Big Idea: God has acted by coming among us in person to rescue us.
In his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, author Donald Miller describes the ingredients of a great story. He defines the essence of a story as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” Every story has these ingredients:
- a character
- who wants something
- who overcomes conflict
- and who gets it
This month, as we lead up to Christmas, we’re looking at story. It’s a huge goal: we’re looking at not just a story but the story, the story of the whole world. It’s a story that involves every one of us, but it’s bigger than us. And that’s the reason why we’re looking at the story. In order to play our role in the story, we need to understand two things. First, we need to understand that the story is bigger than us. It’s not about you. This isn't discouraging; it means that your life is part of something much bigger. But it also means that we need to understand the bigger story if we are to play our part in that story well.
So for the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the story that the Bible tells us. We’ve seen:
- a character — God, a good and all-powerful God who is at the centre of the story of this world, and who is intimately involved with the story even today;
- who wants something — We see a God who made this world to be good, and who made us in his image so that we could live in relationship with him and act as his representatives in this world;
- who overcomes conflict — We’ve seen that humanity rebelled against God, and as a result sin entered the world and has brought death, shame, and alienation
And today we’re at the point in the story in which we ask: What is God going to do about it? How in the world is God going to respond to a world that is no longer good, and to a people who are in deep rebellion against him?
I want to show you a picture that captures a bit of this tension. Almost every year we go camping in Restoule, just south of North Bay. On the way to the campground we pass this broken-down house. Every year it gets a bit worse. Every year I wonder if it will even be there. It was once a new house. People lived there. You can still see the fridge. I often wonder what happened to the house, and when the people moved out, and who will eventually take action to deal with the mess.
And this is the story of this world as well. We have seen that this world is broken. Paul David Tripp compares our world to a broken-down house:
Every single room has been dirtied and damaged by sin. Not one part of it shines with anything like the pure glory that was so evident when it was first made. Sin has left this world in a sorry condition. You see it everywhere you look. (Broken Down House)
This is the world we live in. Last week, Nathan explained how this world got to this story state. For thousands of years, this has been our story. From Genesis 3 to the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, we’ve seen God’s commitment to rescue his people. But we’ve also seen disappointment after disappointment. The people that God chooses mess up on a continual basis. Even the greatest of them are, at best, very flawed individuals. The nation that God chooses through which he will bless this world has the odd high note among story after story of rebellion, idolatry, and dysfunction. It gets downright depressing. By the time we come to the passage we read this evening, it’s been thousands of years, and the world is still a mess, and the people God has chosen are in captivity with little hope of things getting better.
What is God going to do with this mess? What’s what we’re going to see today. In the passage that was read for us a few minutes ago, we’re going to see three things:
- God has acted.
- God has acted by coming among us in person.
- God has acted by coming among us in person to rescue us.
1. God has acted.
Matthew 1:18-20 says:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
This is the setting for the greatest birth to take place in history. It’s stated as plainly as possible, and the details are easy to understand. In that day, betrothal was a firm commitment, usually taken a year before marriage, in which the girl remained with her family. It was considered at the point of betrothal that the first step of marriage had already been taken. It would take a divorce to break off a betrothal.
Matthew takes us to this very young couple who live in northern Israel. The young woman, Mary, is found to be four months pregnant. Her betrothed husband, Joseph, could take drastic action. Under the laws of that day, her pregnancy would be considered adultery, punishable by death by stoning. But instead of punishing her, he decides to show discretion and compassion. But then he has a dream that shows him that Mary isn’t guilty of adultery; that this is a supernatural birth. Are you following this? In a few verses we have:
- a virgin getting pregnant
- an angel appearing to a man
- and a claim that God the Holy Spirit has brought about the conception
This led one famous clergyman to say, “I very much doubt if God would arrange a virgin birth.” And you can understand why. It’s a preposterous story — unless it’s true, and the gospels say it is true. And the fact that it’s true means something very significant for us today.
Let me tell you why it’s true. Before we moved to Liberty Village, our dog had never been in an elevator before. The first time I took him in, he was a little confused. You go into this little box. The door closes. A few minutes later, the door opens, and you’re in a different place It’s bizarre. If dogs were smart enough to reason, they may have a real problem with this. The dog may say that it goes against all the laws of nature. But you may get a dog who suggests that there is such a thing as engineers who have understood how to build a device that operates using ropes and pulleys and technology. The other dog may respond that he has never met such an engineer and has no reason to believe that such a thing exists. The elevator is there a result of evolutionary processes, the skeptical dog might say.
What I’m getting at is this: a woman giving birth supernaturally is preposterous as long as you have a worldview that excludes God. But if the story we’ve described is true, and there is a God who is the all-powerful creator, then the supernatural birth of Jesus is not only possible, but it’s the best possible news we could imagine. I love how Owen Strachan puts it:
The virgin birth, you see, is not incidental to our faith. It shows that God must initiate the salvation of humanity. We could not undo our sin; God alone could rescue us. The virgin birth is not an odd blip in the history of the person and work of Jesus; it is a thunder-clap from heaven, God initiating his rescue plan. Salvation, the Lord is saying, is his work. He alone can carry it out; he alone will carry it out. We have no part in getting ourselves saved; we cannot undo the curse, not even one percent.
That’s the good news of what God has done. God created the world, and it was good. We sinned, and this world became a broken place that we could not fix. But now, in the birth of Jesus, God has taken decisive and dramatic action.
Most weeks we recite the words of the historic creed, which includes these lines:
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary…
There’s lots that you could say about these words. One of my theology books spends almost 20 pages explaining why it's important and what it means. The important thing for us to understand tonight is this: God has acted. Something had to be done about this mess that we’re in, and God has taken supernatural action to deal with what is wrong with this world.
So God has acted. The second thing we see in this passage is:
2. God has acted by coming among us in person.
There are at least two references in this passage to the Hebrew Scriptures. One of them is found in verses 22-23:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).
This is amazing. One of the names given to Jesus is Immanuel, which means that God is with us. What the Bible is saying is stunning: that when Jesus was born, it was nothing less than God coming right where we are. We asked the question earlier: What is God going to do with the mess the world has become? If you look at the picture of the broken-down house again, let the truth of what happened at Christmas sink in: God moved in. He moved into the mess. He didn’t condemn it and start over. He didn’t write it off. He entered it.
C.S. Lewis put it well. One view of God is that he is impersonal. That’s not hopeful for us. Another view of God is that he is a subjective God of beauty, truth, and goodness inside our own heads. That’s a little better. But then there is a view that God is “Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter.” He says: “Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still supposing he had found us? So it is a sort of Rubicon. One goes across; or not. But if one does, there is no manner of security against miracles. One may be in for anything.” If God is real, and he is active and in pursuit of us, then the miracle of the virgin birth is not only plausible, but it is good news. He is active and in pursuit of us.
That's what we mean by the Incarnation: God moves in. “He comes in our flesh. He comes into our humanity, into our vulnerability, into our history, into our reality” (Tim Keller).
Theologian James R. Edwards tells a story about two Italians and two Germans who were climbing the 6,000 foot near-vertical North Face in the Swiss Alps. The two German climbers disappeared and were never heard from again. The two Italian climbers, exhausted and dying, were stuck on two narrow ledges a thousand feet below the summit.
The Swiss Alpine Club forbade rescue attempts in this area (it was just too dangerous), but a small group of Swiss climbers decided to launch a private rescue effort to save the Italians. So they carefully lowered a climber named Alfred Hellepart down the 6,000 foot North Face. They suspended Hellepart on a cable a fraction of an inch thick as they lowered him into the abyss.
Here's how Hellepart described the rescue in his own words:
As I was lowered down the summit … my comrades on top grew further and further distant, until they disappeared from sight. At this moment I felt an indescribable aloneness. Then for the first time I peered down the abyss of the North Face of the Eiger. The terror of the sight robbed me of breath. …The brooding blackness of the Face, falling away in almost endless expanse beneath me, made me look with awful longing to the thin cable disappearing about me in the mist. I was a tiny human being dangling in space between heaven and hell. The sole relief from terror was …my mission to save the climber below.
That is the heart of the Gospel story. We were trapped, but in the person and presence of Jesus, God lowered himself into the abyss of our sin and suffering. In Jesus God became "a tiny human being dangling between heaven and hell." He did it to save the people trapped below—you and me. Thus, the gospel is much more radical than just another religion telling us how to be good in our own power. It tells us the story of God's risky, costly, sacrificial rescue effort on our behalf.
I love how Tim Keller puts it:
The doctrine of the incarnation is, through the womb of Mary, that world we all know about came in. Through the pitiless slab, the pitiless walls of the world, God punched a hole, and he punched the hole…and he came in.
The ideal became real. The impossible became possible. The supernatural became natural. The metaphysical became physical. More than that, the powerful became powerless. The invulnerable became vulnerable. The unapproachable became huggable. The immense became a single cell. The unassailably remote became God with us. That’s the incarnation. There is nothing like that. Nobody has ever made a claim like that.
This is the incredible great news of Christmas: that God has responded to the sin and brokenness of this world by coming among us in person. The greatest privilege, the thing we were made for, is God’s presence. Our sin made that impossible, but God has taken action to fix that, and he has come in the flesh. He is Immanuel, God with us.
What is God going to do with a broken world? We’ve seen that he has acted; we’ve seen how he’s acted — by coming among us as a person. There’s only one more thing we need to see today, before we respond in worship. We need to see why he did this.
3. God has acted by coming among us in person to rescue us.
What was the reason that Jesus came to earth? We read the answer in verses 20-21:
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
That’s the important phrase: “he will save his people from their sins.” We’ve seen that there is a lot wrong with this world. The problems are endless: sickness, war, poverty, environmental devastation, crime, relational breakdown, death. Underneath all of these problems is our deepest problem, and that problem is sin.
Next week, Nathan is going to tell us how the story ends. We began tonight by talking about the ingredients of a good story: that there is a character, God, who overcomes conflict — our sin and rebellion, in order to get something — the restoration of this world, including the restoration of our relationship with God. And the way to get there was for God to send his Son to become one of us.
Our biggest problem is the gap between us and God, a gap that is a result of sin. Humans cannot by our own moral effort counter our sins in order to elevate ourselves to God’s level. The gap is far too wide; the damage is far too severe. If the gap is going to be bridged, it has to be bridged in some other way.
The only way for the gap to be bridged was for God to come down to us. And that's exactly what happened at Christmas: God bridged the gap by sending Jesus to become one of us. We needed someone who was human so that he could represent us; we needed someone who was God because only God could lift us out of our mess. Jesus Christ became fully human, and at the same time was fully God, and was perfectly qualified to rescue us from our sins. That’s what he did at the cross; all of our sins were given to him, and he bore them all. All of his righteousness was offered to us, so that we could be made whole.
Because God became human, we can become his children.
Because God left his palace, we can be lifted out of our poverty.
Because he was torn, we can be mended.
Because he was broken, we can made whole.
Because Jesus died, we can truly live.
I have to apply this in two ways this evening.
First, when we see what Jesus has done for us in launching a rescue mission, and becoming one of us, how could we not join his rescue mission? We believe that Jesus is still in the business of moving into messes and bringing his life and healing and salvation. At the end of the book of Matthew, the one who is called Immanuel, God with us, says to us that he is with us as we go into the world and make disciples. The whole reason that we are here as a church is because we are his representatives on his mission to bring healing and life to this world. There is no better way for you to spend your life than in participating in Jesus’ ongoing rescue mission in this world.
Secondly, you’re invited. The angel said, “He will save his people from their sins.” I wonder if you would put your name in there: Jesus will save you from your sins. In great love, Jesus came down for your sake. He entered your mess so that he could rescue you and bring you new life. Come to him this evening and hear the good news that Jesus came to rescue you.