In the Christmas story you find within the characters the entire range of human emotion on display. There’s great joy by many at the news of the Messiah’s birth. There is terror in response to the angels who announce it. There’s wonderment from Mary who treasures in her heart the promises she’s been told. There’s Herod and his insane jealousy and the indifference to the Messiah’s birth of the religious leaders. When it comes to the human emotional realm, all the extremes are represented, good and evil, pleasant and unpleasant. However, when you look at the people and their vast diversity of emotional responses to this birth, it stands in sharp contrast to the incredible consistency of another element of the story. When you read the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, the consistent, over-riding tone of these narratives is one of humility.
It’s clear from the setting, the characters and the circumstances that God intentionally orchestrates these events to spotlight humility. Nearly every element of the story is drenched with it. As we’ve seen many times before, God chose a poor, blue-collar worker from the lousy neighborhood of Nazareth to be the stepfather of his Son. For the child’s mother, he chose a poor, young girl from the same disreputable hometown. Jesus was born in a stable, which was probably a cave, and as a newborn was placed in an animal’s feeding trough. The nativity scenes we spoke of yesterday that adorn our mantle pieces--with their carefully placed porcelain figurines give the impression of a scene that is radiates a simple, uncluttered elegance. The real scene of Jesus’ birth was anything but elegant. What sits on our mantle pieces can’t capture the sounds and smells of animals, the smoke from the fire necessary to keep the baby warm, the roughness of the hay and other similarly “earthy” elements you would expect around a stable.
The humility of the context continues with the town of Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem had a proud heritage as the hometown of King David and was prophesied to be the place where the Son of David would be born. But to the Jews in first century, it would’ve been a dirty little village with nothing outwardly to commend it. God sent his magnificent multitude of the heavenly host of angels—which no doubt gloriously illuminated the night sky--to announce Jesus’ birth. But even this glorious heavenly host is tempered with humility because the venue for this magnificent assembly of herald-angels was a pasture out in the middle of nowhere with group of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. If God would have been intending to impress anyone with these angelic messengers, he would have booked them to appear in and around Jerusalem or even Rome. Instead, their audience for this dazzling display of heavenly light was mostly a flock of sheep. We know that Nazareth had a public relations problem in Christ’s day—Nathaniel wondered if anything good could come out of Nazareth. But the shepherds had an even worse reputation. They were among the least respected members of society—so deeply distrusted their testimony was not even admitted in the courts. Yet God chooses to make these disreputable folks the first messengers of the Messiah. People didn’t believe the shepherds testimony when they were put under oath, how much less when they came telling these unbelievable tales about a sky full of hovering angels over an all but-empty field. This is humble to the extreme.
The only people of any social standing connected with the incarnation are the teachers of the law, King Herod and the Magi. The teachers of the law utterly ignored Christ (their indifference to Him is deafening). Herod deviously sought to kill him and the Magi—who had some wealth--were eastern religious figures who, though certainly used by God, to the Jews, probably fit somewhere between eccentric mystics and overt occultists.
The fact that God clearly goes to some lengths to communicate the humility of the incarnation, means he’s making a very overt statement of some kind. Why does God choose to birth his Son in this incredibly homely, even disreputable context? To help us think about the incarnation—God becoming man, let me this afternoon suggest five answers. The first reason God intentionally chose this humble setting for the birth of his Son is; to amplify for us the immeasurable condescension of Christ. When I speak of condescension, I mean that huge, downward leap Christ had to make when he left the glories of heaven for this dark, fallen planet. That condescension was immeasurable in that the level of condescension or humiliation Christ endured to become a man cannot be measured by human means. We’ll never get our arms around this because is in the incarnation, Christ went from the infinite to the finite. In heaven, Christ was infinite in power—omnipotent, infinite in presence—omnipresent and infinite in knowledge—omniscient. He was also infinite in glory and infinite in every other divine attribute. There were simply no limits to his being or attributes. We are finite and therefore cannot possibly comprehend the infinite. We will NEVER fully appreciate the level of humiliation involved in the incarnation of Christ because the infinite is involved.
All we can grasp is the finite—that which can be seen and heard and sensed and measured. So here’s the challenge for God. He wants those who live on earth to know--as much as possible--the kind of condescension involved in God becoming a man. How does he do that? He stoops to our inability to grasp the infinite and provides this elaborate, multi-faceted illustration of the level of condescension seen in the incarnation. He works illustratively to help us better understand the incarnation in ways we CAN comprehend. For instance, we don’t “get” what it means for an all-knowing God to become a finite human being, but we CAN grasp the inability of a helpless newborn baby to reason and solve problems compared to a brilliant man. We can’t fathom an all-powerful God who can do anything he wants becoming a man who gets tired--but we CAN understand the comparative weakness of a newborn to an adult. We’re not able to grasp what it means for an all-present God, who can be all places at once, to be limited to being only one place at a time, but we CAN see the comparative difference between a newborn who is placed into a feeding trough as opposed to warm crib.
We must understand that for God to leave heaven and become a man, it was only very slightly more humbling for Him to be born in a stable than to be born in a palace. For God, the big leap was from living as an infinite God to becoming a finite man. By comparison, the distance between being born in an opulent palace and a dark cave is tiny--only one of degrees. The huge leap for God when he became a man is not fundamentally seen in the fact that he was born to a poor, Galilean couple. To God, there’s very little difference between the comparative poverty of a Joseph and the wealth of a Caesar. Both are destitute paupers compared to Him and the glory he left behind. However, since we can’t understand infinite, heavenly glories (and therefore the immeasurable distance God had to travel to become a human being,) he places it in a finite context of humility we CAN understand. Christ is born in a cave, not a nice home. He is given a poor family rather than a wealthy one. The humility that consistently permeates this story is there because, as much as we are able, God wants us to understand and wonder at what it meant for him to become a man. When we have thought and thought and thought about this glorious condescension God made for us in the incarnation, we’ve only scratched the surface of the surface. And even that very limited understanding should drive us to our knees in awed, adoring worship for our King.
A second reason why the opening scenes of the life of Christ are so riddled with humility is; in order to point to the future humility of his adult life and ministry. The humility of Christ doesn’t stop after he grows past infancy. The prophet Isaiah, more than 700 years before his birth accurately says of him, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” If your lot in life is to be despised, then what more appropriate place to call your hometown than the “despised” Nazareth in “despised” Galilee? We were reminded yesterday that Christ’s earthly role in his first advent was that of the suffering Servant. It’s simply a matter of consistency for a man who would be buried in a borrowed tomb to be born in a borrowed stable.
It wouldn’t have been fitting for Christ, about whom it is written, “we esteemed him not” to be given a birthplace with any esteem attached to it—like Jerusalem. As the suffering Servant, his birth only mirrors his life. It only makes sense that he would be given such a humble beginning. If his birth had been more impressive than what we read in Matthew and Luke, it would’ve been inconsistent for the One who later testified, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has no place to lay his head.” Christ lived as a transient during his ministry, having no place to call his own and living off the resources and hospitality of others. His birth foreshadowed his life and ministry.
A third reason for the humility of Christ’s incarnation is; so that most of his followers could identify with him. Even a quick study of church history reveals that the great majority of Christ’s followers have been from the lower socio-economic classes. This was true from the outset. The kings and Jewish religious leaders soundly rejected Jesus and most of his 12 disciples were not men of great means. So it’s no surprise that after Christ’s ascension, the Jews with all their enormous spiritual wealth and their rich heritage almost universally rejected Christ. It was the godless, pagan, Gentile “dogs”—the spiritually destitute who flocked to believe on Christ. Paul says in first Corinthians that those who believe in Jesus are generally, “the foolish…the weak…the lowly…the despised...those that are not.” Christ says in Matthew 11:25, “…I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” According to Christ, being smart or prosperous is not only NOT a prerequisite to being a follower of his; in many cases, it can work against you.
The fact that the vast majority of the followers of Christ come from the ranks of the poor, uneducated and disadvantaged does not take God by surprise. It’s by his design. Given the fact that most of the followers of Christ have been, are, and will be--not all that well off, it seems only natural for their King to be born in a cave. It reminds those masses of underprivileged people that make up most of the world, that Jesus is THEIR Messiah too.
Finally, a fourth reason for the humbleness of Christ’s incarnation is—to set an example for those who would follow him. I’m not saying that--because Christ was born poor and destitute, that all his followers must join him in that. Simply that--as followers of Christ, the default mode of living should be to live simply without the temptation of wealth. There are exceptions to this—some believers by God’s grace can handle wealth and they give much of their money away, but for most of us--having wealth and the stuff it buys can be a huge trap. Jesus said this himself after the rich young ruler rejected him. He says in Mark 10, “23 …Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
We can’t go through all of this, but the main points are clear to anyone with ears to hear. First, in the vast majority of cases, having wealth and possessions is an impediment to following Jesus. Wealth brings things that our sinful flesh turns into idols. We can make anything an idol. Just about anything we have can easily get in the way of our love for Jesus. The status and social standing wealth gives us can become more important to us than Jesus. Much of the source of our worry—which is an indication we aren’t trusting in Christ, would be gone if we simply lived more simply—with less stuff. Stuff—our jobs, our toys, our past-times, our labor-saving devices can easily consume the time, attention and energy we would otherwise be devoting to Christ and his kingdom. The rich young ruler is a powerful warning to us—he chose to walk away from Christ rather than liquidate what had become so important to him. This was a very good, morally upright, religious man who had no idea that--it was his heart’s idolatrous attachment to his stuff--that disqualified him from the kingdom of God. The point is—it’s easy for us to fall into that same trap without ever realizing it until they stand before Jesus and he reveals it. In most cases, our wealth and stuff do not help our relationship with God, they hinder it.
Second, having wealth can obscure for us and for others the source of our joy. It became painfully clear that the rich young ruler was finding his joy in what he possessed because he wouldn’t let go of it for Jesus. That should sober us. Evangelicals proclaim and sing things like—“My joy is in Jesus—he’s all I need—he’s enough—he’s sufficient.” That’s a wonderful sentiment, but if you have wealth, and that is all of us in this room—how do you know if Jesus is the source of your joy? If your dishwasher breaks down and you crash and burn over that, then at least some of your joy was found in the convenience of not having to wash dishes by hand. If we lose our joy over a stock market collapse, then is it really valid for us to say our joy is in Jesus? If we lose our joy over hassles with our homes or cabins or boats or jobs, then how is our joy in Jesus? If however, you live simply and don’t have much of what this world considers wealth and are full of joy, it will be much more easy for you and others to believe that Jesus is the source of your joy.
Third, living simply frees us to see heaven as our home, not this world. Jesus’ challenge to the rich young ruler is, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus promises this man treasure and he walks away from it because he was promising him deferred treasure in heaven. This man much preferred the wealth he had in this world. If this man had viewed heaven as his home and this world as only his temporary dwelling—as the Bible teaches us to do--then his decision would have been different. The truth is—this world WAS his home—he had his treasure HERE and he wasn’t willing to trade it for treasure in heaven—a place that clearly had little appeal to him when the rubber met the road. The more stuff we have here, the more easily we see this place as our homes—Jesus says, “…where your treasure is your heart is also.” If this world is a temporary dwelling, then why accumulate wealth here? When we’re on a camp-out, we don’t hang a chandelier in our tent—it’s a tent! This doesn’t mean we have to live like we’re on a camp-out. It simply means that we must monitor our hearts to make certain we aren’t living as if this world and its possessions were our treasure--instead of Jesus and the treasures of heaven. It’s good for a believer to ask this question in a materialistic society--is there any evidence—from the way I live--for an outside observer to tell that my home—my treasure is in heaven?
Fourth, living simply enables us to incarnate the priorities of Christ. It was obviously not important to Jesus that others be impressed with his material assets. He had none. He put more of a priority on people than he did things—he didn’t just say that—he lived it. With regard to Jesus’ birth, if having a comfortable birthing center or good name or reputation or financial security was not important to God, then we have no good reason to covet those things either. If Christ was willing to humble himself on earth so that God could exalt him in heaven, then that’s the pattern we too should follow. Humility here, exaltation there.
A final reason for the humility of the setting is: Living simply enables us to live sacrificially for others as Jesus did. One of the problems wealth presented to the rich young ruler is that it influenced him to be very focused on himself. He wasn’t interested in giving his money to the poor—he wanted to keep it himself. Jesus lived for others and his bank balance proved it. He came as a Servant—to serve—not to be served. His lifestyle reflected that. He came to pour out his life for others and the way he was born and the way he lived was consistent with that. He came to give his life so others could have eternal life with God. The main reason he was born was so that he could die for others. His entire life was marked by sacrifice and simplicity enables us to do that. However, if we are working like a dog just to pay for what we have, we’re not going to be sacrificial. If we’re living truly sacrificially, we’re probably living simply. Christ’s sacrifice is at the heart of the most important truth in the Bible--the gospel.
We all sin—we all want to live independently from God—to be the ruler of our lives. The Bible says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We all fall short of God’s expectations of us--which is that we would be perfect like Jesus. As we’ve seen, none of us are like him. We’re selfish—living mostly for ourselves—our desire for comfort often overpowers any desire to be generous to others. Our toys matter to us more than people do. God however expects us to have the same priorities and live the same way Jesus did—for God and others instead of ourselves. We all fall short and the penalty for falling short from a just God who must punish sin is—eternal death and torment separated from him.
The good news is that someone—Jesus--did come as a human being and lived this perfect life that God expects of all of us. He did that because he knew we could never do it. And placing our trust in Christ for salvation means that we accept the perfect life Christ lived as a substitute for our imperfect life—our faith enables his spotless life to be cut and pasted over filthy ones. God does that as we place our trust in what Jesus did for us rather than what we can do for him. The same is true for the penalty of our sins. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus.” Our wages—what we have earned and deserve from God because of our sin--is eternal death in torment. The good news is that Jesus not only came to earth to live a perfect life for us, he also came to die and pay our penalty we owe God for our sins. God the Father crushed Jesus on the cross—he poured out his just and holy wrath on him for the sins that I committed against him. The penalty that I owe God for my sin, Jesus paid for me—because with his perfect life, he had no penalty of his own to pay.
We can enjoy this free gift of eternal life if we’ll place our trust in what Christ has done for us. If we genuinely do that by God’s grace, he will give us a new heart. We’ll repent of our sin and turn our lives over to God for him to run. Our new heart will increasingly compel us to live like Christ. Don’t misunderstand—we’re not saved from our sin by living like Jesus, but being saved from our sin results in our increasingly living like Jesus. Is this the desire of your heart—to be cleansed and forgiven of your sins—to have Christ’s perfect life counted as your own and to have a new heart that increasingly compels you to live like Jesus? If so, then cry out to him in faith. Renounce all trust in your own ability to be good enough to get to heaven and instead trust in Christ and what he has done to save you and bring you to himself. May God give us the grace to treasure the humility of the incarnation of Christ and may God use it for our joy and his glory.
Page last modified on 12/28/2012
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