A Sermon on the Incarnation

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I had the privilege of preaching this sermon to my local church family on Sunday, December 19th, 2010. While it is not related specifically to worship or music, it does tie nicely to one of our songs, My Precious Savior Gave His All, a song about how Jesus humbled Himself for our sakes.

The Mystery of the Incarnation

Philippians 2:6-8

The Farmer and the Sparrows
One raw winter night a farmer heard an irregular thumping sound against his kitchen storm door. He went to a window and watched as tiny, shivering sparrows, attracted to the evident warmth inside, beat in vain against the glass. Touched, the farmer bundled up and trudged through fresh snow to open the barn door for the struggling birds. He turned on the lights and tossed some hay in the corner. But the sparrows, which had scattered in all directions when he emerged from the house, hid in the darkness, afraid.

The man tried various tactics to get them into the barn. He laid down a trail of Saltine cracker crumbs to direct them. He tried circling behind the birds to drive them to the barn. Nothing worked. He, a huge, alien creature, had terrified them; the birds couldn’t comprehend that he actually desired to help. The farmer withdrew to his house and watched the doomed sparrows through a window. As he stared, a thought hit him like lightning from a clear blue sky: If only I could become a bird – one of them – just for a moment. Then I wouldn’t frighten them so. I could show them the way to warmth and safety. At the same moment, another thought dawned on him. He grasped the reason Jesus was born .

I first heard this story as a teenager, and now that I've returned to it 20 years later I have a new appreciation of just how moving and biblical it is. The story helps us to understand, in a very concise and memorable way, why God became a man. On the other hand, stories like this can oversimplify profound mysteries of Scripture. Today we're going to be taking a look at one of the most profound truths in all of Scripture – the incarnation of Jesus Christ; God Himself come in the flesh, fully human.

Even though Christmas isn't until Saturday, today's sermon is really a Christmas message; a message about how and why Jesus, who existed from all eternity as the Son of God, became a real-live, flesh-and-blood, man. But instead of focusing on the story of the incarnation – the circumstances of Jesus' birth – we'll focus on the motive of the incarnation and how it should transform our everyday lives. We'll follow the apostle Paul's lead as he probes the depths of Jesus' incarnation with a specific application in view. My hope for today's message is the same as Paul's – that by encountering the God-man Jesus through the wonder of His incarnation, you might be transformed by grace to live with the same mindset that Jesus did as He took on flesh.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation
Before we look to Paul, however, I want to make sure that you understand what the doctrine, or teaching, of the incarnation actually is. The word "incarnation" comes from John 1:14 which says, "the Word became flesh." It literally means "in the flesh" or "enfleshed." To say that Jesus was incarnated is to say that, at a particular point in time, He became a human being. It's not that different than how we use the term "reincarnate," which normally refers to a human taking on flesh, or a body, again.

The doctrine of the incarnation is this: Jesus, having a fully divine nature, or being fully God, took to Himself a human nature, becoming fully human, possessing a body, and living in space-time just like we do. But the fact that Jesus has become a human does not mean that He has ceased to be any less God. Somehow, in Jesus two natures, one divine and one human, are joined in one person. As Jonathan Edwards put it, "there is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ." … One person, two natures. Did you get that? Makes perfect sense, right?

We who belong to Jesus will have all of eternity to ask Him to explain how that actually works. We might ask Him if how it feels to hold the universe together. Does it tickle? Or we might ask Him what His dreams are like. The church father Athanasius helped me to probe this mystery. He writes :
His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.

The Point of Our Pondering
But until we get to ask Jesus about it in person, we're left to ponder the mystery along with the writers of Scripture and church history, and to simply stand back in wonder and amazement. And let's be clear that my point in all of this pondering is not to provide a nice intellectual puzzle for those who enjoy brainteasers. It's more important for us to understand the reason that Jesus took on flesh and focus on how this truth should work itself out in our everyday life. This is what the apostle Paul is after in today's sermon text, Philippians 2:6-8. Let's turn there, to page 155 in your borrow-a-Bible. The full meaning of this text is hard to grasp simply by reading one English translation, so I want to walk you through it step by step. Look to chapter 2 verse 6:
Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Passage Background
This passage lies in the second chapter of Paul's letter to the church in the ancient city of Philippi, which was in modern day Greece. Paul is writing to a healthy church, one which has remained faithful to support him through difficult times and controversies. He writes to urge them not to relax in their faith but to press on towards maturity and to remind them that spiritual growth does not take place by some mystical means or by coming to understand come deep secret. Rather, it comes through pursuing love and service to others and by growing in spiritual disciplines, in dependence on God's grace and power for help and assurance. The call to put on godliness is not only evident throughout the book; it also bookends today's text. Look to verses 3-5. Paul instructs us to:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.

Then in verse 12 he uses the important word "therefore" to draw out an implication from his teaching on the incarnation, that the church should continue to obey the Lord and "work out their salvation," assuring them that "it is God who works in them." It's important to keep this purpose of godliness, and in particular, our attitude towards others, in mind when digging into the meaning of verses 6-8.

The Form of God
Look first to verse 6. When Paul says that Jesus "existed in the form of God," he doesn't mean that Jesus looked like God but really wasn't. The divinity of Jesus is crystal clear in Paul's teachings; perhaps most clear in Colossians 2:9 when he wrote, "for in Jesus all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form." Here in Philippians, Paul is getting at Jesus having the full rights, privileges, and power of His divinity, and having the status of the King of the universe. He is concerned with helping us to understand the mindset of Jesus, not the nature of the incarnation. He wants us to understand that Jesus had the right to command honor and glory because of His status as God.

Jesus' Divine Privileges
Next, look to the phrase "did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped." The word for regard is communicating more than simply thinking – it carries connotations of leading and exercising authority. This makes perfect sense when we consider that he just said Jesus had the full rights of His divinity. He could have come as a glorious King and the authority He could have exercised would have been completely appropriate. But Jesus chose not to wield his power; He didn't consider it something to be "grasped." This refers to something that's stolen or seized and used for one's own advantage. It has a very negative connotation. The word is teaching that Jesus didn't use His divine authority for Himself, for personal gain; He didn't selfishly cling to his status or rights as God.

To paint a modern picture, He was like an executive who didn't take advantage of a lavish expense account by taking his staff out to a four star restaurant every night. This kind of language points back to verse 3 when Paul tells us to "do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit" and then in verse 5 tells us instead of have the mindset of Christ. Jesus shows us the ultimate picture of what it means to not be selfish and conceited. Even though He was and is God, He didn't demand that others treat Him with the honor and respect He deserved.

How easily do we fall away from the command to live this way! Think of how often you get sore when you think someone has mistreated you. Don't you think things like "if only she knew who she was talking to" or "how dare he say something like that to me… doesn't he know who I am?" I know I fight these kinds of thoughts when someone criticizes the areas of my life I like to believe I'm an expert in, like songwriting. My seminary vice president once shared how after he had earned his doctorate he found himself working a menial job and one day was literally in a dumpster. He found himself angry with God, telling Him things like, "don't you know who I am and what I've done? I have a Ph.D.! I don't deserve this!" In those moments we're showing how much we believe we're worthy of respect and honor; we pretend to have rights and a status that commands respect or reward. The reality is that we don't have or deserve honor because we're ruined sinners whose every motive is tainted with selfishness!

Or think of how often you mistreat others because they have the position, or the honor and respect that you believe you should have. Maybe you're the kind of person who has a hard time being a student. Isn't it easy to look down on your teachers and complain about how they don't know anything, and how you should really be the one teaching them? This flows from a heart that craves honor and respect and believes the lie that we deserve it.

Now compare this with Jesus who actually deserved honor, yet never brought it up or used it so that others would respect Him… He didn't even use it to get out of the suffering and death of the cross. Consider the scene in the garden of Gethsemane just before His arrest and crucifixion in Matthew 26. Hold your place in Philippians and turn to page 25 in your borrow-a-bible, Matthew 26:52. Peter rises up to defend Jesus, but Jesus says to him, "put your sword back into its place… or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?" Jesus has every right to defend Himself and use His divinity, but He shows His submissiveness to God's predetermined plan instead.

Jesus Emptied Himself
Let's move on to the next phrase in our passage. In verse 7 Paul says that Jesus "emptied Himself." That can be easily misunderstood, because when we think of emptying something like a jar of liquid, the jar no longer contains the liquid; it's gone. Jesus didn't empty Himself of His divinity; He simply "emptied Himself." That's why the Trinity hymnal changed Charles Wesley's original lyrics in the hymn "And, Can it Be" that we sung this morning. He wrote, "He left His Father's throne above, so free, so infinite His grace- emptied Himself of all but love." That can be misleading, so they revised the last statement to "humbled Himself, so great His love." The ESV translates this word as "made Himself nothing," which is a little bit more helpful. The King James says that Jesus "made Himself of no reputation." Even though Jesus is God, He willingly made Himself just like one us, like one who doesn't have status or divine power. In becoming fully human, He gave up the independent use of His divinity and fully submitted it to His Father's will. That's what John 5:19 is getting at when Jesus says, "the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner."

This explains a lot of practical questions about the incarnation. Was Jesus omniscient? Did He walk around knowing all things at all times? Well, yes and no. Jesus never ceased possessing the attribute of omniscience but laid it aside, only to be used when His father allowed Him. This is really treading mysterious territory, but think about the fact that Jesus had to grow up and learn things. He might have wondered about the stars, or the inner workings of His own body. Even though, in His divinity, He knew every answer to every question, He gave up the use of that divinity for His own purposes. So there was a real sense in which He really didn't know how far away the stars were, or how the cells in His body functioned. He probably even had to learn that He was the messiah, and to believe that it was true. Now that's mind-blowing!

Jesus the Bond-Servant
Getting back to our text, the next phrase in verse 7 explains what Jesus' emptying looked like. Jesus made Himself nothing by "taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men." Bond-servants were slaves who willingly gave themselves over to their master's wishes and commands. They subjected their own will to the will of their master's. That's why the apostles often referred to themselves as bond-servants of God. The concept of laying down our will is very foreign to us because of the American idea of liberty. The founding fathers operated off of the enlightenment idea that all men are endowed with certain rights and privileges. We don't have slaves anymore, at least not legally. People can appeal to the government if they are being treated unjustly. But a bond-servant gave up his or her rights; their job was simply to obey their master and follow his wishes.

Verse 8 goes on to explain what Jesus' role as a bond-servant looked like, how it worked itself out. Jesus thought so little of himself that He made himself a poor and homeless man, living in society with no social status. But the ultimate act of selflessness, the epitome of what it meant for Jesus to give up the use of His divinity for His own advantage, came at His final moment. Would He continue to refuse to claim His divine rights, even when faced with mocking, torture, and death? Imagine what it would feel like to have a teenage intern mock you and tell you how to run your company when you have successfully started, run, and sold companies for decades.

We see this play out in the garden of Gethsemane, just before Jesus' crucifixion. In Matthew 26:39 Jesus prays to His Father, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will." What a picture of submission! Jesus didn't want to suffer under God's wrath for sin – it was an unbearable thought. But He was willing to continue fulfilling the role of a bond-servant by making his own desires and opinion worth nothing to Him and continuing to do His Father's will.

Even Death on a Cross
Back in Philippians, the last phrase of chapter verse 8, on page 155, "even death on a cross" is used to emphasize that Jesus was not only willing to die, He was willing to die the most shameful, inglorious, and horrific death known to man. The Romans reserved crucifixion for the scum of the earth – insurrectionists and disobedient slaves. This is why theologians refer to the cross as the "divine scandal," and it's the central and most important truth of the gospel. In fact, if I had to summarize the gospel in just five words, I might say this: "God died on a cross." This is the reason that Jesus became flesh, to consider His own happiness and status as nothing to the point of suffering and dying as the refuse of the world, and be killed by His own creatures.

The Reason for the Incarnation
As we now consider what we've learned about Jesus' incarnation, we must not leave before asking one great and all-important question: Why did Jesus humble Himself unto death? What motivated Him to leave His majesty and glory in heaven and condescend into human flesh? The ultimate answer is found in verses 9-11.
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

God's ultimate reason for sending Jesus in the flesh was to bestow His Son with honor and glory forever, before all creation, as the Redeemer of humanity, the one willing to suffer and die to save His people. And Jesus' ultimate motive in obeying His Father's plan was, in turn, to glorify His father. Jesus' glory results in the Father's glory. John 17:22-24 spells it out for us:
The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.

The Motive of Love
This passage not only shows us Jesus' preoccupation with the Father's glory, but also reveals how He is glorified. God is glorified when His love is put on display and when sinners are moved to love Him in return. When the hearts of lost sinners are changed to see and love Jesus above all, his ultimate glory as the Redeemer is put on display. So the Father sent the son into the world because He loves us, and by loving rebellious sinners like us who don't deserve His love, He ultimately shows Himself as the merciful and gracious God that He is, forever worthy of the highest honor and glory.

The motive of love is even clearer in other passages of Scripture. The depth of this love is shown in God's desire to adopt redeemed sinners as His very own children. Three weeks ago we explored the Christian privilege of adoption and looked at Galatians 4. In verses 4 and 5 Paul writes, "God sent forth His Son … that we might receive the adoption as sons." And in John chapter 1, which contains the most in-depth theological treatment of the incarnation, we read that Jesus "came to His own … as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God." And perhaps the most straightforward explanation of why Jesus came to die is found in Romans 5:8, "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." C.S. Lewis aptly summarizes why Jesus came to earth when he says, "the Son of God became man to enable men to become sons of God."

This brings us back to our opening story of the farmer and the sparrows. The farmer believed that if he could become a sparrow, he wouldn’t frighten them but could show them the way to warmth and safety. So it is with our heavenly Father. When God appears in His glory and holiness, like He did to the Israelites before giving them the 10 commandments, people are struck with fear and trembling. But in coming to earth as a man, He's able to reveal Himself to us personally, in a way that we can understand.

To Call to Empty Ourselves
Let me leave you with a concrete application that is the same application Paul was after in Philippians 2. Look again to verses 3-5:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.

Now that you're armed with a greater understanding of what Jesus' mindset was when He became a man and went to the cross, strive to have a mindset like His. What will that look like? God calls us to lay aside our rights, our status, our honor, and our preferences, for the sake of others.

Let's start here in public worship. I know that some of you can't stand syncopated music, the drum kit, or screaming electric guitars. God calls you to lay aside this preference for the good of those who are greatly encouraged by these instruments and this style. At the same time, I know others of you who just don't "get" traditional hymns set to music that's devoid of syncopation and a drum beat. God calls you to lay aside your preference for more rhythmic music for the sake of those who dearly love simple, traditional hymns.

I know some of you struggle with the commitment to attend small group. You think it's a waste of time … that nothing really spiritual happens, that the teaching is often shallow, the sharing time feels forced, and the time would be much better spent working through an inductive Bible study on your own. God calls you to lay aside your own opinions of how valuable you think small group time is for the sake of ministering to others. Have you ever considered that your mere faithfulness to attend small group can be an encouragement to others? We religious types are often ready with opinions and criticisms about how wrongly everyone else around us does ministry, or even does life, but how often are we willing to suspend our opinions and consider them worthless for the sake of truly loving others?

I mean, think about how often we rush to judge others, without really putting ourselves in their shoes. Isn't it easy to get caught up in our own status as being wise, having Bible knowledge, having years of experience, blah, blah, blah, and arrive at the conclusion that we understand someone's situation, thoughts, and motives, and are qualified to condemn them? The call to "regard one another as more important than ourselves" will involve patient listening, caring, and sympathizing with others – really trying to get into their world and understand them. The reason we so often fail at this is because we're so thoroughly wired for selfishness.

I found a wonderful description of why it's so hard to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and it didn't come from a Christian, as far as I can tell. It came from a self-described "evolutionary epistemologist" who writes for Psychology Today . Listen to his assessment of why it's so hard for us to love others this way; I think you'll find it oozing with biblical truth.
Put yourself in other people’s shoes. But to do that, you have to get out of your own. Our eyes are clouded by the longing to see ourselves in a favorable light. If you can’t afford, or refuse to relinquish your authority, self-conferred exemptions and specialness, it becomes next to impossible to get next to yourself, in other people’s shoes. When you put yourself in another person’s shoes you risk seeing yourself as others would see you—not quite as special as you think. But the pay-offs are worth it.

Let me conclude by calling you, along with the apostle Paul, and the Lord Himself, to strive hard to consider other people as more important than yourself. Seek to think little of your own opinions and exalt the input of others. Know your place in society and under God, as a student, child, parent, church member, employee, or even just meeting member rather than meeting chairperson. Be slow to speak and quick to listen. Learn to laugh at what a fool you often are, and when you begin to think you have such great advice, pause and reflect on your foolery before speaking.

And above all, remember that Jesus was our ultimate example of loving others at the expense of Himself. And He's not just our example, but more importantly He's our substitute, offering His perfect record of selfless love to any who ask for it. We can't earn God's favor by considering others as more important than ourselves, but Jesus did. So stop trying to love others to impress God or to earn His favor, and stop wallowing in guilt and fear because of how miserably you've failed to love others. Run to Jesus, who loves you more than you'll ever fully appreciate, so much that He laid aside His status, His power, and His privileges, to become a poor and insignificant man, and to die the most shameful death imaginable. Run to Him every day and ask Him to change you so that you love others the way that He loves you.


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