Living in line with the incarnation

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Well, Happy New Year. And I wonder if you have any ambitions for 2021? Maybe it’s to get fit – even to do the Great North Run. Maybe it’s to get through exams. Maybe it’s finally to re-decorate the house. Maybe, with young children, it’s just to survive – at least, to get a whole night’s sleep.
And for all of us there’s the ambition for life to get back to normal.

Well a Christian book I read soon after coming to faith had the provocative title, Give Up Your Small Ambitions. (The equivalent today would be John Piper’s book Don’t Waste Your Life, which I recommend.) And the message of Give Up Your Small Ambitions was this, don’t let lesser ambitions, like those I’ve just mentioned, drive your life. Instead, let it be driven by the over-riding ambition of making Jesus known to the many who still need to hear about him. And in the last of this series on the incarnation (how God became human in Jesus) the apostle Paul says much the same. Because in Titus 2, he says if we see the purpose of the incarnation clearly, we’ll see all our ambitions more clearly, and align them better with God’s plans. So this morning we’re looking at: Living in line with the incarnation And before we go further, let’s pray:

Father,
As we stand at the beginning of a new year, with whatever it brings,
help us to see our world and live our lives in line with the purpose of the incarnation. In Jesus’ name. Amen

So if you have a Bible, please turn to Titus 2.11-14. And the first thing here is that:

1. The incarnation makes us look differently at the world (Titus 2.11)

Listen to verse 11:

For the grace of God has appeared

By which Paul meant, it’s appeared here on this earth, in human history, in Jesus. And Paul wasn’t just thinking of the baby in Bethlehem. He was thinking of everything from Jesus’ virgin birth through his life, his death on the cross, his resurrection and his return to heaven – everything we read about in the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And Paul says, what that all adds up to is the ultimate appearance of the grace of God – in other words, his undeserved love.

Now at one level, we see God’s undeserved love all around us, right now. We might think the pandemic shows that’s not true, but actually, a human race that’s turned its back on God doesn’t deserve any length of life at all.
That’s why John Calvin, writing about the Genesis flood, said:

The remarkable thing is not that there was a flood, but that there has only been one.

So what’s remarkable isn’t people dying, or dying earlier than average, it’s people having any length and health of life at all. We don’t deserve that as a race, having told the giver of Life we don’t want him to be God in our lives. So in fact, every good thing we have in creation shows God’s undeserved love for us – his ‘common grace’. But Paul is talking about something different in Titus 2.11. He is talking about ‘saving grace’ – which is God’s undeserved love in acting to forgive us for living as if he was not God. Titus 2.11 again:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people

Which shows that what Paul had especially in mind was Jesus’ death on the cross. Because that was the supreme reason for the incarnation.
As the Lord Jesus said about himself (Mark 10.45):

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Back in 1998, a Canadian family spent Christmas without the husband and father because he’d given himself as a ransom. He was Norbert Reinhart. He owned a mining company in Columbia and one of his workers had been taken hostage by rebels. And with negotiations failing, Reinhart volunteered to take his worker’s place. That was October. Reinhart wasn’t released till the following January, when one Canadian journalist wrote this:

Reinhart said, “I just tried to fulfil my responsibility – it was nothing special.”
But I doubt his wife and children felt it was nothing special when Christmas came and went with no word of him.
And I hope, as they celebrate his return, they will realise he is one in a million who would give up his freedom, and his life if necessary, for one unknown employee.
[Calgary Herald, 10 January 1999]

So Reinhart gave his life as a ransom for one – thankfully only risking it. Whereas God the Son came to give his life as a ransom for many. And not just to risk it, but to give it up deliberately on the cross, to face the judgement we deserve, so we can be saved from it, and forgiven. So as we look at the cross and hear Jesus’ cry (Mark 15.34) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? we see what we deserve for our sin because if we say to God, ‘I don’t want you in my life,’ the judgement is that he gives us what we want – both now and beyond death. That’s where we’d all stand with God, without the incarnation and cross. And if this morning we stand forgiven and accepted by him, it’s only because of the incarnation and cross.

And that makes us look differently at the world, at the people around us, because many of them feel no need of salvation. Some are completely secular and seem happy, successful, even enviable without God. Some have their own beliefs about God and assume they’re good enough to be accepted in the end. And some are religious – whether Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shintoist, you name it – and the world’s assumption is that they’ve already got a faith, so they must be OK. But Titus 2.11 says:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people

Which means God the Son came from heaven to humanness to the cross – because all people without exception needed it, and because that’s the only way anyone could be put right with God. And if we’re unsure about that, we need to ask, ‘Do we really think that if there was any other way of salvation, like us trying to be good, or having a religion – God would have sent his only Son to the cross?’ We need to look at the world in the light of the incarnation and cross, and see that what it thinks of its own goodness is wrong, and that what it thinks of its own religions is wrong, and that what it thinks are its greatest needs are wrong. So that’s the first thing. The incarnation makes us look differently at the world the second thing is that:

2. The incarnation makes us live differently from the world (Titus 2.12-13)

Let’s read from Titus 2.11-12:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age

So we’ve seen that the grace of God which has appeared in Jesus is his undeserved love which acted at the cross to forgive us. But Paul says if we trust in Jesus, his grace doesn’t just forgive us. It trains us, motivates us, to live differently from the way we did, and from the way the world still does. So how does that work? Well, I said that as we look at the cross, we see what we deserve for our sin. Another way to put it is that we see what God thinks of our sin, and of the way the world lives which, in a word, is ungodliness.

And ungodliness is simply, living as if God was not God, and so as if every desire we have was legitimate and good to act on. Ungodliness is what makes people feel like they’re free and fulfilling themselves and having fun, and what makes Christians feel they might be missing out. But look at the cross and you see what God thinks of ungodliness, and what it costs to be forgiven for it. Which makes you see it differently. As Titus 2.12 says, it:

[trains] us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age

Some of you will remember the Aussie evangelist John Chapman (known as Chappo), who died some years back. And he told the story of how he was in difficulty surfing one day, when a hand grabbed him, and he found a lifeguard towing him back in. And Chappo thanked him, did a bit of sunbathing, and then decided to go in again. And he was just walking down the beach, when, again, a hand grabbed him, and he turned to find it was the same lifeguard who’d fished him out earlier. And the lifeguard said, ‘Where are you going, mate?’ And Chappo said, ‘I thought I’d go back in.’ And the lifeguard said, ‘Not today. I didn’t save you just for you to go and be stupid again.’

And that’s how saving grace trains us. In the face of the ongoing sinful desires inside us, and the temptations around us, it by saying, ‘Look what I did for you on the cross. Think where you’d be if I hadn’t. And don’t go and be stupid again.’ And of course we are stupid again – we still sin, we’re still horribly inconsistent. But if you’re a Christian, you know what it is to be trained by grace, to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives And Titus 2.13 says that saving grace also trains us to:

[wait] for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ

So in 2 Titus 2.11 we had Jesus’ first appearing, when he left the glory of heaven to become human. And in Titus 2.13 we have Jesus’ second appearing – in his full glory, when everyone will finally see – happily or unhappily that he was and is our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. So verse 13 is about Jesus’ second coming at the end of time. And it says his saving grace also trains us to wait for that – and the word means wait expectantly, eagerly. It’s the can’t wait for Christmas kind of waiting of the child on Christmas Eve, or the can’t wait to be married kind of waiting of the engaged couple. And Christians should be like that about what Titus 2.13 calls our blessed hope which just means all the blessings we’ll finally experience beyond this life of being out of this world with all its sin and suffering and death. And of being with God – finally able to see him and unable to doubt him or sin against him any more. And saving grace trains you to look forward to that, because it makes you not just want to be forgiven your sin, but to be shot of your sin. So, the incarnation makes us look differently at the world, it makes us live differently from the world and lastly:

3. The incarnation makes us live differently for the world (Titus 2.14)

So Titus 2.13 ends with the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ but then Paul comes back to the incarnation again (Titus 2.13-14):

…our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us [on the cross] to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Now imagine you were asked to complete the sentence: Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to…My guess is that many of us would say ‘to forgive us our sins’. And that’s right, but forgiveness is only a means to an end. And the end is a restored relationship with Jesus, where we’re living for him as we should have been all along. And that’s what Titus 2.14 is about:

[he] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

And that word redeem comes from the world of slaves and masters – where if you wanted a slave, you paid the price to his current master, and he became yours. That’s what it meant to redeem. And one illustration of that is Abraham Lincoln. The story goes that, to show his opposition to the slave trade, Lincoln went to a market to buy a slave and set her free. And the slave recognised him, and misunderstanding what he was doing, she spat at him for what she thought was hypocrisy. And he simply said, ‘You’re free to go,’ and walked away. And a moment later she’d pulled him to a halt and said, Sir, if I am free, then I want to serve the one who set me free.’ Which, apparently, she did into old age.

And if you know Jesus redeemed you on the cross, that he paid the inconceivable price of your forgiveness, you’ll be saying the same, ‘Lord Jesus, if I am free – free from judgement and free to relate to you knowing I’m forgiven and loved – then I want to serve the one who set me free.’ And Jesus’ answer, paraphrasing verse 14, is, ‘Then I want you to live differently from those who don’t know me, and to do such good in this world that it attracts them to me.’ Now you may have noticed at the start that Titus 2.11 began with the word for. So we’ve been reading the motivation for what comes before verse 11. So just listen to Tituts 2.9-10, where Paul says Christian:

Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour.

So he’s saying, ‘Christian slaves, I want you to live so that you attract your non-Christian masters to Jesus.’ And earlier in chapter 2, he’s said similar things to all Christians – ‘At work or in your homes or in the church, or in society, I want you to live so that you attract people to Jesus.’ Verse 11 For. And the motivation is everything we’ve seen about the incarnation, because: The incarnation makes us look differently at the world. It makes us live differently from the world. And it makes us live differently for the world – to attract the world to Jesus. And scared as we often are to be different, we will only do the world any good, and attract it to Jesus, if we are. So whatever your smaller ambitions, will you let that be your over-riding ambition for 2021?

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