Seasonal Reflections II

Article by   December 2010
[Editor's note] This is the second in a series of Christmas-related postings by Carl Trueman. Several will come in this series during the month of December. The first can be read here.

The glory of Christmas is the reality of the God in human flesh; and one of the greatest aspects of this incarnation is that which found its clearest doctrinal expression in the so-called Chalcedonian Formula of 451 AD.  This rather dusty looking formula emphasized the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one person of the Lord Jesus Christ.   While many of us instinctively recoil at the language of natures and person, as being somewhat abstract and philosophical, as taming what is really a most explosive biblical truth - that God entered history in human form -- this formula is actually the most glorious of practical truths.  Actions are, after all, things performed by persons, not natures.  Thus, Chalcedon underlines the fact that, when Jesus looked with pity on the woman with the flow of blood, we know that this was not something that his human nature did while the divine nature was somehow disengaged or hidden or even opposed to what he was doing.  No, God manifest in the flesh looked with pity upon her. God saw, God knew, God acted with mercy.

Because God in Christ is a person, not two people or simply two natures spookily floating in the one space, the action of Jesus revealed something deep and wonderful about God himself: the one who created all things, the one who measures the very dimensions of the universe as if they were the mere span of his hand - this God looks with pity upon a poor, nameless woman in her sufferings which, while terrible to her, were of no cosmic significance whatsoever. The same goes for Christ's reception of little children, his healing of lepers, his giving of sight to the blind, his feeding of the hungry. In every instance, God himself stoops to show kindness and mercy towards those whom the world considers as nothing.  Thus, when we read elsewhere that God cares for us, that he numbers the hairs of our heads, that he will look with pity upon us as we cry out to him in our suffering, we know we read the truth, for God himself has shown by his incarnate actions that yes, he is indeed such a God.  God cares for the nobodies of this world; the personal actions of Christ are the supreme proof of this.

But, amazing as these instances are, there is an even deeper aspect to the incarnation than the fact that, as God is manifest in the flesh, so his very being is revealed to us in deeper, brighter colours. There is the further fact that God himself enters into human existence.   Think about that for a moment: God becomes human; as Wesley beautifully expressed it, `our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.'  And this is significant not just for us but for God himself.   The writer of Hebrews tells us that the incarnation means that we do not approach a God who is distant or aloof, but one who has entered into human personal existence and thus, when we come to him, we come not to some distant sovereign god, still less to some abstract and impersonal first cause.  Instead, we come to a God who knows what it is like to be human and that not in the way that I 'know' what it is like to walk to the South Pole because I have read an illustrated book by somebody who did so; but `know' in the sense of actually experiencing it first hand.

This is an astounding truth, a truth which we can never fully comprehend and we must not - and cannot - ever pass beyond.  Christ is like me, tempted like me, in every way but without sin.   The most obvious application of this is, of course, prayer: when we pray, we do not pray to a God who does not sympathise with us in our sufferings and agonies.  Are we suffering physical pain?   Well, God in Christ knows what physical pain is.  Have we been betrayed or disappointed by a friend?  God in Christ was betrayed by one of the men within his inner circle, and badly let down by the others.  Have we been bereaved?  Behold the God who stood outside the tomb of a friend and wept with grief.  Are we lonely?  Then come to the God who hung between heaven and earth, disowned by the people he came to save, forsaken by the Father to whom he was bound by an unbreakable love.

A good grasp of this point is crucial to all Christians, but perhaps especially to preachers.   When I stand up to preach each month and look out at the congregation, I see the same familiar faces: the couple struggling with an out-of-control child; the husband and wife who lost a beloved daughter to cancer; the family which is struggling to make ends meet and worried about how to pay next month's bills; the elderly gentleman doing his best to soldier on in the face of the debilitating physical pain of his arthritis; the man who makes minimum wage; the young guy who cannot find a job; the older lady witnessing for Christ in a hostile work environment.  How can I preach to such people?   What right do I have?  Sure, my life has its own unique set of heartaches and tragedies and frustrations; and I can even identify with some of the problems I see etched in the faces before me.  But how can I preach to these people about the love of God even in the dark places when I know so little of these dark places myself? I enjoy good health, a job I like, and the warm love of a close family.  Life for me at this moment in time is comparatively comfortable and kind.  So, I repeat, what right do I have to speak?  

The answer centres in the incarnation, nothing less than the incarnation.  This gives me my confidence, for I can speak relevantly to these people to the extent that I point them to their God who, while he has not experienced the particularities of their personal problems and pain, has yet taken flesh and known in himself the deepest pains, physical and psychological, of human life in this fallen world; and who has indeed faced and conquered the final enemy which we must all face some day: death itself.   It is he, not I, who speaks comfort to his people with authority and true compassion and breathtaking sympathy.

And it all starts in the manger.

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