It’s Christmas time; just a few days to go. Most of us are, I would guess, right in the middle of all the excitement, all the preparations and parties. But I would like to put all that to one side for the moment, so that, together, we can spend a few minutes reflecting, thinking, about what we already know.
We know that Christmas is all about Jesus. We know it is the moment in history when God came down and started to live among us. John 1:1 is just one of many Biblical texts which talk about this. “The Word became flesh.”
The theological word for this is ‘incarnation’. The traditional way of describing it is to say that ‘God became man’ at Christmas. I’m struggling with the language here, because the traditional use of ‘man’ here includes both women and men, but people today often hear the word in an exclusive sense, and so they sometimes miss the wonder of what is being said.
The deep truth of Christmas is that God became man. We could also say that God became a man, and that is also true; but it is a much less important truth. The fact that he had a male body is far less important than the fact that He had a human body – and far, far less important than what this means. The important truth is that God became man.
We could also put it this way: God became human at Christmas. But the word ‘human’ seems far less relevant, less personal, than the word ‘man’. One traditional way to explain why Christmas happened is like this:
The Son of God became man so that we men can become sons of God.
We would be perfectly correct in using the word ‘human’ instead.
The Son of God became human so that we humans can become sons of God.
It is equally true, but somehow more abstract, more distant. All of which is to say that I apologise to anyone who is offended by my repeated use of the word ‘man’ here, but please be assured that by ‘man’ I mean all of us, whatever our sex or our age.
I have said that this truth, God became man, is both deep and important. Some people disagree. They point to the fact that across the world, and throughout history, different people and different religions have told stories about a god or gods who have become human. Christianity, they say, is just one religion in a long line of religions where the god or gods come down to walk among us.
And, if you just take the story at that level, they are quite right. I will not bore you with a long list of examples. The Greek and Roman gods were always coming down in human form, or some other form, to involve us in their schemes and arguments. In the Hindu religion, Krishna comes down in human form and has such a lot of fun playing tricks on the people he meets.
Yes, there are many stories of gods in other religions becoming human. I would encourage you to read them, to think about and understand these other stories. Because, if you don’t understand the other stories, you will not understand what is so different about the story of Christmas.
I would like, very quickly, to mention three differences I see.
Possibly the first difference we notice between the other stories and the Christian one is the importance and dignity which is present in the Christian story and sorely missing in the others.
To take one familiar example, you probably know how, in the Greek stories, the Trojan War was started. The whole things started when the god Ares took on the form of a bull to beat the bull owned by a chap called Paris and win a competition. Not a terribly fair contest, you might think. And then, a little later, three goddesses – Hera, Athena and Aphrodite – decide they want a beauty contest to decide which of them is the most beautiful.
They ask Zeus, the King of the Gods, to decide, but he chickens out. Of course, Hera is his wife, so he is on a hiding to nothing – whatever he decides is going to be wrong. The men in the congregation may sympathise with him on this point. So Zeus decides that Paris should choose between them. They all visit Paris for this competition, and each goddess tries to bribe Paris. Aphrodite offers him Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman in the world, Paris chooses Aphrodite, Paris gets Helen, he takes her back to Troy, the Greeks sail off to Troy to get Helen back, and the bloody saga of the Trojan War is started.
Now, it’s all terribly exciting, Boys’ Own stuff but it is also terribly trivial. A beauty contest where the judge gets bribed. I would be tempted to say that it is hardly the stuff of myths and legends, except that, in this case, that is exactly what it is.
Compare this with the Gospel story. In Jesus, God became man so that through His life we may know God and though His death we may be eternally united with God. Wow. The story of Jesus matters. It is important. It is, in my opinion, the most important story in the world. Nothing touches it.
The second point is probably the most obvious. The story of Jesus is true.
Nobody actually believes that three goddesses called Hera, Athene and Aphrodite appeared to a chap called Paris one afternoon, demanding that he choose between them. Nobody has a date for when this beauty contest took place, or a map reference for where it was held. It’s a fun story, and it tells us a bit about Greek culture and the way they saw the world, but in the end, it’s only a story, and nobody would claim otherwise.
Compare that with Jesus. Millions of people today believe in the literal truth of His birth. And that belief is not just blind religious faith – it’s based on historic evidence, solid historic documents. We know to within just a few years when Jesus was born. We can still visit the actual village where this took place – some friends of mine went and did that just a few weeks ago. This is not just a story – it claims to be true, and it is rooted in verifiable history and geography. No other story of a god becoming human makes such a claim.
The third point builds on the first two. The story of Jesus’ birth has a meaning, an importance and a relevance which no other story can match.
In the Greek story, Ares takes on the form of a bull, he has his fun, then he goes back to Olympus. He has beaten a bull in a competition, but nothing really has changed. The three goddesses take on human form for their competition, they have their fun, then they return to Olympus, and life goes on. Okay, a few humans have started a war, but humans are always going to war for some reason or another. Nothing has changed.
In all these other stories, the god pretends to become human. The god takes on human form for a short while, then completes the job, becomes bored or whatever, and goes back to being a god.
It took parts of the early church some time to cotton on to this point, but the Christmas story is completely different. In this story, God does not just pretend to become man. God does not just take on human form for a few hours, or even a few years. We believe that, in Jesus, God actually became man. He became, for all eternity, human. We believe that right now, there is a man sitting at the right hand of the throne in Heaven.
I think we sometimes trivialise the incarnation. I think that sometimes we take it just as a necessary step on the road to Calvary – and, of course, it is a necessary step on that road. But it is much more.
It is true to say that God had to be born so that God could one day die for us and pay the price for our sins.
But, more than that, at Bethlehem, God became man. Jesus is true God and true man, 100% divine and also 100% human. He is not some hybrid, neither one thing nor the other: He is both fully God and fully man. We say the words, but we rarely take them on board.
The meaning of this doctrine is not some piece of abstract theology for the priests and professors to argue over. The meaning of this doctrine is the relevance it has for us, the difference it makes in my life and in yours.
If Jesus was some human-divine hybrid, like many of the Greek heroes in their stories, then we could admire Him, we could even follow Him, but we could never be like Him.
But that is exactly the way I hear so many Christian talking. To be honest, it’s the way I talk myself, at times. We look at Jesus, we hear the wonderful teaching, we see the incredible moral example, we listen to His prayers and see the miracles He does, and we say, “That’s amazing. But He is God. I could never be like that.”
The Son of God became man so that we men can become sons of God. Like Him.
Everything in the Gospels makes sense only if we read them in this light. Jesus taught us to pray, both in His teaching and in His example. Krishna did miracles in order to prove to the people around him that he was different. Jesus did miracles in order to prove to the people around Him that our Father in Heaven loves us and delights to answer the prayers of all His children.
It is exactly the opposite message, but so often we look at Jesus as if He were Krishna, and shake our heads and say, “I could never do that.” But Jesus says: “As the Father sent Me, so I send you.” Jesus also says, John 14, “If you believe in Me, the works that I do, you will also do, and greater works than these shall you do, because I go to be with the Father.”
Now, that is some promise. And it is a promise rooted in the incarnation, rooted in the fact that God really did become a human being, and as a human He did all those amazing works.
If you believe that Jesus told us the truth, if you are willing to put aside your old life to follow Him, then the same Spirit that lived in Jesus lives in you.
Of course, there are differences. Jesus was perfect. But our Heavenly Father did not answer Jesus’ prayers because He was perfect: He answered Jesus’ prayers because that is what He is like. He doesn’t answer our prayers because we are perfect, He answers our prayers because that is what He is like, because He is good and He loves us more than anything else in the whole world.
If the Spirit Who lived in Jesus lives in you, then just as He guided Jesus, He will guide you too. He will guide you and guard you and strengthen you and help you grow stronger and better and closer to your Heavenly Father day by day. He will do that, if you let Him. He wants to change us deeply, from within; after all, back at Bethlehem God Himself was changed deeply from within, and became man.
The message of Christmas is that the Son of God became man so that we men can become sons of God. Like Him. It is His desire that we become like Jesus, and he will work within us to achieve that aim as much as we let Him.
The challenge of Christmas to each one of us is this: how much do I want God to take on human form – in me, here, today?