Have you ever received a Christmas present that you didn’t really like? Here’s what you should say if you get a gift that underwhelms you.
* Hey! There’s a gift!
* Well, well, well…
* This is perfect for wearing around the basement.
* To think…I got this the year I vowed to give all my gifts to charity.
* I really don’t deserve this.
I get a kick out of what kids say around Christmas time. Here are some actual letters that children have written to the Lord.
* Dear God, please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now.
* God, I read the Bible. What does beget mean? Nobody will tell me.
* Dear God, in Bible times, did they really talk that fancy?
* Dear God, my brother told me about how you were born but it just doesn’t sound right. What do you say?
Tonight we want to take a look at the gift we should never want to return because the presence of Christ is a present we don’t really deserve. Specifically we’re going to take a look at the process that Jesus went through for us because there are certainly elements of His coming that don’t sound quite right. In order to help us grasp the mystery of Christmas we’re going to approach our study from a slightly different angle. The story has become so common to us that we’re in danger of missing the marvel of what really happened. On top of that, our culture has packaged the season with clutter and chaos and confusion and wrapped it all in the colors of commercialism.
Instead of looking at the familiar story through the perspective of the shepherds or Mary and Joseph, or the innkeeper, or the wise men, or even the Old Testament prophets, we’re going to look past this scenery in order to see Christmas from the perspective of Christ Himself. Specifically, we’re going to focus on a series of demotions that He took. We could call them His steps to downward mobility. Philippians 2:6-11 is perhaps the most profound statement of the Christmas story anywhere in the Word of God. F.B. Meyer has said, “It is almost unapproachable in its unexampled majesty.” This section of Scripture is really a piece of profound poetry, with some commentators suggesting that this was actually an ancient hymn.
Please listen as I read: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” We’re just going to skim the surface tonight but we’ll discover five different levels, or degrees down, that the Lord took. As we walk through this passage, we’ll illustrate each step with some Scripture from the nativity narrative and we’ll also utilize music to help us recapture the stunning wonder of Christmas.
1. Majestic Preexistence (6). When I first learned that Jesus has always existed I was blown away. Didn’t He get His start when He was born in Bethlehem? Actually, the Bible is very clear that Jesus has always been. Listen to the opening words of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3). Later, in this same gospel, in John 5:18, his enemies tried to kill Him because He stated that He was equal with God. Colossians 1:15 sums it up beautifully: “He is the image of the invisible God…”
Philippians 2:6 states that Jesus is in the very nature God. He did not have to “grasp” on to the glory of God. It was not something He had to defend or hold on to. He let it go to come to our world. Have you ever stopped to wonder what it must have been like for Jesus to leave the holiness of heaven and come to the woes of our world? He had been eternally surrounded by unimaginable beauty and then He was birthed among beasts, both of the animal and human variety. 1 Timothy 3:16 speaks of the mystery of Godliness, namely that “He appeared in a body.” This is the crux of Christmas. That’s why He was given the name “Immanuel,” which means, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
Luke 1:26-35 describes how the Son of God became the son of Mary: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.’ ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ 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.’” Jesus is the preexistent and majestic Son of God.
à Music: “What Child Is This?”
2. Menial Position (7). Jesus went from majestic preexistence to a menial position. Verse 7 says that He made “himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” The Greek literally means that “He emptied Himself.” Listen carefully. Jesus never abandoned His deity, but He did empty Himself of some things while He was on earth.
* He willingly gave up His glory. That’s why later in His ministry, shortly before He died, Jesus asked the Father to give Him His glory back in John 17:5: “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.”
* He gave up His honor. The Majesty allowed Himself to be mistreated, He was hated and mocked and spit upon. Isaiah 53:3: “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.”
* He rejected His riches. 2 Corinthians 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
It wasn’t that Jesus lost any of His divine attributes; He simply chose to not use them. He had the prerogative of Majesty but chose the place of a menial servant. This first step down was much further than we can even imagine. He voluntarily demoted Himself, not to become a prince, but to take on the very nature of a servant, the lowest possible class of people. The first Adam wanted to be God; Jesus, as the second Adam, became a servant. Jesus described Himself this way in Luke 22:27: “But I am among you as one who serves.”
Christmas means that…
He descended that we might ascend (John 14:3)
He was born that we might be born again (John 3:3)
He became a servant that we might become sons (Galatians 4:6-7)
He was forsaken that we might not be forsaken (Matthew 28:20)
He died that we might live (John 5:24)
He came down that we might be caught up (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)
Bill Hybels has said: “The sights and sounds and smells and splendors of heaven are all Jesus knew from eternity past. When he wakes up as a baby, the first thing he sees on planet earth is that he’s in a barn. The first thing he smells is urine and manure. And the first sounds he hears are of animals. In heaven…Jesus had known legions of angels hovering around the throne, tens of thousands of them assigned to the full-time job of singing, ‘Worthy is the Lamb. Holy, holy, holy. There is none like you.’ He gets down on planet earth and there’s none of that going on. There are just some cows and donkeys and a few people standing around” (Preaching Today, Tape 232).
C.S. Lewis wryly pointed out that if you want to get the hang of the Incarnation, think of how you would like to become a slug or a crab.
Luke 2:4-7 records for us in simple language how the Creator became a creature, how the Mighty became meek: “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
à Music: “Away in a Manger/Silent Night”
3. Man of Perfection (8a). Jesus was majestically preexistent when He decided to empty Himself and take a menial position as a servant. As a servant, He was also a man of perfection according to Philippians 2:8: “And being found in appearance as a man.” In this step down, Jesus voluntarily submitted Himself to hunger and pain and tiredness and emotions and other human limitations, and yet never sinned. Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus “has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.” He was sinless in order to fulfill the Law’s demand for perfect righteousness. Jesus came to do what we could not do by becoming the perfect obedient sacrifice for sin.
President Nixon once declared in a speech that the greatest moment in human history was when man walked on the moon. Shortly afterwards, Billy Graham corrected him and said, “No, the greatest moment in history was not when man walked on the moon but when God walked on the earth.”
Dr. Richard Seltzer tells of a moment when he caught a transforming glimpse of what happened at Bethlehem. It reoriented this surgeon’s life in an important way. He explains what happened in his book called, “Mortal Lessons.”
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed, and she will be thus from now on. Oh, the surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh. I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, he had to cut that little nerve.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” the woman asks. “Yes, it always will be so. The nerve has been cut.” She nods and is silent. Her young husband is in the room and he smiles and looks at his wife with a love so absolutely generous that it stuns the surgeon to silence. All at once I know who he is, and I understand and instinctively lower my gaze... The bridegroom bends down to kiss her mouth. And I am so close that I can see how he twists his lips to accommodate hers.
In commenting on this story, Pastor Dan Meyer writes, “Once upon a time, the God who bent down and took hold of a handful of dust and shaped humanity and breathed life into it stooped down again, and this time it was himself that he reshaped in order to kiss a disfigured earth with his grace and to breathe new life into the beloved. He showed us in that moment that it is not just the staggering height of God that displays His grandeur, it is how far He is willing to bend down that fully displays His glory” (“Preaching Today,” Tape 232).
We live on a visited planet. Allow the magnitude of the Majesty becoming man to help you know that He understands everything you’re going through today. And be so amazed at the Incarnation that you can’t help but tell others about it. Luke 2:16-17: “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”
à Music: “This Baby”
4. Mediator for People (8b). In this final step down, we see exactly why Jesus came to earth. He was born to die. His death was no accident; He came on purpose to die in our place. The last part of Philippians 2:8 reads: “He humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!” Death on a cross was brutal and barbaric and was not even talked about in polite Roman society circles. Ancient writers used to say that to die on a cross was to die a thousand times before you take your last breath. May I suggest that this was not the worst of it for Jesus? The most painful element of his death is that when He died, all the smelly sins and terrible transgressions of the entire world were placed on His shoulders. And when He hung on the cross as our sin substitute, God the Father had to look away, causing the Son to cry out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
In a Christmas play, a question is asked, “What did Joseph do the day after Christ was born?” That’s an interesting question. The day after the birth of Jesus, Joe probably helped with Mary and the baby, making things as comfortable as he could. But what about the next day? The play imagines that since Joseph is a carpenter that he begins making a crib for Jesus. And as he does, he recalls the celebration they had with the shepherds the night before, and says to himself, “If they treated him like this when he was just a baby, how will they treat Him when they find out He is the Son of God?” At that exact time in the play, the lights suddenly go off, and all you can hear is a hammer hitting against the wood as a spotlight splashes its beams on a bloody cross. Friends, unless we see the cross overshadowing the cradle, we will lose the real meaning of Christ’s birth.
Because He was fully man He could take our punishment upon Himself and because He is fully God, the shedding of His blood satisfied divine justice. Jesus is both just and the justifier. 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Let’s go back in the Nativity Narrative to Matthew 1:21 when Joseph receives some inside information about how the Son will be the Savior: “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.”
A Christmas card sums up the role of Jesus as mediator with a saying from Max Lucado: “Jesus humbled Himself. He went from commanding angels to sleeping in the straw. From holding stars to clutching Mary’s finger. The palm that held the universe took the nail of a soldier. Why? Because that’s what love does.”
à Music: “Here I Am to Worship”
5. Master and Preeminent (9-11). The Majesty became Menial and a Man in order to be our Mediator. And then He was exalted to the place of Preeminent Master. This passage describes a three-fold exaltation.
* God has exalted His name. Verse 9: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” There have been some great names throughout history, but none greater than His. Here are some of His names: Alpha & Omega; the Beginning and the End; He is the King of kings and Lord of lords; He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the Door; the Good Shepherd; the Vine; the Bread of Heaven; the Living Water; and the Light of the world. He is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and the Prince of peace. He is the Lamb of God; the Lilly of the valley; the Rose of Sharon, and the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He is the Messiah, Immanuel, Son of God and Son of man. He is Lord, Savior, and Redeemer, the Rock of our salvation. He is the King of glory and the great I Am. He is master, ruler, and the hope of our salvation.
* Everyone will bow in allegiance to Him. Verse 10: “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” While some people refuse to acknowledge His right to reign supreme, eventually everyone will bow before Him. It’s much better to do this willingly while there is still time than it is to do it when it’s too late. You’re going to bow either way. It’s just a matter of time.
* Every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Verse 11: “And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This is the quintessential confession of Christianity. To know Christ as Savior is to confess Him as Lord. Let’s celebrate His coming at Christmas, but let’s remember to confess Him as Supreme Master. Is Jesus prominent in your life? Is He important to you? That’s good. But actually, He demands more than that. He insists on being preeminent. He is King and He is Lord.
Did you know that Luke uses the title “Lord” seventeen times before he even comes to what is perhaps the plainest description in Luke 2:11? “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
According to the book called, “Preaching the Christmas Gospel,” which is a collection of thirteen Christmas sermons from the years 380 to 1550, one big difference in preaching today is that we emphasize the practical aspects of Christian living, while preaching back then was simply an invitation to praise and worship. It was more doxological, “Come, let us adore Him” than didactic. While preaching must always be practical, we should also be struck by the sheer wonder of the Incarnation and be moved to worship. When the author was asked if there is one sermon over the course of approximately 1200 years that really wooed people to worship, Augustine’s preaching rises to the top. Listen to how he communicated Christmas: “Jesus took to Himself what He was not, while remaining what He was…He continued to be what He is, while appearing to us as what we are” (From an interview with John D. Witviliet, 12/20/04, www.christianitytoday.com).
Another Christmas card captures this well. A baby’s footprint appears on the cover with the words, “Unto you is born this day a Savior.” When you open the card, the phrase, “Which is Christ the Lord” is superimposed over a grown man’s handprint, complete with a bloody hole in the palm.
The angelic hosts broke out into unbridled praise when they announced the birth of Jesus. The shepherds moved quickly to get as close to Christ as they could. Let’s go back to the narrative from Matthew’s gospel to be reminded of the necessity of expressions of worship. Some time after Jesus was born, the Magi arrive. Matthew 2:11: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” The magi fell down and worshipped, giving gifts to the Giver. They simply model what we should be doing today and what believers will be doing throughout eternity.
I’ve always wondered why they weren’t disappointed when they finally found Jesus. After all, He did not look like a king. His home did not look like a castle. He had no scepter in his hand, commanded no armies, gave no speeches, and passed no laws. He could not walk or talk. No royal decree came from his lips. There was nothing to make you think he was a King. To the outward eye, he was nothing but a peasant child born in dire poverty.
But to the Magi, he was a King. He possessed more royalty in a cradle than Herod had in his fine palace. Somehow these wise seekers saw beyond the present and into the future -- and in deep faith, they worshipped him. That word literally means “to kiss toward and to intensely adore.” They somehow knew that this child would one day rule the world and they were not ashamed to fall on their faces before Him.
Friend, are you underwhelmed by the Christ of Christmas? If you are, may I suggest that you take a fresh look at the steps the Savior took for you? When you focus on His majestic preexistence and move to His menial position and then remember that He was a man of perfection who became the mediator for people, you will be moved to respond to Him as your preeminent master. You will never be underwhelmed by the gift of Christ again. If anything, you will be overwhelmed with adoration…
à Music: “Angels from the Realms of Glory/O Come Let us Adore Him”
I see two ways to apply what we’ve learned tonight. The message of Christmas speaks to those who are still searching for the Savior and to those who have already found Him.
1. Salvation for the Lost. The good news of Christmas is only good to those who have found favor with God. But there’s bad news as well. The coming of Christ will bring peace to those who receive it, but to those who don’t, condemnation is what’s in store. For those who are underwhelmed by Immanuel, this time of the year should bring up dread and feelings of judgment. Someone has said, “That smiling, cherubic child had a glimmer of wrath in His eyes.” The real tragedy of Christmas is not that Jesus came and died on the cross. It’s that He faced the cross in order to rescue those who refuse to be rescued.
He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Will you bow before Him right now? Will you confess with your mouth that the Christ of Christmas is your Mediator? Commit yourself to Christ tonight or confess His Lordship later when you have no choice. The Bible says that in order to benefit from all that Christ has done, you must believe, receive and confess. Have you seen the movie, “Polar Express?” In contrast to what the film says, when we decide to get on a train, it does matter where that train is going. We must do more than just “believe” as if the act of believing is laudable in itself. There’s a big difference between blind believing and biblical faith. To “believe” means to “rely on, to trust in, to cling to.” Will you do that right now? There’s bad news at Christmas but it can become good news when you accept Christ.
2. Servanthood for the Found. This profound passage on the demotions of Christ is found in the letter sent to the church at Philippi. This church was filled with selfishness and division. Paul challenges the believers, in light of the example of Christ, to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (2:3-5).
Will you take a step down for someone before the year is over? It’s time to let go of grievances and offenses from the past. Serve somebody who doesn’t deserve it. From our side, Christmas has always been about getting. From Christ’s side, it’s always been about giving. Give the gift of yourself by writing a note, by speaking kindly, by serving, by worshipping, by giving of your resources, and by telling others of His greatness.
Twice in the past five years, someone set out to steal the baby Jesus statue from the manger scene from Daley Plaza in Chicago. The news media jumped all over the story, with Frank Mathie from ABC7 saying, “You can’t have a nativity scene without the baby Jesus.” After a two-day search, the figurine was recovered and returned. Before it was put back, it was taken to a home. Friend, have you inadvertently kidnapped Christ from Christmas? It’s time to take Him home. One way we can do that is by adoring Immanuel, the Indescribable One. When you do, you will never be underwhelmed again because you’ll know that this is a present you don’t deserve.
à Closing Song: “He’s Indescribable”