On the Incarnation
A Homily for Advent 2
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
December 8, 2019
Text: Luke 1:26-56
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
One of the things that I truly love about our town are the Christmas time festivities. The city really does pull out all the stops, it is beautiful, and amazing, and we are so fortunate and rich to live in such a place.
Last night, I stood on the court house square with a handful of friends, and probably several thousand others in the drizzling rain, as a man read the same passage of the Gospels According to St. Luke which we read this morning, the reading last night was intertwined with many of the children from the town singing classic, beautiful Christmas carols.
This moment stood in stark contrast to two other events this past week. The first was some Christmas movie that I put on the background while I cleaned, to be honest, I can’t remember what it was, or even the plot of the movie, but I remember thinking about the third thing that happened because, although the movie was about Christmas, it had nothing to do with Christ, it had nothing to do with what we will celebrate here in a couple short weeks.
The other event was more shocking, and more interesting. This past week we had a guest lecturer visit our class who works at a camp, he was discussing the generation that some are calling Generation Z, those young people who are under the age of 20 or so. It seems that at least some consider them to be the first truly-post Christian generation. That does not mean that there aren’t Christian in that generation but it means that the majority of them have never been exposed to any genuine Christian teachings.
One of the litmus tests the lecturer, who was about my age, was giving for this was the fact that he and his peers grew up watching that great Peanuts Christmas Special in which Linus gets up and reads this same passage which was read last night, and again this morning and reminds everyone what Christmas is all about. In this special Linus wraps up with this:
“For unto you is born this day, in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace good will toward men!’
“… that’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”
New secular Christmas entertainment now rarely has anything to do with Christ, and the exposure to the gospels is so very limited. However, I do not wish for you to grow despondent. Our reaction can be indignation, or we can have hope. I was talking to a friend about this later on, and we agreed that one of two things may happen – God may kindle in the hearts of the people a spiritual awakening, which will be beautiful and we will get to see, or Jesus may return, which will be beautiful and we will finally be free from our sins – so do not be sorrowful about these things – but pray earnestly for a spiritual awakening, pray that we would love well, even those who are not like us, for the need for healing power of Christ is great.
I remember some time ago, I was attending a Bible study at a friends church. My friend was an peaceable chap, but rather more theologically liberal than me. Still, I enjoyed his company, and he was always good for an interesting conversation. I found myself talking to a woman I had never met or seen around. That evening we were discussing the Nicene Creed and out of the blue she said “well, I mean no one actually believes this stuff, it’s just something that’s nice to say.”
I was rather shocked by the statement, I was young, and it was one of the first times I was exposed to someone who flat out denied the creeds of the church. Since then I have heard numerous other stories about this. Perhaps the most shocking stories are that of when progressive ministers retool the story we heard this morning to be about unexpected teenage pregnancy. That some how Mary was fooling around with someone, and became pregnant and then cooked up the story of the virgin birth.
Friends, this is not what is going on here, the text does not support it, we will delve into this a little in a minute, but for now, all you need to know is this type of skeptical approach to the text is not even remotely accurate or true to what is being said.
I want to make a quick side note. While we believe and affirm that traditional sexual ethics are thoroughly biblical and something that we are called to live in, that is to say, sex is only appropriate within the context of a man and a woman who are married, we recognize that this mold gets broken. We know that this isn’t always the case, we know that people make mistakes, get tripped up, stumble and fall. We know, too well that we have all sinned.
Because of the inordinate grace which we experience in Christ for our own sins, we are called to love those people who have struggles, whether their sins are like ours, or different. We are called to love the single mothers, be open, and kind to them, We are called to show Christ’s love in this dark and dying world. This is one of the reasons we support organizations like Community Pregnancy Center that provides a whole plethora of services to women and men who find themselves in such situations. We love and affirm all life, and we desire God world be glorified in all things.
Now back to Mary and back to the skeptics, some have argued that the word used which has traditionally been translated virgin could mean young woman, and they aren’t wrong in this. In fact it does, sometimes, mean a young woman of a marriageable age. However, it does not simply mean that she is of marriageable age, it has specifically to do with the chastity of the young woman, in reality then it means a woman of marriageable age who had never known a man and in reading the whole narrative we can take this word to mean nothing else.
So it is that the text really is talking about a young virgin who had been legally promised in marriage to a man of the house of David, named Joseph.
Now, another objection that occasionally arises is that this story was just stolen from pagan stories, that some how Christ’s miraculous and divine birth comes from those stories of when the pagan gods would come down and reproducing with human women. The most striking difference between these stories and the gospel message is that it in pagan lore it was never viewed as a moral act.
The most interesting example of this was one story which I found early on in preparing this sermon and couldn’t find later was of one of the gods destroying her partner, and then recreated a son for herself out of his parts. I thought it was one of the Egyptian gods, but frustratingly, I was unable to find it. Although this myth is a more extreme example of the pagan god stories, when examined critically, there ends up being almost no comparison between the narrative of the birth of Christ, and the pagan stories.
But here is the important question – does it really matter? Is the virgin birth as big of a deal as we claim that it is, or is it, as some have claimed some superstitious thing that Christians make a big to do about?
Let me give you a spoiler before I unpack it further – yes – it matters tremendously.
One of the interesting things about the Generation Z presentation was that where Modernist might be skeptical about the Virgin Birth or the resurrection, the young people of generation Z seem to be lest skeptical, but more concerned with why it might matter, and so while it is important for our own souls that we understand and accept this, it is equally important for the sake of our witness.
First – the virgin conception of Jesus reveals the incredible uniqueness of Christ, never before, nor since, has a man walked this earth who was conceived of a virgin. Right away we see that this is a truly unique position for this man to be in. We all know how children come into existence and so we know how scandalous this truly is.
Secondly – this conception created a special relationship between God-the-father and Christ, his son. In fact, in our reading this morning you see the entire Trinity already starting to act out its role in the salvific plan for humanity – an Angel was sent from God (the Father), to announce the birth of Jesus (the son), which would be made possible by the Holy Spirit. Each member of the trinity worked in perfect cooperation for Christ to be born,
to live his life without fault in a dark and sinful world,
to die willfully on the cross that sinners such as you and I might have eternal life,
and be raised to new life, that we too could be raised with him on that last day.
Third – Along the same lines, the virgin birth tells us the our salvation is a work of God. I have been contemplating this incredible grace as of late. I don’t believe that I can emphasize this enough: we do not save ourselves, we are not cooperators,
but submitting subjects to our king and Lord in the act of our salvation and the process of our sanctification.
God begins and ends the work in us.
In the same way the virgin birth was a complete work of God. Mary only submitted to His will for her. While some of our beloved friends in other churches believe Mary was somehow sinless as well, this simply cannot be supported in scripture, but rather the virgin birth points to the amazing fact that God, and God alone, did this work.
God started the work of our salvation, and God has completed it.
Fourth – likewise – the virgin conception is a sign that God’s final salvation has come. There had been types and foreshadowing of this coming in the Old Testament, we saw some of them as we did our survey over the last year, but the real and fullest miraculous birth has now happened. Finally, the Christ, the one who would crush the serpents head, the son of Eve had come to set his captive people free.
In fact, we could argue that the birth of John the Baptist was the final miraculous foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. For, like others before, John was born of a mother, who was far too old to conceive, and yet he was conceived. It was after the conception of John that Mary got her own visit from Gabriel, and finally, all that was promised was beginning to be fulfilled.
The final reason the virgin conception is of such importance is that it testifies to the incarnation. This amazing fact that God was made man, that God truly condescended, and lived a perfect, a fully human life – that means – that from the commencement of his gestation to his death and resurrection – he was fully and perfectly human and yet he is God.
I realize that this last sentence may sound overly technical – but it gives me chills for two reasons – first, I spent several years working in animal reproductive sciences, I have watched mice embryos develop from semination, through various cellular stages, there’s something amazing to think that God came and was briefly a sing celled human embryo, and then a two celled, and a four celled, developing as you and I developed in the womb growing and maturing until his birth.
That fact baffles me, the vulnerability, the love, that this act must have taken is staggering and beautiful.
Secondly, we live in a time when those early cells of humanity aren’t considered human, but considered, well simply that, just cells. They can be tossed away as easily as the next thing. Yet, the God incarnate lived each and every gestational moment that you and I lived in our mothers wombs. Surely, this must foster in us an awe of the preciousness of life. If it were not enough that each human being is created in the image of God – the fact that God himself – the second person of the Trinity went through each scientific stage of development should drive us to wonder and respect for the sanctity of life.
Now, I want to read you a section from Knowing God, which we’ve been reading from Christian Education because J.I. Packer summarizes the astounding fact of the incarnation exceedingly eloquently:
“The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man – that the second person of the Godhead became the ‘second man,’ determining human destiny, the second representative head of the race, and that He took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was as truly and fully divine as he was human…
“It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. ‘the Word became flesh;’ God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child.
“ and there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.”
No other point of theology within the Christian tradition is as important, is as critical, is as amazing as the incarnation. Packer’s words point us to this, remind us, enliven us, encourage us, and help us to remember that very fact. What we read what was announced this morning to a young, scared girl in Galilee some two-thousand years ago was earth shattering, and altered the direction of humanity forever.
And why does the incarnation matter?
Like all points of theology it is easy to become overly heady, or God forbid become puffed up in our own knowledge, becoming conceited that we know something others don’t. But first and foremost, the incarnation should make us humble. For like the reality of the virgin birth, it points to the fact that it is God that saves, that salvation is not a work of man, it is God who condescended to us, and lived among us, he starts and he ends the work in us. It is not us, but Him alone.
Secondly, the incarnation is a fact spelled out and testified to in scripture. I think we’ve talked about C.S. Lewis’s proof of Christ where he argues that Christ is either “Lord, Lunatic, or Liar.” If we read the Gospel accounts attentively, we realize that Jesus believed he was special, believed that he was in fact God. If you were walking down the street and met someone who believed that he was Lord of the universe – you would be forced to come to one of three conclusions – this man is crazy, this man is not telling us the truth, or this man is telling us the truth, and you are in the presence of someone great.
The evidence with Christ does not point that he is crazy, nor that he is deceptive, therefore Jesus must be Lord, Jesus must be king of kings. The incarnation both makes this all the more believable but this is also testified to by the incarnation.
Third – the fact that Jesus is God incarnation tells us it was God on the cross dying for our sins. The more I’ve contemplated the incarnation these past few days while getting ready for this sermon, the more in awe I am of this incredible fact – and I know I’ve said this at least twice already – but I am simply amazed by salvation, amazed how thoroughly God centered our salvation is – it is not you, nor I that made it possible, but from the very beginning it was God and it is God.
It is God who held himself to the cross on that cross, it wasn’t just a good man, or some excellent teacher like Socrates dying that, it was the incarnate Lord who suffered there for all to see.
Fourth – the resurrection tends to be another one of those modernist hang-ups but if Christ truly was incarnate, then of course he could be raised from the dead, and of course he WOULD be raised from the dead. Because how could the author of life possibly be contained in the grave?
The incarnation testified to the reality of the resurrection, as the resurrection testified to the reality of the incarnation.
The second half of this morning’s lesson ends with incredible joy and praise. Elizabeth, Mary’s older relative now heavy with child, greets Mary with joy for the baby in her womb jumps gladness as even he realizes who he’s in the presence of. Somehow Elizabeth and her unborn child already knows that Jesus is the Lord.
This brings us to one final theological point. Elizabeth calls Mary the mother of her Lord. There was a major Christological controversy in the 5th century when a theologian objected to the term “Theotokos,” or God-bearer for Mary because he was afraid that this elevated Mary to a position another human shouldn’t hold. Yet, this is what Mary is, she truly is bearing in her womb the incarnate God. Even in this mornings readings we see that Elizabeth recognizes this. It is important we recognize that as Christ is God, and there was never a point where Jesus was not God and with hat in mind Mary can be nothing less than the Theotokos, the God-bearer.
We close the lesson this morning with the hymn which we call the Magnificat. Those who do Evening Prayer at home or join us for Evensong during the week are familiar with this beautiful song of praise. Mary is moved to awe by all she is seeing, and learning, and experiencing the little child growing in her. While the song “Mary Did you Know?” Sometimes seems a little pedantic, and we want to say “of course she knew! The angel told her!” I suspect that this is uncharitable to the song writer. It seems likely that in one sense, of course she knew, but in another – very real sense, it was only slowly sinking in, slowly realizing that something amazing, something so much bigger than her was happening in her womb.
How could she possible know and imagine that she would be the one to tend to, and care for that incarnate Lord who was a vulnerable baby in her womb, who was wrapped in swaddling cloth, who cried when he was hungry, who needed love and nurturing.
How could she possibly realize that in it’s fullness?
I realize – this morning we delved into some pretty deep and profoundly important theology. I hope and pray that I presented it in such a way that it enlivened your hearts, and brought you into a place of incredible awe at the grace of our God, at the tender care he gives his children, at the love that he has poured out for us.
I hope that you have been reminded of this incredible truth of the incarnation that you hearts have been brought to a place of praise that the same Lord who came, who truly lived, who truly died, who truly rose again, and who will return on that last day was conceived of the virgin Mary, and in her womb grew as every child has ever grown and yet he was truly man and fully God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
 Some points taken from class notes, Systematic Theology 2, Steve Tracy.
 J.I. Packer, Knowing God, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973, 53.