The Incarnation

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 3, 2016

John 1:1-18

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the better known Christian martyrs of the 20th Century, was killed by the Nazi’s days before the end of World War II.  Bonhoeffer spent most of his final two years in a Nazi prison, during which time some of his writings were smuggled out, including a poem titled “Christians and Pagans.”  Let me read it; there are three short sections:

 

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,

Pray to him for succor, for his peace, for bread,

For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;

All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

 

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,

Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,

Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;

Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

 

God goes to every man when sore bestead,

Feeds body and spirit with his bread;

For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead,

And both alike forgiving.[1]

 

Consider how Bonhoeffer structures this poem.  Christians are the ones standing by God in his hour of need.  As Matthew’s gospel informs us, this is what we do when we commit an act of kindness to “the least of these.”[2] But the heart of the poem is in the final verse; God comes to us when we are suffering.  God with us; it’s the incarnation; it’s what Christmas is all about.  Our passage on this the second and last week of Christmas is from the prelude to the Gospel of John.  READ JOHN 1:1-18

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Unlike Matthew and Luke, John’s gospel doesn’t give us the standard eyewitness account of the birth of our Savior.  John isn’t interested in mangers, stars, shepherds, angels, or wise men.  John begins his gospel with a theological or, more correctly, a Christological statement.  His words draw our minds back to Genesis, back to the creation.  Jesus Christ, the word of God, was present at the beginning.  Jesus Christ is responsible for life, and that life emits light to a darkened world.

Think back to Genesis 1, the story of the world’s creation.  Interestingly, the first act of creation was light.  On the first day, God brought light into the chaos and then separated light and darkness.  If you study that story, it’s interesting that the sun, that great heavenly body that gives us light during the daytime, is primarily reduced to a clock.  The sun isn’t created until the fourth day!  Genesis, like John’s gospel, opens with a theological statement, reminding us that life and light is from God – not from the sun.

This is exciting, but there is also a problem.  There’s darkness in the world.  Even though Jesus came into the world, and even though the world came into being through Him, the world does not know Him.  Through this darkness, the world is not even sure of its origin.  The world is lost.  Yet, piercing the darkness is the light of Christ.  And those who come to this light can be reborn a child of God, as John discusses in the third chapter.

By linking Jesus to the eternal word, John begins by emphasizing the co-existence of Christ and the Father, a unity responsible for creation and life.  As to the details of how all this came about, we’re not privy.  Genesis points to God as the creator, and John picks up that theme.  The problem that has occurred between Genesis 1 and John’s gospel is that sin established itself in the world, thereby keeping people from seeing God as the creator.  Sin creates the darkness that engulfs the world.

To put John’s esoteric language into equally esoteric theological wordage, we can no longer know the saving grace of God through Natural Theology.   Natural Theology is what we know about God without appealing to faith or revelation; in other words, what we can know about God from reason and experience.   John Calvin, early in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, discusses this; which he labels “natural endowment.”  Calvin understands there are some things we can know about God; however, we can’t discover the saving grace of God on our own.[3]  That knowledge is only available through revelation and Jesus Christ is the revelation of God.  Because the world has been corrupted, our ability to know God from our surroundings has been diminished, and we must wait for God to reveal himself to us.  This revelation, the incarnation, is necessary for us to experience salvation.

There was a boy to whom Santa gave a train on Christmas.  On that Christmas morning his house, like many of ours, looked like a disaster had struck.  Tossed across the floor were boxes and wrapping paper and bows, ribbons, and of course new toys.  But the boy was most interested in the train and loved racing it around and around, as fast as it would go.  But then, in the confusion, his younger sister kicked a discarded box on the tracks and the train crashed into it, creating a massive derailment.

Bending over the train, this young budding engineer kept trying to get the cars back on the tracks, but he couldn’t get the wheels to seat properly.  Finally, his father realized what was happening.  “You know, you can’t do that standing up above it,” he said.  “You have to get down beside it.”  The father then laid down beside the tracks with his son, and proceeded to show him how to seat the train back on the tracks.

This is a way we can think about the incarnation, the coming of God to us as a child.  The human race has been derailed by sin.  We need to be put back on the right track in life. But it can’t be done from above – God has to come down beside us in order to put us back on track.  And that’s what God does in Jesus Christ.

It all seems so harmless: God loving the world and coming into it to save it.  It seems like we should just rejoice and receive Christ with open arms, and be like the shepherds or wise men.  Yet, even there with the wise men, we learn of the opposition from Herod.[4]  Here in John’s gospel, we see this opposition manifest itself as darkness.  We know, looking back on the story from our perspective that the opposition will eventually lead to the crucifixion of the Messiah.

The world that we live in is in rebellion.  Our world doesn’t want to hear the message, which is why it was so easy to crucify Christ.  This hasn’t changed in the centuries and millenniums since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven.  For some reason, we find the light of Christ painful.  For some strange reason we prefer darkness.  Sin has such a shaming effect on us that we avoid light, lest we be shown for who we really are.  We prefer to live with lies rather than in the truth. We forget we can only find true freedom in the light, allowing God through Jesus Christ to point out our shortcomings, so that we might confess and repent.  We should rejoice that God hasn’t given up on us.  We should be thankful our God continues to reach out into a world that rebels against its Creator.

Ponder this morning what difference it make that God entered human history?  (This could make a good topic of conversation while enjoying coffee and fellowship afterwards.  Certainly, those of you who are Michigan State fans would prefer to discuss this than the Cotton Bowl!)

God’s coming gives meaning to life.  Without God, life itself would have no meaning and philosophically, we’d all be nihilists.[5]  But there is something inside of us, that which Calvin called Natural Endowment, which informs us there is something greater.  There is something beyond ourselves that demands our worship and reverence.  We have this desire to reach out and grasp it, which gets us into trouble because we can’t be God.  We tried, that’s the meaning behind the story of eating the forbidden fruit.[6]  We wanted to be like God, and as a result found ourselves even further away from the divine.  But all is not lost.  Even though we can’t fully grasp the glory and majesty of God, our Creator makes it easy for us by coming to us in a way we’ll understand.

What difference does it make?  If you believe, it makes all the difference in the world.  We have a God who cares and loves us.  And, as we come into God’s light, we too are called to care and love the world.  Life is not meaningless, for we are loved and we are to love.  Life is not hopeless for we have a God whose majesty engulfs the world, yet who understands the trials and tribulations we face daily because he’s been here.

As this Christmas season comes to a close, remember that life doesn’t have to be meaningless.  We can know God and of his love, and through God know that we are valued and loved and therefore should value and show love to others.  God has made himself known to us!  This week, though your kindness and gentleness, spread God’s love to those around you.  Reflect the face of Jesus to the world, it’ll make a difference in someone’s life.  Amen.

 

©2016

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prayers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978), 26.

[2] Matthew 25:40.

[3] See John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.III.1 and 1.IV.1-4.

[4] Matthew 2:1-18.

[5] A philosophical belief that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless.  It denies objective truth.  Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

[6] Genesis 3.


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