God Came Down (All the Way Down!)
Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ December 18, 2005
I heard the story recently of a pastor who had young children. Supposedly, one Christmas Eve he was preparing to take his family to church for the candlelight service when his youngest son asked him, “Dad, are you going to let us enjoy Christmas this year or are you going to try and explain it again to everybody?”
What a great reminder as we together reconsider the story of Christmas this morning, that it is an event that, in spite of efforts at explanation, is mostly full of mystery and wonder.
With that in mind, let’s read together our text for today from Luke’s Gospel.
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26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’* 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’
38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
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The claim of the Christian faith is that God came to earth 2000 years ago in the person of an infant, born to peasant parents from a village in the middle of nowhere. That is a preposterous claim. But most of us have heard the Christmas story so many times, the scandal of it all is lost on us.
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The human race, since the beginning of time, has been looking beyond itself. People of every culture and race, in every era of history, have searched for the divine. People want to know what God is like, if there is a god, whether or not we can know God, or even become God.
There are more different religions in the world today than we can count. Each of them approaches these questions from a different angle and offers different answers. And though there is this popular idea circulating around our culture that all religions, at their core, are essentially the same idea just in different wrapping paper, nothing could be further from the truth.
Ravi Zacharias is a Christian scholar who grew up as a Hindu in India. He writes this:
All religions are not the same. All religions do not point to [the same] God. All religions do not say that all religions are the same. At the heart of every religion is an uncompromising commitment to a particular way of defining who God is or [who God]is not.
Do you understand that the great religions of our world do not teach the same things about God? For example, consider the great question of how humans come to know and meet God. Different religions offer very different answers to this question. Let me explain with a picture.
Imagine that life, imagine that existence, is like a mountain. Now, one thing that most world religions of our day agree upon is that if existence is like a mountain, then God, or the divine, is at the top of the mountain. And humans, because of sin, or lack of knowledge, or some other factor, are in the valley, separated from the divine, or God. So, God is up here. Humans are down here. And the mountain represents that which separates the two.
The question then, again, is, “How do we know and meet God? How do we overcome this mountain that is between us?”
If you are a Hindu, for example, here’s how you would approach this mountain. You would believe that it is your goal in life to be united with the divine. This is because you would have been taught that your individual soul, known as the atman, is a part of a greater Universal Soul, known as Brahamn. One of India’s premier philosophers put it this way, “Man is God in a temporary state of self-forgetfulness.”
For your soul, then, to reach the Universal Soul, you must go through a long process of death and rebirth into different bodies, or reincarnation. Along the way, over the course of many lives, the more good works that a person can do, also known as good karma, the closer you get to your goal. These good works involve fulfilling daily religious and social obligations, practices of extreme meditation and spiritual discipline, and the adoration of one of Hinduism’s many gods. In the end, through these good works performed over many lives, your soul can eventually break free and be re-united with the greater divinity.
For the Hindu, then, the more the good karma outweighs the bad karma, the better chance you have at salvation. In terms of the mountain, if you take more steps up than down, you’ll eventually reach the top.
Another example we might use is Islam. Most Muslims today would agree with this picture of the mountain separating us and God. The only problem, they’d say, is that my mountain isn’t big enough. The founder of Islam, Muhammad, taught that there is a vast distance between God and humanity. God, or Allah, is the only God. And he is an all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent being. But Allah is not necessarily a God of love. Rather, he is a God of justice and power. To the Muslim, then, God is mysterious, distant and unapproachable.
So reaching the summit of the mountain, for a Muslim, would not be seen as reaching God, who is unknowable, but rather would be reaching salvation, or heaven.
Muslims believe that at some future day of judgment, all people will be called before God. The Qur’an teaches that at that time the life of each person will be judged and the good deeds will be balanced against the bad deeds. Good deeds are summarized by something known as the Five Pillars of Islam, which include reciting the Creed, praying 5 ties daily towards Mecca, giving away a portion of one’s income to the poor, fasting during Ramadan, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.
For the Muslim, then, salvation is about the right attitudes and doing enough of the right actions in life that will, by the end of your life, gain you enough steps up the mountain to have reached the top.
Now, I want to acknowledge that I am not an expert on world religions. And I have, in only a few minutes, greatly simplified major religions which would, given the time, have much, much more to say about themselves. However, I believe the summaries are fair. Because I believe that at the heart of these religions, and many others, is this foundational idea that if God is on top of the mountain and we are down here in the valley, the only way to reach God, or to reach salvation, is for us to somehow climb the mountain.
The interesting thing is, though none of us in this room this morning may be Muslim or Hindu, I suspect that this picture of life, this climbing-the-mountain-to-get-to-God view of existence, feels somewhat familiar to some of us. Don’t some of us have at least a nagging sense that when it all comes down in the end, to get to God, to receive salvation, to get to heaven, we’re going to have to be good enough, the good side of the scale is going to have to at least outweigh the bad side of the scale.
Listen to me.
It is at this fundamental point, it is in answering this very important question of how we know and meet God, that Christianity presents a profoundly different picture. And that picture is perhaps not displayed any more vividly than it is in the Christmas story.
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We are told in the testimony of the gospels that one day an angel by the name of Gabriel came to pay a visit to a young teenager named Mary. Mary was not, as you may know, the sort of person one might expect to be on the visitation schedule of arch-angels. For one, she lived in Nazareth.
Nazareth was so obscure that it isn’t even mentioned once in the Old Testament. At it’s height it was a settlement of maybe 200 people. It wasn’t a vacation destination for anybody. Most of its residents, including Mary and Joseph, were dirt poor. And though Nazareth was populated by Jews, it was up north in Galilee, in Gentile-country.
Because of that, the Jewish leaders of the day looked at it with utter contempt. From their perspective, Nazarenes were spiritually-polluted, uneducated, backwards rednecks. And their village was not a place people expected angels to visit, much less a place from which anybody thought the Messiah might choose to show up.
Nonetheless, the angel comes. And his message to Mary, in case you missed it, was this:
Greetings! God is with you! God has found favor with you, Mary. And you are going to give birth to a son. You are going to name him Jesus, or literally “One Who Saves.” And he will be great. They will call him ‘Son of the Highest’. God will give him David’s throne, the throne reserved for the Messiah. And he will rule over God’s people forever and ever. You’re going to give birth to God, and God is going to save His people!
And Mary, after hearing all this, said, “I have got to stop having so much red wine with dinner!” (That’s what I would have said.)
No, she said, “How can this be? For one, I’ve never slept with a man?”
You see, Mary had obviously had “the Talk” with her mom at some point and she understood where babies came from and, unless she heard wrong, the angel had left out a pretty critical step!
I want to suggest, however, that Mary’s question was more than one of just biology. The bigger question is the question of rationale people down through the ages – Why and how can God do something that makes absolutely no sense? That’s not the way things in the world work. Children aren’t born to virgins. Gods don’t enter the world through the wombs of peasant girls.
The angel gives his answer:
This is how it’s going to be, Mary. God’s Spirit is going to come upon you. And the power of the Highest will hover over you. And this child you bring forth will be of God. He will be the Son of God.
Notice there is no biology in the angel’s answer. No science at all. Perhaps not much logic either. All that’s given is the explanation that God will do this thing. I mean, what do you say when a man is created out of the dust, and his wife is created from a rib taken from his side? What do you say when the waters of a great sea part and a whole nation escapes on dry land? Or when a young boy slays a great giant with his sling shot? Or when a few fish and a loaf of bread feel 5000 people? Or when a dead man rises after three days in his grave?
There is great mystery in the way God acts. I mean, do we really expect to understand the actions of God anyway? And what would it say about God if we could. God’s actions are always mysterious and wondrous to us. And that mystery is as great as ever in the preposterous claim of the gospels that the all-powerful, all-knowing, holy and righteous, mountain-top sitting God of creation came to earth as a child born to an impoverished young engaged couple from the one-horse town of Nazareth.
I love the way C.S. Lewis puts it. He writes, “The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a fetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”
You’re not so familiar with the Christmas story, are you, that you can’t ask, along with Mary, “How in the world can this be?”
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Perhaps the thing you will walk away with today is a fresh reminder that the claims of the Christian gospel are extraordinarily unique. This is not the way the other faiths of the world answer the question of how we come to know and meet God.
The claim of Christmas, if it happens to be true, means, for one, that we do not have to climb the mountain to meet God. That we not have to work our way up to the summit to receive His salvation. That at the end of time there is no scale at the gates of heaven weighing our good deeds against our bad deeds. That the favor and love of God is not something to be earned.
If the claim of Christmas is true, God did not ask us to climb the mountain to him. Rather, God came down. And he didn’t just come down, he came all the way down. He wasn’t born a king or a priest; he was born a peasant. He wasn’t born in a palace or a temple; he was born in a stable. He didn’t grow up in Rome or even Jerusalem; he grew up in Nazareth.
And when God came off the mountain, he didn’t just walk in the best parts of the valley. He also spent time in the worst, in the parts full of disgrace, and suffering, and grief, and betrayal, and poverty, and even death – the parts that we walk in.
This was a scandalous idea to the Jews of Jesus’ day, that God would come into the world in this way. That’s why people wanted to kill Jesus. And it’s a scandalous idea to other great religions of our world today, that a holy, powerful God would come off the mountain into the valley. But it is, nonetheless, the preposterous, mysterious, wonderful claim of Christmas.
And if it’s true? If, indeed, it is true that God’s love for us was so great that he would come off the mountain to save us in the valley and offer us a way back home, then there is no greater, no more freeing, no more hopeful, no more life-giving news in the history of the world!
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Let me conclude with a story that came out of China many years ago.
As the story goes, there once was a missionary who, at one point, found it necessary to be gone from his family for several months. This man realized, before he left, that his youngest daughter would never be able to understand why they would be separated for such a long period of time. So, on the day he was to leave, he decided that he would hide in his coat pocket a bright red apple – a rare treat in China in those days. And that he would give to her as he boarded the train.
Well, finally the moment came. Standing beside the train, he hugged his wife and each of the older children. And then it was his little daughter’s turn. And picking her up in his arms, he pressed the apple into her tiny hand, hoping that this special gift would somehow soften the impact of his leaving.
Instead, as he boarded the train and it began to pull out of the station, he looked back out the window only to see the red apple slip from her hand and roll across the train platform. Then, with tears streaming down her face, this little girl ran alongside the train sobbing, “Daddy, I don’t want the apple. I want you!”
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The wonder of Christmas is that, in the end, God didn’t send only angels, or only prophets, or only messages, or only instructions. In the end, God came himself. And the Holy One, born of the virgin Mary, came to be called the Son of God. And his kingdom, of which he invites you and me to be a part, will see no end.
This is the claim. That God came down. All the way down. That Word become flesh.
What if it’s true?
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For Further Study & Reflection:
In preparation for our Christmas Eve message, you might want to read Luke 2:1-14.
Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods, (Nashville: Word Publishing, c. 2000), p. 7.
In these general descriptions of Hinduism and Islam I used the following resources: Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods; Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, Guide to Cults Religions and Spiritual Beliefs, (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, c. 2002); Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, (New York: Harper House Publishers, c. 1958).
Alfred Edersheim, The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, (Hendrickson Publishers, c. 1993), p. 102-105.
See John 1:46 where even the disciples can’t believe that the messiah would come from Nazareth.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Collins Publishers, c. 1952), p. 152.
David C. Needham, Close to His Majesty (Portland, Oregon.: Multnomah, c. 1987), p. 83-84.