What's the connection between Bedford and Bethlehem? Not much you might think! Now I'm sure that Bedford is a very nice town, and a good place to live if you are a commuter into London. And remember too that John Bunyan who wrote Pilgrim's Progress was a pastor in the town. But I will repeat my question – What's the connection between Bedford and Bethlehem? Unlikely as it may seem, both places are associated with the coming of a Messiah – one of whom is false and one of whom is true. The Panacea Society of Bedford have a terrace house all ready for their expected messiah. At present 18 Albany Road has tenants in it – and they have two months notice to quit so that the house can be made ready for the messiah! I wonder will the walls be papered or painted? Will the furniture come from Harrods or DFS? Will there be thick pile carpets or polished floor boards? Will there be a TV and a dishwasher? So much for the fiction – now for the fact. Christians believe that the true Messiah was born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, so there is no need to prepare a house for him in Bedford! Its more important to make room for him in our hearts, than to provide a fully equipped terrace house for him! We are all familiar with the birth narratives in the NT. So familiar that they are in danger of loosing their impact and any real significance.
In Matthew and Luke we have the historical sequence, and in John we have the theological reflection. I want to return to those two themes in a moment so try and keep history and theology in your mind. In the early chapters of Matthew, Luke and John we have some well-known verses used by countless preachers; the inspiration for many hymn writers; and words to warm the heart of every Christian believer. For example, from Matthew and Luke:
'You will call him Immanuel, which means God with us' (Mt 1:23). 'You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins' (Mt. 1:21). 'Today, in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord' (Lk. 2:11).
And in John's gospel:
'The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth' (Jn. 1:14).
But I wonder, what do these familiar verses say to us? Quite simply they should focus our attention on Jesus as Lord and Saviour; on the Word made flesh. And this encounter should evoke in us a clear response to Jesus, to acknowledge him, and to believe in him not simply as Lord and saviour but as my Lord and my Saviour, my master, my redeemer and my king. Now you may well be the sort of person who has heard the stories of Jesus' birth many, many times before; and you know the words of all of the Christmas carols, but they no longer touch your heart and engage your mind. They have long since ceased to have any real meaning for you. They provide a useful background to your Christmas celebrations but nothing more. They are symbolic and sentimental. but nothing more. OK for children but not for adults.
I've always been challenged by the words of a Christmas prayer which says that 'we confess that we have allowed the most important event in history to become dulled by familiarity. Father, forgive us.' That's true isn't it? Too familiar. Too sentimental. Too far removed from us. Just too incredible for words. That Jesus was born of Mary. That God became incarnate among us. That this child would grow to become our saviour. I wonder how much has Jesus intruded into your Christmas festivities? How much has he interrupted the time with your family and your break from work? How much has he touched your heart? I wonder, has Jesus been at the centre of your celebrations, or left outside in the cold in the proverbial stable? We may decorate our houses but there were no fairy lights in that poor stable.
The preacher, pastor and philosopher Jonathan Edwards referred to 'the sense of the heart' by which he meant our encounter with the living God and his encounter with us. Yes, that may well be true as we reflect upon the cross and the empty tomb, but how much does that sort of encounter take place as we reflect upon the birth of Christ? Of our encounter with the Incarnate One? Or to use the jargon, does Jesus meant more to us when we think of the atonement than of the incarnation? But do remember that without the incarnation there would have been no atonement. No crib, no cross. No crib, no crown. No baby, no saviour. The one points us to the other. The one anticipates the other. In some sense we don't want more information and more facts (though both of these are important) but we need to experience something of the mystery and the sheer beauty of the glory of God in the face of Christ. And it is this sense of awe and reverence that will deepen our experience, strengthen our faith, and enrich our worship. Today as we think about the birth of Christ (that is the Incarnation) and of God's perfect timing may I refer you to part of Gal. 4:4: 'When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.'
'When the time had fully come' (Gal. 4:4).
In other words, 'in the fullness of time'. In other words, the old era was over - the new era had come. And what made the difference? What marked off the old from the new? It was by the birth of Jesus. It was by the Incarnation of the Son of God. Here history and mystery combine. When we examine the life of Jesus we are immediately struck by the context in which he lived. His story is rooted in history. Indeed history is his story. That may be corny but its true.
Luke tells us that Jesus was born at the time of a census held during the rule of Caesar Augustus and the governorship of Quirinius (Lk. 2:1-2). Although the scholars disagree about which census this was – perhaps the records have been lost or we don't know all of the details – we should still take the NT as a reliable record of what happened. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, whose sons (also named Herod) appeared later in the gospel narrative (Mt. 2:1ff). Luke tells us that the start of Jesus' ministry took place during the reign of Tiberius Caesar when Pontius Pilate ruled Judea, and the high priests were Annas and Caiaphas (Lk. 3:1-2). And later Luke tells us about Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas during the trials and execution of Jesus (Lk. 22:54ff).
Scripture tells us about Pilate and we think nothing of it. But has it ever struck you how bizarre it is that each Sunday, throughout the world, Christians of all denominations refer to the pagan Pontius Pilate in their worship? In the Apostles' Creed we say that Jesus 'was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and suffered under Pontius Pilate.' Apart from his involvement in the trial of Jesus, the name of this obscure Roman official would have been lost. But for the past 2,000 years the name of this pagan ruler has been recited week by week in every branch of the Christian church. How strange and yet how significant it is that the Christian faith is so closely tied to the events in secular history. His story is rooted in history. History is his story. And so to summarise: the life of Jesus Christ took place during the rule of Herod the Great and of his sons; along with Pontius Pilate and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. Here is no made up account. No fabrication to explain the origins of Christianity. No man-made myth but truth incarnate. 'When the time had fully come' God sent Jesus to be our Saviour.
At precisely the right time Jesus became Incarnate of the Virgin Mary and
'The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us, [and] we have seen his glory' (Jn. 1:14).
Consider then, God's perfect timing. When the Jews were longing for and expecting a Messiah to come. At the right time God sent Jesus. When the Romans brought relative peace and security to their empire making travel possible. At the right time God sent Jesus. When Greek was the language of trade and commerce and of the emerging church. At the right time God sent Jesus.
Consider then, God's perfect timing. And in our own lives and experience, when God comes and meets with us in his Son. When his grace and love and mercy are poured out to us. When we are first prompted by the Holy Spirit to acknowledge Jesus as 'My Lord and my God', my saviour and my king. When the prodigal son is embraced by the outstretched arms of the waiting father. And there may be someone here today who has never made that sort of response to the Saviour. And if you are that person, could I encourage you to do so today? To kneel before him and confess him as your Lord and Saviour. To look beyond the crib to the cross. Here is God's perfect timing in bringing you here today.
'When the time had fully come' (Gal. 4:4).
If the life of Jesus is set within the pages of history, then the Incarnation and the atonement have some profound significance for each one of us.
Early last week on a bitterly cold day the doorbell rang. Was it (I wondered) an early visit from Father Christmas or was it a meter-reader? It was neither. It was a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses. It wasn't the best weather for them to share their views, and I couldn't but help admiring their determination to call in any weather. 'We have a message for you' they said, 'good news for the world'. But sadly their good news excludes the Trinity (the co-equal and co-existent Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Sadly their good news cannot conceive of a God who became man and was incarnate among us. For them he was a created being (but not God) and certainly not equal with God. Sadly their so called good news twists and distorts the true good news found in scripture. As always, I invited the Jehovah's Witnesses to say the creed with me. Why the creed? Because the Nicene Creed was composed to counter the teaching of the Arians, a group in the early church and similar to the Jehovah's Witnesses today who taught that Jesus was less than God. They cannot say the Christian creed because they don't believe it.
Just to remind you, the Nicene Creed says this about Jesus:
'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.
For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.'
The Jehovah's Witnesses confidently claim to have the good news! They alone claim to have the truth and everyone else is wrong. But they fail to believe the good news of scripture that there is One who has come among us, not created, but begotten; not sinful but perfect; one who is fully God and fully man; who bore our sin, and guilt and shame, who died in our place and took the punishment we rightly deserve. And God raised him from the dead, accepting the price he had paid and the sacrifice he had made. No one less than the Incarnate Son of God could have done that for all mankind. Here is good news indeed!
Always the incarnation is linked to the atonement. But the great mystery of the Christian faith is not the message of the atonement, but the message of the incarnation. In Christ Jesus, God became man. He took upon him our humanity, without any loss of his divinity. In other words Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Truly God and truly man. Here is mystery indeed, but a mystery revealed in a person. Good news to believers but a stumbling block to Jews and Muslims, and to Jehovah's Witnesses. Someone has rightly said that while
'the incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery ... it makes sense of everything else. that the NT contains' (J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 1973, p.54).
So remove it, or deny it, or modify it and the rest of the good news is lost; and we are lost too. And what does the incarnation of Jesus say to you and to me? At one level it may be mysterious and hard to grasp; but at another level it's perfectly clear and life-changing. Is Jesus just a good man whose teaching we admire, and find his example so appealing that we want to be like him? Or is he, the Word made flesh, whose glory we have only partially glimpsed, the truth of which we have only just begun to understand.
Already we have touched on history and theology, and now thirdly what Jonathan Edwards called 'the sense of the heart':
3 'The sense of the heart'
Both history and theology are important for they give us a firm foundation for what we believe and for the faith we profess. Not made up. Not irrational and beyond belief. Not based on subjective feelings, but objective truth, disclosed to us, and made known to us in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Consider God's dealings with us. He comes to us at the right time. When we were lost, he found us. When we stumbled and fell, he picked us up. When we were first overwhelmed with his love and grace and mercy. He drew us to himself.
When our hearts were first strangely warmed by Word and spirit. At the right time God sent Jesus.
But you may still be thinking how does the Incarnation touch my life? Surely the atonement is far more important? For the cross and the empty tomb speak to me of the love and the justice, the forgiveness and the cleansing, of the Father through the Son. Traditionally in the history of the church the Incarnation has been emphasised by Anglo-Catholics and the atonement by Evangelicals – but surely both are important – for they cannot be separated.
So what then is the significance of the Incarnation? At the right time God became man. Here is God come among us.
Here is God who identifies himself with our human condition. Here is God who is like us in every way and understands our situation – our weaknesses, our failures and our constant falling – what we should be but what we are not. In becoming man Jesus is like us in every way apart from one thing. He is the sinless Son of God. The perfect Saviour. He is as we should be and not as we are.
In Gen. 1:26 we read
'Let us make man in our own image, in our likeness.'
Here is the Maker's blueprint. What man should be but sin marred and touched our parents in that garden. And we are what we are, because of original sin. Not as bad as we could possibly be, but touched by sin in every part of our lives. So that even our best thoughts and actions are tainted by Adam's sin. And scripture makes plain (and our hearts know full well) that we cannot of ourselves save ourselves. We cannot make ourselves right with God. But can only cry out to the Incarnate One who made atonement for our sin to cleanse us and forgive us. So theologically and practically incarnation and atonement are closely related.
One old theologian put it like this:
'The NT knows nothing of an incarnation that is defined apart from the atonement; it is to put away sin, and to destroy the works of the devil that in the Incarnation the Son of God is made manifest. It is in his being a propitiation for the sins of the world, that the love of God is revealed.' (adapted from J. Denney, The Death of Christ, 1909, p.325).
Both the incarnation and the atonement were perfectly timed by God. Jesus was a baby in a crib long before he was a man on a cross.
'When the time had fully come, God set his Son' (Gal. 4:14) and 'the Word became flesh and lived among us' (Jn. 1:14). And 'you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.'
(2 Cor. 8:9).
Here then is the key to 'the sense of the heart' – of God's encounter with us and of our encounter with him. That at precisely the right time God became man. That the Lord Jesus Christ was born to die for your sins and mine. That he who was rich became poor so that we might become rich. In one of Charles Wesley's hymns (And can it be?) he expressed something about 'the sense of the heart'. And notice how he speaks of mystery and mercy (incarnation and atonement).