December 14, 2008
The Essentials
What all Christians believe and why it matters
Part 3: I believe in the Incarnation

Introduction: The incarnation may be the most startling idea in history! The one thing no one expected was that the infinite, holy, pure, good God would stoop to become a man and subject himself to human limitations and life.

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth,

and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen.

For further reading on Christian doctrine:
• The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe it, and Why it Matters, Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, Zondervan, 2008.
• Christian Basics: An Invitation to Discipleship, John Stott, Baker, 1991.
• Basic Christianity, John Stott, InterVarsity Press, 1971.
• Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, N. T. Wright, Harper, 2006.
• Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis, Macmillan, 1952.
• Christian Theology in Plain Language, Bruce Shelley, Word, 1985

For further reading on the Apostle’s Creed:
• The Apostles’ Creed, William Barclay, Knox, 1998.
• I Believe: Exploring the Apostles Creed, Alister McGrath, InterVarsity Press, 1997.
• Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, J. I. Packer, Crossway, 2008.
• Credo: Believing in Something to Die For, Ray Pritchard, 2005.

 

December 14, 2008
The Essentials
What all Christians believe and why it matters
Part 3: I believe in the Incarnation

Opening:
ILL: Talk show host Larry King was asked, “If you could select any one person in all of history to interview, who would it be?” King said that he would like to interview Jesus Christ. When asked, “And what would you like to ask him?” King replied, “I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me.”
The answer to that question would define history. Indeed it would. If Jesus was virgin-born, conceived by the Holy Spirit without a human father, it would make Him utterly unlike anyone ever born. It would make Him God.
And that’s why Christians for 2000 years have included this as one of the essentials. “I believe in Jesus Christ, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary.”

Offering and announcements:
Winter classes on tear off.
Holiday blood drive today (9 and 11).
Christmas Eve services next week. Volunteers. Find tell bring!
Later, at the start of my talk, you will have an opportunity to give to help the less fortunate in our community; we’ll receive a Christmas benevolence offering.

Prayer: Randy update: malignant, chemo and radiation, please pray.

Introduction:
That conversation reflects the questions and doubts many people have about Jesus-particularly about his birth, what we call the virgin birth. Was Jesus conceived by a direct act of God, without the help of any man? Was Mary a virgin when Jesus was conceived and born? Christians have always answered those questions “yes”. In fact, the early Christians thought the virgin birth was so central to the story that they included it in their earliest creed. Today I want to explain what it means and why it matters.
This is “The Essentials: what every Christian believes and why it matters.” Each week we’ve begun with this statement: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” What are the essentials around which Christians have united? I’m suggesting that those are found in the ancient creeds of the church, which are summaries of the core Christian beliefs. We’re using the Apostles Creed, which is the oldest and most widely accepted of the creeds. Let’s read it together.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen.

Benevolence Offering:
Before I dive into the talk, we’re going to receive a special offering for benevolence. This is the third month in a row we’ve done a special offering. In October, we gave to the Christ Clinic to provide medical care for the poor; in November, we gave to Tom’s Turkey Drive to feed the hungry; this month, we give to our benevolence fund to help the needy in our community now and throughout the year. It reminds me of something Jesus said:
Matthew 25:35-36 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
40 Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for Me.”
Thank you for giving to Jesus, to help the poor. Whatever you do for them, you do for Him.
As I said, I know this is the third month in a row. We don’t expect everyone to be able to give to everything. If you can help, please do. If you can’t, please don’t feel guilty. Do you what can with a cheerful heart. We’re giving you the opportunity; please do what you are able and willing. No pressure.

1. I believe in Jesus Christ. (fill in A and B now)
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ happened.” So begins one of the most familiar stories in the world. It is utterly different from any other birth story. If I were to tell my story-“this is how the birth of Joe Wittwer happened”-it would sound a lot like your story. My mom and dad met, fell in love, got married, made love, conceived me, and nine months later, I was born. Does that sound like your story? It’s not at all like Jesus’ story. This is how the birth of Jesus Christ happened.
Joseph had finally worked up the courage to ask Mary’s father for permission to marry her. An agreement was quickly negotiated, Mary gave her consent and a date was set. So far, pretty normal. But here is where the story becomes unlike yours and mine.
An angel named Gabriel found Mary and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” We don’t know what the angel looked like, if he was white with wings or just a normal looking guy. But however he looked, his greeting troubled Mary and she wondered what it meant. While she was wondering,
Luke 1:30-33 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
That’s a mouthful! Gabriel told Mary that she would have a son, she was to name him Jesus, he would be the Son of God and reign forever; His kingdom will never end! This wasn’t going to be just any baby: this was God’s Son. Mary must have had tons of questions, but she asked just one, the most practical one.
Luke 1:34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
I’ll bet what Mary was hoping to hear was, “After you and Joseph marry, you’ll conceive this child.” Nice and normal. That’s not the answer she got.
Luke 1:35-37 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
No Joseph-no nice and normal. This baby would be conceived by the Holy Spirit-the power of God would come upon her and overshadow her. This is no ordinary baby-he is the holy one, the Son of God.
This had to rock Mary’s world. Imagine what’s going through her mind. She is going to become pregnant out of marriage. What will everyone think? They’ll think that she and Joseph jumped the gun, couldn’t wait for their wedding night. But Joseph will know that’s not true; what will he think? He’ll think that Mary cheated on him; maybe he’ll want to call off the wedding. Either way, Mary’s reputation is ruined. Of course, there is an easy way to remedy all this: just tell people the truth. Tell them that it’s a miracle! “I haven’t had sex with anyone-the child was conceived by God and is the Son of God.” Mary knows that story won’t fly; no one will believe her. If she says yes to this, she’s saying goodbye to her reputation, maybe goodbye to Joseph and her marriage. If she says yes, it could mean a lifetime of living alone with the stigma of an illegitimate son.
She says yes anyway.
Luke 1:38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”
Mary said yes to God in spite of the risk. Yesterday in my devotions, I was reading in Hebrews 11, along with lots of you. I titled my one thing “Faith is obeying anyway”. I noticed that all the great heroes of faith obeyed God in the face of uncertainty, difficulty, persecution and even death. Because they believed, they obeyed anyway. That’s what Mary does here: “Yes Lord to anything anytime anywhere…no matter what.” She says yes anyway.
So Mary says yes, she’ll give birth to God’s son. But when Joseph hears she is pregnant, he says no. No to Mary; no to the marriage. No doubt he was hurt and angry; what man wouldn’t be? But he was still a kind man, so he decided to end the engagement quietly so as not to publicly disgrace Mary. We think Mary had told Joseph her story, because Matthew tells us that Mary was “found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Matthew clearly says that this baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit. But Joseph obviously found it unbelievable, which is why he had decided to end the engagement.
Matthew 1:20-22 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
In the dream, an angel tells Joseph that the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary was telling the truth-the baby is God’s Son. The angel also told Joseph, like Mary, to name the baby Jesus, which means “God saves”, for this baby was sent to save us from our sins.
Matthew 1:22-23 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”-which means, “God with us.”
Matthew links the story of Jesus’ birth with an ancient prophecy given by Isaiah about 700 years earlier. The prophecy said a virgin would be pregnant and give birth to a son who would be Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
Matthew 1:24-25 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Like Mary, Joseph obeyed anyway. How many dads in the room have ever felt inadequate to raise your sons? Think about Joseph? What would he teach the Son of God? “Let me teach you how to change a flat tire.” “I know that, dad.” “Let me teach you the Bible, son.” “Uh dad…I wrote it.” I admire Joseph. He risked his reputation. He ignored his doubts. He overcame his fears…and obeyed anyway. That’s faith.
And that is how the birth of Jesus Christ happened. Matthew and Luke insist on two remarkable things that make Jesus’ birth utterly unlike anyone else. These two things are in the creed.

A. Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit.
Look again at these verses:
Matthew 1:18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 1:20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Luke 1:35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
They all clearly say that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, without the aid of a human father.

B. Born of the virgin Mary.
Matthew makes it clear that Mary was a virgin at the time of conception, during the pregnancy and until after Jesus’ birth.
Matthew 1:18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 1:23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”-which means, “God with us.”
Matthew 1:25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Luke also emphasizes that Mary was a virgin.
Luke 1:27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
Luke 1:34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

I believe in Jesus Christ, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. This is what Christians believe. Why does this matter? It goes back to the true identity of Jesus. I said last Sunday that the central question in the Christian faith is “who is Jesus Christ?” Christians believe that He is God in the flesh, the eternal Son of God. One of the reasons we believe this is because of the unusual nature of His birth. Larry King was right: if Jesus is virgin-born, that defines history. It changes everything. He is not just a man. Peter Larson points out:
The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked “No Entrance” and left through a door marked “No Exit.” (Peter Larson)
At the beginning, Jesus’ birth is supernatural; at the end, his resurrection is supernatural; and in between, his life is supernatural. So people concluded that Jesus was supernatural. He wasn’t just a man; He was the God-man. The virgin birth meant that God entered our world as a human being; fully human and fully God. Madeline L’Engle made this observation:
The virgin birth is far less mind-boggling than the power of all Creation stooping so low as to become one of us. (Madeline L’Engle)
She’s right. The virgin birth points to a larger, even more mind-boggling truth: the incarnation.

2. I believe in the Incarnation.
The word “incarnation” means “in the flesh”, from the Latin “in” meaning “in” and “carn-” meaning “flesh”. If you are carnivorous, you eat meat-you’re a flesh-eater. If you have chili con carne, it’s chili with meat. The incarnation is God coming in the flesh. God becoming a human being. God in a bod. While the word “incarnation” is not in the creed, the idea is there. Jesus is God’s only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary. It’s all in there to affirm the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the God man, the incarnate God.
The incarnation may be the most startling idea in history! The one thing no one expected was that the infinite, holy, pure, good God would stoop to become a man and subject himself to human limitations and life. In a world dominated by Greek dualism that separated spirit and matter, where spirit was good and matter was bad, nothing could have been more unimaginable than a perfectly good God taking on a bad body. It was unthinkable. There was a gulf fixed between God and man that could never be bridged. But God bridged it.
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The only way God could reach human beings was to become one. He became one of us.
ILL: Father Damien was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers. He moved to Kalawao-a village on the island of Molokai, in Hawaii, that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony. For 16 years, he lived in their midst. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built 2,000 coffins by hand so that, when they died, they could be buried with dignity. Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.
Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance. He did nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. He got close. For this, the people loved him.
Then one day he splashed some boiling water on his foot. He was surprised that he felt nothing. He deliberately poured more hot water on his foot. Nothing. That morning, he stood up and began his sermon with these words: “My fellow lepers…”
He had become one of them.
One day God came to Earth and began his message: “My fellow lepers….” Now he was one of us.
The Word became flesh and lived among us! God himself invaded our world to rescue us. God became one of us.
The incarnation changes everything! The Word became flesh. God became man, one of us. By doing so, he made holy what most considered profane. The body became holy, the work of our hands became holy, the bread and the wine became holy, the world became holy…life became holy…all because the Holy One came and filled it and redeemed it.
Because God became a man, we live out an incarnational faith, a real world, real life faith. We reject the dualism of the body and soul, of the sacred and secular, of the holy and profane. No more thinking that living a spiritual life means escaping the body or the world. We live a holy life in the body in the midst of the world, because that’s where our God lived it. The incarnation means that God has invaded our world, and wants to invade your world-your every day, around the house, going to work, going to school life. If your faith isn’t working there, in real life, everyday life, it isn’t Christian faith.
ILL: This story by Greg Asimakoupoulos makes the point.
The boxes of Christmas decorations were carried up from the basement.
I had to go to church, so the serious work of Christmas-izing our home would have to wait until I returned. In the meantime, our 5-year-old daughter, Lauren, was content to play with a miniature plastic nativity set we keep in an old Lifesavers tin. When I arrived home, I was greeted by my wife, Wendy, and the inviting aroma of dinner. Stealing a peek at the table, I saw that Lauren had placed pieces of the nativity set at each person’s plate. Apparently shepherds, wise men, cows, and sheep would be joining us for dinner-very sweet.
Just then Lauren raced into the kitchen. “Oh, Daddy, Daddy!” Her voice was panicked. “Jesus is missing! We’ve looked everywhere and can’t find him!” She was right. As I glanced at the supper table, I didn’t see baby Jesus anywhere. “We’ll find him,” I said, sure that he was stuck under the couch cushions or behind a chair somewhere. “Let’s look after we eat!”
And look we did. Low and high. High and low. Under the couch. In the plants. In the Barbie playhouse. We scoured Lauren’s coloring desk cluttered with stickers, markers, crayons, and a half-full can of pop-everything but Jesus! As my compulsive find-whatever-is-lost-at-any-cost neurosis kicked in to high gear, I zeroed in on Lauren’s backpack.
Much like her older sisters, Lauren carries her backpack everywhere she goes. In it she transports her treasures: Hairbows. Hats. Barbies. Her stuffed kitty. Her Polly Pockets. Her plastic wallet. Gummi Bears. I decided to look in the backpack. There, at the bottom of her treasure trove, was Jesus. “Here he is!” I proudly announced. “Jesus was in your backpack, ready to go with you to preschool tomorrow.”
I’ve often reflected on the search for our MIA Jesus, and I now realize that he wasn’t “missing in action” at all. He was in the middle of the action. His place in Lauren’s backpack was divinely appropriate. There, in the midst of all the symbols of my daughter’s interests and activities, was the Lord of life. And that reality extends beyond 5-year-old girls.
As we face a new year crammed with commitments, each of us can begin the year confident that Jesus is right there in the middle of it all. Jesus belongs in our minivans, briefcases, purses, gym bags, suitcases, and checkbooks. God’s uncontainable love for his creation spilled over into a manger, a carpenter’s shop, a fishing boat, a tax collector’s home, a Roman execution scene, a rich man’s grave, and an upper room. The good news of Christmas that catapults us towards Easter (and beyond) is that we are not alone. The one who made us has come to us and remains with us in all that we do.
God with us: I believe in the incarnation.
We’re going to finish with the Lord’s Supper.
Matthew 26:26-28 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
27 Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Here’s another example of an incarnational faith. Jesus took bread and wine and said, “This is my body, this is my blood.” He made the ordinary holy. As we take communion today, let’s ask Him to make our ordinary lives holy.

Communion