The gift of gifts

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Good morning. I wonder if you’ve ever received a Christmas presents that you didn’t really want or use? I remember one Christmas unwrapping a microscope. I was quite young and my leaning more towards the humanities and not the sciences was still to be discerned by the givers of this gift. Anyway, my instant reaction was enough to let my parents know this one was a fail! Don’t worry I have since learnt the art of disguising Christmas Day disappointment but that one ended up being returned or passed on - I can’t quiet remember, but it was an unwanted gift! Then there was the model train set. Too young to remember actually getting that one, but not too young to remember that I wasn’t allowed to play with it. It was a “model not a toy” and I have more memories of watching it than actually using it myself! - It was an unenjoyed gift!

Don’t worry – I also have many fabulous memories of receiving and enjoying wonderful gifts! But, if we stop to think about it, it happens more often than we probably realise. One survey found that over 50% of us receive at least one unwanted present each year – with an estimated unnecessary spend of over £5billion. But regardless of the wasted money, an unwanted or unenjoyed gift is a terrible thing, both for the giver and the recipient, especially when it’s misunderstood. Our passage this morning gets right to the heart of the giving of the greatest gift ever. So, let’s pray that we would understand and enjoy what God wants to say to us this morning:

Heavenly Father, we thank you that every good and perfect gift ultimately comes from you. Help us to understand, as we look at your word, both the nature and the purpose of the gift of Jesus. Amen.

So, if you have your Bibles to hand, please turn back to Philippians 2. There are four books in the New Testament (we call them the Gospels) that tell us all about the life and death of Jesus. Much of the rest of the New Testament explains the significance of his life and death. But our passage tonight deals with Jesus’ birth and death from a unique perspective: In it we get to view the gift of the incarnation (word used to describe God taking on human flesh). In it we get to view the gift of the incarnation through the eyes of the gift himself. It’s almost as if a curtain is drawn back and we are allowed to enter the mind of Jesus!

Think about it this way. If a child does something we don’t understand, we often say “what were you thinking?!” Or if a friend takes a mysterious course of action we may well ask what they had ‘in mind’ by doing what they did. This is the sense that Paul uses ‘mind’ in Philippians 2.5 Let’s re-read from Philippians 2.5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

I think Jesus’ mindset here shows us at least four things about the nature of the gift of the incarnation: Let’s look at each of those in turn:

1. A gift of God himself (Philippians 2.6):

…though he [Jesus] was in the form of God [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…

There’s so much here but let me just make a couple of observations. When Paul says Jesus was ‘in the form of God’ he doesn’t mean that Jesus was similar to God or resembled him, but that in very nature, in very form, in very substance Jesus was God. Furthermore, we’re told that Jesus has equality with God – yes he chooses to view that equality in a specific way, but make no mistake, the gift is truly divine, it is God himself! This is stunning assertion by Paul. He knew only too well that the Old Testament taught God’s revelation of himself as only one God (e.g. Isaiah 46.9):

I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me.

And he insists that this Jesus is that one God in human form. Which means that as we look at our nativity decorations and see that all familiar Christmas scene of a baby in a manger, we’re not just remembering a baby, but God himself the eternal Creator and sustainer of the whole universe in the flesh and for a reason. We’ll come back to that later. For now, though, see that the gift is a gift of God himself.

2. A gift of loving humility (Philippians 2.7)

Having observed the mind of Christ looking at his own status, the implication is that Jesus know thinks of us, his creation. There is something about his status that he doesn’t need to exclusively hold onto, to grasp. Instead, Philippians 2.7:

made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

Philippians 2.7 is the incarnation in a nutshell – fully God remains 100% God but becomes 100% man in the flesh! Theologians have spilt plenty of ink on these verses over the centuries, and there is so much to explore in them that we don’t have time for this morning. But whatever else these verses mean, they cannot mean that Jesus gave up being fully God. Why? Because we know that God is immortal, eternal, self-existent and unchanging – if Jesus is all those things he cannot give them up. Rather, with a mindset of loving humility Jesus chooses not to fully express his divinity but take on the form of a servant. I love how one person summarises this:

In Jesus, deity was fully possessed but not fully expressed!

Very often though the start of Philippians 2.7 is a bit of a stumbling point in people’s thinking. ‘Made himself nothing’ other translations use ‘emptied himself’ suggests a lessening, a taking away from, Jesus’ status as fully God. But that is not the case at all. If we read carefully, we’ll see that nothing is taken away from Jesus in the incarnation, but there is something added – a human form, and it’s that addition that gives the appearance of a lessening! Confused? Perhaps an illustration will help.

Maybe on Friday you, or someone you know, will be fortunate enough to unwrap a present containing a lovely new pair of football boots. As you lift the lid you see a brand, spanking new pair of brightly coloured, glorious boots. The following weekend you may get to try them out for the first time. Only problem is there’s been a week of rain. But try them out you do. After the game your boots are unrecognisable. They’re soaking and caked in mud. Those glorious boots have had water and mud added to them but now appear less than glorious. Nevertheless, they are in nature, in essence, still the same glorious, colourful boots but that glory is temporarily hidden by the addition of mud. As with all illustrations, its imperfect, but it does help us to see how, on the one hand Jesus can remain fully God, fully divine, while taking on the mud of humanity but on the other hand, his fully possessed divinity is not fully expressed because the mud of his humanity covers or conceals that glory to human eyes.

Folks, at the end of the day all of this beyond our comprehension. We can only go so far. Quite how Jesus is 100% God and 100% man is a mystery – at least this side of glory. Yet what we do know about the nature of the gift here is staggering. It should elicit awe and wonder at the path Jesus chose: he looked at his status as God and he lovingly and humbly made himself one of us. All of which begs the question, why? Why does God give us this gift of himself through Jesus? Partly because of what we observe next. Jesus is…

3. A gift of loving obedience (Philippians 2.8):

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

In other words, Jesus took on human form in order to lovingly obey his Father by dying on a cross. The primary purpose of the life of that Christmas baby was not that he should be worshipped and adored in a manger, not that he should work as a carpenter, not even that he should have three influential and important years teaching his followers. It was for primarily for him to grow into a man and end up brutally nailed to a cross in the ultimate act of sacrifice – for you and for me.

Jesus needed to be human to die. He needed a body that could be strung up on the most vicious and cruel form of execution known in the Roman empire. Crucifixion was abhorrent to the Romans, the ultimate humiliation; it was viewed as a curse by the Jews and Jesus voluntarily and obediently took this path. The obedience that Paul talks of here is staggering. Jesus has always been obedient to the Father of course through creation, through his life on earth – what’s different here is the kind of the obedience required by Jesus, for it takes him into unimaginable suffering, rejection, ridicule, agony and death. The gift of Christmas is ultimately the gift of Easter. But how could such horror be a gift? Well, it seems it is because, actually it is:

4. A gift for us (Philippians 2.8)

In going to the cross Jesus took there the punishment that each one of us deserve for our sin – that is our rejection of God, our insistence on living life our way, the big things, the little things each one puts us at odds with a perfect, loving and just God. And he says, you know what, I’m going to send my son to pay the price of that rebellion so you don’t have to. The gift of Jesus is quite simply the most staggering act of generosity and mercy in the history of the universe – and it is for you! Maybe you’d like the chance to explore this some more. If so, please visit our Why Jesus website. We’d love to send you a free book and there’s online discussion groups you can join to find out more. Many, many people have benefited from those so why not think about joining one in the New Year. No pressure. No hard sell. Just a chance to ask questions and get answers to the things that really matter in life. For the rest of us though, what should our response be to this gift, this Christmas time? Well before this is ever an example to be followed, I’d like to suggest that the gift is a wonder to respond to in our hearts.

a. Respond in your heart

For the pre-incarnate Jesus occupied a position of the highest possible glory and importance.To quote the popular hymn ‘he was rich beyond all splendour’. He possessed all the majesty of heaven, was loved by his Father and worshipped by the angels. As Creator he had the right to be immune from poverty, pain and humiliation. And yet he chose to become human and obey his Father. He could have insisted on coming in a blaze of glory – when he comes again, he will. But that first time, he humbled himself and all the fullness of God dwelt in a tiny embryo inside Mary’s womb.

The baby grew, was born, became a man. If you were living in Palestine 2,000 years ago and you bumped into him, all you would have seen was just another man. There was no halo, no glow, his divinity covered. He would have looked utterly ordinary. And yet the God-man went willingly, obediently, through agonizing suffering and death - for you and for me. As we mediate on these truths and reflect on what was going through Jesus mind, may we never lose the wonder of the incarnation. Our God is a God of love, humility and self-sacrifice! But as well as having our hearts moved by what Jesus has done, we must also recognise that Paul’s point in including this passage in his letter to the Philippians was a call to:

b. Respond in action

We’ve been allowed into Jesus’ mind this morning, not just for curiosity, but in order to follow his example. The context in Philippi was a church increasingly facing problems of division.It seems that some were acting out of self-interest and preference as they sought prominence or power. Sadly, the same is true of any church today, including ours. Our self-interest and preferences and desire for prominence mean that division is never far away. It’s folly to pretend otherwise, but you don’t need me to tell you that. You already know how we have different opinions on our music, about our services, about how response to Covid, about ministry areas, about leadership styles and decision-making. There always will be differences. Paul’s plea to the Philippians, and by implication down through the centuries to JPC, is this: Be like Jesus church - in giving yourself in humble, self-sacrificial service to each other. Not championing our own rights but putting others before ourselves!

That may mean staying late again, to clean the church after another Covid secure Carol service. It may mean humming that Carol with gusto as best you can, even though you really don’t like its melody or the instruments its being played on. It may mean washing up for the 1000th time over Christmas. It may mean opening up your family home to someone who won’t get to spend Christmas with a family. It will mean a myriad different things to a large church such as ours, but whatever it is it will be costly as, like Jesus, we sacrifice our own interests in order to serve the interest of others.

May God grant us the wisdom and honesty to see how he is calling us personally to respond and then may he give us he strength to do so.
Amen.

Had we had more time I would like to have finished with a prayer that I read recently. It was in a book of Puritan prayers and devotions given to me by a good friend. It’ll go up with the transcript of this talk on the website and I encourage you to pray it through sometime in the next week. It’s a marvellous pre-Christmas prayer in light of what we’ve been talking about this morning.

THE GIFT OF GIFTS

(From The Valley of Vision – A Collection of Puritan Prayer & Devotions)

O source of all good, what shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts,
thine own dear Son, begotten, not created,
my Redeemer, proxy, surety, substitute,
his self-emptying incomprehensible,
his infinity of love beyond the heart’s grasp.
Herein is wonder of wonders:
he came below to raise me above,
was born like me that I might become like him.
Herein is love;
when I cannot rise to him he draws near on wings of grace,
to raise me to himself.
Herein is power;
when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart
he united them in indissoluble unity,
the uncreated and the created.
Herein is wisdom;
when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
and no intellect to devise recovery,
he came, God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost,
as man to die my death,
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect righteousness for me.
O God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds,
And enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
and hearing, believe, rejoice, praise, adore,
my conscience bathed in an ocean of repose,
my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father:
place me with ox, ass, camel, goat,
to look with them upon my Redeemer’s face,
and in him account myself delivered from sin;
let me with Simeon clasp the new-born child to my heart,
embrace him with undying faith,
exulting that he is mine and I am his.
In him thou hast given me so much
that heaven can give no more.
Amen

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