Pastor Scott Andrews| December 24, 2023
Written in 1963, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was made famous by Andy Williams. Some of the reasons given for being the most wonderful time include:
It’s the most wonderful time of the year,
With the kids jingle belling,
And everyone telling you, “Be of good cheer.”
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
It’s the hap-happiest season of all,
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings,
When friends come to call.
It’s the hap-happiest season of all.
There’ll be parties for hosting,
Marshmallows for toasting,
And caroling out in the snow.
There’ll be scary ghost stories, (not exactly sure what that has to do with Christmas)
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
There’ll be much mistltoeing, (I think that means kissing)
And hearts will be glowing,
When loved ones are near.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
You probably have your own reasons for this season being the most wonderful – Santa Claus and reindeer, family and gifts, snow and sleigh rides, Christmas carols and Christmas trees, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or Jack Frost nipping at your nose. If you’re one of those grinches or struggling with holiday blues, everyone knows a turkey and some mistletoe help make the season bright. And let’s be honest, many of us dream of a white Christmas.
Christmas really is a wonderful time of the year – one of my personal favorites. I love what we do around here: the decorations, favorite Christmas carols and hymns, the advent candle, Christmas concerts and Christmas Eve candlelight services. It maybe is the hap-happiest season of all, even for followers of Jesus Christ. But why? You see, Christmas has become a hopeless muddle of confusion. The humility and poverty of the stable are somehow confused with the wealth and indulgence of gift giving. The requirement to register to pay taxes to someone you don’t like is confused with giving gifts to someone you don’t like. The reality of the incarnation of Jesus is mixed with the frivolity of the season with Santa. Blinking lights, I suppose, might have some connection to the star of Bethlehem. Cheap plastic toys are confused with the value of meaningful worship gifts given by wise men. Salesmen are confused with shepherds, angels with flying reindeer. The pain of childbirth is mixed with office parties. I bring you good tidings of great joy has become for some, holiday blues. The filth of a stable is confounded with the whiteness of fresh snow. And then there’s Mary, Joseph, Mariah Carey, and Bing Crosby. And so it goes.
So, with all that, let’s spend a few minutes this morning talking about not the glories of Christmases long, long ago, but the glory of the first Christmas. The first coming of Christ – His incarnation, from a familiar passage, Philippians 2 – let’s read verses 5-11.
That’s Christmas. This passage is of such poetic beauty many suggest it’s actually a hymn of the early church. May be. If it is, Paul borrowed it for his purposes, and by doing so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gave it biblical, God-breathed inspiration and authority. If it is an original piece composed by Paul himself, it is one of his best works. Regardless of its original authorship, it has inspired the church in its highest view of Christ for two millennia. And it’s a great one to talk about the first advent of Christ, with the following points creating our outline:
- The Fact of the Incarnation (5-7)
- The Purpose of the Incarnation (8)
- The Result of the Incarnation (9-11)
We’ll take a few minutes to look at each of those, beginning with the all-important fact of the incarnation. By the way, we’re going to spend most our time this morning talking about Jesus, since it is His birthday we celebrate.
Now, when I say incarnation, I’m speaking of Jesus taking on flesh/humanity – specifically, the event by which the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, became a man to fulfill the prophecies and responsibilities of the Old Testament Messiah, who we know as Christ.
First, notice, Jesus already existed in the form of God. This means more than that He just looked like God. It means in His preexistence, He was God. One commentator said it this way, “the phrase in the form of God means participation in the being and sharing in the essence of God.” (J.B. Lightfoot) You see, it doesn’t mean, Jesus had the form of God, but really wasn’t God – it means He was characterized by what is essential to being God. That’s why the NIV translates it, He was in very nature God. Hebrews 1 says, “He [Jesus] is the radiance of His [that is, God’s] glory and the exact representation of His nature.
John 1 says it this way, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The context of the chapter makes it clear we’re talking about the Son of God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. But that truth, indeed, that mystery of the Christian faith, has perplexed people for centuries – how is it that Jesus is both human and divine? Sounds mythological. So, they’ve tried to explain it, fix it. But to err on one side or the other, which well-meaning theologians have done throughout church history, is to create heresies which have eventually been condemned.
For example, there have been those who have wanted to deny something of His deity. That is, while He was a good man, He was not God. Or maybe He was God, but certainly not like God is God. He’s of a different essence/substance than the Father. For example, the first serious challenge to the deity of Jesus came early in the fourth century when a man named Arius began teaching Jesus was not God like the Father – He was of a different essence. Emperor Constantine, who claimed to be a Christian, called for a church council to deal with the issue. Three hundred and eighteen bishops showed up to this Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. And they affirmed the equal deity of Jesus Christ – in a sense, they affirmed this incarnation – God taking on human form.
By the way, some lists recording those 318 bishops name one from Turkey – the bishop of Myra – whose name was St. Nicholas. If true, and there is good reason to believe it is, then the original St. Nick affirmed the incarnation and deity of Jesus Christ – the real celebration of Christmas. That would also make St. Nicholas one of the authors of the Nicene Creed, which in part reads:
“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 and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.”
Think of it – if true – the original Santa Claus kept Christ in Christmas. In addition to denying the deity of Christ, others go to the other extreme and deny His humanity – He wasn’t really man. Maybe He wasn’t human at all – if you tried to touch Him, you couldn’t – He was just a spirit. Or maybe the divine Spirit united with a human man – but they were not one unique person. Some have even suggested the Spirit of Christ left the man Jesus right before the crucifixion. So, this mystery of the incarnation, the first advent of the Second Person of the Trinity is difficult. There are all kinds of questions to which people want answers:
When did Jesus know He was God? We talked about this recently. Was He out playing hide and seek one day with His friends, and realized, He always knew where they were? Or, did He know even in the manger, as He stared up at Mary, that He was God in the flesh? We want to know, Mary did you know? My question is, Jesus, did you know? That is, was He always self-aware, or did He grow in self-awareness?
How about this – if He was fully human, could Jesus have sinned? That’s a big one everybody wants to know about this mystery of the incarnation – the doctrine is called the impeccability of Christ – that is, as the God-man, could Jesus sin? But it gets more fundamental than that – some suggest Jesus never cried, since crying is an expression of selfishness – feed me, change me – pay attention to me. Is that true? And before you dismiss it, think of the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes. Why, because God can’t cry, can He?
Some of those are profound questions. How exactly did Jesus grow in wisdom and stature as a man? Did He have to learn that two plus two equals four, how to feed Himself, use the restroom. Or, did He know the quadratic formula when He was a toddler? When it says He grew in strength – was there still the omnipotent power behind His divinity? Okay – maybe He had to develop some strength and coordination to pull Himself up to toddle a few steps – but if He wanted to, could walk in the bathtub, on top of the water?
All kinds of questions – and you might know the answers to some. But Philippians 2 teaches a little more about this incarnation. While we can’t necessarily answer all the questions, it gives us a little glimpse into this mystery. For example – as we finally get to our first point – while verse 6 speaks of His deity, verse 7 speaks of His taking on humanity, and what was involved in that. Look at those verses with me:
Verses 5-6 say, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Notice again, He existed in the form of, the morphe of God. The word morphe speaks of the nature or character of something. Now I need you to hear that – I know it’s Christmas Eve and you’re thinking about that really nice toaster you hope to get. But listen – the word morphe speaks of the nature or character of something. Jesus was in nature or character, God.
Notice also the past tense – He existed in the form of God, that is, before the incarnation – before He came to earth. Which is why He said to the Jews one day, “Before Abraham was, I am.” I existed in the day of Abraham, I existed before the day of Abraham – in fact, I am – I am the eternally existent, self-sufficient One – I am I Am. He was in fact in very nature God, such that, He did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped – literally, He didn’t consider it robbery to be considered equal with God, because even prior to the incarnation, He already was. He was God, just as the Nicene Creed and St. Nick affirmed, true God from true God – of one being with the Father. Which means, and I don’t want to offend anyone’s sensibilities here – but there is a sense in which this painting is right. Because we’ll see in a moment the end of the incarnation is that every knee will bow… St. Nick did 1700 years ago.
This verse clearly speaks to both the deity of Christ, and the pre-existence of Christ. Think of this – the first Adam, in arrogance, sought to become like God; the second Adam, in humility, became like man. The first Adam, created in human form, grasped at equality with God; the second Adam, Christ, existing in the form of God, did not hold onto that which He already had, but instead condescended to accept humanity.
You see, verse 7, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of man – the incarnation. The word for emptied Himself comes from the Greek word, kenoo, hence, the kenosis theories that abound. That is, what does it mean when Paul says Jesus emptied Himself? My best guess, as most agree, is not that Jesus emptied Himself of His deity – He was still God – but He did voluntarily lay aside the radiance of His glory – the visible expression of His deity, to take on human likeness. Some writers say it this way: He stripped Himself of His privilege. He gave up the insignias of majesty. Think of it this way: the Scripture says no one has seen God and lived – the idea is to see God in His resplendent glory, in our sinful, unredeemed state would consume us. But, Jesus wrapped Himself in human flesh, and as one author says, came down the backstairs of heaven, lest He blind us with excess of light.
Not only did He give up His glory, He also gave up His honor. Isaiah 53 says, “He was despised. He was rejected.” The gospels tell us He was hated, He was mocked, He was defamed, He was dishonored, He was discredited, He was accused, He was murdered. He gave up His honor.
He also gave up His riches. II Corinthians 8:9 says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” You see, through Him, you have gained sonship – you have received the forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
He also gave up the independent exercise of His authority. He said things like, “I do only that which the Father shows Me. What the Father says, I will do. What I see the Father do, I will do.” He gave up the independent exercise of divine authority. He gave up His riches. He gave up His honor. He gave up His glory. He emptied all those things and yet He continued to be God. It wasn’t that He lost any of His divine attributes, it is that He chose not to use them – He gave up the prerogative, or the privilege, of using them.
It is a deep mystery of which John Milton wrote in a poem titled, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, “That glorious form, that light insufferable – He laid aside and here with us to be – forsook the courts of everlasting day – and chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.” He’s the king who took off His majestic robes to put on the garments of a beggar. He took on the form, the morphe – same word – the character, the nature, of a servant. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” He took human flesh such that He was still fully God, and fully man – not 50-50 – but 100% man, 100% God. That is the mystery of the incarnation – He laid it aside, for us and our salvation.
You see, that’s why did He came, which leads to the second point – and the rest go much more quickly. He came so that He would live a perfect life and die not for His sins, but for ours. The purpose of the incarnation is seen in verse 8, “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by become obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Most of us know this – Jesus didn’t come just to be born of a virgin, which He was. He didn’t come just to live a sinless, spotless, perfect life, which He did. And that was necessary, by the way. He lived a perfect life, so that His righteousness might be imputed to us. But further, He came to give His life a ransom for many. He humbled Himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even the shameful, ignominious, painful, searing death of the cross. The ancient writers spoke of crucifixion as dying a thousand deaths before you took your last breath. One commentator writes,
“Death, Death! Like the crescendo of a drum roll, the reverberation of the word death brings the first half of the hymn to a deafening silence before the cross. The last word to be heard is the word cross. Death on a cross was not a heroic death, a noble death, but a shameful death, a disgraceful death. The cross displayed the lowest depths of human depravity and cruelty. It exhibited the most brutal form of sadistic torture and execution ever invented by malicious human minds. Roman law reserved the cross for the worst criminals and the most violent insurrectionists….A Roman citizen would never be executed by crucifixion.” (Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians)
Paul was writing to the church at Philippi, a proud Roman colony. The phrase even death on a cross would have emphasized the lowest of the low – the deepest condescension and degradation to which Jesus went in lowly obedience as a slave. His identification with us reached the lowest point possible. From existing in the form of God, to even death on a cross. The condescension was abject and complete. This does not lift our eyes to heaven to see the wonders of creation; it doesn’t even lift our hearts to the miracle of redemption; it takes us down to the deepest, darkest hellhole in human history to see the horrific torture, unspeakable abuse, and bloody execution of a slave on a cross.
St. Augustine, a church father of the fifth century, wrote so beautifully of this taking on human flesh to die in these words: “The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created was made flesh and born in time for us. He without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one of those days for His human birth. In the bosom of His Father He existed before all the cycles of the ages. Born of an earthly mother, He entered on the course of the years on that very day. [This next slide is one long, glorious sentence.] The maker of man became man that He, ruler of the stars might be nourished at the breast, that He the bread might be hungry, that He the fountain might thirst, that He the light might sleep, that He the way might be wearied in the journey, that He the truth might be accused by false witnesses, that He the judge of the living and the dead might be brought to trial by a mortal judge, that He justice itself might be condemned by the unjust, that He discipline personified might be scourged with a whip, that He the foundation might be suspended on a cross, that He courage incarnate might be weak, and He security itself might be wounded, and He life itself might die.”
That was the purpose of the incarnation. But, He didn’t come just to die – if He had stayed dead, we would still be in our sins. He was raised again the third day. But what then happened? Verses 9, “For this reason also, [that is, because of His successful, finished work on the cross], God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name [or a title, or position, or rank] which is above every name.”
Don’t miss it. Typically when we think of the cross – we think of what it did for us. But this hymn focuses on what it did for Christ. Therefore also, God highly exalted Him. The word highly exalted is a superlative – super-exalted Jesus. Exalted to the highest possible degree.
You see, not only was Jesus raised from the dead, He ascended back to heaven from whence He had come, and has been highly exalted, having received the name which is above every name. What is that name? Well, it includes verse 10, the name of Jesus and all that is embodied in that name, all that is embodied in that name – You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. He is unequalled, the Savior of the world.
But that’s not all. God exalted Him and God gave Him a name above every name. Why? Verse 10. “so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow.” Every knee. Every knee in heaven – that would be the holy angels and the redeemed saints who have already gone before. Every knee on earth – that would be all the living. And under the earth – that would be all the demons and Satan himself. All creatures in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, all of them are to bow to that exalted name.
But look at verse 11 as we close and bring it to personal response. Verse 10 covers the broad picture – every knee will bow. Verse 11 – let’s bring it to the individual – to you, “Every tongue will confess Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Every living thing, every living creature in this universe will confess Jesus Christ as Lord. You see, the name is not just Jesus, savior of the world, but Lord, ruler of the universe. The demons and the damned, the redeemed, the holy angels, all will bow, all will confess sooner or later. The issue is when. That, after all, is the unalterable end of the incarnation.
Romans 10:9-10 says, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” This is the message of the gospel – the message of the incarnation, the message of Christmas: Jesus Christ is Lord. He is God. He is God of very God with all the attributes of God, who came into the world with all the fullness of humanity. He became a servant, and humbled Himself. He died, even on a cross. And in the midst of that death, purchased our salvation. And God approved that purchase and God lifted Him up and exalted Him. And now God calls to all the created universe and says, “Bow the knee and confess His Lordship.” The ultimate end of Christmas.