Do you know God? If you don’t, would you like to? If you do, how can you make such a bold claim? This morning we’re returning to a series that we started last year, called ‘The Living and True God’. It’s all about knowing God and how we can know God, and we’re using as a framework the Nicene Creed, which has been used by Christians as a summary of the Bible’s teaching since it was first produced at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. We say it together whenever we have a service of Holy Communion, as we do this morning. Last year we covered the opening section:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is,
seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
That says, in other words, ‘We believe in God the Father, the Creator. And we believe in the Son of God, who is himself truly God.”
Now we come to next section, and my title is HE BECAME INCARNATE. The Nicene Creed continues with these words:
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.
“Was incarnate” means the Son of God became a flesh and blood human being. God became man. So the theme of Christmas is happily extending into January. The Nicene Creed is not the Bible, but it is a good summary of what the Bible teaches. I want to give you one key Bible passage as an example of the Bible’s teaching in relation to the incarnation.
Would you please turn to John’s Gospel, chapter 1 verses 1-14. You can find that on page 1063 in the pew Bibles. I want to think about this great passage under three simple headings. First, Who Jesus Is – the Word made flesh. Secondly, Where Jesus Came – to a dark and lost world. And thirdly, What Jesus Gives – the light of life. Because it’s important to realise that God became man – the Son of God became incarnate – for a reason. To use shorthand theological terms, the purpose of the incarnation was atonement and redemption. That is, Jesus was born to die for our sins and to give us eternal life. Christmas is only the beginning, and it drives on towards Good Friday, Easter Day and Pentecost. Christmas makes no sense on its own. And that’s wonderfully clear in these verses. So:
First, WHO JESUS IS – THE WORD MADE FLESH
It is so important to be clear about Jesus’ identity. There was a very interesting article in a newspaper some time ago. It ran like this:
Twenty people are claiming to be Jesus and the rightful heir to £30,000 left in the will of religious recluse Ernest Digweed. Mr Digweed was found dead four years ago in a tent in the living room of his home in Portsmouth…
He left his entire estate to Jesus, so that He would have some money if the Second Coming should actually occur. But until then, Mr Digweed named the Public Trustees as executors and it is they who must decide whether any hopeful claimant is Jesus. They refuse to reveal the identities of the hopefuls, though one is rumoured to be a steel worker from Sheffield. And they will not say what their criteria are for checking each claim.
An official said: “We politely acknowledged all claims. Usually people go away after a while or admit that they cannot support the claim. If however there was a claim that appeared to be theologically sound, then it would have to be considered very carefully.”
We need to know who Jesus is. For the answer, look at the opening verses of John’s Gospel (v 1-4):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He 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. (v1-4)
John doesn’t here use the title ‘Son of God’. He talks about the ‘Word’. That would have rung bells with his non-Jewish readers with their Greek culture, because some of their philosophers had an idea of an impersonal Word which ordered the whole universe. John’s talk of the Word would also have rung bells with his Jewish readers, whose minds would have gone right back to the beginning of the Bible, to Genesis 1, which describes how God created the world through his Word. But what John is saying is radically new, both for Jews and for Gentiles. The Word of God is a person. The Word is God. And the Word became a man. And that man was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the incarnate Word; the incarnate Son of God.
Let there be no mistake about who Jesus is. The incarnate Word is fully human. 1.14:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.(v14)
And the incarnate Word is fully divine. Verse 1:
…the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (v1)
Jesus, the Word, the Son of God, is one person who is fully God and fully man. That is the crucial foundation of our faith. That is the incarnation. Get that wrong, and everything else will collapse.
John was wanting to clarify the identity of Jesus in the face of fundamental denials of this truth.
Some no doubt were denying his divinity, either outright, or by honouring him as a man touched by the Spirit of God to an extraordinary, even unique degree – but not God.
Others would have been saying that Jesus was indeed God, but that it would have destroyed his divinity to become man. Instead he acted like a man, he seemed like a man – he never really was a man. He did not degrade and contaminate his divinity with real flesh and blood humanity.
But, John says, neither of these two views of Jesus can square with the facts. Lose either the divinity or the humanity of Christ and you lose everything.
Dorothy L. Sayers said:
If Christ was only man, then he is entirely irrelevant to any thought of God; if he is only God, then he is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life.
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Word of God become flesh and living among us. He is God revealing himself to us, communicating directly with us. He is Emmanuel, God with us.
Secondly, WHERE JESUS CAME – TO A DARK AND LOST WORLD
I remember hearing the evangelist Billy Graham tell the story of a time when he went out for a walk with his young son and they came across an ant hill. Someone a bit earlier must have given it a kick or something because all around there were ants dead and dying, and others charging about the collapsed ant hill completely lost, with the pattern of their life destroyed. Billy said to his son:
“Wouldn’t it be good if you could become an ant for a while and go and show them what’s wrong, and organise them and help them bury their dead and get things straight?” And then he said, “That’s what God did. He sent his Son to earth, to become a man, so he could straighten it out and rescue the world which has been so badly damaged by sin.”
That image has its limitations, or course. But that’s not a bad picture of what Jesus came to do. Nor is it a bad picture of the world into which Jesus came. John speaks of the world in darkness. Verse 5:
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (v5)
The image of darkness is depicting the reality of the world which ignores and rejects the truth. The Word who became flesh had made the world, but the world turns its back on him, not from a distance only, but even when he comes as close as it is possible to get. Verse 10-11:
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. (v10-11)
That is a description of a spiritually dead world. Without Christ, outside of Christ, we may be physically alive, but we are spiritually dead. Someone once said to me that as he looked into many people’s eyes it was as if he could see the spiritual deadness behind. No spark. No light. No real life. Thousands upon thousands live their lives without peace, without any knowledge of God, without forgiveness, not daring to face the reality of death. That is the world into which Christ came. A world like a kicked over ant heap.
And he alone can bring real hope and light into the darkness – through his incarnation and all that follows from it. I was reminded again this Christmas of a man I knew years ago. When he was young his life was very nearly destroyed as the result of a gnawing guilt that he carried with him since his early teens. He felt worthless and dirty and gradually hid away more and more in the darkness, trying to blot out his hopelessness with drink and drugs. He seemed incapable of real friendship or lasting relationships. But gradually, through his brother, he came out of his darkness and he found Christ. He confessed his sin and discovered forgiveness and purpose and began to walk with Christ. He married and I heard later that he and his wife were helping other young people to find what they had found – the light of Christ.
The Word came in the flesh into a dark and lost world. But he came to rescue it.
Which brings us to my final heading.
Thirdly, WHAT JESUS GIVES – THE LIGHT OF LIFE
The arrival of Jesus, the Word made flesh, in the world is a bit like God switching on a powerful spotlight on a dark stage. As the prophet Isaiah said, pointing to Jesus:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
And Jesus himself said:
“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
What is light? It is life.
In one sense, Jesus “gives light to every man.” John 1.9:
The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. (v9)
Our very existence and life we owe to him – whether or not we acknowledge it, whether or not we believe in him. Such is the grace he gives to all.
But in a different sense, the light of the incarnate Word is something that only shines in the heart of the believer. Not because of any merit in the believer, but by sheer free grace. The light of Christ brings eternal life. Verses 11-13 spell it out:
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.(v11-13)
There is a story once told about the shepherds of East Anglia, formerly the centre of England’s wool trade. When a shepherd died, he would be buried in a coffin stuffed full of wool. The idea was that, when the day of judgement came, Christ would see the wool and realise that this man had been a shepherd. As he himself was the good shepherd, he would know the pressures this shepherd faced and the amount to time needed to look after wayward sheep and would understand why he hadn’t been to church much!
It is indeed true we do not have to face a distant God who knows nothing of what being human, frail and mortal means. The Word became flesh. He knows. He understands.
But the full truth is even more wonderful than those shepherds realised. When we have faith in Christ – trusting him for salvation, living in submission to his will – then we receive a lot more than sympathy from him. We are brought right into the very family of God. We are adopted. We become the beloved sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.
The great theologian John Calvin draws attention to the radical nature of the transformation that takes place when Christ by his Spirit takes up residence in a person’s heart, by faith. He writes:
As long as Christ remains outside of me, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us.
The Word made flesh continues his saving work by uniting his people to himself. Verse 12 again:
… to all who received him … he gave the right to become children of God…(v12)
The evangelical revival in this country in the 18th Century was, under God, the result of the teaching of three men: John Wesley; his brother Charles; and George Whitfield. When Charles Wesley found Christ on Whit Sunday in 1738 his experience overflowed into some marvellous verses. Their main theme is this transformation from being a slave to sin, trapped in the darkness, to being a son of God through Christ:
Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great Deliverer’s praise?
O how shall I the goodness tellFather, which thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God,
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
Blest with this antipast of heaven!
As children of God, we have a taste of heaven now, and the promise of heaven to come. Verse 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. (v14)
And on to verse16:
From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. (v16)
Grace and blessing – one blessing after another. That is the consequence of the incarnation.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.
Do we understand that? Have we grasped the great dignity and significance and hope that God gave to all human life when he became flesh and blood in Jesus? And so do we love the world as he does?
Do we realise that if we have received him by faith we are adopted into all the privileges of a child of God? Are we sure of it? Do we think every day about the love that God has for us?
Do we treat God as our Father in heaven, who we know because Jesus has made him known? Do we love him, enjoying our fellowship with him, and trying in everything to please him, as a parent would want his child to do?
Do we know deep down that Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, understands us because he is one of us, and is full of sympathy and tender care towards us?
Who is Jesus? He is God and man. Where did he come? He came into the darkness of this world. What does he give? He gives eternal life and light to those who receive him, who believe in his name. So let the light of Christ, the Word made flesh, shine in our hearts as we live this new year.
A prayer of the great Reformer Martin Luther:
All praise to thee Eternal Lord,
Clothed in a garb of flesh and blood;
Choosing a manger for a throne,
While worlds on worlds are thine alone.