Bible Centered, Gospel Focused, Liturgical and Sacramental Worship in Loveland, Colorado

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake (2 Cor. 4:5).

December 19 2021

In a series of essays called God In the Dock published shortly after his death, C.S. Lewis reflected on the meaning of the event we are quickly approaching, the incarnation of our Lord, Christmas. Lewis imagines the magnitude of God’s descent down to humanity in the incarnation, beginning with “the coming down, not only into humanity but into those nine months which precede human birth. One has a picture of someone going right down and dredging the sea bottom. One has a picture of a strong man trying to lift a very big, complicated burden. He stoops down and gets himself right under it so that he himself disappears, and then he straightens his back and moves off with the whole thing swaying on his shoulders.” Beginning at the very bottom, the very beginnings of human life, God is taking the brokenness of humanity and putting it on His own shoulders, so that in Him all of human life is redeemed, reversed, and made new.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is reversing everything. All of creation, and human life in particular, has a new beginning in Jesus. That is at the heart of Mary’s great song of praise, the Magnificat, or as some have called it, “the hymn of reversal.” All of that reversal begins in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the very place we are brought in our reading from St. Luke’s Gospel this morning.

The nine months that God really spends in Mary’s womb is among the hardest parts of the Christian message for many to understand and receive, on par with even the cross itself. One of the few ideas shared by Jews and Gentiles alike at the time of Christ was that childbirth, and even the gestation process itself, made women dirty. Men, and powerful men in particular, would have nothing to do with birth. The Greco-Roman world was filled with stories of gods becoming like people, and their purpose was always to fulfill their desires by taking advantage of beautiful young women. They certainly never came to serve others and to die for others. And they certainly never came like Jesus, with a real gestation period, and a real birth. That is too disgusting and too degrading for a god.

Even if God was born to the queen of a great Empire in this way, it would be an impossible scandal. But Jesus is not even born to a noblewoman. When we talk about the Virgin Mary, we are talking about a poor young girl with a provincial upbringing. Mary had recently been betrothed to Joseph, and the age of betrothal for girls at the time of Christ was 12 or 13 years old. As a Galilean, Mary lived an impure existence among Gentiles and Jews, in the kind of town you look down on as you walked through on your way to get somewhere else. Taken together, the conception, gestation, and birth of our Lord in this way is a place in Jesus’ life where we must say that if we cannot recognize God really living in the womb of the Virgin Mary, we will never recognize God on the cross.

For much of Church history, the same heresies have been recycled in different forms to try to avoid this scandalous conception and birth. The most enduring forms of heresy to avoid the scandal of Jesus’ birth always identify Jesus’ baptism as a moment when something fundamentally changed in his nature. The ancient imagination had no problem with the idea that a god would become a man, just not that a god would be born or die a humiliating death. So they reasoned that Jesus was just a man until his baptism when God entered into Him as he received the Holy Spirit. That is how the ancient heretics got around Jesus’ birth. They would also argue that God then left Jesus while He prayed in the garden before His crucifixion. That is how they got around His death.

On the other hand, the modern imagination cannot fathom that a man would really be a god. That is something only ancient, primitive, superstitious people believe. That Jesus of Nazareth really lived is one of the most certain facts of history, even serious skeptics agree, and only on dark corners of the internet will you hear otherwise. Jesus’ baptism then becomes a place where he is suddenly aware that he is a special kind of person, with a particular awareness of the presence of God, or a revolutionary Spirit. He realizes what a great leader and community organizer He is, until He is tragically cut down in His prime.

Even Christians who believe in the truth of the Virgin Birth often fall into error in how they think about its importance. Like many of you, I grew up in a context where the possibility of the miraculous Virgin Birth was and still is hotly contested, because it does not measure up to biological, scientific scrutiny. In response, we easily become fixated on thinking about the Virgin Birth biologically, through the lens of science. I will put this very bluntly, science can neither confirm nor can it deny the possibility of a Virgin Birth. That event is simply not subject to scientific scrutiny. Speaking biologically about the conception, gestation, and birth of Christ is all awash, a pointless distraction. Any biological or scientific analogies or explanations we might reach to make sense of what God has done in the incarnation are just heresies anyways. Do not allow yourself as a Christian to be caught in playing thinking games that Christians are designed to lose. Christians are really good at doing that. The significance of Christ’s coming to us in the way He did is not biological, it is theological. The significance and the meaning of the incarnation are that it tells us who God is for us.

As easy as it is to disregard these errors in our theology, those are much easier explanations of Christ’s life to understand than what Christianity actually teaches. If we are not intentional and clear about what it means for Jesus to come to us in the incarnation, we will fall into some version of error like these. The wisdom of the church about the incarnation is captured in a phrase expressed throughout the church’s teaching in history, but especially in the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus and John of Damascus: “That which has not been assumed by Christ in His incarnation, cannot be redeemed.” That which is not assumed, cannot be redeemed. That which Jesus Christ does not take onto Himself in his life, death, and resurrection cannot be renewed, redeemed, or reversed. If Jesus Christ is not fully God and fully human in Mary’s womb then we are fools wasting our time, our lives, and our money by having anything to do with Christianity.

“When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Why does John the Baptist leap in Elizabeth’s womb? John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb because he knows that he is suddenly, inexplicably in the presence of God. He is in the presence of God because he is in the presence of God’s mother, the Virgin Mary. John the Baptist came to prepare the way for God with us, to point to Jesus Christ, and he is already doing this, even before his birth. Jesus Christ is really God, even in the early weeks of morning sickness, anxiety, and exhaustion during Mary’s pregnancy. John the Baptist leaps because God is in Mary’s womb, redeeming all of human life, all of human existence from its very beginnings. As the Spirit of Creation once moved over the chaotic waters that filled the earth, bringing to them order and harmony, so too does the Holy Spirit move over and through the waters of birth, literally the fluid in Mary’s womb; restoring the chaos of human life, and bringing harmony between God and human beings. Now, the Spirit’s movement is one of new creation.

Nothing will ever be the same after God does this. That is why Mary sings the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior… He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

In the American Church, we love to tell stories about the beginnings of our churches. These stories often focus on charismatic men with great vision for the church, who gain massive followings through their influence and charisma, and so create powerful, well-funded churches with a dynamic mission. The first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is the longest chapter in the entire New Testament, and one of the longest in the Bible. It is the summary of God’s saving plan for all of humanity, the story of the entrance of a King and a savior. Luke 1 tells the real story of where the church begins.

The whole chapter is about two women and their unborn babies. Both women are very poor. One woman, Elizabeth, is very old. Mary, on the other hand, is very young. Elizabeth’s husband cannot speak for almost all of chapter 1. Mary’s husband is having a baby boy but is somehow not involved in that process. The Russian Orthodox Catechism asks: “why was Jesus called the seed of the woman?” The answer is, “Because He was born on earth without man.” God’s plan of salvation begins here with the easiest kind of people to ignore, overlook, and harm when they get in power’s way. The very poor, the very young, the very old, women, and the unborn. Even before the birth of Jesus Christ God has indeed, “exalted those of humble estate.”

That God would enter the world in this way is a judgment on us. God’s incarnation takes place without the wisdom, the power, or the effort of human beings, and that is God’s way of telling us very clearly that none of those things can save us. God alone, without us, can save us. Mary has, throughout the church’s history, been referred to as the “first Christian,” or “first disciple,” because her experience of hearing God’s promises to her, and having faith that these promises are true, becomes the means through which Jesus lives in her. This is a blueprint for the life of all Christians. 20th-century theologian Thomas Torrance says, “what happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ’s birth, happens in every instance of rebirth into Christ, when Christ enters into our hearts and recreates us.” Mary had faith. While that is no small thing, that is all she brought to the table. Faith is all we bring to the table, the rest of the work is entirely God’s.

This is God’s way of showing us how broken we are, and how desperately we need a savior. We do not need God to be our co-pilot. We need God to undertake a rescue mission that is all about reversal, and it needs to happen without us. It needs to happen in direct contradiction to our wisdom, our power, what we consider normal, and what we consider acceptable and natural. God says to us in the miracle of the Incarnation, “your ways, your patterns of life, and all that you consider normal or natural are exactly the reason I have to come down to you. Those are the reasons why I am coming, and why I have to die to save you. Do not expect life to remain the same. Do not wish that life would remain the same.” Mary sings, “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” This is a song of praise for a great reversal.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls the manger and the cross “the only two places in which the courage of the great and powerful of this world fails them.” When the great and powerful of this world approach the manger and the cross, “they are afraid deep down in their souls…no powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.” We will see the judgment of the powerful who cannot recognize God in the lowly estate of the cross and the manger continually throughout Luke’s Gospel. We will also see some of the powerful and the great of this world humble themselves before the scandal of Jesus Christ, and be saved.

The incarnation is a judgment on the ways and the wisdom of human beings like us, but the final Word spoken in the incarnation is undeniably a Word of grace. God knows everything that has happened, is happening and will happen in our world. He knows exactly who we are, and what we are capable of doing, both to Him and to one another. Nevertheless, God enters into human life to restore it, and to redeem it, even from the moment of conception, even in death. Thomas Oden wrote these words in the 1980s, but they ring with a particular relevance for us today in the situation we find ourselves in: “The divine Physician is willing to come into the toxic sphere of the pandemic to share personally the diseased human condition.”

God knows the diseased human condition very well. God is free to deal with the human condition in any way He chooses. He could destroy us, He could negate us and start from scratch without us. He could just leave us alone and grant us the freedom to do whatever we want to and destroy ourselves, we do not need God’s help to do that. God is entirely free to be God without us. Instead, He chooses to be God with us. He chooses to be God with us in a humble birth, and even a humiliating death.

Thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people died on Roman crosses like Jesus. If you have ever seen the movie Spartacus, you would know that Spartacus was crucified, along with all of the other slaves who revolted against Roman power; that was the warning they offered to political enemies of the Empire. In that sense, Jesus’ death was not unique, except that it was mercifully much shorter than a typical crucifixion, perhaps the shortest in history. What good is one more Jewish man unjustly killed by a great power? Roman crosses do not have any power to save us.

The cross does not save us. God on the cross saves us. The cross saves us because God is on it, fully human, and still fully Himself. In His birth, and in His death, God is like us, so that in our birth and in our death we may be like Him. The unborn John the Baptist bears witness to God with us through a kick in his mother’s womb, God’s impossible plan of salvation begins with these unlikely people. Not only does God see them who we so easily overlook, but God exalts them, and works His plan of salvation beginning with them. All things will be reversed, redeemed, and made new through Jesus Christ because when we are in His presence we are with God.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” Amen.