Sermons December 8

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

December 8, 2013
Second Sunday in Advent

“The Meaning of Christmas”

Philippians 2:5-11

The American Atheists organization is making another advertising blitz this Christmas season. We won’t see it here in tiny small-market Oroville, but in New York City’s Times Square, on a forty by forty foot billboard, the message says: “Who Needs Christ During Christmas? Nobody.” A press release announcing the billboard stated that its purpose is to declare that, “Christmas is better without Christ.” How about that for a Christmas message?

Actually I don’t think I mind it that much. It’s a thought-provoking question. Christmas has come to mean many things to many people. I like the idea that people should have to encounter the question – How important is Christ to Christmas?

If you ask some people, they would say that the meaning of Christmas is the spirit of giving. They would say that the essence of Christmas is love. We give gifts to children, we bring food for the hungry, we smile and sing and spread Christmas cheer to everyone we meet. People think Christmas is a time for parties and family gatherings. It’s a vacation from work and school. Is it really so necessary that we talk about Jesus Christ? Could we not just switch Santa Claus for Jesus? Aren’t all of the good things we believe about Christmas sufficiently embodied in Santa Claus? And of course this has the added advantage that we don’t have to worry about offending anyone’s sensibilities and people won’t think we’re being religious fanatics.

I read about an interview with a psychologist who was asked how to help children through the holidays. The interviewer asked, “What if you don’t believe in Christmas, in the story that Jesus was the Savior and that he was born to set us free from sin?” The psychologist’s answer was astounding. He said to gather the children and tell them about the traditions. Tell them it’s about baking cookies, and being nice to one another, and giving gifts, and being together as a family. It’s about the old days and the way Grandma and Grandpa used to celebrate this time of year. Tell them about your first sled and your first Barbie doll, and the relatives who were always there at Christmas. Teach them the family’s traditions. You don’t need the manger or the wise men or the shepherds or the star. Forget the inn with no room and the prophecies of a Savior. Just read the kids “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, and that will be enough for them to know what Christmas is about.

If that’s what Christmas is all about, then we may as well go home. If the Christmas story is not real, if this material world is all that exists, then hope is meaningless and peace is only a dream. However, I believe that the reality of our world, which knows too much of hatred and pain and disappointment, is no match for the reality of Christmas, for the reality of God’s love experienced in Jesus Christ.

About forty years ago, the news columnist Harry Reasoner wrote the following message about the Christmas season. “The basis of this tremendous annual burst of buying things and gifts and parties and mere hysteria is a quiet event that Christians believe actually happened a long time ago. You can say that in all societies there has always been a midwinter festival. Many of the trappings of our Christmas are almost violently pagan. But you come back to the central fact of the day and quietness of Christmas morning, the birth of God on earth. It leaves you only three ways of accepting Christmas. One is cynically, as a time to make money, or endorse the making of it. The second is graciously, the appropriate attitude for non-Christians who wish their fellow citizens all the joys to which their beliefs entitle them. Thirdly, of course, is reverently. If this is the appearance of the Lord of the universe in the form of a helpless babe, it is a very important day.”

I hope we can agree that the Christmas story is anything but the safe, sentimental, once a year occasion for holiday cheer. Before that first Christmas Day, the prophet Zechariah recorded the words of God: “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord … I will dwell in your midst. And you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.”

The meaning of Christmas is the incarnation of the Son of God. Incarnation means enfleshment; that God took on human flesh and became a real person. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the central theme and the grandest miracle of the Christian faith. The most amazing thing about Christianity is our assertion that God has come to earth and taken on a human life in Jesus of Nazareth. In his book, Miracles, C.S. Lewis writes that the incarnation is the central miracle of the Christian faith. He says: “Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.”

Throughout the history of the Old Testament God was disclosing himself to his faithful people. But in the incarnation of Jesus Christ something absolutely new and unique happened. Accepting the limitations of his own creation, God has come to us in Jesus Christ, accomplishing our salvation, reconciling humanity, bringing us back into a relationship with himself, and giving us life.

When I look at this passage in Philippians, I see Paul emphasizing the humanity of Christ and the humility of Christ. First of all, Jesus Christ is God in human flesh; God sharing our humanity.

This passage in Philippians is one of the most complicated in the New Testament, and we can see that when we examine the Greek words used. Paul says that Jesus was by nature in the very form of God. There are two Greek words translated as “form.” There is the word, “morphe” and the word “schema.” Morphe means the essential form of something; it is that which never changes. Schema has to do with only the outward form; something that changes with time and circumstance. It was important to Paul to use the word morphe because he wanted to say that Christ is not God in an abstract way, as in appearance only. Instead, his meaning is that the nature of Christ is inseparable from the nature of God the Father.

The Nicene Creed achieves the same objective by saying that Christ is “… God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made.”

Paul wrote that though Christ was in the form of God he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. The word “exploited” means to snatch or clutch at something. Christ did not consider his existence in a manner equal to God as a right or a prerogative which had to be jealously guarded and kept. Instead, in his love and grace, he was willing through his incarnation to enter into another existence – the ordinariness of humanity.

Paul does not mean to infer that God came disguised as a human or only in the appearance of a human. When God became a human being he was not a figment of the imagination, not a mystical vision, but rather as one who was historically concrete and real. In the incarnation, God gets his hands dirty; he completely enmeshes himself in our human existence. When God came in the flesh, he came as a real human being, as one who shared our pains and temptations, our sorrows and joys.

In her book, “The Whimsical Christian,” Dorothy Sayers writes about the incarnation, saying: “For what it means is this, among other things; that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – God had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, God kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When God was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worth the while.”

Secondly, Paul reveals quite clearly the humility of Jesus Christ. Paul says that Christ emptied himself. Theologians have debated ever since what exactly it was he emptied. But at the basic level, it is an indication of the sacrifice that Christ made in taking on the fullness of humanity. Christ was fully human and fully God. He never stopped being God. He didn’t empty himself of his divinity. But in some way, the very taking on of human nature was an emptying of God’s majesty and glory.

Consider what it takes for an American president to visit a foreign country. On a recent trip it included the airlift of fifty-six support vehicles, fourteen limousines, three trucks and one ambulance. There were hundreds of secret service agents, even more support staff, and an increased military presence nearby. And then of course there’s Air Force One, which alone costs $179,750 per hour.

In contrast, Paul is saying that the true glory of God was witnessed not in an outward display of splendor, but in the lowliness with which the Son of God came in human flesh. God is not too proud to lower himself to come to us. And we witness the divine grace and goodness of God in the miracle of the incarnation. The meaning of Christmas is that the Creator comes in all humility as a creature. If we really want to know what God is like, we must look at Jesus Christ.

At Christmas time, in this worship service, we come to worship God, and we discover that God has set aside his heavenly glory in order that he might come to us as the lowly child, that he might win our hearts. When we celebrate the miracle of the incarnation, we celebrate the glorious truth that God is with us, that God loved us enough to come and die on the cross for us, that we might live forever with God. In the words of the carol, Jesus Christ is our Emmanuel. Emmanuel means God with us. In Jesus Christ, God gives to us his personal, powerful, saving love.

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