, and also His willingness to experience all that it means to be human. Not only the wonderful aspects of our humanity but also the aspects that are trying, that are painful and inconvenient. He does not shy away from these, but He fully embraces them because He is the God who stoops, who condescends, who is willing to take up a kenosis, to empty Himself, to become what we are. He is the God of 1 Corinthians 13, who exhibits all the qualities of agape love, not just as an action He performs, not just as the character that He exhibits but the very essence of His own being.
Contemplate with me on the extent to which He has identified with us. In Matthew 1 and Luke 3, we find the genealogy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In Judaistic culture, the genealogy was an indication of your inheritance. It was a permanent identification. When we read the genealogy that Christ chose to be born through, behold, His ancestors were more than common sinners. They were a despicable lot of people. The antecedents of Christ Jesus include prostitutes, thieves, sorcerers, tyrants, adulterers and adulteresses, idol worshippers. So much for generational curses!
The gospel writers appear not to hide from the fact that these are the ancestors of Jesus. They seem to glory in the fact that God did not shy away from such a scandalous ancestry, but rather chose this very pattern of flawed human beings to be those through whom He will take up flesh and become man. He was one of them, deeply woven into their corrupted but common fabric of humanity. Born from a line of idolaters, adulterers, sorcerers, thieves, without any shame; for this is the God who delights in stooping low to reach us where we are.
Why does He do this? What is His objective in coming and submitting to this human experience and all that it entails? His objective is to bring us what is known as salvation. Unto you this day, a saviour is born. All who profess Pauline thought acknowledge Christ Jesus as the “soter”, that is, the Saviour.
In 1 Timothy 1:15, the Apostle Paul makes one of seven acceptable statements, where he says:
“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”
Jesus Christ came to save. What do we mean then when we speak of salvation? This most used word within the New Testament can be commonly misunderstood by many. If you were to ask the majority, it would come down to this: that Jesus saves us from sin and death; Jesus saves us from hell or eternal damnation. While our rescue from sin and liberation from its corruptive effect is indeed glorious, the salvation of which Paul speaks, the salvation which the incarnation of God came to fulfil, is exceedingly glorious in its effects. This salvation which is wrought for us in Christ Jesus Himself is incomparably greater. It is more than you can imagine, it is more than you can believe, it is even more than you can hope for it to be. We are not merely saved from sin, we are not merely saved from death, we are not merely saved from the state known as hell. The remission of sin is a necessary prelude to the greatest gift of all; we are saved unto sonship. This is what transcends death itself and pre-exists even the fall.
Jesus did not come as a response to Adam’s fall. He did not come in reaction to our sin as a cosmic fix-it man who simply comes to repair after our multiple faults. We are preaching the Christ for whom the cosmos was formed. As such, I will have to contradict many statements that have been made in this period of time. Jesus Christ is not merely the reason for the season as though He had just one day in the whole year. He is the reason for everything.
Before the fall, before sin, before anything existed, the cosmos was planned between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with the primary purpose of bringing forth a creature compatible with His life who could be included into that familial circle of perichoresis. This is why all things were called forth, after the eternal Son was selected in the Father to be the One in whom we would now participate of this life.
The arrival of the Son of God in our humanity within the frame of our history is the monumental point. It is known as the fullness of times (Galatians 4:4) because it indicates a point where the eternal designs in the heart of the Godhead had now taken flesh and bone. Everything that the Father wanted would begin to have its realisation within the human time-space continuum. The salvation He came to fulfil is the salvation that relates to nature. We would be birthed as God’s sons, the same way He was birthed as Son of Man.
Fatherhood implies a certain commonality, a nature-to-nature relation; a progenitor-offspring sameness. Salvation implying sonship has very deep ramifications. It means that we have been placed into the irreversible rights and status of sonship as a result of genetic compatibility. Before we could be birthed into God’s life, God had to be birthed into ours. This is why the Son of God became the Son of Man that He might make sons of men sons of God. The reason for everything has come by grace to make us what He is by nature, to give us a created share in His own uncreated nature, that our indelible identity would be sonship. This is why He came.
This ancient apostolic understanding of salvation is summed up by the Greek term theosis, which literally means “becoming God”. It was used in the writings of the Apostolic church fathers such as Saint Athanasius the Great, whereby he said, “For this reason did God become man that you may see how man can become God.” By this, we do not claim that we become uncreated, but through union and participation with Christ, we are joined to what He is to the point of being identified fully with Him.
As earlier mentioned, God was born into the human nature that later through the crucifixion, death, burial, quickening, raising and seating of Christ, man by the Spirit might be born into the divine nature. Through the kenosis, the loving humiliation of God, He imposed upon Himself the limit of His own powers, the restriction of His own divine nature to enter into our world and in His descent from the bosom of the Father, He entered into the womb of the Virgin Mary. As the only begotten, He identified Himself with us, took upon Himself a nature such as ours, tempted at all points yet without sin. There is not one disadvantage of being human that Christ did not fully experience. Yet, in His crucifixion, He abolished sin and death and in His resurrection, there is now a new ascent; a “theosis” whereby what He has taken from Adam and what He has made His own is now going to be sanctified and transformed. This is seen as He leaves the bosom of death to ascend to the right hand of the Father. In this ascent, in this theosis, He is the firstborn Son when He identifies us with Him.
If we are to just see only one aspect of Christ becoming a man, being born of the virgin womb, we are not beholding the fullness of the Gospel revealed. He is not a baby anymore. Let’s no longer behold Him as a child in the manger. Let’s not even see Him as a man being baptised in the Jordan to commence His ministry; let’s not even see Him as a man stretched upon the cross; let’s not even see Him as resurrected only. But let us see Him ascended and in session at the Father’s right hand and us in mutual indwelling with Him, whereby whatever He has become, He has made us in Him. This is the true understanding of what it is to be saved; this is the Pauline understanding of the term “in Christ”; this is the revelation of the mystery; this is what the Father wants us to know of His Son: To know that we are in Christ and whatever He is, He has made us in Him; wherever He is, we are in Him; and whatever He has, we have with Him.
That is why on this day, we do not simply say He is the reason for the season, but He is the reason for everything.